Imagine that the Isle of Wight was an hour from London, and that, instead of just one island, there were thousands. Imagine old-fashioned ferries with velvet-lined wooden seats that delivered you right to the middle of the capital. Imagine beautiful people, wooden houses and mostly empty beaches. Sounds good? So what could be better than a holiday home in the Stockholm archipelago?
Think of Sweden and you may well think of a cold place where people eat herring and meatballs (not together) and take saunas (together). Yet there is so much more to the country, and the archipelago is the star attraction. Its 24,000 islands stretch 40 miles into the Baltic Sea, from Stockholm to Sandhamn, the easternmost island, and 60 miles north to south, from Roslagen, a community of tiny isles, to Landsort.
One active group of British property buyers in the archipelago are described by Johan Vogel, who part-owns the Sjonara estate agency, as “foreign Swedes”. “They all live in London,” he says, “but they buy summer houses here.” Others are discovering its magic: Andrew Pattie, 40, a music producer from London, is living in Stockholm temporarily while working on a musical. He paid 1.63m kronor (£120,000) three months ago for a three-bedroom cottage on Varmdo, one of the largest islands in the central archipelago, where Ulrika Jonsson, the Swedish-born television presenter, has a second home. It is 90 minutes by boat from Varmdo to the city, or 20 minutes by car – many of the larger islands are connected to the mainland by bridges.
“I was visiting friends and saw the house in an agent’s window,” Pattie says. “It’s a classic Swedish summer cottage: small, red, with an outside loo, although I am planning to change that. Then I’ll put in a sauna, which should be ready for those dark winter afternoons.”
The one-storey home sits on half an acre, with sea views. It has an open-plan kitchen/dining area, two bedrooms, a bathroom and sitting room; the beach is a 10-minute walk away. “I am thrilled with it,” Pattie says, “and when I take the musical elsewhere, I’ll let it out.”
Finding tenants shouldn’t be difficult.
“There is always a lot of interest in the archipelago,” says Magdalena von Rosen, who runs Stockholm Skargards-stugor, a lettings agency. The summer rentals market, from June until the end of August, is the most profitable. “Prices vary enormously, but with a sea view, you can double your money.”
Pattie’s inside lavatory will also be a draw, as it is common in many sommar-stug (summer houses) to find them outside; some houses still lack running water. They are simple wooden structures, painted red or yellow, and were originally small – up to 80 square metres. More traditional versions have tiled ovens and wooden beds built into the kitchen walls. The archipelago is one of the most popular areas in which to own a summer house: Bjorn Borg, the tennis great, has a waterfront home on one of the islands; Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote many of Abba’s hits at a summer house on Viggso. Ulvaeus now owns two properties there.
Among the inhabitants of Vaxholm, linked by bridge to the mainland, but only an hour away by boat, are Laurence McDonald, 44, an Irish financier, and his Swedish wife, Erika, 43, a marketing consultant. They have lived in Stockholm for 15 years. In 2005, they paid £170,000 for a property with a boathouse attached. Though barely habitable, it sat virtually on the water, in an area that has since banned building near the shoreline. The couple have spent £33,000 turning the property into a two-storey open-plan home with two self-contained sections – ideal for renting or for guests. In total, it has five bedrooms, two kitchens, an office and two reception rooms; eventually, a staircase will link the sections.
The couple spend as much time as possible there, with their sons, Samuel, 11, and Markus, 8. Laurence can commute to work by ferry. “It’s a great feeling getting the boat after work,” he says. “You sit down in the bar, have a beer and head out to the archipelago in a very relaxed mood.”
There are downsides. Ferries stop early each night, and water taxis cost about £35 for a 10-minute trip; any workmen you might need to employ will have to travel out on them. “And there’s no chance of the plumber, the electrician and the carpenter waiting around for each other to get in the same taxi,” Laurence observes.
Most Britons who have bought in Sweden have personal ties there, but this is changing. In 2004, Simon Wilkinson, 42, and his wife, Kate, 38, of Woodford, in Cheshire, bought a three-bedroom, 1920s house on Dalaro, a 75-minute high-speed ferry ride from Stockholm, for £250,000, having fallen in love with the area during a visit. “It is the most tranquil place in the world,” Kate says. “We love it. When we get there, we just cycle and relax. I could happily live there.”
They and their children, Jack, 15, Max, 12, and Darcey, 6, visit as often as possible. “So far this year, we have spent about three months there,” Kate says. “Simon and I are both in the telecommunications business and can work from anywhere, which is really lucky. We had a house in Spain, but we found that being with about 10,000 other Brits wasn’t what we wanted.”
They spent £45,000 on rewiring and installing a new kitchen, a new bathroom and central heating, which they estimate has doubled the value of the property. “It’s been the most wonderful investment,” Kate says. “I would highly recommend a holiday home in Sweden, but you should bide your time if you’re buying on the archipelago. The really great waterfront properties are normally handed down from generation to generation, so they don’t often come up.” Buying can be competitive: closed bids may be sought within days of an viewing open day. But offers are not legally binding, and you can pull out, as the Wilkinsons did with an earlier purchase of land they were considering. “It was partly the price that put us off,” says Kate, “but getting a builder at the moment is tough, too, as there is so much work going on.”
Ann Nystrom, a consultant with the estate agency Per Nystrom, says that prices vary depending on size and location, but are rising steadily. Vogel claims they have jumped 20% in the past year, thanks to interest rates of 4%-5% and growing interest in property investment. There seems to be a cutoff point, however. “Properties on sale for £500,000 or more seem to stick,” says Nystrom. “Either they are too big, or there is too much land or maintenance. I have several properties on my books in that price range that won’t budge.”
One property that will surely sell is Villa Hjorthagen, on Edlunda, on the market with Vogel for £661,000. If you want to live the Swedish dream, this is the place: a two-storey, six-bedroom house, it sits on a hill overlooking the water and has a sauna, tiled stoves, wooden floors and wood-panelled walls, with blueberries and birch trees in the garden.
So, how easy is it to buy in Sweden? There are no restrictions on foreign ownership and the banks will lend to Britons – normally up to 75% of the value of the property. There are daily flights from the UK to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, and Ryanair flies to Skavsta, 60 miles south, and Vasteras, 60 miles west.
On the other hand, there’s the weather. Swedish winters are long, dark and cold. As the owners of a home on Grinda, one of the inner islands, says, “When we come for Christmas, we turn on the heating. It takes a week to warm the house up, then it’s time to leave.” The summer is unpredictable. It can be glorious or ghastly; cold and rainy for days. But you can always hang out in the sauna.
Ann Nystrom, 00 46 8 542 47062, www.pernystrom.se. Johan Vogel, 00 46 8 522 34800, www.sjonara.se
Anyonefor a sauna?
Two private islands, connected by a small bridge, with a five-bedroom house in an isolated setting on one. It has views across the strait between Lidingo and Djursholm, two of Stockholm’s poshest suburbs, plus two berths for yachts and a private beach. For sale for £1m, with Private Islands Online; 00 1 647 477 5581, www.privateislandsonline.com
A new three-bedroom house with a separate three-bedroom guesthouse on Bjorko, off Dalaro, with views to Nynashamn (a stopoff for cruise ships). There is permission to build an outdoor sauna. For sale for £920,000, with Castelli & Co; 00 46 8 662 1410, www.castelli.se
A large, airy modern house with four bedrooms and three reception rooms in Edlunda (also known as East Granholmen), 15 minutes by boat from Vaxholm. For sale for £589,000, with Skargards Maklarna; 00 46 8 792 0080, www.skargardsmaklarna.com
Three cottages, one with three bedrooms, one with a dining and sitting room and one with a sauna, on the island of Haro, at the far east of the archipelago, near Sandhamn. For sale for £220,000, with Skargards Maklarna, as above.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019