With a list of attributes almost too long to mention, Haute-Savoie and Savoie are riding high in the popularity stakes, writes Vicky Leigh
Its two most important geographical features, the Rh�ne river and the Alps, give the region both its name and dramatic character. When combined with its reputation for top-class skiing, it’s not surprising that Rh�ne-Alpes has been a long-time favourite with Brits and other nationalities.
As synonymous with snow-capped peaks and adrenalin rush-inducing descents as Provence is with lavender and Peter Mayle, the mere mention of skiing and France immediately bring the Rh�ne-Alpes region to mind. Two of its eight departments, Savoie and Haute-Savoie, are home to some of the most famous and largest ski resorts in the world, so there’s certainly no shortage of slopes to swish down for everyone from beginners with trembling knees to the more experienced pros.
The icing (or you could say ice) on the cake though is that these departments have year-round appeal, with as much to offer once the snow melts as they do during the winter months. Bucking the current economic trend, the property market here has remained buoyant and has survived la crise relatively unscathed. Providing some welcome good news, sales activity in ski resorts is strong and there is a growing demand for properties to buy, so while skiers will be coming down it seems that prices and sales are very much going up.
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Home to the iconic landmarks of Mont Blanc and Lake Annecy, there are no less than 43 ski resorts scattered throughout the Haute-Savoie department, most notably Chamonix, Morzine, Avioraz and Meg�ve. The resorts of Morzine, Avioraz and Les Gets belong to the Portes du Soleil, the largest interlinked ski area in the world with an incredible 650 kilometres of slopes. Not to be outdone, Savoie enjoys its own claim to fame as home of the vast Trois Vall�es ski area, which is made up of eight renowned resorts such as Courchevel and M�ribel.
Linked together by 600 kilometres of interconnected slopes, it boasts an impressive 200 lifts which transport a staggering 260,000 skiers per hour. Both departments offer skiing to suit all levels of ability, with plenty of blue and green runs for beginners as well as the rather hair-raising reds and blacks for the more advanced.
Top of the props
According to the latest report from international property portal TheMoveChannel.com, interest in property in Rh�ne-Alpes has accounted for 21% of property enquiries for all of the French regions received so far in 2011. This was the second-highest percentage reported, second only to Provence-Alpes-C�te d’Azur with 25%. The first ever Ski Resort Property Index, recently released by Knight Frank for the second quarter of 2011, reports that European ski resorts are beginning to show signs of recovery with prices in many resorts having now stabilised. In some cases, particularly across the French Alps, there have in fact been small price increases, with the Index also highlighting the strong sales activity in French Alpine resorts during 2010 and 2011. Property prices in the resort of Meg�ve, located in Haute-Savoie, showed a growth of 4.3% in the year to June 2011, while Courchevel, M�ribel and Val d’Is�re in Savoie also performed well.
Alpine developer MGM has witnessed this rise in demand, sales and prices. "Sales to British buyers in the eight months to August matched those for the whole of last year, and the surge in sales which tends to follow the first snowfalls of winter is still to come," says MGM sales consultant Richard Deans. "It’s not just skiers who are showing a keen interest. Increasingly investors are realising that properties in good locations, like some of Europe’s top ski resorts, can offer better returns than the uncertainties of the stock market," he adds. This has led MGM to introduce a new scheme, which will enable investors in leaseback properties in r�sidences de tourisme to receive, in addition to a guaranteed annual rental income, extra income from lettings secured in place of the four weeks of personal use that skiers generally prefer.
This growing demand has prompted MGM to bring forward building work on one of their newest developments, to be sited in the Haute-Savoie village of Samo�ns, having already achieved off-plan sales for more than half of the 70 new apartments planned. Meanwhile over in M�ribel, founded by Briton Peter Lindsay in 1983 and situated in the middle of Les Trois Vall�es, developer Terresens’ latest new-build development, Les Balcons de la Chapelle, is also proving to be popular with investors. The 600 kilometres of interconnected slopes in Les Trois Vall�es certainly goes some way to explaining M�ribel’s desirability. Add in its role as host of one of the skiing world’s most prestigious events, the Alpine Skiing World Cup finals in 2015, and how easy it is to get to, and it becomes even clearer.
New-build developments of apartments, such as those above, feature prominently in ski resorts and are often sold under the leaseback scheme, offering great buy-to-let investments in what is an expensive part of the country. Originally launched in France in the 1980s to boost tourism and alleviate shortages in rental accommodation, leaseback schemes are popular with buyers as they provide guaranteed rental returns, a fixed number of weeks of personal usage per year and the 19.6% VAT on the purchase price is refunded by the government.
In terms of resale house prices, Notaires de France figures show that, with an average resale price of €320,000 in Haute-Savoie and €213,000 in Savoie, both departments are considerably above the national average of €163,600. They are also the most expensive of the eight Rh�ne-Alpes departments when it comes to resale apartments, at €2,960/m2 and €2,160/m2 respectively.
"Buying a ski property is often a purchase of passion, of heart over head," says Heather Byrne, Alps regional coordinator for Leggett Immobilier. "Even when purchased for investment purposes, in most cases the person buying wants more than just a financial reward. They are looking for a lifestyle and a place to share with family and friends. So despite the seemingly never-ending run of markets crashing and bad news in the press, the desire to own a property in ski areas has barely diminished," she says.
However, she did see a drop in prices in 2010 and 2011 as a result of fluctuating exchange rates and various other upheavals and uncertainties in the worldwide economy, which has resulted in a 30% drop in some of the villages that surround the ski resorts.
This has paved the way for some great value-for-money properties coming onto the market. She currently has a five-bedroom chalet just a kilometre from the ski lifts in St-Martin-de-Belleville for sale at €762,500, having been reduced from €865,000. A beautifully renovated three-bedroom house in sought-after Courchevel is on the market for €375,000, while at the other end of the scale, a seven-bedroom chalet in La Rosi�re has been almost halved in price, dropping from €3,000,000 to €1,650,000.
"Interest appears as keen as ever with discerning property buyers in the Portes du Soleil ski domaine moving forward to the 2011/2012 winter season," comments Wendy’s Houses owner Wendy Bull of Morzine and Les Gets, her areas of focus in Haute-Savoie. "New-builds continue to be particularly popular because they attract the lower notaire fee, and clients like the new contemporary designs being offered while retaining the traditional Savoyard feel of the exterior architecture. Very easy access to Geneva airport is hugely important, which allows UK buyers to take advantage of long ski weekends that can be fitted into their busy schedules and lifestyles."
Danielle Beeken of Chalet Doctors has noticed another trend when it comes to the style of property being favoured by buyers: "The ski property market continues to show signs of activity, with development continuing in the main ski areas. We have seen sustained interest, particularly in properties with character as opposed to the modern apartment developments and, despite the daily bombardment in the news of the continuing financial crisis, we think people are just as keen to find an Alpine holiday or permanent home."
MGM’s sales in Tignes this year are at the same level as before the credit crunch while Chamonix, traditionally regarded as a good indicator for the whole of the French Alpine region, is still as popular as ever.
While the Alps are undeniably synonymous with world-class skiing, snow-covered slopes and hearty food such as fondue and tartiflette, they are just as appealing once the mercury begins to rise. The list of summertime activities on offer is endless, from paragliding and white-water rafting to hiking and cycling. In the Portes du Soleil area the lifts remain open to take both hikers and cyclists up to the peaks.
Watersports galore, including windsurfing and waterskiing, await on Lake Geneva, while Lake Annecy is the ideal backdrop for a picnic. Thrill-seekers are catered for in Ch�tel, with the Fantasticable, one of the longest and fastest aerial runways in the world allowing riders to achieve speeds of up to 60mph.
Savoie meanwhile is famed for its plethora of spas, providing a haven of rest and relaxation surrounded by some truly spectacular scenery. There really is something for all tastes, whether you’re an adrenalin junkie or prefer something a little more sedate.
It is not only their diversity and year-round accommodating nature that make Haute-Savoie and Savoie somewhere to write home about. The ease of access to the departments and their ski resorts only adds to their appeal. A number of airlines including Air France, easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe run flights to Geneva, Grenoble, Chamb�ry and Lyon from various UK airports, while Lyon is just two hours from Paris by TGV. Eurostar has introduced a direct ski service from St Pancras International or Ashford, Kent, which begins on 17 December and runs until 14 April 2012, calling at Mo�tiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice.
Keen skiers, savvy investors, those who want a home for all seasons – whichever category you fall into, it seems that Savoie and Haute-Savoie will tick the right box on your property wish-list, not to mention several more besides. All things considered, this certainly seems to be the place to get in on the action.