Geneva’s Old Town with a view to St Peter’s Cathedral
Geneva’s Old Town with a view to St Peter’s Cathedral © Getty

For deep-pocketed Europhiles, Geneva has long been an attractive prospect. But with high-end apartments costing as much as SFr15,000 ($16,000) per square metre — and even a hamburger setting you back almost $40 — the Swiss city regularly tops rankings of the most expensive places to live and to buy. In Europe, only Monaco has more millionaires per capita.

The sky-high living costs may have been putting buyers off. Transactions in 2017 across the Geneva canton were down on the previous two years — however, lately agents report that sales have been rallying. According to official statistics, transactions increased more than 5 per cent in the last six months of 2017 compared with the first six months. Agents attributed this to Geneva’s reputation as a safe haven during a time of political upheaval.

Historically, international buyers were attracted to Switzerland because of the country’s lenient tax policies, but “that’s changed now dramatically”, says Alex Koch de Gooreynd, a partner and Switzerland specialist at Knight Frank. “People who traditionally looked at the UK market as a pure safe haven are slightly concerned right now with the Brexit discussions . . . that’s where Switzerland seems to have come into its own.”

That said, there are signs that the property market in Geneva is not as safe as previously billed. Prices have been slipping nationwide. In September 2017, prime prices in Geneva were 2.5 per cent down on the year before, according to figures from Knight Frank. The declines have prompted some to question whether new banking regulations — and a series of high-profile fines designed to rein in Switzerland’s private banking sector — may be having a trickle-down effect.

Across the country, growth had been sustained by falling mortgage interest rates — homeowners in Switzerland on average pay a rate of under 2 per cent — but stagnating per capita income and tightened financing guidelines has had a mitigating effect. “The days of constant upward movement in residential property prices are a thing of the past,” said a report from Credit Suisse. Economists at the bank do not expect prices to rise in the near future.

Map showing Geneva in Switzerland

In recent years, Geneva has also seen a spate of new developments shoot up across the city, most in the SFr1m-SFr2m range. A loft-style, five-bedroom apartment in a new development in a former factory downtown is for sale through Savills for SFr4.7m. “Before, because there was a low supply, prices were very high and people who wanted to get in [to the market] couldn’t because they couldn’t find a suitable property,” says Catherine Blum, founder of Quality Living, a subsidiary of Chestertons International.

Blum identifies the Old Town, the Russian Church district and the communes of Cologny and Pregny-Chambésy as some of the most prestigious addresses, especially for properties that overlook the lake. Chestertons International has a nine-bedroom villa on the lakefront on the outskirts of Cologny for sale for SFr27m.

With London, Paris and Berlin less than two hours away by plane, Geneva is certainly at the heart of Europe — if not the beating heart. One would struggle to call the city “lively” and it imposes restrictions during the “quiet hours” after 9pm and on Sundays.

In Champel, a smart residential area known for its abundance of green space, Savills is selling a three-bedroom duplex apartment with a private garden for SFr3.95m.

Geneva  lakefront villa
Nine-bedroom villa on the lakefront, SFr27m

According to a ranking by Mercer, Geneva is one of the safest places in the world. With more than 130 global company headquarters based in the city, the presence of the UN and top-notch schools, Geneva attracts diplomats and executives with families.

But the city’s demographics are slowly shifting. The former city of “wealth by stealth” is not what it was a decade ago; after a series of high-profile cases in which Swiss banks paid out billions of dollars in fines for helping US clients avoid tax, banking secrecy is being phased out. According to KPMG, the number of Swiss private banks has fallen from 179 in 2005 to 112 in 2017. Switzerland adopted the OECD’s new Common Reporting Standards in September.

Before the financial crisis, Koch de Gooreynd’s buyers predominantly worked for hedge funds or big financial companies. While there is still a good deal of this type of client about — Swiss accounts are still very attractive to the world’s rich — he reports that executives and senior managers from an array of non-finance sectors, including manufacturing and technology, are starting to move in.

“The fact that there’s no banking secrecy is a good thing,” says Koch de Gooreynd. “Today, people like the fact that when they move to Geneva they are paying a reasonable level of tax but it’s all legitimate and above board.”

Buying guide

  • To buy in Geneva, owners must be either a Swiss resident or an EU resident in full-time employment in Switzerland
  • Non-Swiss residents are able to buy property in the country within designated “holiday zones”, primarily ski resorts and the areas around Lugano and Montreux
  • Switzerland is the birthplace of the International Baccalaureate and home to 105 international schools. Geneva has schools that follow UK and US curriculums while the Swedish School of Geneva is trilingual

What you can buy for . . .

$5m An attic flat with four bedrooms in Champel

$15m A 19th-century house with five bedrooms in the Old Town

$45m A villa with 13 bedrooms and a large garden in the Russian Church district

More homes at propertylistings.ft.com

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