Chinese lured by great views, low taxes in Switzerland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am


A growing number of Chinese buyers are being lured to the Swiss property market, not only due to the country's beautiful scenery, but also because of its good-quality education, strong currency appreciation, and low tax rates.

'In the past two years we sold a lot of properties to Chinese buyers because of one important point - education,' said Natalie Mik, head of luxury and international markets for real estate agency de Rham Sotheby's International Realty in Switzerland.

'Many Chinese bought properties in Switzerland because of its good public and private schools, to which they have sent their children for education. They can live in the properties when they visit their children,' she said.

Mik, who was in Hong Kong this week for a road show about investing in Switzerland, said the agency closed 14 holiday-home transactions involving Chinese buyers in the past two years - triple the number of previous years. The deals ranged from the purchase of modern apartments to ski chalets.

Under Swiss law, foreigners can only buy holiday homes in designated cities with net floor space of no more than 200 square metres. They may not live in the home for more than six months a year and may rent out the property when they are not occupying it.

Since the designated locations are usually holiday resort areas, rental return is high because accommodation in Switzerland is expensive during the holiday seasons. Mik said rental income for six months might be enough to cover the tax for buying the property as well as the mortgage payment for the entire year.

This fits the requirements of Chinese investors well, as they are looking for properties with high investment returns and price growth.

'Chinese like properties that are modern, with a view of the lake and off-plan, or still under construction, because they think the price of such properties will go up,' she said.

Her colleague Thomas Geiser, who oversees the market in Montreux on Lake Geneva, said the city was the most popular holiday-home location for Chinese people. Home prices had risen by 20 per cent to 30 per cent in the past three years despite the global economic recession because of foreign demand.

The property agency said a quality 200 square metre apartment in Switzerland cost at least 2 million Swiss francs (HK$17.61 million), while a ski chalet might cost upwards from 4 million Swiss francs.

Yves Jeanrenaud, a partner at legal firm Schellenberg Wittmer in Geneva, said that the Swiss government offered about 1,500 new permits every year to foreigners wanting to buy a holiday home in the country. The property market in Switzerland was first opened to foreign buyers in 1997.

Jeanrenaud said one of his Chinese clients from Hong Kong started buying office and retail buildings in Switzerland in 2005 after investing in other big cities such as London.

'It's a very stable investment in Switzerland since the currency has started to get stronger,' Jeanrenaud said. The Swiss market also allowed investors to diversify their portfolio and risks, especially since the London market had been struggling.

Clifford Krause, a consultant in the Geneva office of consultancy DTZ, said Swiss property provided 'an important form of protection for investors, as the Swiss franc appreciated about 32 per cent last year'.

Total rental returns on commercial properties in Switzerland were about 14.5 per cent last year in terms of Hong Kong dollars, DTZ said, of which 7.8 per cent was due to currency appreciation, 1.8 per cent from capital growth, and 4.9 per cent from income return.

Krause said more Chinese companies were setting up offices in Switzerland because of low tax rates and the country's renowned pharmaceutical and watch industries. The industries boosted demand and supported rents and prices of commercial properties, which have a vacancy rate of no more than four per cent.

Rental yield for commercial properties was about six per cent, higher than the 2.5 per cent in Hong Kong, Krause added.

'In China, people are more interested in the US, Australian and the UK markets because they are familiar with them. But Switzerland is more stable and offers a higher return.'

DTZ said rents of grade-A offices in Switzerland were no more than 975 Swiss francs per square metre per annum.