In the 19th century, Lake Geneva was a highlight of the Grand Tour of Europe and attracted many Romantic writers who found inspiration in the blue waters of the 70km-long lake – the largest in the Alps – and the views of the surrounding mountains.
Proximity to the Swiss cities of Lausanne and Geneva, home to various UN bodies and about 250 non-governmental organisations, has long boosted property values on the southern shore of the lake, which lies mainly in France. Here, the old spa towns of Evian-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains – locals usually call them Evian and Thonon for short – have the peculiarity of being summer resorts in a part of the country best known for winter sports.
The curative properties of Evian’s spring water – still used by the Evian brand today – were discovered two centuries ago and the town subsequently changed its name to Evian-les-Bains to promote itself as a spa. After the French Academy of Medicine recognised the benefits of the town’s mineral water in 1878, Evian’s spa boom began in earnest. Some belle-époque architecture was built at this time, including ornate mansions and hotels, a large casino and the Palais Lumière, a former pump room containing stained-glass windows and frescoes, now used as a cultural centre. These contrast with the wooden Alpine chalets common in the foothills of the Chablais mountains in the town’s hinterland.
According to a report by Knight Frank, the market in and around Evian “dipped in recent years” – as did the market in much of France – but there was a slight recovery in 2013. “This is an affluent part of France and most households contain at least one person commuting to jobs in Switzerland, which are usually well paid,” says Laurent Guerineau of the Knight Frank office in Evian.
A 108 sq metre apartment in Evian with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a 42 sq metre terrace with a view of Lake Geneva is on sale with Neowi estate agency for €650,000.
A six-bedroom lakeside house on the edge of Evian, with 275 sq metres of living space and its own boat mooring, is on sale for €1.79m through the Capifrance agency.
The top end in and around Evian – properties valued at €5m-plus, many of which date from the peak of the town’s high-society popularity before the outbreak of the second world war – is dominated by Middle Eastern buyers. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, has a summer residence on the lake. His presence in Evian has encouraged several members of his extended family in Abu Dhabi to buy homes nearby.
In summer, Evian comes alive, its population rising from 8,000 to about 50,000. Boating, hiking and golf are big draws: the Evian Championship scheduled for September this year is one of the highlights in women’s professional golf.
Thonon, meanwhile, is a growing town of 35,000 residents with an attractive marina. It is lively year-round and has the advantage over Evian of being closer to Geneva.
In Thonon, a eight-bedroom chalet built in 1927, with 400 sq metres of living space, a wine cellar and a caretaker’s lodge, is available for €3.5m through Knight Frank. The house sits in 12,700 sq metres of wooded grounds and has 100 metres of lakefront with a boathouse and jetty.
Guerineau says Russian buyers are active in Evian and Thonon in the €500,000 to €1m property range, as are UK and Dutch house-hunters. However, Russian oligarchs are rarely found here. “This is not a place for nightlife and it’s hardly the venue to show off your Ferrari,” he says.
Inevitably, all prospective buyers want lake views – the lights of Lausanne glimmer agreeably across the water at night – and high-end homes without a view of the water can be difficult to sell. Yet, the Swiss side of the lake has the advantage over the French side, as it is south-facing and catches the most sun, and also has the better mountain vistas.
Local French schools have a good reputation and a couple of private international schools in Geneva offer transport for students living in Evian and Thonon. Boarding during the week at Swiss schools in and around Lausanne is also an option.
Although the area has managed to avoid the worst of France’s continuing property slump, a so-called real estate tension index – prepared by the French property portal MeilleursAgents.com – shows that the picture in the Haute-Savoie department, which contains Evian and Thonon, remains mixed.
“The idea of the index is to express demand numerically by dividing the number of active buyers in a given market by the number of sellers,” says Sébastien de Lafond, chairman of MeilleursAgents.com. “When the index is above 3, meaning there are more than three active buyers for each seller, prices should rise within six to 12 months. When the index is below 2, prices will fall.” For the moment, Haute-Savoie has a real estate tension index of 0.6 compared with 1.2 in Paris.
The portal’s findings square with appearances on the ground: the string of resorts and villages on the French side of Lake Geneva, together with the chic town of Annecy – on the lake of the same name and a commutable 40km from Geneva by motorway – contrast with much of the rest of Haute-Savoie (ski resorts excluded) where France’s crise is more evident.
Transaction costs are also on the rise: changes this year to France’s tax code mean that French departments are now able to levy an extra land registry tax on property buyers, equivalent to 0.7 per cent of the sales price. Most departments, including Haute-Savoie, have already voted through the change.
● Apartments in Evian cost an average of €3,625 per sq metre
● Buyers should budget about 8 per cent of the purchase price to cover land registry taxes and other fees
● Evian is 45km from Geneva and 35 minutes from Lausanne by ferry
What you can buy for . . .
€250,000 A two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Evian
€1m A detached house near Evian with views over Lake Geneva
€5m A five-bedroom home in Evian with a pool, paddocks and lake views