No wonder some people return from their own homes abroad more exhausted than when they left. Weeks spent laying a patio, to say nothing of the hours spent hunting down the plumber are hardly relaxing. Penny Jackson asks whether it is all worthwhile.

Despite the exhaustion, the picture of a derelict cottage in a lovely rural setting sets the imagination of the British buyer racing. Never mind the months of hard graft, nothing adds spice to a meal taken on vine- covered terrace like the recollection that it was painfully constructed from piles of farmyard rubble during a hot August.

The strength of sterling has reignited this passion for buying to restore, as well, of course, as attracting purchasers to trouble-free villas and apartments in developments. Since the pound is worth some 20 per cent more this year, for those hesitating about whether to buy abroad the green light will not get much greener.

But a note of caution should still be struck. "Many British buyers assume wrongly that they will benefit from capital growth in the same way as they would have done in this country," says David King of Hamptons International.

"It is worth remembering that the market all but collapsed in the Dordogne at the end of the Eighties because it was so dependent on British buyers. Paris, though, in which we are seeing an awful lot of interest, will always appeal to the French."

Clearly, the more international the attraction of a property the more secure the investment. "Generally, people hope to get their money back as far as covering inflation goes," says Paddy Dring of Knight Frank. "Anything more depends on the market. And where there is a good mix of nationalities buying, the more stable that market will be."

So will British owners of wrecks in areas such as Normandy and Tuscany be forever tied-in to the fortunes of the UK economy? Interestingly, Paddy Dring notes, when the market in France fell it merely stopped in Tuscany.

For all the tired epithets, the popularity of this part of Italy does illustrate a trend for places that offer more than sun and sand or complete rural isolation.

Robin Parr bought a Tuscan cottage on a hill for pounds 40,000 six years ago. It was overgrown, filled with rat droppings but had breathtaking views. While he has spent twice that amount on it, it would probably sell for about pounds 200,000 today.

"I set myself a one-and-a-half-hour travel rule and stuck to it," he says. "Within that time limit I can get to a ski resort, to the sea, go to two opera houses and see some beautiful church, garden or picture. The airports of Florence and Pisa are within an hour. Where else do you get that?"

Although used to doing up houses from a distance (the last in France) it has nevertheless been a huge challenge. "I wanted the restored house to look unrestored," Parr adds.

"The great thing is that there are always people happy to do something for you in return for a holiday. One couple crazy about each other wanted to get away, so spent six months there scraping down the walls. A piano tuner spent two weeks there and retuned my piano. A young garden designer has just returned from the house with plans in hand."

But the search for perfection in a second home is endless. Robin Parr carried his hand-beaten copper sink from Morocco, via London. The comfortable old sofas had to be brought over from England. Italy has chic designers but no junk shops, he finds.

As Parr soon learnt, planning restrictions are stringent. "Even the downpipes had to be copper. The demands of restoration mean that Italian craftsmen are about the most skilled I have ever worked with."

It is these tight controls imposed in the 1970s that has preserved the Tuscan landscape, unchanged and unscarred by modern villas. That is why old houses in Tuscany are expensive, explains Bill Thomson of Chianti Estates, which represents Knight Frank.

"The British started buying here when they realised that they could buy something staggeringly beautiful that would not be spoiled by development," he says. "A 17th century farmhouse on a hill with land bought 25 years ago for pounds 10,000 by people prepared to camp out and do it up gradually would now be worth pounds 1m. At that price, of course, they are different buyers now. They expect a better infrastructure, shops, restaurants and so on. Having said that, they are wealthy but not flashy."

Even allowing for price variations within Tuscany itself, several hundred thousand pounds is more than most can afford for a second home. With this in mind, Knight Frank is considering the sales potential of large farmhouses or hamlets divided into smaller more manageable units.

"We don't want to take the fun of restoring a house, but a lot of people do not have the money or time take on a large project themselves," Bill Thomson explains. "You would be surprised how many people buy a place, then find to their horror that there is no water supply or the road leading to it is private."

Chianti Estates: 0039 577 731 120; Robin Parr, who advises on restoration: 0171 404 1108; Banca Woolwich SPA in Milan for advice on mortgages and loans: 00 392 584881; International Property Show, 3, 4 & 5 Oct, Cumberland Hotel, London W1. Admission free. Details: 0171 735 8184.