A fabled region of idyllic countryside and historic cities full of art, Tuscany still melts the hearts of visitors and home buyers. Properties here are now more affordable than they’ve been for years, says Fleur Kinson…
Arguably more famous than any other of Italy’s twenty official regions, Tuscany needs little introduction. Its countryside is to many minds the quintessential Italian landscape – rolling hills fuzzed with olive groves, striped with vineyards or zigzagged with lines of cypress trees. Its cities are among the nation’s most visited: Florence with its mighty Duomo, Pisa with its wonky tower, Siena with its grand central piazza. Like any superstar, Tuscany suffers a bit for its fame – the ratio of visitors to residents in some localities is eye-watering (try about 20:1 in Florence, for example), and property prices in some areas can be astronomical. But for all this, Tuscany continues to thrill the senses and stir the hearts of millions. The region remains by far the most highly prized in Italy by foreign home buyers.
HISTORY OF A MARKET
Non-Italians, especially Brits, have been buying homes in various parts of Italy for more than a hundred years. But until about forty years ago, their numbers were small. Things started to change in the 1970s and 1980s, when the central Tuscan countryside become a super-fashionable place to buy up old farmhouses. Brits, fellow northern Europeans and Americans flocked in. So many British people bought a home in the Chianti area north of Siena, for example, that it became mockingly known as ‘Chiantishire’ – a bit of England here in Italy, like a sunny version of the Cotswolds.
From those heady days onward, ever more buyers were drawn to Tuscany, and property prices climbed accordingly. Now, as the longest-established and best-known place to enjoy some rural dolce vita, Tuscany famously has some of the highest-priced country property in the world. If you were to find a farmhouse in central Tuscany for €500,000 or less, you’d be lucky. More usually you’d expect to pay €750,000 or more. But the costliness even of central Tuscany is beginning to change in light of the Western world’s ongoing economic woes. There are reports that some prices in Chiantishire and Florence are now 15 per cent lower than they were three years ago. Tuscany’s incredibly robust property market, which once seemed immune to the international recession, seems finally to be softening a tad. Obviously this makes the current time a good one in which to buy, with many properties available for slightly less than few years ago. As Wanda Djebbar of Toscana Restoration points out, “There are no rock bottom desperate to sell prices here, but good value for good property can be found.
But it’s not just this slight shift in the market that makes Tuscany worth considering for buyers with modest as well as large budgets. Tuscany is a big place, and not all of it is expensive. Some areas – chiefly on the region’s edges – have never seen any inflation of prices like those witnessed in areas such as the Chianti Hills and other stretches of central countryside. There are some very beautiful areas in Tuscany’s far north, for example, where you can buy a rustic ruin to restore for as little as €40,000, or a habitable, good-sized village house for just €90,000. Similarly, in parts of the south you might find a two-bedroom villa for only €200,000. Thus, for a relatively small price, you can still enjoy all the giddy prestige of owning ‘a home in Tuscany’, and of course benefit from the strong holiday rental and re-sale prospects that the name affords.
It’s worth taking a moment to point out the obvious, just in case you’re in any doubt about this. Tuscany remains an extremely good investment. The region’s property market is exceptionally stable, with values that have been only minimally perturbed by wobbles in the world economy. The fact that homes are only slightly cheaper here right now, after all these years of international recession, should tell you just how safe a place this is to put your money. Why is Tuscany so safe?
Well, there’s the fact that Italy in general tends not to suffer sudden booms and busts in its property market. The Italian attitude to property means that prices generally don’t suddenly balloon only to come crashing down later. Tuscany’s property values are further protected by strict planning laws that restrict new building and ensure that any restoration work maintains the region’s traditional style and character. So a home here isn’t going to suddenly lose value because an ugly block of flats has been built.
In essence, Tuscany remains a great investment because the desire to own a home here has never faded. “The culture, the scenery, the food and the climate have not changed,” says Wanda Djebbar of Toscana Restoration, “which is why international buyers continue to find Tuscany attractive and stable”.
And it’s unlikely to fade, because the things that make people want to buy in Tuscany aren’t about to change, either. “Tuscany is one of the most prestigious locations in the world,” says Lois C Allan of homesellers L’Architrave. “The region offers breathtaking views, spectacular countryside, a Mediterranean coastline, plus world-renowned cultural centres such as Florence, Pisa and Siena. It has seen a steady flow of international buyers looking to invest in what has historically been a very stable property market. In times of uncertainty from the stock market, investing in Tuscan property offers not just good returns but the fun of enjoying your investment.”
PLACE TO PLACE
It’s worth familiarising yourself with the many and varied areas that Tuscany has to offer, so you can choose the stretch that’s right for you. In the far north, there are leafy highlands full of charming villages, with the wonderful coast of Liguria never too far away. Property prices are still very affordable in northern Tuscany, and many foreign buyers have been drawn to this area over the last several years. Central Tuscany, as you probably don’t need to be told, sees the classic landscapes of green and gold rolling hills, striped with vineyards and decorated with cypress trees.
Tuscany’s far south, meanwhile, is comparatively wild and empty, with muscular hills punctuated by sudden upthrusts of rock. Down here, there are volcanic waters and abundant Etruscan curiosities. To the west, Tuscany meets the sea. Beaches in the north tend to be well-developed and populous, while the southern seaside is more elemental and untamed. Tuscany has island paradises too, such as Elba and little Giglio, plus the exclusive, leafy Monte Argentario peninsula.
For property in a rural or village location, central Tuscany is the priciest area, while the far north and far south offer much more affordable homes. As for cities, or at least for some of the better-known tourist cities, little Lucca in the north is still reasonably priced, as are the interesting eastern locales Arezzo and Cortona. Siena is pricey, and Florence can be very expensive. Two-bedroom apartments in Florence start at about €220,000, but the holiday rental prospects on a home here are superb – with a nearly year-round rental clientele.
Corso Flaccomio of the Florence-based Tuscany-specialist agency Pitcher and Flaccomio points out that “In Florence you can have not one but two types of rental client: tourists and students. Students are a very reliable source of income as they are always here and they pay pretty well, but you would need to account for refurbishing your property every two or three years because students tend to destroy the place!” Corso also points out that city properties tend to hold their value when compared to most other property types and they can be easier to use, to maintain, to close up when you’re not using them, and to re-sell.
Tuscany’s islands and coast are generally very expensive places for property, although the less-developed southern coast sees much more reasonable prices. Lenka Fridrich of the agency Italica flags up the high value of seaside homes, which retain very strong holiday rental prospects regardless of good or bad economic times. Italian buyers like to be as close to the water as possible, and you can always make savings on an Italian coastal home by buying a short distance inland. To get optimum value, Lenka Fridrich recommends a small detached house with garden and views situated between ten and 35 kilometres from the sea.
Finally, a word on restoration. Tumbledown old farmhouses to restore were one of Tuscany’s early attractions, as they were inexpensive and so was the building work they required. As you can imagine, neither of these comes terribly cheap any more. While there still are properties to restore in Tuscany, and these can be affordable particularly on the region’s edges, in the current market you may well find a better bargain in a home that’s already been lovingly restored by an earlier foreign buyer. As some of these foreign restorer-vendors are keen to sell quickly in order to liquidate assets while the international economy is under stress, you might find that they’re even more open to offers below their asking prices.
If your dream is to restore a home to your own taste and specifications, of course this can still be done in Tuscany and there are many highly-experienced agencies here who can help you with every inch of the process. Note that there are always restrictions on what you can and can’t do to a building in this region. Size-wise, your final result will generally be restricted to the building’s original volume. And the exterior at least will almost certainly have to fit in with Tuscany’s traditional look and style. You should definitely consider modern techniques for eco-efficiency in your internal arrangements, however, and note that there are various government subsidies and tax breaks for doing this. Be sure to grill your agent and builders for full details. Happy hunting!Property, Tuscany