It seems impossible to discuss Lake Como without mentioning its most famous resident. But long before George Clooney purchased a lakeside villa, Lake Como was the glamorous holiday spot of Italians in the know.
It's not hard to see why. The 28-mile-long, Y-shaped lake in Lombardy, northern Italy, is surrounded by green mountains, creating dramatic panoramas.
While the glamorous image of Lake Como remains, it is no longer the preserve of the wealthy. It is easily accessible and new-build properties are providing a more affordable entry to holiday home ownership. A modern, two-bedroomed flat with stunning views of the lake in Argegno, an hour from Milan airport, can be had for less than €250,000.
The Lake Como area property market slowed during the recession but prices remained stable. According to James Price, the head of international residential development at Knight Frank: "Lake Como has fared much in the same way as other prime European markets; the best-located properties remain sought after and largely owners can hold for prices as they are not in need of rapid sales.
"It benefits from having a wide range of interest from well-heeled Italian families, UK and other north-west European buyers, the US and, increasingly, more discreet and discerning Russians. Prime spots remain lakefront, in particular on the west coast areas in the Cernobbio, Moltrasio and Menaggio stretch and on the eastern side but closer to Como town."
Finding the right property
Location has a big impact on price. Starting at the south-western tip of the lake at the city of Como, up the western coast to the bend of the upside-down Y, is the prime territory. According to Paul Belcher, the managing director of Lake Como property search firm Ultissimo, there are several reasons for this.
One is accessibility: Como is 10 minutes from the motorway that links Milan and its airports with Switzerland, and from there, there is a road that runs in the hills above the lakeside villages, allowing you to reach Argegno (the village at that bend in the lake) in 20 minutes. Along the way are the villages of Cernobbio, Laglio and Brienno. Much beyond Argegno and travel becomes difficult. The story is the same on the eastern shore: one narrow road, which is usually slow moving.
Many places are short on sunshine, as steep mountains run down to the lake, but the western shore gets the most light. Smart house-hunters will view a property at different times of day to see how it catches the sun.
There are more properties on the western shore to choose from, but this can also mean less space. Property-seekers should beware of houses built close to the busy perimeter road that can spoil the Lake Como idyll with traffic noise.
For British house-hunters, there are some characteristics of Italian properties they may find unusual. Because the Italian equivalent of surveyors are allowed to design properties up to three storeys without an architect, some properties do not make the most of their setting or are oddly laid out. Also, swimming pools are not as important to Italians as they are to British buyers, and do not massively increase house prices. However having a pool does increase rental prices – by about 40 per cent – so finding a property with space to put a pool is a good idea for house-hunters planning to let their property. Parking is also at a premium.
With all of these issues to keep in mind, finding a property in Lake Como can be difficult. This is not helped by the local aversion to "for sale" signs; local sellers tend to be discreet when advertising their homes (if they advertise at all) and working with an estate agent is necessary to access many properties.
Pricing can vary wildly, with the same property viewed through different agents offered at very different prices. It is important to ask what may feel like obvious questions. Is the garage included in the price? Does the size quoted include outside space such as terraces? With new-build properties, the price often does not include the kitchen fittings.
Mr Belcher from Ultissimo says: "Buying in Italy is labelled as complex and it is commonplace for purchasers to fail to reach completion. Our clients report a totally different experience." Working with someone who understands the local system can save headaches. Mr Belcher adds: "We explain the process and the costs early on to clients, and we adopt an approach which is significantly different from the typical Italian process."
Ultissimo charges an advisory fee of 3 per cent (the minimum a local estate agent will charge). For this, the company will – in addition to tracking down a property – help you to find a lawyer, get financing if necessary, obtain your Italian tax code and get you better exchange rates than you are likely to get through a bank.
Maximum loans from Italian banks on property are usually 50 to 60 per cent of the buying price for second homes and nearer 75 to 80 per cent if the property is your main residence, for terms of 10 to 15 years. For a €250,000 property you can get a fixed rate of 3.85 per cent with 80 per cent loan to value. Notary fees usually amount to 2.5 to 4 per cent of the declared land value.
Death and taxes
When you buy a property in Italy, you may pay value added tax (VAT) if it is new-build, although this should be included in the purchase price. VAT is 9 per cent for non-luxury property and 19 per cent for luxury property. If VAT is not applied, the all-purchase registration tax is 10 per cent.
As a non-resident property owner in Italy, you will be liable for income tax if you earn income from your property, but you can offset certain expenses against that income. The amount left is taxed at between 19 and 46 per cent, depending on the amount. You still have to declare that rental income as part of your worldwide income in your resident country, but double taxation relief exists so you won't pay taxes on it.
There is also an annual municipal property tax of 0.4 to 0.7 per cent of the official value of the property and some municipalities charge an extra fee for services such as rubbish collection. There are no capital gains or wealth taxes that apply to foreign-owned property, but resident and non-resident property owners are subject to Italian inheritance law.
While buying a house in Italy is more complicated than in the UK, the beauty of Lake Como and the ease of getting there from the UK should make up for any initial hassles. And for celeb-spotters, an apartment next door to Clooney's Villa Oleandra in Laglio is on the market for €850,000.