Rural retreat or town crash pad

Rural retreat or town crash pad

Not everyone wants the hassle of a renovation job in the countryside these days, so how do city homes compare with bucolic boltholes? Cathy Hawker reports

Whether it's a stone farmhouse hidden among leafy olive groves and vineyards or a roof top apartment overlooking a Romanesque square, finding a room with a view is easy in Italy. The land of Michelangelo and Canaletto specializes in both city and country cameos of breath-catching beauty.

For pioneering British property buyers in the 1970s and 1980s, the Italian countryside was the draw. Their dream, especially in Tuscany and Umbria, was a remote farmhouse crying out for renovation.

Today, however, second home buyers are increasingly seeing the attractions of a compact urban pad: being part of a vibrant community, close to the airport and oft en with no need for a car.

Catch an early-morning, low-cost flight from the UK, and by lunchtime you can be basking in sunshine, a glass of prosecco in hand, watching the street life of Florence or Palermo.

Italy's countryside offers beauty, privacy and peace, and a growing number of lock-and-leave renovation projects mean that it's easier than ever to find an affordable, low-maintenance home.

But with good rental returns, easy access to the countryside on Italy's impressive rail network, fabulous culture on tap, and a wide choice of property styles and prices, city living is winning new fans, too.

Pre-election uncertainty in Italy has given way to post-election paralysis and the already moribund domestic property market looks unlikely to recover any time soon. For foreign buyers, this creates interesting opportunities for country cousins and city slickers.

The North: The Lakes or Milan and Venice?

It's all about extraordinary views on Lakes Como and Maggiore in northern Italy, where rural homes provide spectacular water-filled panoramas. Expect to pay from €100,000 (£86,250) for a centrally located studio and €250,000 for two bedrooms around Menaggio or Lenno, says Linda Travella of Casa Travella.

That compares favorably with an urban apartment on the Lakes. Inside the city walls of Como, forty minutes from Milan, two-bedroom apartments cost from €400,000, or €350,000 in Verbania on Lake Maggiore.

"In Milan, two-bedroom apartments start from €500,000, but I think an apartment in a large town or city by the lake - like Como and Verbania - with easy access to the countryside is a better option," says Travella. "Properties are hard to source in Milan, where, in any case, we do not see a great deal of demand."

Clients choose cities or towns because they don't want to drive or because they like the convenience of shops and facilities on their doorstep, Travella says. She adds: "Part of the appeal in Italy is living in the historic centre among centuries-old architecture, but this does mean that outside space is difficult to find and comes at a premium."

That also applies 200 miles away in Venice, arguably one of the world's most beautiful and extraordinary cities. Property prices have flatlined over the past year, yet still average €10,000 a square meter in top-drawer San Marco. Sotheby's International Realty are selling a well-maintained one-bedroom apartment in a Grand Canal palazzo for €485,000.
Along with living in a city little changed for 500 years, the advantages of a Venice pied-a-terre include a rental season of at least 30 weeks each year, making a 5 per cent or 6 per cent rental yield possible, says Ann-Marie Doyle of Sotheby's.

Central Italy: Umbria and Tuscany vs. Lucca and Siena

Little has changed over the years in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, where our love affair with the dolce vita started. The towns and cities of central Italy are rather special, too: Lucca, the walled city within one hour of Pisa airport: Florence with its Renaissance treasures: pretty Siena, home to the annual Palio horse races, and Perugia, the medieval hilltop capital of Umbria.

Lynne Davie lives in the centre of Florence with her teenage son, and believes that the benefits outweigh the trials of city living in a tourist hotspot. "Parking is difficult, and the noise and heat in summer can be intense," she acknowledges.

"But Florence is a city with a village mentality. We walk everywhere, I know local shopkeepers well, and it's exciting to be part of such a vibrant city with plenty to do. I was careful to choose an apartment in a quiet square off the main tourist routes, but close to the car parks."

Florence property prices can reach €6,000 to €9,000 (£5,175 to £7,760) per square meter, reflecting its prestige, so for good value look to smaller towns in an area with excellent rail and road networks.

In Lucca, prices have fallen by 25 per cent from their 2008 peak, with two-bedroom apartments now costing from €250,000, compared with restored country property nearby starting from €350,000.

In Assisi, a Unesco Heritage Site, Cluttons Italy have a two-bedroom 13th-century townhouse with private gardens for €345,000, while in little known Norcia by Sibillini National Park in southern Umbria one- and two-bedroom restored apartments in a classic villa start from €110,000, with annual maintenance of €200.

Countryside property in this area isn't cheap, but developers are responding to demands for smaller, low-maintenance homes with interesting projects on former private estates.

Castelfalfi, forty minutes from Pisa, is an 800-year-old Tuscan village overlooking Volterra where the German travel group TUI are creating a golf and leisure resort with hotels, two golf courses, pools and restaurants, aimed at creating a regular rental income for homeowners. Apartments in the original borgo start from €230,000 through Knight Frank.

Further south, twenty minutes west of Siena, Castello di Casole is a 4,200-acre working estate based around a lavish newly opened hotel and spa. The restored stone farmhouses dotted around the estate start from €3,700,000 for whole ownership, and from a rather more affordable €435,000 for a twelfth fractional share.

Island life: rural Sicily vs. Palermo

Sicily is the Mediterranean's largest island, with a population of five million largely concentrated in the north-coast capital Palermo, and the towns of Catania, Messina and Syracuse. "The advantages of country living in Sicily are privacy and peace - Italian towns are notoriously noisy," says Ramsay Gilderdale of Modicasa.

"Town living, meanwhile, provides the convenience of fresh bread and a cup of coffee on your doorstep. If you live and work in the city, you can walk everywhere and save enough money to have a house in the country for when it all gets too much."

Sicilians do exactly that, many owning two homes but most preferring urban life, says Gilderdale. In Modica, in the south-east, it is common to have three homes, with families spending winter in the city, moving to the countryside in the spring, and then on to the seaside in July and August.

Prices in Palermo average under €2,000 (£1,725) a square meter, but can reach €4,000 for prime properties. Restored rural homes are harder to find than in towns, and new-build property is not permitted in many areas, as authorities aim to prevent overbuilding. Prices can go from nothing, just the cost of the transaction, up to town prices, according to Gilderdale.

Modicasa have a small masseria (farmhouse) outside Modica with four bedrooms and a further two rooms needing restoration, a barn, orchard and 2.5 acres of land for €350,000.

In the historic centre of Modica, a well-restored two bedroom two-floor terraced house with a small roof terrace is €60,000, also through Modicasa.


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