Paying the price for a taste of Italy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 June, 1993, 12:00am

KEATS, Byron and Shelley have a lot to answer for. So do Goethe, Gregorovius and an army of German, French and Swiss writers, travellers and poets who elevated the cultural pilgrimage to Italy into a model for enlightenment.

Their writings opened the gates to a flood of foreigners, for whom Italy represents all that is best in culture.

While many pass through, some prefer to linger, strengthening their bonds by buying a piece of Italy they can call their own. Whether just for holidays or more permanently for retirement, Italy's language, climate and lifestyle have created a communityof expatriates from Trondheim to Torquay, Sydney to San Francisco.

But owning a second home is often a case of the heart ruling the head.

Do you really want to buy, or might it be better to rent? The financial arguments for buying have declined as prices in popular areas around Sienna or the walled city of Lucca have soared, making ownership prohibitive for many.

That is certainly the case in Chianti-shire, an area of rolling hills, vineyards and olive trees renamed for its large expatriate community. Many who bought run-down farmhouses for a song during the rural depopulation of the 1960s and early 1970s have made a killing.

Buying today is much pricier. Among properties on the market are beautifully-restored farmhouses, in grounds and with pools, such as Monticello - on offer from the British-based Italian Property Portfolio for just under GBP900,000 (HK1.06 billion), or Casalvento, on sale via Lucca-basesd Villaman for GBP650,000.

While that represents an astronomical leap from 20 years ago, the market has flattened, if not fallen, under recession in the 1990s.

Those with more modest budgets must scale down or look further afield. Small terraced town houses, without gardens, can be had even in Chianti or around Lucca - almost as expensive - for as little as GBP50,000.

Bigger places can be found for about double that, provided the buyer is prepared to stump up for restoration, which is calculated at about GBP650 per square metre or more.

Rising prices in Tuscany led to an upsurge of interest in Umbria in the late 1980s, the region lying southeast and known for attractive towns such as Perugia and Assisi. Umbrian prices soared as buyers expanded their horizons. But here too, the market is now flat at best.

Now the northern lakes such as Como and Maggiore are coming out of the doldrums. Living on the lakes or the slopes above has always attracted the Germans and Swiss.

Having decided to go ahead, how do you start? For those used to a relatively standardised property market based on relatively transparent rules, clear fee structures and marketing-conscious intermediaries, matters will come as a shock. There are no bigestate agents, and, for property outside the cities, the ''agent'' is likely to be a one-man show.

Do-it-yourselfers in Lombardy begin with Secondamano, a five-days-a-week listings paper, advertising various goods for sale. Other regions have differently-named equivalents.

More specialised and up-market publications worth consulting are Dove, a glossy travel monthly and Casa Bella, a decorating and interiors publication. Some British agents operating out of Italy advertise in the Sunday Times, the Financial Times or the International Herald Tribune.

The legal side of property purchasing can be a minefield, with conflicting ground plans and land claims stretching back years. A concise guide is: find a local surveyor (geometra) or lawyer to make the necessary searches and take the trouble to do things properly from the start to avoid difficulties when it comes to selling.

Legal fees and taxes will add 10 to 15 per cent to the purchase price. The declared contract price sometimes bears little relation to the actual purchase price, as money often passes under the counter.

Many of the Italy-based expatriates doubling as estates agents also offer supervisory and rental services.