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Renovating in Tuscany and Umbria - featured in Homes Worldwide Magazine

February 18th 2006

Restoring a property in Tuscany and Umbria may sound romantic but Mark Slaviero from Homes in Italy highlights the reality of taking on a project and the considerations you should be making…

Tuscany and Umbria have been popular regions for some time and attract large numbers of travellers from the UK with very good reason. Both regions offer a rich combination of culture, historic cities, antiquities, agreeable climates and friendly locals. There is also a great mixture of coastline, lakes, mountains, countryside and beautiful towns and cities such as Florence, Siena, Assisi, Todi, Orvieto, Cortona, Lucca and Montepulciano.

Property prices in these regions are on average higher than other central and Southern regions but prices do vary, so it is essential to choose the right location. Some parts of Tuscany are horrendously expensive. Florence and Siena, for example have never been cheap. As you would expect, with many International stars already owning homes here, you should expect to pay anything from £300,000 upwards for a renovation project here. Slightly south of Arezzo, you will encounter the charming hill-town of Cortona, which is attractive to buyers due to its proximity to Umbria and Lake Trasimeno and farmhouses requiring renovation start from £200,000. Those searching on a slightly stricter budget need to take a look at the area north of Arezzo, the Casentino. This is more forest than vineyard but has many delightful little towns such as Chiusi della Verna and Poppi. Farmhouses requiring renovation start from £150,000. There are still some bargains to be had, but you really have to look in the northern parts of the region for the prices to start to drop. The Garfagnana offers pretty stone villages perched on hilltops and it is possible to acquire village properties needing some work from around £40,000 or less.

Prices in Umbria also vary considerably. Farmhouses are among the most reasonable in Lake Trasimeno, where prices start from £100,000. Smaller village properties can also be found in this area from around £50,000. Prices then start to rise around Orvieto, and Todi but there are a good selection of farmhouses in these areas, where prices can start from £200,000.

As you can see, Italian properties can be found at attractive prices in an unrestored condition and this has allowed many buyers to achieve their dream home at a more competitive price and also achieve a good return on their investment. The price does however come with a tag. You have to understand that renovating in Italy differs from the UK. Each region has its own local laws, which can affect your plans to renovate. Also, this is all going to take place in Italian, which is a language that most overseas buyers are not familiar with and in a country that is hundreds of miles from where you live and work. Many people do go on viewing trips to Italy and leave their minds in the UK, making quick decisions without looking at all angles.

First and foremost, it is important to establish a budget. Buying property abroad is a big financial commitment and it is very important to be realistic about your financial limitations. The costs of buying the property need to be seriously considered. Don’t push yourself to the limit, as the property that you are going to buy, should be a pleasure and an achievement, rather than a financial burden. Renovations often run over budget due to unforeseen circumstances and to unrealistic initial estimates from third parties, so it is important to build in a contingency fund of 10 – 15% for any unwanted surprises. This will assist both your bank balance and blood pressure.

It may be difficult to obtain a mortgage for your renovation. The Banca Woolwich for example, which is part of Barclays, usually lend 70% when a property is fully renovated but will only lend money on a ‘work in progress’ basis, meaning that you require cash for the purchase and initial stages of renovation.

In Italy you will find that you are given a price per square metre to renovate and this varies from province to province in Tuscany and Umbria. In some northern areas of Tuscany, this can be as low as 700 Eur per sq. m. or as high as 1,000 Eur in the more popular central areas around Siena for example. The price quoted is usually for the property to be in a habitable state, which includes all external work, window, doors, plastering, tiles, plumbing, heating and bathroom furniture. It does however exclude the kitchen as with Italian new build properties as Italians are generally very particular about this room in the house, as it is such an important part of their life.

The price per sq. m. also varies according to the condition of the property and a good solid structure could bring the cost down to as little as 450 Eur per sq. m. Also the building materials used can affect the price. Brick construction can be on average a third less expensive than restoring in stone. If you are wanting expensive fixtures and fittings, then expect to pay extra.

One thing to ask yourself when renovating is if you need the complete space of the property. A 400 sq. m farmhouse for example is enormous project and you could easily leave the attic space and create cellars or storerooms on the ground floor to reduce the overall budget.

‘Al Grezzo’ is also an important term to learn in Italian, It means that it is possible to have the property restored to a sound condition but as a shell. You will then have to install the windows, doors, tiles, plumbing, electricity etc. This way you may be able to reduce the costs and manage the choice and finish more accurately.

When renovating a property whether it a farmhouse of townhouse, you will need to consider the building costs, the costs of the architect (there will usually be a charge for initial plans and liaising with the local Comune, Town Council), IVA (Italian VAT), which is normally charged at 20% but is currently 10% until 31st December 2004 on renovation projects and additional little charges such as changing the use of the property from its agricultural classification to domestic dwelling. This can alone be between 1,500 Eur and 4,000 Eur. It is important to establish if you are going to pick up the cost of this or if the vendor will agree to do so. If so, this can be part of the sale agreement and written into the Compromesso and the transaction is usually carried out before the final contact (Rogito).

There are usually other costs that you may not budget for initially, so it is imperative to find out exactly what is included in the price that you have been quoted. Italians can often be vague and you will not always be given a lot of detail, so don’t be surprised if you only see one side of A4. You should allow for the cost of upgrading access roads, if required. Improving a road can cost 35 Eur per metre, which may not sound a lot until you consider a 700-metre access road, can cost 25.000 Eur! This type of road is fairly simple; the ground is levelled and white stones are laid on top. If other properties are using these roads for right of way, then the neighbours should contribute. In reality, it can be difficult to put this into practice as many are farmers and will have no real benefits from improving access.

People renovating properties often overlook the outside space as views in Tuscan and Umbria can be spectacular. Landscaping can also be a drain on the budget and terracing, walls and Cypress trees don’t come for nothing. A swimming pool can cost from 10,000 Eur upwards a good quality pool will set you back at least 25.000 Eur.

The majority of English buyers are interested in farmhouses (Case Coloniche) as they epitomise the escapism of living in rural Italy. Finding such a property is the easy part but renovating it can be another matter. Most people find the buying process itself a stressful experience, especially when buying in an unknown territory such as Italy. Add to this the prospect of renovation, then this can be a lot to take on for many people and the dream holiday home can soon turn into a nightmare.

It is imperative to find a local Geomettra or architect, who can help with the project and give you valuable advice. Your estate agent should be able to suggest someone or also try asking people in the area who have carried out work and are pleased with the result. A good UK based agent should be able to assist you and even arrange for an on-site meeting with technical support before you make important decisions.

It comes as no surprise that many people are looking for some sort of income from the property as a typical property can be rented during a 5-month period. In sought after locations such as the area around Siena, income on a typical 3 bedroom property can be more than £1,000 in the height of season. In addition to renovating outbuildings, if they exist, people are being more creative about the division of the space in the main property. A large farmhouse could be split into different sections, using the front and back to provide privacy from paying guests. Many Tuscan and Umbrian farmhouses have an external staircase and diving the property into two apartments, one on each floor is also fairly popular. Ask again for advice but it may be possible to build a staircase if it is not currently part of the structure.

Due to the rigid building laws, it is usually only existing buildings that are renovated or extended, which means that the views from a property will not be ruined by a new build or development. You may not always get what you want but a good architect should be able to offer suitable alternatives. A Loggia or covered terrace may need to be narrower than expected or you may not even be able to add one externally due to the size restrictions of the building. You may however be able to create a first floor version by cutting a section into the building on the first floor. You may even be able to reduce the space of an outbuilding or annex to increase the size of the main house.

You should always check the plans during the purchase process as many have discovered additional outbuildings, which no longer exist. If these are listed, then there will be no problem in building these again or using their volume for other purposes.

It is important to visualise what you are trying to achieve when embarking on the project and translate this to the architect. Many problems arise when people lose sight of their initial goals. Constantly changing plans is going to delay the process (and be a cost), as this will require multiple visits to the Commune to agree modifications.

Always be precise on what you want as your technical person will not be able to read your mind and ask for examples, so that you can choose the spec from radiators to tiles and taps.

Time is also an important element. You will need to establish how much time you can devote to the project and how hand-on you are prepared to be. A project Manager will usually be the best route as it will be difficult to co-ordinate sun contractors if you are not in Italy and even if you are there, you will find that many do not speak English. Usually there is no better person than the architect to project manage as they devised the plans and will understand the project. Expect to pay around 10% of the total build cost for this pleasure. They will usually send you progress reports with pictures but you will still need to keep an eye on what is happening.

If you are a fan of DIY, then you may wish to undertake some of the work yourself to reduce the overall costs of the project. Please remember what the purpose of the property is as you may soon find that your dream home may turn into one long working holiday. It is also easy to bite off more than you can chew, so it is important to ask yourself if you are up to plastering, electrics, plumbing, etc. Also the work carried out does need to comply with Italian law and you may be fined if you try to install your own boiler without the correct registered engineer. Using a building company to complete the work will be the easiest of options and your architect should already be working with local companies and should assist to find a reputable builder. Ask for a couple of quotes for the job with identical briefs to see how each potential supplier compares.

Payment is usually in stages, which suits both parties and the final payment comes when you are sure that everything works and has gone according to plan. People usually want to put penalties in the contract for not completing on time and as you can imagine, this does not go down well in the Italian building world. Incentives to complete on schedule are often more productive and you can start on a more positive footing with your builders.

Also be realistic about timescales. If you are pushed for time, then this may not be the best option. The buying process itself can take from 4 to 12 weeks. You will need to allow between 8 and 16 weeks for planning permission depending on the location and Commune that the property falls under. And after all these hurdles, in Italy good builders are booked up well in advance. Also be patient; Italy usually come to a standstill in August, so don’t be shocked if you turn up on site and only find a stray dog and not a builder in sight!

Renovating is not going to be easy; so for those wanting a stress free holiday home, walk away now! However it does not have to end up on a television programme highlighting disasters if you follow these simple steps; establish a budget and stick within it boundaries, constantly visualise what you are trying to achieve, be realistic about timescales, source a Geometra or Architect who you are comfortable with and who understands your vision and find a building company that has a good reputation and that you have seen examples of their work.

Think about the scale of project that you are prepared to take on. What are starting to become popular are village properties to renovate. These are generally smaller projects than the typical farmhouse and can be excellent first projects for those looking for something on a smaller scale.

If you are buying with a view to making a profit, then this can be achievable but make sure that you have analyses prices in the market and the renovation costs carefully as some renovations can prove more costly than buying already finished. Make sure that you don’t do a lot of hard work for very little return.

If you come through the process without any problems or surprises, then it will be a miracle. The important thing though to remember is that many people are carrying out projects in Tuscan and Umbria every year and are succeeding. Architecturally Italy is one of the most beautiful countries and Tuscany and Umbria are certainly popular regions that stand out against the rest. Once renovated farmhouses and townhouses in these areas can be a sound investment – in addition to the hard work, renovating can be a rewarding and pleasurable experience, especially if you enter the project with your head as well as your heart!



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