Escape to Tuscany

Despite the economic slowdown, demand for Italian properties is experiencing an unprecedented boom. More and more British buyers are purchasing second homes in the Bel Paese, with Tuscany remaining the most sought-after destination. ‘American and British purchasers who are leading the way,’ says Florentine property consultant Silvia Badini (+39 055 233 6027).

‘They are usually City types looking for a second home or a change in lifestyle.”They look for historic houses and, lately, vineyards. Clearly those who are looking for a different pace of life are turning to traditional crafts such as winemaking. And, of course, wine sells so well these days that you can make a comfortable living out of it. ‘The fact that Tuscany is so popular with British celebrities also helps fuel demand. ‘Prince Charles and Tony Blair come at least once a year and, of course, Sting has a beautiful property in Figline Valdarno,’ says Ms Badini.

‘This, in turn, attracts an increasing number of British buyers who wish to emulate the celebrities’ lifestyle. ‘Demand is especially strong for country houses and rustici (farmhouses) situated in the Lucca, Florence and Siena triangle. Historic villas and farmhouses usually command a premium, especially if they come with a view. There is a shortage of good properties and the few that are available often require restoration.

And here is where the dream of escaping to Tuscany may turn into a nightmare. Any restoration project means that you cannot truly enjoy your Tuscan home for the couple of years it takes to complete the work – and it requires a lot of courage, time and effort. The Byzantine set of rules that govern planning permissions adds to the headache, especially in a country like Italy, where red tape is the norm. Because regulations in Tuscany are very severe, seeking good financial and legal advice before purchasing is crucial to ensure hassle-free restoration, according to Ms Badini.

‘Rules are getting simpler now: there aren’t all those procedural impediments, which were in place in the past. Nevertheless, I recommend that buyers seek planning advice from the local notai (notary public) well before completing their purchase.’Once the bureaucracy is beaten, much remains to be done. It is fairly easy to modernise a house – there are companies that do it for you – but standardised modernisation is hardly ever in keeping with a period building’s original character. ‘If you want your historic property to look as much as possible like it did in the 16th or 17th century, then you have to keep a keen eye on the restoration works,’ say London restaurateur Mario Paggetti, who recently bought a period farmhouse in the Florentine Chianti.

‘Otherwise, even the best developer will try and fob you off with contemporary home accessories, because they are easier to find.’DIY development is not for the faint-hearted. Dealing with builders is difficult enough at home, but it can prove near impossible when you have to factor in a foreign culture. Negotiating the maze of materials architectural styles – let alone language barriers – can be nerve-wracking.’It is hard work – and expensive,’ says Florentine architect Mario Zucchini (+39 055 670 663) who specialises in restoring period buildings. ‘It is not just a question of finding the appropriate materials: for a truly sympathetic repair project, you also have to use traditional building methods. And it is rather difficult to find the right craftsmen to do the job, as more and more of them are turning to modern techniques.

”The other difficulty is in introducing 21st century comforts, such as air conditioning or home security devices. It is important that buyers have a clear idea of their requirements, to ensure that the restoration will meet their needs while keeping the character of the house intact. This may well mean that the repair project will turn out to be more expensive than building a house from scratch.

‘Prospective buyers need to bear in mind that the price of their property is only a portion of what they will end up paying once the cost of the repair work is included. It is very important that they assess this cost accurately and incorporate it in their budget. ‘How much the restoration is going to cost depends on how derelict the building is. But it usually matches, if not exceeds, the cost of purchasing the property,’ says Mr Zucchini. ‘I would advise buyers to consult an architect they can trust well before the purchase, because he or she can view the property with them and give them an estimate of the time and costs required for the repair project.”

It helped us enormously that we could rely on a Florentine architect and a handyman from the village to point us in the right direction,’ agrees Mr Paggetti. ‘I would definitely recommend that prospective buyers turn to local people for advice. It will save them both time and aggravation. ‘Ultimately, however, repairing a derelict house to its former glory gives a rare sense of achievement. ‘We scoured local craft and antiques shops in search of the perfect detail,’ says Mr Paggetti. ‘We even had our doors made to mtahc our house’s style by a local craftsman, who treated the wood to give it an antique feel. It was hard work indeed – but well worth it in the end.’

DIY developing tips

  • Seek legal and financial advice before buying
  • Budget for the repair costs, which can more than double the cost of your purchase
  • Get advice from the local notary public on how to obtain planning permissions
  • Research traditional materials and techniques (stone, cotto, wood and wrought iron are typical of the Tuscan hills)
  • Have a clear idea of what your requirements may be
  • Use local expertise to save time and effort