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Shanghai surprise

Adam Main

Maria Barbieri remembers the first night she spent in her new villa - the unexpected tranquility of the Shanghai suburbs felt so eerie she got up in the middle of the night thinking something was wrong.

For anyone who has lived in the mainland's noisy business capital, where car horns can be heard into the wee hours, Ms Barbieri's reaction to the hush was understandable.

'I didn't even know where I was,' says the freelance Italian film producer, recalling the first night she slept in the 300-square-metre villa in Qingpu district in the city's northwest. 'I had come from living in Gubei, which was right in town and next to traffic, and here the silence was so deep it was almost waking me up.'

Having lived in China on and off since 1979, when she was one of the early foreign-language students, Ms Barbieri and husband Ken Rippen, an engineer, previously rented. When their last place in Gubei, a busy residential area popular with expats, was put up for sale in 2004, the couple feared they would not be able to continue renting from the new owner.

'We started to look around for other places and after a couple of months we found this place and liked it,' she says. 'We had not set out to buy a house, but we thought it would be a good investment.'

Such foresight proved wise. Since buying the minimalist and unfinished villa for 3.1 million yuan second hand, the couple invested another 900,000 yuan in renovations. Ms Barbieri says the move into home ownership was a good investment as a similar home in the 72-unit compound is now on the market for 6million yuan. She says, however, that two years before buying the villa, the first owner had paid 6,000 to 7,000 yuan a square metre for the property. 'We bought for 11,000 yuan a square metre, almost double. But we needed a place to live and we thought the market was bound to grow.'

The Shanghai market has been growing from an average 3,026 yuan a square metre in 1998 to 5,118 yuan per square metre in 2003, according to the National Development and Reform Commission and National Bureau of Statistics. In the most recent figures, for 2005, this rose to 6,842 yuan per square metre.

Ms Barbieri says buying a home in China can prove a daunting task, with a legal labyrinth, fickle owners, the language barrier, contracts written in Chinese, obtaining a mortgage and other obstacles to overcome.

'I found buying a house a kind of a murky affair,' she recalls. 'The owner was playing games, saying 'today the house is available', and then the next day they wanted more money. With the owner changing his mind, we sought advice from a lawyer and negotiated the contract in Chinese. I can read Chinese, but this was not easy. I would suggest to anyone that they seek legal advice.

'Buying the house was stressful and it took quite a while to get the ownership certificate. Until you get that, you can't be sure, and anything can go wrong.'

With the paperwork finished and terms citing 75 years' ownership, the couple set about designing the interior of the two-storey structure, as well as the 300-square-metre garden complete with nine-metre pool.

The house is full of nooks and crannies and has been laid out to get the most of its views, including gardens at front and rear, with the pool at the side.

The living room area, with its eight-metre-high ceiling, has been decorated with comfortable, light-coloured modern furniture in an Asian theme. Elegant horizontal bamboo blinds are used on the front room's floor-to-ceiling window and as dividers to conceal a television area overlooking the pool.

The dining room lies to the rear, adjoining a modern kitchen where stainless steel appliances complement the red and white colour scheme. Two architects, an Australian and a Croatian, modified the interior to transform the main upstairs bedroom's en suite bathroom into a walk-in wardrobe.

What was originally a smaller bedroom became a 15-square-metre bathroom, complete with bidet, a large raised tub and separate shower. Another upstairs room, with skylights and a view of the back garden, was converted into an office to provide Ms Barbieri with workspace for her company Sinema, which helps foreign movie productions film in China.

Now the couple have another renovation project in the form of a 45-square-metre apartment overlooking Suzhou Creek in the heart of the city which they bought for 900,000 yuan.