Empty Chalets: A Blessing or a Curse? 

Originally published in Gstaad Life Magazine - July 2015


“Schade!” some say upon hearing that yet another farmhouse will be transformed from a year-round residence into a McMansion Chalet, empty fifty-one weeks per year. An exaggeration? Not really. Since my neighbor bought his house more than five years ago, I’ve yet to set eyes on him.

Does the above reflection have something to do with the exodus of local families? Or is it Swiss thrift? Or envy? That billionaires build thousand-square meter homes next to farmers who are denied permission to add a child’s bedroom is a strange juxtaposition.

Attitudes aside, from what I have come to understand, the problem of “cold beds” is a long running issue in many communities around the world. Foreigners are blamed for buying up holiday homes in popular destinations like Gstaad only to have them unoccupied for most of the year.

Be it jealousy, environmental concerns or intolerance for the quiet of the off-seasons, people’s reasons are varied. No group was more vocal against “cold beds” than the authors and supporters of the Lex Weber law that came into effect in 2013. The law placed a nationwide cap on the total number of secondary homes at 20%, way below the Saanenland’s 49% level.

The effects of the law have been interesting: construction boomed, in large part due to the rush of planning applicants who got their projects approved before the deadline. Also, some say prices have risen short term, spurring speculation, which the law was trying to curb. And this law does nothing to stop the conversion of farmhouses into residences for flat taxpayers. These homes are considered primary residences, not secondary.

Some people blame ‘cold beds’ for the ailing state of the ski lift corporation and for the closing of local shops like von Siebenthal’s. I’m not sure that’s justified. Many factors are at play here, and this subject could be the focus of a possible future column.

There is even dissent between chalet owners. There are those who want a quiet “country club” feel, no change, and definitely no concert halls. And then there are those who want life in the villages; and their agendas align with those of my local friends, who miss the nightlife, the gallery openings, the concerts, and who resent increased random alcohol checks by the police during low season (shouldn’t they increase them in high season?)
How do I feel about “cold beds”? Actually, I don’t mind them.

  • I like the peace and quiet that they bring.

  • My dog doesn’t bark at every person hiking by my house.

  • I don’t get woken up in the night by loud shrieks.

  • There’s less car traffic, albeit more cow and tractor traffic.

  • Fewer drivers who don’t know the right-of-way rules nor know how to drive backwards on the Grubenstrasse.No lines of cars in the tunnel.

  • Plenty of space in the COOP parking lot.

  • No reservations necessary in restaurants (my favorites are the ones open year-round).

  • Local friends have time to say hello, drink a coffee and chat.Local friends have employment: they manage, maintain, clean, improve, and secure these properties.

  • Empty chalets represent tax revenue for the commune and the canton, lessening all of our burdens.

  • When chalet owners come, they spend tons of money and sponsor events like the Menuhin Festival.

The most significant negative I see is the heavy carbon footprint these empty chalets represent, seeing as large spaces and indoor pools are heated year-round. But unless I can stop driving cars or going on holiday, I can’t really point a finger.

Should these empty chalets start costing us collectively, the commune could levy a tax on empty secondary homes as is done in the UK to fund housing projects and ailing infrastructure.

When I asked my teenage daughter her opinion, she said: “Empty chalets are a little creepy… but at least they are well maintained.”