First-time visitors to land-locked Umbria?affectionately known as ?the green heart of Italy??should not be surprised if the car-hire company at the airport insists that they hire a four-wheel drive vehicle: the region?s unmade ?white roads? are notorious. And as most of Umbria?s most enchanting villas and farmhouses are invariably perched on the top of a steep hill several kilometres from the nearest main road, a quick refresher-course in off-road driving is strongly recommended. Once there, however, the Umbrian idyll is everything it is cracked up to be.

From the point of view of the prospective property-owner, the great thing about Umbria is that there is little chance of the area ever being subjected to the kind of crass over-development which has disfigured so many lovely parts of southern Europe. Draconian planning restrictions ensure that redevelopment of the many derelict cottages and former farmsteads scattered among the hillsides must be carried out using only traditional materials, and?in principle, at any rate?any new buildings must follow the footprint of an existing historic structure. Such restraints, coupled with the difficulties posed by the terrain, mean that construction costs are high, but so are standards of craftsmanship and design. And a burgeoning rental market means that overseas buyers can be reasonably certain of a solid, long-term return on their investment.

James Price of Knight Frank?s international department (00 44 20 7629 8171) is handling the sale of a reasonably-priced collection of 51 newly restored and converted properties scattered across five different sites in the hills near the charming medieval town of Umbertide??an hour or so by autostrada from Florence airport, or a scary two hours from Forli?. All the properties have been sensitively renovated to a high standard, using local stone, terracotta flooring, oak timbers, and local marble for the bathrooms. Typically, apartment prices range from ?150,000 for one bedroom to ?430,000 for the larger units.

The first is in Scapecchio, set on a hillside north-east of Umbertide, and now fully competed. The development is centred on a medieval two-storey building with an additional building on a 17,000sq m plot. The development comprises nine apartments (five already sold) with private terraces and a communal swimming pool, and a detached house, the latter also sold.

Also completed is I Tufi, a two-storey building below the medieval hill-town of Montone, 5km north of Umbertide: most of the seven remaining apartments have terraces and the use of a communal swimming pool. Two detached houses are currently available. Prices range from ?177,000 to ?335,000.

Construction has started at La Chiocca, in the beautiful Niccone valley which divides Umbria from neighbouring Tuscany, with completion scheduled for spring 2006. Here, two substantial houses are being converted into five apartments, with shared use of the communal gardens and swimming pool. Prices of the four remaining apartments range from ?298,000 to ?358,700.

Development of the final two sites?Palazzetto a Cole and Campecolle Alto?is scheduled for completion in summer 2007. The former is spread across three buildings on a site to the west of Umbertide in the heart of the Niccone valley, and comprises 10 apartments, each having its own parking space and terrace/patio, and sharing the communal gardens and swimming pool. Prices range from ?147,900 to ?397,500.

Campecolle Alto is a cluster of six medieval farmhouses and annexes in a spectacular setting high in the Niccone valley. Here, 10 apartments and three detached houses are being created at prices ranging from ?235,600 to ?420,000. Each property will each have its own parking and terrace, and as with the other developments, they come with shared use of the communal gardens and swimming pool.