10 February 2006: This piece was featured in The Daily Mail (original press clipping below transcript).

For the real France, don't shilly-chalet

Love skiing but don't want to buy in a resort? The French Alps offer some tempting alternatives, reports Liz Rowlinson.

The clink of milk churns and the whiff of cow dung ar not typical features of apres-ski in the French Alps. But perhaps you prefer the idea of staying in a traditional Savoyard village to the clamour of a ski resort?

For many years a "ski-in, ski-out" property within spitting distance of the chair lift has been a must-have for British buyers. But as the market for Alpine properties rapidly evolves, some are seeking to own properties outside the resorts, which can be ugly, pretty nondescript and ghost towns during the Summer.

British buyers who want easy access to ski areas, but also to experience real French life in the Alps all year round are buying traditional three-storey chalets in villages of the Haute Savoie.

But although an old stone farmhouse costs half as much as a similar property in resorts such as Val d'Isère, the buying process and the renovation can be fraught with problems.

So six years ago, a company called French Mountain Property (FMP) was set up by three Englishmen to renovate "off-piste" chalets and apartments and has contributed to a mini-building boom in the valleys.

The company, which operates in a 25km area (roughly between Val d'Isère, La Plagne and Bourg St Maurice) has only half-a-dozen projects on the go at any one time, the emphasis being on authentic restoration rather than the build-'em-and-sell-'em quick ethos.

Chris Harrop, a ski instructor originally from Bolton, has also been building in the Alps for 25 years. He finds FMP's properties - sometimes with a specific buyer in mind - and lovingly restores the houses to a very high standard, complete with underfloor heating and ensuite bathrooms.

This is not an easy task, as houses are hard to acquire: "The villagers often prefer to sell to members of the same family and the Napoleonic laws of inheritance here mean that properties are split up several ways.

"I have to use a genealogist to trace the co-owners of a house, which can take years. Plus, one I've eventually bought the property, each village has different planning rules."

He uses old pine shipped in from Poland for floors and walls, bathroom tiles from across the valley in Italy, and huge slices of reclaimed slate for the roofs. Balconies are had carved with the design unique to a particular village such as a heart or pine tree.

Banisters are hewn from twisted branches, there are bespoke carved wooden cupboards and doors and striking features such as a "chandelier" made from spotlights recessed in an old wheelbarrow suspended on old chains.

The "comble" or hayloft of the traditional three-storey chalet/farmhouse is converted into a huge living room with floor-to-ceiling windows giving valley views.

Needless to say, FMP's unique renovations, of a much higher standard than most Alpine properties, have fast been attracting French as well as British and American buyers.

Liz and Simon Clemmow have bought an FMP house in the village of Le Miroir, a chic little pocket that attracts Parisians (including, it seems, Gerard Depardieu, who is rumoured to own a house here).

The village is a tight cluster of 60 houses with logs piled up under their jutting balconies and narrow cobbled alleyways wending between them. One of the houses is actually a restaurant, Chez Marie, with legs of lamb roasting on the fire and help-yourself jugs of wine.

The Clemmows bought a wreck for about £75,000 and have spent about £300,000 doing it up. Boasting seven bedrooms, five bathrooms and a sauna and gym, it is now worth £500,000.

Liz, in her 40s, says: "Ski resorts are fine in the Winter, but I didn't want to be next door to the people that I might be next door to in London. I wanted to experience genuine village life, all year round, not a soulless purpose-built resort.

"We have access to seven ski areas - including Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs, La Plagne - and can actually ski down to the house from the ski station of St Foy.

"In the Summer, when it gets up to 35-40 degrees - the place is awash with flowers and we go hiking, mountain biking, lake swimming and take part in fetes and other aspects of French village life.

"It's brilliant - once you get used to the cow bells - as it's like having two different houses in France."

If you want something smaller or cheaper, FMP is also converting an old Savoyard farmhouse in the village of Montorlin, in the Peisey valley between La Plagne and Les Arcs, into six two and three-bedroom apartments - prices from £185,000.

No one else in the Alps is doing the same as FMP, but there is a flourishing trade in mountain houses, which are going up 20-25 per cent a year, according to FMP.

Sarah Heywood, VEP's Haute-Savoie office says: "The lack of new builds and the shortage of traditional houses means prices are increasing 10 to 13 per cent a year. We see many more people looking for somewhere to spend between six weeks and six months of the year.

"They are looking for easy to Geneva airport - Thones village is popular - and often rent out the bottom floor of their property as a self-contained apartment.

"Alpine properties - built on three levels on an incline - lend themselves to this well. Some 40-50 per cent of the French rent their homes, plus there are tourist lets, and the Swiss who come over the border for cheaper housing."

From an investment point of view, greater income form property in resorts must be offset against the greater Summer income from village-based houses, so you must balance profits against peace and tranquility.

Zigi Davenport, from French Alpine Properties, cautions: "If you are after a ski property purely for financial reasons, you need to be in a resort or very close to one (if you want to work with tour operators you must be in one). I've seen people moving out of farmhouses and into resorts because of transport or parking problems."

You can pick up a vast old farmhouse for €400,000 to €400,000 but you will pay the same again to renovate it. And if you are the sort of person who does want to be in sight of the chair lift, or a lively bar, then this option is probably not for you."

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