Charms of the Italian countryside

The regions of Umbria and Le Marche have become increasingly popular for foreign investors in Italy. They have enjoyed strong growth in their residential markets in recent years and, although they are unlikely to escape the effects of the global financial crisis, buyers will probably continue to find them attractive.

Tuscany has been the most popular destination for foreign buyers of Italian property for more than 20 years. But first Umbria and then Le Marche, in central Italy to the east of Tuscanny, enjoyed a spillover from the region. Although less well-known than Tuscany, both regions have enormous attractions. Umbria was the first to attract attention from buyers looking to avoid the high prices of it's neighbouring region.

Umbria is often called the 'green heart' of Italy and is mostly made up of rolling mountains. It includes Perugia, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy, Assisi, home of Saint Francis, and Lake Trasimene, the largest lake in the peninsula. Although it has no coastline to provide relaxing beaches, all these attractions have helped make Umbria a growing hit with foreign investors.

Attention has more recently increasingly shifted to Le Marche, which covers the region between Umbria and Italy's eastern coast. Relatively unspoiled in the interior and with many beaches on the coast, Le Marche used to attract much less interest from foreign buyers, but today it is sought out by more adventurous buyers or those with smaller budgets.

The market for foreign buyers is already well developed in Umbria. Gemma Knowles, of GK Italian Property, said: 'Umbria boasts many of the same charms as Tuscany, but with lower property prices, generally about 20 per cent cheaper.'

According to Roger Coombes, managing director of Cluttons Italy, while prices in Le Marche were distinctly lower than Umbria 10 years ago, sellers' expectations have risen over time and now the difference has been reduced.

Foreign buyers tend to go for two main types of property in Umbria: renovated farmhouses or apartments in refurbished farm estates.

As in Tuscany, the most sought-after properties in the two locations tend to be restored farmhouses. But there is also strong demand in Umbria for apartments in converted farmhouses.

The price of well-restored farmhouses in good locations in Umbria can start at Euro1 million (HK$10.4 million), although properties for restoration will be significantly lower.

Unlike Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche still offer many opportunities for buyers looking for restoration projects.

For those who seek an easier way of investing, Perugia and Lake Trasimene have a good selection of restored farmhouses with two-bedroom apartments costing Euro270,000 or more.

Ms Knowles said there could be significant variations in prices of property depending on the location and type. Lake Trasimene is one of the most popular locations in Umbria and, she said, properties that had a view of the lake could cost 20 per cent more than those that did not.

Mr Coombes said some parts of Le Marche were quite industrialised and in these areas microlocation was important to avoid views over industrial estates. But the good locations were attractive.

Although Umbria and Le Marche are not magnets for holidaymakers, like Tuscany has become, they attract a good number of tourists. In those areas popular with foreign and Italian tourists, such as Lake Trasimene, there are good rental possibilities for apartments and farmhouses for owners who wish to recoup some of their capital.

The onset of the economic crisis has had an impact on the market in Umbria and Le Marche. Most observers expect a slowdown in the Italian market for much of this year at least, so there may be bargains in both regions.

Some observers believe that investors should stick to areas that have been historically strong. This includes Umbria and, to a lesser extent, Le Marche.

Ms Knowles said the market for apartments had gone quiet over recent months, so now was a good time to snap up a bargain, with discounts of up to 15 per cent available.

Mr Coombes said Umbria should be classed with Tuscany and other prime locations in Italy as offering strong prospects for the future despite the economic uncertainties.

He said the inland part of Le Marche near the Apennine mountains also had elements in common with neighbouring Umbria.

Despite the downturn in the market, Umbria and Le Marche look set to remain attractive to foreign buyers who seek the charms of owning property in Italy, but want to steer clear of some of the more expensive regions of the country.