French ski resorts closed, but buyer demand set to remain undeterred

4 December 2020 | Investment

French ski resorts will remain closed this Christmas to stop the spread of Covid-19, but one ski expert believes buyer demand will remain unaffected.  

That’s despite ongoing restrictions in the UK, one of the ski property sector’s biggest markets, where 99% of the country is currently in tier 2 or tier 3, making travel less easy. Equally, France is to impose random border checks to prevent its citizens from skiing abroad this winter, with Swiss ski slopes open and Austria and Spain eager to not shut their ski slopes entirely.

Luxury French Alps estate agent, Free Spirit Alpine, does not believe these events will hamper buyer demand for good-quality ski homes this winter.

President Macron’s recent announcement is obviously a huge blow to everybody in the French Alps – everybody has worked extremely hard to be ready for a socially distanced and responsible opening to the ski season,” Andrew Beale, the agency’s founder, said.

“It’s not what anybody wanted to hear, particularly as most resorts make as much as 20% of their total turnover over the Christmas period. Hopefully, they will be able to open again in the New Year with those appropriate Covid-19 measures in place to keep everybody safe. However, for the property market, I don’t believe this news is going to deter British buyers too much. Here’s why.”

The March closures didn’t put buyers off

The ski resorts in France closed for the first time back in March 2020 due to Covid-19. When this happened, nobody really knew how property buyers were going to react, with the situation unprecedented.

“However, we were pleasantly surprised,” Beale said. “During ‘lockdown one’, we had sustained and impressive levels of interest from British buyers in terms of both enquiries and sales, and when restrictions were lifted, we saw very serious buyers and committed clients coming out to the French Alps specifically to view property.” 

That was despite post-quarantine travel rules, and delays at the airport where there were long queues and forms to sign.

“Most of the viewings in the summer, for example, were where buyers kept in touch throughout ‘lockdown one’ and had booked their visits at the earliest time they could. These trips were effectively for second viewings, as we were able to put so much information in front of them through virtual tours using Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp. This enabled them to make a short list of properties before they came.”

Consequently, he added, the ratio of client visits to eventual sales was 60% higher than usual, with a number of ‘high-ticket sales’ agreed.

Virtual tours remain hugely popular

The firm’s video tours really came into their own from the beginning of the pandemic, Beale said, playing a key role in helping to keep interest high with British buyers during both national lockdowns, and quarantine measures.

“With people stuck at home, they have had more time to browse online and really do their research to choose their favourite options,” Beale explained. “Once measures started to ease in the summer, many flew out here and physically saw the properties they had on their shortlist.”

People are buying high-value property ‘sight unseen’

Beale says for the first time in his 25 years of being an estate agent, people are purchasing without even seeing the home in-person first.

“As an independent boutique estate agency, we were able to quickly adapt our marketing to a new way of buying – via virtual tours. Using technology, and good old-fashioned legwork, we were able to visit properties with clients over Zoom or FaceTime, showing them around the house virtually, allowing them to direct us to the points that really mattered,” Beale adds.

Many bought this way and he thinks the trend will continue even after travel restrictions are lifted.

“As a result of its popularity, we have added a ‘call to action’ on our website where you can now book a virtual viewing with one of our agents – this feature remains very popular,” Beale says.

People understand the impact of Covid-19 will hopefully diminish 

The agency’s British clients have always been accepting to the necessary constraints re Covid-19, seeing it ‘as an essential part of fighting the disease’.

“The recent news about the vaccine has provided some assurance that they will be able to enjoy their holiday home in the French Alps in the not so distant future,” Beale adds.

Buyers purchasing now won’t have access to their ski home until at least March next year

“People realise that even if they bought a property now, they can’t use it immediately – so as a future owner it doesn’t matter if the ski resorts are closed at the start of the season,” Beale insists.

“The conveyancing process in France takes time – once we factor in bank shutdowns over the Christmas and New Year holidays, it is likely to be March 2021 before people complete on their purchase. This outlook is especially true for our new developments in Val D’Isere, which are scheduled for completion in December 2021.”

Covid-19 has prompted many people to re-evaluate their lives

In doing so, Beale says, they also re-thought what was important to them for their second home in the French Alps, and how they could use it for so much more than skiing.

“Outside space, particularly with all-day sun, has become the first item on many people’s wish lists,” he said.

“This has been a long-standing trend in Alpine architecture, starting over fifteen years ago, but I have never seen it figure so highly in our conversations with buyers. The lockdown and its feelings of confinement have absolutely affected people’s buying decisions – small apartments without balconies and lots of natural light have suffered as a result.”

The change in working patterns has also greatly benefitted those looking for a second home in the French Alps, Beale continues, with many people realising just how effectively they can work remotely. 

“Extra space in your apartment or chalet for an office has become a significant factor – we recently sold an apartment where the buyers were looking for one extra bedroom than they needed for exactly this purpose.”

“The French Alps outside of the summer and winter seasons are beautiful – quiet, and full of the explosion of flora and fauna of the spring or the vibrant changes of colour and climate in the autumn.”

A shift in priorities has led to a shift in investment locations

“If you are prepared to be in the hamlets and drive a car or walk for a short distance, you can make some substantial savings compared to a major resort where you may be looking at twice the price for a similar property,” Beale advises.

“Buyers are looking to take advantage of this now, because as demand grows for the hamlets from those desiring more outdoor space and privacy, prices there will rise. There are some stunning properties to own in locations such as these, with less density of people, more open spaces and where the housing stock is often a chalet or renovated barn which would most likely have more land, terraces and balconies.” 

He points to Le Raffort in Meribel, where values are on average €15/16,000 per sq metre. “We have properties there within 100m of a piste, but if we moved those into central Meribel within the same piste distance, the uplift would be at least a third. You’re getting all the same things that make these chalets so attractive for a keen skier, but for a huge difference in price.” 

He adds: “Le Miroir is another beautiful hamlet within easy reach of many world-class ski resorts. We have a chalet for sale here for €1.85million, but if we were to pick that up and put it in Val d’Isere, just twenty minutes away in the car, you’d be paying almost twice the price.”

“Villarabout is another hamlet I love, just above St Martin de Belleville, with cheaper prices than St Martin,” Beale concludes.

This post has originally been featured in Property Investor Today.