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It takes a while for an outsider to understand the mystique of Gstaad, the Swiss ski resort that has become one of the world’s most renowned playgrounds for the rich and famous. When agents display sale properties in shop front windows, they market them with two or more diamond icons, rather than figures.
“We are discreet in Gstaad,” says veteran property agent and developer Marcel Bach. “The key to our success is that we don’t talk about prices or people. It’s why the wealthiest come here.”
Gstaad is the smartest ski resort in the Bernese Oberland, a region that spreads across five main valleys, with 220km of ski runs. Its upmarket hotels became a refuge for the wealthy before the first world war and visiting foreigners soon bought properties. The area’s original draw – fabulous winter skiing – has since expanded to include year-round attractions, including three international schools.
The Gstaad market has been stable for the past two years following a market correction in early 2011 for upmarket condominiums outside super-prime locations. At the peak, these less desirable properties achieved record prices that agents now say were inflated. By mid-2011, sellers faced reduced demand from foreign buyers due to the strengthening Swiss franc and a pessimistic outlook on the world economy.
According to Claudio Saputelli, of UBS, the area’s top-end condominiums are selling at 25 per cent below their 2011 peak, although chalet prices are still inching up. He says the Gstaad region remains on his bubble watch list.
Bach says properties at the top and lower end of the market are trading, though a hefty number in the mid-range still languish. “Our fight is to open the eyes of these prospective sellers and tell them what their properties are really worth. If properties are priced correctly, they sell.” For the past two years, he says, overeager sellers have tried listing overpriced stock with “cowboy” internet agents. When they don’t deliver, Gstaad’s handful of established agents usually take over.
While the unwritten rule – to keep quiet about property prices and people – applies to existing homes, new-build prices are easier to come by. Gerax, one of Gstaad’s oldest property agents and developers, is offering a lavish 10-bedroom chalet, now almost finished, for SFr19.62m (€15.96m). It is 800 metres from the car-free promenade of designer boutiques, restaurants and art galleries, and there are three ski lifts within a five-minute walk. Classed as a holiday home, the property has space for eight cars.
While a Swiss national may buy the entire chalet (585 sq metres), Swiss law limits any foreign individual or couple to just 200 sq metres. In this case, however, property ownership with two additional adult family members or friends is legal because, technically, the chalet splits into three apartments with individual sets of kitchens, bedrooms and baths.
At SFr33,600 per sq metre, the chalet sits in the middle of Gstaad’s price range, which agents say spans from SFr15,000 to SFr50,000, with a select few in Oberbort – the Beverly Hills of Gstaad – going for much higher figures. According to Ben Worbs, of Gerax, “a few chalets are so special, people are happy to pay the asking price”.
There is increasing demand for bigger, more elaborate chalets. Bach says that 220 sq metres was considered a big chalet 20 years ago, whereas now the world’s trophy clients want homes at least three times bigger and with much higher standards of finishing.
In Gruben, which is above Gstaad village, a four-bedroom chalet is on the market for SFr16m. Surrounded by cultivated fields, it is designated as a holiday home and ticks the boxes for sale to a foreign individual or couple, plus one additional adult, says Antonia Crespi of Engel and Völkers.
Buyers wanting more room at a lower price should look to the nearby villages. In Saanen, an adjacent village, a three-bedroom, newly renovated townhouse is on the market for SFr3.5m, while an eight-bedroom chalet is priced at SFr5.6m. The chalet, which includes a garden cottage, is classed as a holiday home and designed with joint foreign owners in mind. Both properties are about 30 per cent under what they would be in Gstaad, according to the listing agent, Cyrille de Kostine of Sine Tempore.
Saanen is actually the historic “capital” of the entire Gstaad region, comprising 10 villages that together form “Saanenland”. Prices vary within the region, depending on location, build quality, age, size and “perception”.
Taking a 10-year view, de Kostine estimates that prices throughout the region have almost doubled, though he says they are certainly not rising at the moment. He calls the current situation a “healthy stagnation”. Some foreign buyers are postponing a decision about becoming domiciled in Gstaad ahead of possible tax changes that are now under review. Such buyers also fear the new Swiss law, that will restrict the building of new holiday homes, may cause primary home prices to stall over time.
That is not of prime concern to long-time Gstaad owners who traditionally help their offspring buy properties in the area. Worbs counts between 30 and 40 families made up of several generations. Often their stake in the community goes beyond owning homes; up to half underwrite annual events, such as the Menuhin Music Festival and the Swiss Open tennis tournament.
● Total buying costs are about 2.5 per cent of the purchase price of a property
● Swiss banks will lend between 50-60 per cent of the bank’s assessed price
● Swiss banks offer 10-year fixed rate mortgages for about 2 per cent
● The nearest airports by car are: Bern (90 minutes), Geneva (two hours) and Zurich (three hours)
What you can buy for . . .
€3m A two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Gstaad
€8m An older-style chalet requiring some refurbishment on the edge of the resort
€16m A 10-bedroom, top-class chalet