Buying Overseas: On the waterfront

George Clooney may be a regular visitor, but the glorious Italian lakes aren't just the preserve of millionaires, says Laura Latham
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The Italian lake district, just north of Milan, has always attracted the rich and artistic. Everyone from Byron to D H Lawrence, Elizabeth Taylor to Donatella Versace has enjoyed the beautiful shores, mountain backdrops and clean air of lakes Garda, Maggiore, Lugano and Como.

However, nothing has excited the celebrity-watchers quite as much as the presence of George Clooney, who owns a villa in the town of Laglio, on the shores of the beautiful Lake Como. Although he bought his palatial pad several years ago, it's still one of the most talked-about events here, and has pushed desirability and property prices up several notches.

You're now unlikely to find a villa with direct access or uninterrupted views of any of the four major lakes for much less than £5m. However, if you do want to follow in Clooney's footsteps, there are still pockets where attractive apartments and even small houses can cost under £250,000.

Linda Travella, of the regional specialist Casa Travella, advises buyers on lower budgets to look at areas that are less popular with the rich Milanese. "The Piedmont side of Lake Como is more sought-after than the Lombardy side," she explains.

Travella has a wide mix of property around Lake Como, with decent two- and three-bed apartments with good lake views usually costing from around £250,000, while larger homes with three or more bedrooms cost from £400,000 to well over £3m, depending on location. However, she also has some real finds, including a two-bedroom house in the attractive town of Tremezzo for £112,500, and nice apartments near the shore for around £130,000.

The situation is the same with regard to stunning Lake Maggiore, according to Travella, who recommends those with smaller budgets take a look at less well-known towns such as Maccagno, Pino and Lunio, where prices are more reasonable and studio apartments can cost from £120,000.

Lake Garda is another honeypot destination, but Sarah Ferrara, of Garda Homes, advises buyers not to be put off by the sky-high prices of popular towns such as Salo and Desenzano. "Generally, around £80,000 to £100,000 is the absolute minimum, usually for a small studio or resale apartment that needs modnising," says Ferrara, "and two bedroom apartments with shared pool and lake views will cost from £160,000."

Unlike other areas of Italy, new-build is popular around the lakes. This is partly because character properties are expensive and rarely come on the market, and because of the desire for contemporary styling and facilities. However, much new development is in former brownfield sites, so it doesn't impact on the landscape as much as it might, and prices remain affordable.

Apartments in the award-winning Golfo Gabella, a former farm on the shore of Lake Maggiore, for example, are selling from under £150,000 through Pure International. The company also has apartments in Regina Residences, a stone's throw from Clooney's Como home, from £224,000.

Pure's Sean Collins says that typical buyers are those with a passion for the lakes rather than buy-to-let investors. However, should you wish to rent your property, he says that it's possible to make £1,000 per week in high season.

If you love the lakes but want to escape the tourists and celeb-spotters, there are still pockets that will give you a taste of real Italian life. Paul Hudson of the The Property Finders specialises in Italy and often points buyers in the direction of smaller lakes, such as Orta or Iseo. A new one- or two-bedroom property with garden and lake view on Iseo would cost around £160,000, while villas with three or four bedrooms can be found from £240,000. Sometimes there are also renovation projects for as little as £150,000, and although these are usually a kilometre or so inland, they can still offer stunning vistas.

All of which shows that, while we may not all have the deep pockets of Clooney and co, there's nothing to stop us having a taste of la dolce vita.

Garda Homes: 00 39 334 397 3375 Casa Travella: 00 44 1322 660988; The Property Finders: 00 44 7905 557170; www.theproperty Pure International: 00 44 (0) 20 3031 2860;

Buyers' guide

*Average appreciation in Italy has been around six to nine per cent per annum, though the lakes have seen increases of 10 to 15 per cent in the past two years.

*If you plan to rent your property, you could expect an annual yield of around five per cent, with the main season lasting from June to September.

*Rental income will be taxed at between 19 and 46 per cent, but you can reduce the amount by reclaiming the cost of the property's upkeep.

*Property purchase tax in Italy is currently three to 10 per cent, depending on whether it's a primary or second home. Prime Minister Berlusconi has pledged to abolish property taxes for first-time buyers, which should give the market a real boost.