Hidden delights in Tuscany

If you think you've missed the boat when it comes to the Italian market, don't despair, writes William Raynor
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The Independent Online
Some of the classified ads on the property pages seem to encapsulate terrestrial perfection: "Tuscany," to paraphrase, "idyllic farmhouse built round cool terracotta courtyard near medieval hillside town on south-facing slope amid olive groves, with own vineyard, nearest village 5 km, Siena 25 km; 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, huge kitchen and living room opening on to terrace with bougainvillaea, fig trees and spectacular view down valley to ..."

And then, wondering why there's no mention of a pool, or any of the various abbreviations which denote mod cons like electricity or hot and cold running water, you come upon "needs restructuring", or words to that effect. Then you reach the price, a six-figure sum you suspect you'd at least have to double if you were ever to live in and enjoy this wonderful place - or get others to pay you handsomely every summer for the privilege of treating it as their own for a week or two.

What do you do next? Plough on? Or accept that you may have left it several years too late to buy into what the Brits have colonised as "Chiantishire"? And so, to get away from your compatriots, you start looking elsewhere.

For most Brits thinking of buying or renting property in Italy, it does in practice tend to boil down to Tuscany. Reading some of the travel and holiday pieces in the Sunday press, one might be forgiven for thinking that every other house in the campagna there has been bought and restored by an Anglo-Saxon absentee.

But in fact the numbers are comparatively small, the Anglos accounting for perhaps 40 per cent of the foreigners, but not enough to justify regular property magazines for potential sellers and buyers - as in the French and Spanish markets - or to support more than one or two outposts of the big UK estate agencies and a smattering of property-finding and maintenance specialists on the ground.

So, in what has been dubbed "hidden Italy", there are parts even of Tuscany which have hidden delights for many more potential buyers. Antonio "Nino" Lamborghini who, in spite of his evocative name, speaks from the environs of Milton Keynes, says: "There are English buying around Lucca [north- west of Florence, beyond Pisa] and in the Garfagnana to the north who don't want to mix with other English or have tea at each other's places, but want to speak Italian and pay a lot less than in Chiantishire."

And, he says, they can. Before what he calls the "crisis" (the recession), he used to have a "consistent business" selling property in that area to Britons. But now, acting for people he knows, he has options to sell a dozen or so different properties ranging from pounds 24,000 for a five-room stone house needing renovation in a village towards Bagni di Lucca, to pounds 74,000 for a renovated farmhouse high in the mountains, near skiing, with two large bedrooms.

"On the east side of Lucca, within 15 kilometres, in the hills," Mr Lamborghini says, "you can add a nought to the prices because the properties tend to be bigger and everyone wants to be there. But the point is you can still pay less than six figures for something with four bedrooms, put in a swimming pool and, at the end of the day, if you want to let the place, get almost the same money as if you'd spent twice or three times that."

He doesn't handle lettings, but says he knows of a farmhouse with a pool, four bedrooms and two bathrooms whose owners charge pounds 1,500 a week in high season and pounds 1,100 in mid, and find tenants for 20 to 25 weeks a year.

"At the end of the day, having spent pounds 150,000 to buy the place and get it properly equipped, they can make pounds 20-25,000 a year, whereas someone who's paid Chianti prices may get pounds 2,000 a week, if they're lucky," he says. "What matters is the return you get per brick, and consistency for letting. Occupancy rates are better inland than at the seaside because the seaside shuts down after a shorter season, and shops and services inland keep going all the year round."

His views on "return per brick" are broadly echoed by William Thompson of Chianti Estates, which is based in Gaiole, north of Siena, and acts as the Tuscan arm of Knight Frank International. But, as he's selling at what he says is "very much the top end of the market" - nothing much now for less than pounds 500,000 after restoration - ratios of rental income to capital investment may not be such a critical consideration.

"The state of the market now is very interesting," he says. "For three or four years, it was dominated by Germans, who until a year ago had a strong exchange rate advantage over the lira. When that went, they stopped buying, and now the British have an extraordinary advantage over the lira, standing at 10-15 per cent above what it was."

Conveniently, that increase pretty well soaks up the increase in the prices over the past two years. "Even so," Mr Thompson says, "there are very few Britons who live here full-time, a lot who own properties which are very out of the way, so not the awful, touristy sort of presence some of the publicity might lead you to believe. Contrary to myth, you're most unlikely to meet 15 other Brits down at the local bar trying to get a copy of a UK newspaper."

Americans are also taking an interest. "We've been getting a lot of enquiries from them, and made a couple of important sales during the last year of pounds 1m-plus,'' he says.

So, are the Americans going to start forcing prices up? "No," he says. "International property markets tend to move much more slowly than national ones, and anyone here wanting to sell to a foreign buyer realistically has to allow the best part of a year. Getting brochures done and people out to see the place can be a long process."

To anyone thinking of buying, his advice is straightforward. Pick your area carefully, talk to people and get the feel of it, don't stop until you find exactly what you want - and remember that as a foreign owner, often of what was once an important house, you'll have a responsibility towards a living community. So be prepared to try to learn the language, cultivate the land, and employ local people wherever possible.