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Ski-home buyers follow the snow in the face of climate change


“There are amazing runs among the woods where you feel you are alone in the wilderness,” says Bruce Cheung, a Singaporean Wagyu cattle farmer from Western Australia, describing the joy of skiing in Furano, on the northern island of Hokkaido. His two-bedroom holiday apartment there, in the new ski in/ski out Fenix Furano development, sits directly opposite the gondola in the heart of the Kitanomine ski village.

“Furano still has a very special Japanese village feel,” says Cheung. “It’s very popular in summer for its lavender fields and in fall for the cherry blossom, but I’m really just there to ski.”

As impressive as its wilderness is, Furano also rates highly for a reason that is less romantic but highly prized among ski property buyers: reliable weather. Savills’ new Ski Resilience Index, published Friday, ranks 62 international ski resorts for five factors: season length, altitude, temperature, snowfall (based on volumes in the last ski season) and reliability.

The latter is “the standard deviation of snowfall”, says Kelcie Sellers, Savills’ world research associate. “Essentially, can you count on a certain amount of snow each year or are there more varied amounts each year?” Resilience is increasingly important to buyers as climate change brings new challenges to ski resorts.

Furano, which sits at 1,074m and has average winter temperatures of between -5C and -10C, jumped by 25 places in Savills’ new index compared with last year.

snowy town at bottom of mountain with lights in the evening
Furano, Japan, jumped 25 places in the Savills Resilience Index compared with last year © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

While Furano has risen dramatically up the resilience ranks, the Colorado resorts of Aspen and Vail are used to occupying the top spots — not just for their natural assets but their prime property prices (Savills show their average asking prices as €36,200 per sq m and €26,700 per sq m respectively, compared with €8,100 per sq m in Furano). Of the 112 sales in Aspen between January and August this year, two-fifths were for more than $10mn, according to Knight Frank, and six sales in the past 14 months have exceeded $60mn.

However, despite Aspen’s reliably skiable pistes — three-quarters are north-facing and rise to more than 3,400m — the Aspen Skiing Company, which owns and operates four mountains including Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, has partnered with the global Protect Our Winters initiative to help mitigate the effects of climate change on winter sports communities.

Aspen’s year-round cultural and sports scene also helps to future-proof it against warming winters, says Brittanie Rockhill, a broker at Douglas Elliman estate agency. “Our summer economy, one could argue, has boomed due to climate change,” she says, citing visitors from the south who come to the cooler mountain air to escape the summer heat at home.

Ski operator Vail Resorts, meanwhile, which owns 41 mountain resorts worldwide, is not “preparing for more or less snowfall. We are preparing for more change,” says Kate Wilson, the company’s vice-president of environmental and social responsibility, talking of the climatic volatility that is forcing resorts to become more inventive on how to make and preserve snow in ever-warmer temperatures — and to modify their business models to attract skiers. Vail’s Epic Pass, for example, allows holders access to any of its resorts. “It gives skiers the option of going where the snow is,” says Wilson.

For some pass holders, that involves crossing continents. Emily, 38, who preferred not to disclose her real name, works in tech sales in New York and owns an apartment in the Colorado ski resort of Breckenridge (known locally as Breck) with her family. She is one such pass-holder who follows the snow. Andermatt in the Swiss Alps is now included — “and it’s easier for us to get a direct seven-and-a-half hour flight to Zurich overnight, so we can be there by breakfast, than it is for us to get to Breck,” she says, referring to the often slow, snowy drive from Denver airport to Breck.

shops, restaurants, busy street scene and snow, Zermatt
Zermatt, Switzerland, where a new cable car allows skiers to travel to and from Cervinia, Italy, on foot © mauritius images GmbH/Alamy

Globally, the ski resilience landscape has been “a tale of two winters” this past year, says Sellers. “The unpredictable weather has led to locations moving up or down because of record-breaking highs or lows of snowfall. There has been much more jostling for position than in past years.”

Going higher can be one way to ensure the best snow. But for home buyers, high-altitude resorts come with a trade-off, says Lloyd Hughes at Athena Advisers. “They often lack historic charm and can look rather industrial in their design,” he says.

Many agents talk of increasingly polarised demand now among ski property buyers — between those purely in search of great skiing, and those wanting a wider, longer, more year-round mountain experience in a lower-altitude location, “as long as they have easy access to higher resorts and better snow,” says Hughes, citing Les Allues in the Méribel Valley as a prime example.

Some Alpine resorts, such as Les Menuires in France’s Three Valleys, are undergoing “prettification”, covering new-build facades in traditional materials and building uniform sloping roofs. But David Bhagat at Alpine Property Search says most of the buyers he deals with “don’t care about the architecture. They are about the skiing and they want somewhere snow-sure, anywhere above 1,800m, where they can ski up to 3,000m or more.”

Val d’Isère — in fourth place in Savills’ index — is the one “outlier” that offers aesthetics and altitude, Bhagat adds. “You have original mountain homes in Savoyard stone and wood, and high altitude, but prices are at an absolute premium.”

Savills places the average asking price in Val d’Isère at €27,700 per sq m and Knight Frank’s latest ski report shows that prime property prices there (based on a four-bedroom chalet in a prime central location) rose by 5.3 per cent in the year up to June 2023. Dominic John, a 58-year-old director of a business coaching company from Buckinghamshire, recently moved from Val d’Isère to La Légettaz, 1km away, to upgrade from a two-bed to a three-bedroom apartment. Costing around €1mn, his new property is “double the size but not double the outlay”, he says, and “still only eight minutes’ walk from the centre”.

snowy, crowded ski resort on a sunny day
Val d’Isère, where snowfall is fairly reliable, offers both altitude and aesthetics © Hemis/Alamy

He also feels reassured that Val d’Isère’s snowfall is reliable. “Unpredictability is all part of the ski experience, but by having the extra altitude here, I feel less worried than I would if I were a few hundred metres lower. This winter is already looking amazing.”

Val d’Isère may rank highly for reliable snow and property prices, but the correlation between prime property prices and resilience isn’t always so clear-cut.

“Property prices are tied to multiple factors, not solely reliability of snowfall,” says Kate Everett-Allen, Knight Frank’s head of international residential research, adding that “the resort’s cachet, size of ski domain, infrastructure, luxury brands, history, architecture, retail and après-ski offer” all play a part in buyers’ decision-making.

The Italian ski area of Breuil-Cervinia has a disconnect between reliable snow and property values. It comes fifth for its natural assets, but has average property prices of €8,000-€12,000 per sq m compared with €20,000-€40,000 per sq m for the super-prime resorts. Its relative inaccessibility from Geneva and Zurich — four or five hours away by car respectively — may be a contributing factor, says Jeremy Rollason, head of Savills Ski.

“Cervinia has been the preserve of the Italian market for a long time and it’s Zermatt’s poorer cousin from a property price perspective, but not for skiing. The new Matterhorn Glacier Ride II, which is the highest cable car in the Alps, means you can now go from Cervinia to Zermatt on foot,” says Rollason.

He adds that while altitude “comes into the conversation for buyers, it doesn’t always steer where they buy”. Gstaad in the Swiss Alps is an anomaly in the opposite direction to Zermatt: its property prices are high, but its resilience rating is low. “Anyone can buy there, though you need deep pockets. Its reputation and kudos outweigh its lack of resilience,” says Rollason.

snowy resort with mountains and tall buildings and big skies
Vail, Colorado, offers the Epic Pass, which allows holders access to its 41 resorts worldwide, so skiers can go where the snow is © Getty Images

Nendaz in Switzerland’s 4 Vallées stands out too, as Savills identifies it as a victim of hotter summers and milder winters taking their toll on ice volumes and season length. Yet prices there — based on a four-bedroom chalet — rose by 8.3 per cent in the year to June 2023, according to Knight Frank.

Another Swiss town, Grimentz, languishes at the bottom of Knight Frank’s price chart, having seen zero price growth in that same period. Yet the resort, which lies at 1,570m with access to skiing at up to 2,900m, scores highly for reliability.

“It was one of the few resorts where you could still ski all the pistes throughout the season last year while much of Europe had very little snow,” says Oscar Pesch, a 55-year-old entrepreneur from The Hague, who has bought a three-bedroom chalet off-plan in Grimentz for SFr2.4mn ($2.65mn), which will be ready in late 2024.

He also loves a morning dip in the nearby glacial Lac de Moiry. “It enables me to connect with nature when I’m there,” he says, describing Grimentz’s picture-postcard ancient village as “a hidden treasure. It’s simple and traditional. You don’t see couture shops like in Zermatt or Gstaad.”

Going by altitude alone is not the safest predictor of snow-surety, though. Climatic conditions can have a sizeable impact. Everett-Allen says lower-altitude Alpine resorts with north-facing grassy slopes, such as Villars-sur-Ollon in Switzerland, can prove more snow-sure than higher, south-facing slopes, such as Nendaz.

Chart showing the top 20 most resilient ski resorts in the world based on Savills Ski Resilience index's five metrics to measure the quality and reliability of ski conditions

“Ski-obsessed” Tom, a London-based banker who preferred not to give his real name, paid SFr2.5mn for his two-bedroom apartment in the Swiss resort of Andermatt Reuss in 2020, says that by choosing a location “that is less busy than the popular resorts I normally skied in, such as the 4 Valleys, the fresh powder lasts longer. On Gemsstock mountain in Andermatt, you can still find fresh tracks a week after the last snowfall.”

Carmen Carfora, a sustainability expert at Andermatt, also describes the lengths the resort goes to protect its snowy pistes, including using wind-powered snow machines, and laying a “fleece blanket system” over its glacier in summer. “About 75 per cent of the fleece-covered snow remains intact over the summer, which saves energy and water,” says Carfora.

“Convenience, ambience and year-round-ability” all play a part in buyers’ decisions of where to buy in the mountains, says Rollason. But for ski lovers, how resorts are future-proofing their offering in the face of a warming climate is a key part of the conversation.

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