A home in Italy can have many incarnations. It could be a penthouse overlooking Rome’s Spanish Steps, a grand seaside villa in northern Sardinia, or a graceful waterside palazzo in Venice, still redolent of the spices that built the city’s fortunes in the Middle Ages. But the two places that find the greatest favour with international second-home buyers are the sinuous, vine-encrusted hills of Tuscany, and the azure shores of the Alpine lakes. Such is their appeal that both areas have proved resilient to the international recession.

‘In this annus terribilis for the global property market, Italian real estate has held better and been more stable than the majority of large EU countries,’ says Jelena Cvjetkovic from Savills. ‘In major cities such as Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples, the volume of trading has slowed down, causing price declines of about 10%-20%. However, in the main coastal and mountain areas, the drop in transactions was more moderate, and prices fell by only 5%-10% on average compared to 2008, confirming the passion for holidays in Italy and quality of lifestyle.’

In particular, Tuscany’s rolling countryside, dotted with ancient pievi, medieval villas and forbidding cypresses, continued to exert a powerful appeal on the rural at heart. Demand for properties in the area remained active, according to Rupert Fawcett of Knight Frank, who reports that sales were up in 2009 over 2008. ‘There’s been a flight among buyers to tried and trusted areas, and we’ve seen an increase in both requests and sales, particularly in the Chianti region.’

Other agents, such as Andrea Colombo of Paolo Del Chicca Immobiliare and Roger Coombes of Cluttons Italy, report a drop in sales throughout the past two years but, comments Mr Coombes: ‘We’re now seeing a new spring: plenty of properties are coming onto the market, demand has picked up and there’s no shortage of offers.’

In western Tuscany, prices are somewhat cheaper, as long as you avoid the glitzy coastline and head deep into the countryside. Up in the chestnut-strewn mountains of Garfagnana, north of Lucca, the price differential with Chianti is so noticeable that it’s fuelling a new international appetite for the local stone casali and village homes, according to Mr Fawcett.

For a more traditionally Tuscan landscape, Mr Colombo suggests heading south to the countryside around Cecina and Guardistallo, in the Livorno province. This area combines the scenic beauty
of Chianti-gentle hills, vineyards, olive groves, ancient borghi-with accessibility, good infrastructure and proximity to the sea. ‘It has great transport links and looks similar to the Siena province, but with better prices and better weather, thanks to the nearby sea,’ Mr Colombo says.

That said, buyers shouldn’t expect extraordinary bargains anywhere in Tuscany. Historic homes, which make up a good proportion of Tuscan sales, are one of a kind, and their pricing usually escapes rigid market formulae. In addition, Italian vendors are generally averse to reducing their initial request, preferring instead to negotiate over an offer or postpone the sale. Foreigners are often more flexible from this viewpoint, but even they are unlikely to offer massive discounts, as there are very few distressed sales. As a result, ‘values have gone down by an average 10%-15%, and unrealistic requests meet with no success, but, generally, the market drop has affected sales rather than prices,’ says Mr Colombo.

Nor is this situation likely to alter in the near future. ‘Prices won’t change all that much,’ believes Mr Fawcett. ‘Some may be reduced, but it’ll be those that were of the “let’s see what happens” type getting down to their true value. Confidence is coming back and buyers are out there again. And the Italian government’s fiscal amnesty has brought money back into the market, which Italians are investing in property. So, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t expect a major shake-up.’

NEED TO KNOW

Prices in Tuscany

* Traditional casolare with cotto floors, exposed beams and a hectare of land, in good condition, cost about €700,000-€2.5 million. Market: slowed
* Modern seaside villas (in fashionable Forte dei Marmi, Versilia, Punta Ala and Golfo di Follonica) cost from €1 million (larger houses with private sea access cost at least €6 million). Market: active
* Historic villas, which span 600sq m-800sq m, cost from about €1.7 million. The most-sought-after villages are Radda, Gaiole, Castigliole and Greve in Chianti. Market: stable to gently slowed
* In Lunigiana, Gabetti quotes prices ranging from €200 psm to €1,400 psm

The Lakes hold steady

Like Tuscany, the Lake region saw trans-actions drop in the past 18 months. ‘We had a crazy 2007 and 2008, but in 2009, sale volumes slowed down,’ says Benedetta Viganò of Giorgio Viganò Consulenti Immobiliari. ‘Russian buyers, in particular, disappeared.’ Other purchasers, such as the British or the Americans, were put off by an unfavourable exchange rate. This, however, was partly compensated for by an increase in Italian and other Euro-zone buyers, so agents report that the overall number of enquiries remained good. And as supply is very limited in the Lake region, prices for premium homes held firm. ‘We’ve seen price decreases for apartments in the Lakes, but those for villas are stable,’ notes Mr Fawcett.

This is especially true along the highly sought-after shores of Lake Como, which has long been the summer preserve of European aristocrats, affluent Italian entrepreneurs and, more recently, international footballers, Russian tycoons and Hollywood celebrities. ‘It’s hard to find a waterside home on Lake Como, because it’s small and there’s a ban on all new builds,’ explains Miss Viganò. ‘Many properties belong to foundations and, as far as those in private hands are concerned, owners who don’t need to sell don’t sell.’ As a result, she explains, this is the most resilient
of the Lake markets. ‘There may be fewer sales, but prices are always high.’

 

Lake Como

 Villa Fontanelle, the former Lake Como home of Gianni Versace, was sold to Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov in 2008 for an undisclosed figure that the property rumour mill puts between €20 million and €60 million. Meanwhile, in Lake Maggiore, homes along the most popular stretch
of lake-around Stresa, which has been a retreat for Europe’s aristocrats since the prominent Borromeo family built opulent residences on a handful of islets opposite the town in the early 16th century-are generally pricey, but you can find several below the €10 million mark. ‘If there’s
a grand villa with the perfect waterside location and the owner asks €30 million, that’s fine, but you can easily pay €4 million-€5 million for a property that’s slightly less prestigious and not situated in the first row along the lake,’ reveals Miss Viganò.

Although vendors can and will ask sky-high amounts for well-located lakeside homes, people who paid crazy sums for houses in the area during the halcyon days of 2007 may have to wait a long time before they can recover their investment. ‘During the 2007 peak, some people bought at prices that were beyond any acceptable market dynamics, and they won’t be able to resell at those levels,’ says Viganò. That said, those who paid reasonable prices-such as George Clooney, who spent ‘the right amount’ on Laglio’s Villa Oleandra in 2002-will have no problem preserving their equity, because sale volumes in popular lakeside locations will undoubtedly pick up when the economy recovers.

NEED TO KNOW

Prices in the Lakes

* Lakeside homes in Cernobbio cost €5,000-€6,500 psm, and on Lakes Laglio and Menaggio cost €4,000-€6,000psm

* In Como, location is important, ‘because many properties are separated from the lake by a road, and, to get to the shore, you have to take a subway,’ Miss Viganò explains. ‘Those with immediate access are far more expensive’

* Maggiore is more affordable and there’s more supply