Appropriately for a region that forms the shapely calf muscle of the Italian leg, Le Marche is a physically beautiful place. Lapped by the sparkling blue Adriatic, its eastern edge is an almost unbroken line of honey-gold beaches. Warm, shallow water means family-friendly bathing, as does the especial cleanliness of the sand. Step back from the seaside and Le Marche buckles into verdant hills which roll prettily for many miles inland. It’s a neat and cosy kind of landscape, which viewed from on high resembles a gigantic green and gold duvet lying plump and rumpled across countless square miles. Gentle rises in the land are crowned with ancient, well-kept towns and villages, full of handsome townhouses wrought in warm-toned stone. Moving towards Le Marche’s western border, the soft hills cede to the steeper wooded Apennines and the pretty Sibillini Mountains. Up here lie wonderful hiking routes full of mighty vistas, and in the winter small ski-resorts offer snowy fun. Clearly, few small areas of the world can offer quite so much variety as Le Marche.
But it’s not just geographical richness that makes this region so appealing. Like its neighbours Tuscany and Umbria, Le Marche enjoys the distinctive feel and culture of central Italy. It’s rural yet prosperous, orderly yet relaxed. The population density is low, the crime rate very low, and the sense of community very strong. Local people are delightfully warm and friendly, and as an outsider you’ll be quickly embraced into the fold. The settlements might be small, but they have no shortage of fun goings-on. Colourful festivals abound across Le Marche. And the local food and wine? Well, they’re excellent.
Given Le Marche’s manifold blessings, it’s little wonder that the region appeals not only to overseas holiday-home-buyers but also very much to those seeking a permanent move to Italy. In particular, Le Marche is considered a superb place to retire. But you mustn’t imagine that Le Marche is now just an ex-pat colony with no real life of its own! Far from it. Certainly there are foreign relocaters and retirees here, but nowhere do they remotely outnumber the local people or ‘dilute’ local identity (which is more than can be said for, say, certain parts of Tuscany). Le Marche is still its true original, with plenty of space for you in it.
Sounds wonderful, you’re thinking, but what about the cost? As a very rough guide to current property prices in Le Marche, you might expect to get a country ruin to restore from €50,000 upwards. €60,000 to €90,000 might get you a fully-restored village apartment. With €100,000 to €250,000 to spend, you’d be looking at a standing house to complete or renovate, a small finished country cottage, a fully-restored three-bedroom townhouse, or a one- or two-bedroom seaside apartment. €250,000 to €400,000 could get you a beautifully restored three-bedroom farmhouse, an even larger country home needing minor renovation or finishing work, or a villa on the coast. And so on up the numbers.
OK, that’s reasonable enough, you might be thinking, but how stable is the market? Is Le Marche a safe place to put my money? As has often been pointed out in these articles, Italy maintains an exceptionally safe and stable property market. Houses have an almost sacred status in Italy, and they’re much less likely to be viewed as a mere cash cow to be ruthlessly milked as they are too often viewed in, say, the UK. Thus, whatever else happens in Italy’s economy, the value of the nation’s homes neither balloon nor tumble. Sure, prices might rise a little or sink a little, but these changes are almost invariably slow and modest. For various reasons, Le Marche has one of the safest and most stable markets of all Italian regions. So you could say that money spent in Le Marche is ‘safe as houses’.
When the international financial woes began in 2008, sales in Le Marche began to slow and they remained very slow for the next few years. Prices, however, remained relatively unchanged. There were a few minor adjustments, and some vendors became more receptive to offers a bit below their asking price, but in general the numbers changed remarkably little. Today [time of writing is 2013], Le Marche’s market seems to be coming out of the worst of the recession’s effect on foreign buyers. The Le Marche expert Kevin L. Gibney, who runs the search and restoration company PropertyForSaleMarche.com, says “Today we have a normally-functioning market, and a growing one. It has evolved significantly in terms of who is coming here. Our business used to be 80% British clients, but that has shifted dramatically with a new influx of Scandinavians and other northern Europeans for whom the euro is a daily fact of life as opposed to something to be feared. We’re also seeing lots of Americans, Canadians, Israelis and buyers from the Emirates.”
As suggested earlier, Le Marche has a remarkable richness of geography – especially for such a small place. Do you want a home beside the sea, in the inland countryside, an inland town, or perhaps up in the mountains? Price will probably be a big factor in your decision-making, so it’s useful to know its correlation with different areas. As in most Italian regions, the coast is usually the most expensive part of Le Marche, and prices tend to drop steadily the further you move inland – reaching their lowest levels in the very highest elevations.
If you’ve got your heart set on a seaside home, note that Le Marche’s coast has some of the region’s very best holiday rental prospects, and this may mitigate some of your expense. Meanwhile, properties situated perhaps twenty to thirty-five minutes inland can be said to offer buyers some of the best value in Le Marche. You get significantly more property for your money that you would beside a beach, yet the enticing seaside remains within easy reach. Because of Le Marche’s fortunate geography, there are other benefits to buying inland too. You’ll be at a higher elevation than on the coast and are likely to enjoy great views down to the sea but also towards the mountains in the opposite direction. If you situate yourself perhaps forty-five minutes from the sea, you could be equidistant from beaches and from high mountains with excellent summer hiking plus small-scale winter ski resorts.
Not that proximity to sea or mountains is the only appeal of Le Marche’s inland hills, of course! These inland rural stretches are intensely beautiful, and feature some highly attractive towns and villages. Letizia Pacetti of the estate agency Marche Casa particularly recommends the town of Macerata and its surrounding countryside – and for sea-lovers, the countryside just inland from the coastal town of Ancona. Other towns and their surrounds that have proven a hit with foreign buyers include Amandola, Sarnano and Ascoli Piceno. Mountain-lovers, meanwhile, will find some of Le Marche’s lowest prices in its homes on high. The bewitching Sibillini Mountains near the border with Umbria have beguiled many British buyers in the past, and prices here remain very reasonable indeed.
Le Marche has always been a very popular region for buyers who want to restore an old tumbledown property. The benefits of restoring is obvious: you end up with a home exactly tailored to your taste and often worth more than what you paid for the original building plus the cost of the restoration work. Restoring a tumbledown old property isn’t for everyone, though. It can require a great deal of time and commitment. Remember that you can always buy an old home that’s already been restored by someone else, and sometimes you can get extremely good value-for-money this way. But you do have to be totally happy with the style in which the previous owner restored it, of course!
Letizia Pacetti of Marche Casa believes it’s best for restorers to do one of two things: buy a total ruin, knock it down and re-use its materials to re-build from scratch, or buy a place in good condition that needs only minor work. Kevin L. Gibney of PropertyForSaleMarche.com, meanwhile, believes it all simply comes down to how quickly you want your property. He says, “If you have a year or two and you really want the house to reflect your tastes and to have superior build quality, then buy and restore a total ruin. If you can give a little on those points and start with something in the middle, then buy a standing house needing renovation or completion. But if you’ve gotta have it now and you’re OK with somebody else’s choice of fittings, then a finished house or a ready-restored property is the right move.”
Ever since Le Marche first became popular with foreign buyers about twenty years ago, a large proportion of people buying homes in the region have offered holiday lets. As Le Marche’s popularity with foreign buyers has grown in parallel with its popularity with visitors, most buyers have found their holiday rentals sideline pretty successful. Today, experts on Le Marche all concur that rental prospects are very strong. The coast has the greatest number of clients, but rural homes offering space and quiet are also highly popular. To maximise rentability, you should aim to be within ninety minutes’ drive of the airport, and have a pool if possible.
In terms of both visitors and property-buyers, Le Marche certainly hasn’t reached anything like saturation-point. This is still a spacious and mercifully unspoilt corner of the world with excellent prospects for the future. Sensible limits on development and building ensure that the charms that draw people to Le Marche in the first place are unlikely to be diminished. This is a well-balanced and bountiful part of the world, which looks set to remain so.
Le Marche’s regional capital Urbino is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a magnificent jumble of medieval and Renaissance buildings nestled together in the midst of attractive countryside. It has an illustrious past – rivalling Florence in terms of cultural significance during the Renaissance. So there are delights aplenty here today for the lover of art and architecture. But modern-day Urbino isn’t just a museum piece. It’s a bustling little city with a large student population and no shortage of stylish eateries and buzzy watering holes. Property prices in the city are among the highest in Le Marche, but the holiday rental returns are good and very reliable. A two-bed townhouse might cost you €250,000; a two-bed apartment about €180,000 and bring in €800 a week in the summer. The countryside around Urbino is green and leafy, with lots of woods and high hills. It’s a recommended area in which to consider buying, and property prices are quite reasonable. In addition to restoration projects and ready-restored homes, look out for good-value new-builds in traditional style. A new three-bedroom home in brick and stone, with a garden, might ask around €275,000. Northern Le Marche provides easy access to some of the Adriatic’s liveliest beach resorts, situated between Ravenna and Ancona. Le Marche’s short border with Tuscany is up in this northern part, too.
Le Marche enjoys more than a hundred miles of Adriatic coastline, with long stretches of fine sand meeting warm, clean seawater. Despite its manifold charms, and excellent travel links, Le Marche’s seaside remains relatively under-exploited. Resorts tend to be small-sized and family-friendly, but not without vibrant nightlife. Many of the coastal towns have ancient origins and venerable buildings, especially north of Ancona. Italians make up by far the greatest number of holidaymakers, but Le Marche’s seaside is increasingly visited by Northern Europeans. It’s still the most popular part of the region for second-home-owners (mostly Italians), which makes its property prices Le Marche’s highest. Most apartments fall within a range of around €100,000 to €370,000. Prices start dropping at about three miles from the water, and you could pay ten to twenty percent less by putting the sea twenty minutes away. Obviously the best holiday rental returns are found closest to the sand. Ancona is a major port with a lot of industry on its outskirts, and you might prefer a smaller settlement. Pésaro in the north is the largest resort, followed by San Benedetto del Tronto in the south. Between the two, smaller resorts are dotted at regular intervals. Recommended spots in the north include Pésaro, Fano, and Sénigallia. For many visitors the Cónero promontory near the middle of Le Marche’s coastline is its most spectacular part – with steep white cliffs brooding above tiny, picturesque beaches. South of here, the seaside grows humbler and sleepier, offering many pleasant, low-key resorts.
As you move inland from any part of Le Marche’s coast, the landscape quickly buckles into pretty hills. This charming, long central stretch is dominated by small farms and open fields, with unspoilt medieval towns and villages cropping up at regular intervals. It’s here in the rolling green countryside where most Britons have chosen to buy their home in Le Marche. They benefit not only from the attractive landscape and delightful towns, but also from easy access to both beach and mountains. In southern Le Marche especially, many locations offer simultaneous views of blue sea in one direction and high peaks in the other. Property prices have risen considerably in central Le Marche since foreign buyers 'discovered' it, but there are still plenty of good-value properties to be had here – both restored and unrestored. Prices are highest if you’re within about fifteen kilometres of the sea, and drop steadily the further you go inland. Between forty and seventy kilometres from the water seems to be an optimum distance in terms of price – although obviously some towns and areas are slightly costlier than others. A rough guide to prices might run thus: Country ruins needing full restoration generally ask €90,000-€150,000; rural houses requiring moderate work €100,000-€250,000; and good-sized, fully-restored homes €350,000-€750,000. If such properties were in central Tuscany, these figures would be more than doubled!
Andrew and Babs Mitchell own a hilltop convent and mill in Le Marche. They’ve transformed the mill into a large family house, and plan to renovate the convent to offer luxury holiday retreats with four-room suites.
“Babs and I just love Italy,” Andrew says. “Every region is proud and competitive – they’ve all got the best food, the best wine, culture and history. So we figured we could spend the rest of our lives just going round Italy, and never get bored. No other European country has such a range of flavours, cultures, colours and spirit.
“To be honest, Le Marche was an accident. An old friend told us he was doing up a farmhouse in Le Marche and Babs and I asked “Where’s that?” When we started researching for where we might buy in Italy, it was quickly narrowed down to Le Marche. We looked through hundreds of properties online, but quite early on saw the one we eventually bought, which looked spectacular. Two fabulous 300-year-old buildings on top of a hill – both built in impossibly beautiful long, thin pink bricks.
“I went out in January 2005 to view properties for two weeks, covering about 3,000 kilometres and meeting with six agents. First I saw the property we eventually bought, then about fifty others to see if anything could get better. Nothing could. The convent is absolutely stunning, with curved roofs, cloisters and its own chapel. It’s been uninhabited for 45 years. The old mill had never been lived in, and didn’t even have windows. It had a donkey and a sheep in it when I first saw it. But it had magnificent walls, which were double-skinned. It looks like a house a child might draw – totally square, ten metres by ten metres. So we have three floors, each of a hundred square metres. The convent is also ten metres wide, but 35 metres long. And there’s a wonderful cypress tree on the hilltop, about 80 feet tall, that you can see for miles around.
“During the restoration of the mill, I came out for a few days every three or four weeks for almost a year to oversee the work. It was finished in August 2007. With the convent, our vision is eventually to refurbish in a very authentic, beautiful, original Italian style, and market it as upmarket holiday suites. We’ll do frescos on the walls, and maintain the convent’s original features and monastic character. That’s probably about five years away, when we’ve got the money together. We’ll provide massage and beauty treatments, and there’ll be a spectacular swimming pool themed as sunken Roman baths. Between us, Babs and I have backgrounds in marketing, hotel management and art history, so hopefully we have the right skills for the mission.”