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Homes in Tuscany article - featured in Italia Magazine

February 18th 2006

Paying the price – can Tuscany still be a worthwhile option when looking to invest in Italy and does this region really live up to the hype? Mark Slaviero explores….

The English love affair with Tuscany has been going on for many years and more column inches have been devoted to this region of Italy than any other. Despite the fact that Le Marche, Puglia and Abruzzo have all had their fair share of publicity over the past couple of years, the Tuscan attraction shows no signs of slowing down or losing its eternal appeal, so what is the all the fuss about?

Tuscany has for some time been one of the first destinations to attract large numbers of travellers from the UK and with very good reason. From the visitors’ standpoint, the region offers a rich combination of culture, historic cities, antiquities, agreeable climate and friendly locals – it encapsulates everything that is beautiful about Italy. Many would argue that a lot of regions offer a similar mix, and although neighbouring regions share some of its similarities, it is evident that the combination of coastline, mountains, countryside and beautiful towns and cities such as Florence, Siena, Cortona, Lucca, Montepulciano (and we could go on) is hard to match.

It is important to look back at its history to understand how the region has developed into what it is today. Tuscany has in fact experienced a chequered and varied history over the centuries and has been invaded by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards. Its cities such as Lucca, Pisa, Siena and Florence were amongst the most important in Europe and history has left its mark in the form of magnificent gothic, Romanesque and renaissance buildings and works of art. Tuscany has also been home to some of Italy’s most talented artists and writers, such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dante. And it really is this rich mixture of art and history that defines Tuscany and sets it apart from its counterparts.

Something that you will find is that the regional landscape is very diverse, from the rolling hills and vineyards of the Chianti region around Siena to the rugged coastline around Argentario and the Apuan Mountains in the north.

The climate is good but it is worth bearing in mind that there are cold and wet winters in addition to the long hot summers. The spring is usually quite mild and pleasant but in the height of summer, it can be quite uncomfortable at times. Expect snow in the winter but generally on higher ground.

This is a region that is drenched in culture, so expect an array of festivals, especially in the summer months that range from simple flag waving village affairs to the world famous horse racing Palio in Siena and the Viareggio carnival.

Shopping is a favourite pastime in Italy and Tuscany offers great style and quality, especially in fashion, leather and also home design and furniture as well as antiques. For clothes shopping, Florence is second to none with fantastic boutiques and out-of-town designer outlets. Siena is also becoming a shoppers paradise but on a smaller and more gentile scale. Arezzo houses the largest outdoor antiques fair in its square and you can also find outdoor antique fairs in Lucca and other towns.

For those looking for nightlife, one is really restricted to the larger towns, where there is an abundance of bars and restaurants. For a more hectic night, then Florence and the buzzing coastline around Viareggio offer some great bars and clubs.

Italy is not known for its Golf but for Golf lovers, Tuscany really does steal the march with courses around Florence, Montecatini Terme, Punta Ala, Tirrenia and Orbetello amongst others. Other activities of interest include sailing and diving (especially along the more southern coastline around Argentario), horse riding and fishing.

An unmistakable ingredient in Tuscan life is its cuisine. Although Tuscany may not be regarded as one of the great culinary regions, it does offer good traditional food using fresh ingredients and is full of flavour. The region also produces some of the most famous wines in Italy, with Chianti being the most famous and Brunello di Montalcino being considered to be the best.

Tuscany is still the first place many UK buyers think of looking for a second home. For potential buyers, it does offer a great base for exploring neighbouring regions with cities such as Rome, and Bologna within easy reach. Unfortunately high demand for property and the introduction of low cost airlines has fuelled the property boom and prices have risen sharply, making property difficult to find in some areas. Pisa airport is the main International Airport in Tuscany and the number and diversity of flights has increased dramatically in recent years. The importance of the airport is reflected in the number of different carriers who fly to its terminal each year, which does offer the potential buyer the stability that some of the up and coming regions cannot and also a good choice of departure points from the UK. The lesser-used and almost unpronounceable Amerigo Vespucci airport in Florence also has possibilities from the UK, including an Italian version of a low-cost airline, Meridiana.

The property market is still fairly buoyant in Tuscany and recent statistics from the Federation of Italian Agents have showed that there was a 15% increase in prices in 2003 in the more popular areas of Siena, Arezzo and Florence. This compared to a national average of 8% is very encouraging. The statistics from the first part of 2004, showed more of a flat lining of prices in popular areas but growth in the newer and lesser-known areas of the north.

In spite of the staggering number of tourists each year to Tuscany, the region still manages to retain its individual charm and independence. Do not expect Satellite British Communities or huge tailor made and tasteless developments as they simply don’t exist and the rather strict planning laws aim to keep it that way, which is a good thing.

Recent television programmes have increased interest in the region in terms of purchasing property and many buyers still have the idealised vision of Italian rural society with its wine growing hills and olive groves. Reality does, however live up to the dream but at a price.

The majority of English buyers are interested in Tuscan farmhouses (Case coloniche) as they epitomise the escapism of living in rural Italy. Usually built in stone, these dwellings exemplify the ancient rural architecture of Tuscany and those that have been restored have generally been completed to a high standard using techniques that value the property and the environment. People looking for a renovation project may be disappointed as they are becoming increasingly difficult to find and renovation costs can be as high as 1,000 Eur per sq. m.

Some parts of Tuscany are horrendously expensive. Florence and Siena, for example have never been cheap and the stretch between the two, known to many as ‘Chiantishire’ has long been a haunt of the more affluent property buyers with its own fair share of celebrities, including Sting. It is worth noting that Chianti is not only popular with the British but also the Dutch, Swiss, Americans, French and Germans – this is an area where these people brought more money and the property prices inevitable shot through the roof. The presence of so much money has brought some pretensions to this enchanting region. That aside it still houses some of Tuscany’s most charming villages such as Castellina, Radda in Chianti and Gaiole. Slightly further to the West of Siena are some of Tuscany’s best-preserved medieval towns, such as Sam Gimignano and Colle di Val D’elsa.

As you would expect, with many International stars already owning homes here, you should expect to pay anything from £400,000 upwards for a renovated farmhouse here. One thing that you may notice is that there are a few ‘Borgo’ dotted on the landscape, which are either renovated forts or hamlets, with communal areas and swimming pools. These tend to be very well designed and rustic in style to blend in with the landscape and they will allow you to own a property within a more reasonable budget in the area. One-bed apartments start from £120,000 and expect to pay from £150,000 upwards for a two bed. Always check the maintenance costs when purchasing an apartment and with a description of what this includes.

Slightly south of Arezzo, you will encounter the charming hill-town of Cortona, where prices are starting to rise due to the release of the 2003 film ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’, which projected the town into the International spotlight. This area is also attractive to buyers due to its proximity to Umbria and Lake Trasimeno and farmhouses requiring renovation start from £200,000, renovated from £300,000. A one bedroom apartment in central Cortona can cost as much as £100,000.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, renovated from £250,000.

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. Many may have heard of Lucca, which is a jewel of a town and is completely enclosed within its famous walls. The rugged area to the north though is one of the lesser-known regions within Northern Tuscany and is called the Garfagnana. This area offers pretty stone villages perched on hilltops, especially in and around the towns of Bagni di Lucca and Barga. Although the area remains comparatively unspoilt and undiscovered (to the masses), it is not remote. It is a mere one hour’s drive from Pisa airport and forty minutes to the coast and offers some of the best prices in Tuscany. Properties do tend to be in mountain villages, so this may not be for those who have a fear of driving on winding roads or those with heart conditions. Here £75,000 would secure a typical three-bedroom village property with views. Neighbouring Lunigiana is also relatively inexpensive but you will find that this area also dispels one’s typical image of Tuscany, as you are more likely to find yourself immersed in mountains and forests than vineyards and olive groves.

Moving down to the Versilia coastline, you will find that property prices start to rise again, with modern coastal resorts such as Forte dei Marmi and Viareggio housing more new build properties and apartment blocks that attract mostly Italian buyers. Further South the coast is less commercial and more rugged around the island of Elba and Argentario but the Tuscan coastline does lack the lovely resorts found in Liguria and the pretty little fishing villages in the South of Italy.

Finding a property is the easy part. Securing it can be another thing. Owners can often be elusive and uncontactable and make sure that if you are looking to make an offer on a property, make it a sensible offer. The “flexibility” of the vendor depends also on his/her need to sell the property. Prices are generally negotiable to a certain extent, however, in recent years because of the high demand of properties both for living and as a form of investment, the margin for negotiation has been reduced. It is generally sensible to offer around 5%to 10% less and see how the vendor reacts.

The best way to proceed with a property purchase is to follow the correct procedure. It is vital to check that properties conform to building and urban regulation. Sometimes, it does occur that the building does not correspond with the details in the deeds. If you don’t speak Italian, then you do really need to find someone – an architect or a surveyor who also speaks the language. In central Italy, this is not really a problem but in the more remote areas where property prices are less, this could be an issue. If you are not using an intermediary, then you should think about gaining legal advice from the UK.

As with the overseas property market in general, you find that some buyers are retiring but we are seeing a new breed of English who are ready to escape the rat race in the UK, often with children and pets in tow. These buyers are generally searching for a home that can offer them some future earning in the way of lettings or even activity based holidays, such as painting, walking, etc.

Understandably, Tuscany does offer the potential buyer excellent rental opportunities. Tourism figures are still increasing due to the increase in low-cost travel to Pisa and each year the region attracts a staggering 31 million visitors a year. Buyers looking to rent can also look further than the UK, as the region is popular with American, Dutch and German tourists amongst others.

A typical property can be rented up to 5 months a year. 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.

For people looking to relocate to Tuscany, the region does really have all the amenities that one would require. There is a wealth of schools and higher education establishments, although for a decent International school, one is really limited to Florence or Rome. The Health Service in Italy is excellent and hospitals in Tuscany are on a par with the quality that you find in northern Italy. Shopping is still focussed on the individual small retailers but you will find out of town supermarkets.

Living in Tuscany can be as quiet or as busy as you want it to be. Obviously living in the heart of Florence is going to be hectic, like any other City (but beautiful at the same time) and living in a mountain village or in the middle of the countryside is going to be more peaceful.

Tuscany like the rest of Italy is really for those who want to be immersed in culture and become willing participants in Italian lifestyle and community. Yes there are some cosmopolitan renovated forts and hamlets, which represent a more transient approach but the real benefits will be gained through mixing with the locals.

One thing that will strike you is the warmth of these locals. If you are moving to a village, then you really must expect to be part of the community. You will find that Tuscans will be generally interested and curious about you. Expect invites to local feasts and festivals, as well as the odd occasional gift, which usually comprises of food or drink. Unlike many other countries, you will find that the locals usually welcome you to their land with pride that you have chosen their hometown.

What you will also find is a strong sense of family – if you are planning to come to Italy with children, you will find that they will be welcome almost anywhere. Another shock to the system is that most Italian children are well mannered and respectful, which is certainly something that is lacking in the UK today.

So, does Tuscany match the hype? Someone expecting unspoilt wilderness may have to look elsewhere; other regions are lusher, have higher mountain ranges and fertile valleys. The regions of the South offer better temperatures and overall, more unspoilt coastlines. For buyers interested in winter sports, then Tuscany may also not be the ideal option. There are two key ski resorts; one in Abetone (north of Lucca) and the other in Monte Amiata (East of Grosetto) but these are not comparable to the excellent resorts of the north of Italy.

Property prices are also on average higher than other central and Southern regions but what Tuscany does offer is a landscape that has the most lasting charm. It has an abundance of medieval towns that are second to none and a sheer beauty that it difficult to rival. A simple walk becomes a joy in these surroundings and you are faced with hundreds of years of civilisation. Strolling through medieval streets, you will fall upon endless art and architecture that is second to none.

It also offers buyers a sound and safe investment, if the property is right. Renting should not be a problem if the marketing is right and reselling property should also be easy, as the turnover of property in this region significantly higher than many others.

For a buyer looking to escape to Italy, without bumping into another English person, then parts of Tuscany may not be the right choice. It is still possible to escape the crowds but if you do buy in popular towns such as Siena or Cortona, then you have to expect that your corner of paradise will be invaded in the months of July and August. For others who understand that Tuscany’s eternal charm comes with a price, then the price is very much worth paying for.

Mark Slaviero is a Director of Italian property specialist Homes in Italy, Tel:0845 229 7075 e-mail: info@homesinitaly.co.uk web: www.homesinitaly.co.uk



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