where to buy in italy
 
A tranquil paradise of undulating countryside crowned with perfect medieval hilltowns, Umbria has long been a big hit with foreign buyers. It’s still an excellent place to buy a home, says Fleur Kinson.


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Set in the very middle of the Italian peninsula, Umbria is a dreamily serene region of wide rural vistas and captivating old hilltop towns. Spacious and leafy, it rightly calls itself ‘the green heart of Italy’. But more than a heart, Umbria is arguably Italy’s spiritual soul. Many of the nation’s most famous saints and mystics came from Umbria. Think of St. Francis of Assisi and his friend St. Clare, think of St. Benedict and St. Rita. And the region is also home to a particularly glorious crop of churches. The cathedral in Orvieto, for example, is thought by many Italians to be the single most beautiful in the country.

        Perhaps it’s Umbria’s landscape that has prompted so much divine inspiration. The dreamy, undulating lie of the land here seems naturally to incline the mind to higher things. With low, rounded mountains in the background and smooth hills continually opening onto huge views, your eye is forever drawn to the upward-climbing land and the sky beyond it. Meanwhile, medieval hilltowns – of which Umbria has a more consistently perfect collection than any other part of Italy – appear like little heavens in the distance.
        And in a way they are little heavens. Unspoilt, unchanged for centuries, many of Umbria’s hilltowns are perfect treasure troves of art and architecture. They are beautifully proportioned places where pedestrian-friendly old alleys and cobbled streets open onto radiant piazzas lined with exquisite buildings. From balconies, terraces and ramparts, the surrounding landscape views are inspiringly huge. Meanwhile the resident community is close, tight-knit and mutually supportive. The quality of life in Umbria’s hilltowns is very high indeed. It’s not unknown for foreign arbiters to declare one Umbrian hilltown or another as ‘the best place in the world to live’. (Todi was hailed as such by the University of Kentucky, for example.) Obviously such contests are so subjective as to be meaningless, but still, there’s no denying that life is good in Umbria!

        Crucially, life is also uncrowded. Thinly populated, with fewer than a million inhabitants, Umbria seems to comfortably absorb its many overseas visitors. It somehow pulls off the impossible trick of being greatly adored by tourists yet staying mercifully unspoilt. Deep tranquility and a sense of space remain its dominant features. The peace-seeking mystics of old would be relieved to hear that!

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THE MARKET STORY
With so much to recommend the place, Umbria was never going to remain undiscovered by foreign buyers. They started arriving about thirty years ago, initially in search of lower property prices than those of Umbria’s fashionable neighbour Tuscany. Many of those exploratory early property-hunters discovered that they found Umbria even more enchanting than Tuscany. Word got out, and prices rose steadily in both regions – eventually reaching near-parity. When the global economic woes began back in 2008, foreign buyer numbers began to drop sharply. The top end of the market remained relatively unaffected (because the very rich have been least troubled by the recession), but all other parts of Umbria’s market slowed considerably – and remain slow even now, five years on.
        What effect has this had on the region’s prices? Well, as this is Italy, where property prices tend neither to balloon nor to crash but instead to rise slowly or sink slightly, nothing too dramatic has happened. But it’s true that many of Umbria’s prices are a little lower now than they were before the onset of the international financial crisis, and even when they aren’t, buyers can often find that vendors are more open to offers below asking prices than they were before 2008. Marc Wisbey of the central-Italy-specialist estate agency Itili says of the current market “With no immediate signs of an upturn, many vendors are choosing to sit tight and enjoy the sunshine rather than sell at a rock-bottom price. But the more pushed vendors could be tempted with offers of up to 25% below asking prices.”
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        So, you could clearly find yourself a bargain in Umbria at the moment if you look carefully. Note that some parts of the region have seen more reduction in price than others. Adriana Benedetti of Umbrian Property suggests that “Prices have dropped quite significantly in the northern areas of Umbria where there has been a well-established presence of ex-pats for a long time now. In the south, prices have kept relatively more stable, only dropping when owners need to repay a mortgage, for instance.”

        OK, so what kind of average figures are we talking about for homes in Umbria these days? Surprisingly, it’s not impossible to get yourself a small apartment in a nice Umbrian town or village for under €100,000. Go up to €150,000 and you could consider a three-bedroom flat, or a little two-bed house. Small country houses start at a very reasonable €200,000. For €300,000 and upward, you can look at farmhouses of increasing size. All these starting prices are for homes that are restored and habitable, or perhaps needing only minor work. Tumbledown properties needing full restoration would obviously be sold for less. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have nigh on one million euros – or even more – to spend in Umbria, there is of course no shortage of truly gorgeous properties available in prime sites.

PLACE TO PLACE

Like every Italian region, Umbria contains within its borders a fair bit of geographic diversity. And it also has its pricier and cheaper areas for properties. To help you identify where in Umbria you might like to concentrate your property search, it’s worth running through a quick overview of the region’s areas, and going on to discuss where the bigger and smaller prices are.
        In a nutshell, Umbria’s central stretches see small valley-plains lying between sweetly rounded hills, while the region’s northern, eastern and southern extremes tend to be steeper, craggier and more forested. Note that Umbria is one of the very few Italian regions to have no coastline, but it makes up for this absence of sea with some splendid lakes. Chief of these is Lake Trasimeno – a warm, shallow playground ringed by pretty fields and charming small towns. When you fancy the sea, the Mediterranean is never too far away, of course, lying about ninety minutes’ drive to Umbria’s east and west.
        Three of Umbria’s most attractive rural areas, by common consensus, are the Vale of Spoleto in the region’s centre, the Upper Tiber valley in the far north, and the Lake Trasimeno area in the west. Many foreign buyers have chosen one of these lovely areas, and while they’re not Umbria’s cheapest parts, there are still plenty of reasonably-priced, good-value homes available in all three. The beautiful Vale of Spoleto area gives access to some of Umbria’s most exquisite ancient hilltowns – places such as Assisi, Montefalco, Spoleto and Spello. The Upper Tiber Valley and Lake Trasimeno, meanwhile, are well-situated for bewitching Perugia, Città di Castello, and Tuscan charmers across the border such as Arezzo and Sansepolcro.

        For Umbria’s very cheapest rural properties, turn your attention to the region’s eastern and southern extremes, where the landscapes grow progressively higher and wilder. You might target a high, handsome town such as Gubbio in the far northeast or Narni in the far south, and the rural areas around both towns. Or go down to Umbria’s spacious southeast corner with its proximity to gorgeous Norcia and the nearby Sibillini Mountains.

 
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        As mentioned earlier, one of Umbria’s most appealing assets is its wealth of exceptionally lovely hilltowns full of fine historical buildings. A warm sense of community and a lively calendar of public events make Umbrian hilltowns truly delightful places to be. Thus you may well be considering an apartment in the centre of a classic hilltown rather than a rural home nearby. These can be reasonably priced, and they make very good investments. Umbria’s most popular hilltowns include Assisi, Todi, Orvieto and Spoleto, but you should be aware that there are plenty of beautiful and lesser-known others where prices are slightly lower – places such as Montefalco, Spello, Trevi, Montone and so on. Spend some time exploring and see what wonderful places you might discover.

RENTALS? RESTORATIONS?
If you’re thinking of a home in the countryside, you might be wondering if Umbria is still a good place to buy a tumbledown old property and restore it into your ideal home. Plenty of buyers have done exactly this in Umbria over the last few decades, but there’s still no shortage of properties here ripe for restoration. Nor is restoring a wildly expensive enterprise. Marc Wisbey of Itili says “Umbria still has plenty of older properties available at reasonable prices, and the recent downturn in work for builders has left them very keen for work.” Naturally, to preserve Umbria’s precious character, there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do to old properties here. But most restorers don’t find these restrictions a problem, and nor do they struggle too much with local bureaucracy when it comes to planning permissions.
        As for holiday rentals, Umbria has some of the strongest prospects of any Italian region. The place is hugely loved by non-Italian holidaymakers, and even throughout the recent economic downturn, visitor numbers to Umbria remained undiminished. The best locations for maximising rentals are in the countryside near a small town or village, and of course in one of the medieval hilltowns. (Note that Assisi and Perugia have some of Umbria’s best year-round rental prospects – with Catholic pilgrims drawn to the former and tourists, students and businesspeople drawn to the latter.) Market your property well and you’re likely to fill most weeks from May to October, which should cover a good proportion of your costs!


      

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Lake Trasimeno and northern Umbria

The fourth largest lake in Italy, Lake Trasimeno is a warm, shallow expanse of tranquil water ringed by reedy shores. It’s a popular place with foreign buyers, who go for farmhouses in the low surrounding hills – lush with vines and olives – or for village homes in the pleasant shoreline settlements. Prices are slightly lower here than in Umbria’s other property hotspots, with 2-bed apartments averaging about €130,000, and 3-bedroom houses about €320,000. Restoration projects are also available, with smaller initial pricetags. Northeast of Lake Trasimeno, the countryside grows wilder and steeper. The upper Tiber Valley between Umbertide and Sansepolcro in Tuscany has seen a lot of foreign buyer interest over the last decade or more, pushing up prices in this otherwise sleepy area. A 2-bed villa near Umbertide would ask €200,000+. East of here, the landscape grows increasingly mountainous. Gubbio is a steep, perfectly-preserved medieval hilltown with increasing numbers of visitors. You could get a 5-bed villa near here for €330,000, or, for a similar amount, a 6-bed house in the nearby medieval mountain town of Gualdo Tadino.

Perugia

Umbria’s lively and atmospheric capital city Perugia takes the form of a large medieval hilltop town with modern suburbs sprawling around its base. Up on the top, 3,000-year-old streets sport Etruscan and Roman relics as well as superb medieval palaces and piazzas. Perugia has a booming economy, lots of visitors, and it was recently included on the network of budget flights from the UK – making it a great place to buy property. The rentals scene is perhaps the best in Umbria, after Assisi. As well as short-term lets to holidaymakers, investors should consider offering longer-term lets to students and visiting businesspeople. The city has an august academic university, and another devoted solely to teaching the Italian language to foreigners. (You might expect €700 a month on a long-term let of a 2-bed apartment.) 1-bed apartments in the old centre start at about €90,000; 2-beds at about €160,000. Apartment prices are lower in the plentiful modern condos at Perugia’s foot. As in other Umbrian towns, there are apartments and townhouses to restore in the old centre. Homes in the surrounding countryside are quite popular and good value. Recent listings included a refurbished 2-bed house asking €180,000, and a 6-bed villa asking €450,000.

The Vale of Spoleto

Southeast of Perugia, a long, table-flat plain snakes for many miles between soft hills and steeper mountains, forming perhaps Umbria’s most enticing area. Breathtaking medieval hilltowns are sprinkled liberally here, viz. Assisi, Spello, Bettona, Montefalco, Trevi, Spoleto – each offering awesome views-from-on-high of glorious surrounding landscapes. Picturesque Assisi, clinging to the side of Mount Subasio, is the priciest spot in Umbria – drawing innumerable tourists as well as hordes of religious pilgrims come to honour local-boy St. Francis. 1-bed apartments in Assisi get going at about €170,000, with 2-beds starting around €200,000. (Lower prices can be found on Assisi’s outskirts, in nearby mountain hamlets or in a handsome satellite town like Santa Maria degli Angeli). Assisi’s visitor season is almost year-round, and you could expect €500 a week rental on a 2-bed apartment. Country homes near Assisi and other lovely towns around the Vale of Spoleto are very appealing. Recent listings include a 3-bed house to restore near Assisi for €185,000, a 2-bed to restore near Bettona for €200,000, a 3-bed villa near Assisi for €230,000, and a 4-bed villa near Bettona for €340,000. At the southern end of the vale sits the ancient and impressively scenic town of Spoleto – hugely popular with foreign buyers over recent years. Within the city walls you might get an unrestored 2-bed apartment for €150,000-€200,000, or a fully restored one for €250,000-€350,000. Villages nearby are in various states of repair and can offer some good restoration bargains. Or try the 10th-century village of San Marmiliano, allegedly the oldest in Umbria, which has been conscientiously restored throughout.

Orvieto and Todi

In Umbria’s southwest, two classic medieval hilltowns are much loved by foreign buyers. Orvieto sits on a column of ginger rock rising from an immensely fertile valley floor, and is home to arguably the most beautiful cathedral in Italy. It’s a lively and cultured place with excellent road and rail connections. Todi is more remote and less easily accessed, with a magnificent central piazza and an expanding community of ex-pat artists and writers. Both towns offer a very high quality of life and can be pricy for property. 1-bedroom apartments in Orvieto start at about €80,000; in Todi, €120,000. 2-bedroom apartments in Orvieto start at €150,000, while in Todi they go for between €170,000 and €290,000. Holiday rental prospects in both towns are good. Bargains and restoration projects on small townhouses sometimes crop up, particularly in Todi. Farmhouses in the countryside around Todi, however, can often go for Chianti-style prices.

The south and southeast

Umbria’s least-visited – and lowest-priced – areas are its southern and southeastern extremes. Mountainous and thinly-populated, with green valleys, plunging waterfalls and high flower-meadows, the south and southeast are great places for a second home or a retirement retreat but not so great for holiday rentals. Terni is an inexpensive but industrial place whose historical buildings are sadly depleted thanks to wartime bombing. Nearby Narni is rather more charming, with its medieval centre intact, but the nicest medieval hilltowns in this southern area are probably Amélia and Otricoli. Town and countryside property round here can be about half the price of the same around Spoleto. Umbria’s southeast corner, the ‘Valnerina’, is especially wild, remote and beautiful – with long-abandoned farmhouses testament to the area’s mass emigration early last century. Norcia is the largest of the many tiny settlements here – an elegant little town that happens to make the best salami in all Italy. Again, this is an area of comparatively cheap property.


buyer case study


OUR HOME IN UMBRIA
BBC broadcaster Peter Hobday and his wife Victoria bought and restored an old farmhouse in Umbria more than twenty years ago, when the region was still little-known to non-Italians. Ringed with olive and cypress trees, Casa del Lauro sits in five private acres near Lake Trasimeno. The Hobdays enjoy a few months at the house every year, and offer holiday rentals when they’re not there. Peter turned his colourful experience of restoring the property – and of discovering Umbria – into a 1995 book, In the Valley of the Fireflies.
        “I didn’t know Italy at all,” Peter admits. “It was back in the 1980s when I was presenting the Today programme on Radio 4. I read an article in The Telegraph saying that you could buy ruined farmhouses in Umbria for £15,000 and do them up for £15,000. So we went out and had a look. This lovely old house just about had a roof but no windows or anything. We got it for about £20,000, and we now have a place that we couldn’t possibly afford.
        “Our restoration was ongoing. The house was habitable after a year, but then we were always adding something – planting olives and doing bits and pieces. After about ten years it was absolutely finished. Then we acquired more land and put in a swimming pool. And then we decided to offer holiday rentals to pay the upkeep. We’ve been doing that for about six or seven years now and it’s going well. We have lots of returning guests.
        “We were among the first English people in the area. Now it’s relatively cosmopolitan. You bump into surprising people here sometimes. One day Victoria and I bumped into Neil Kinnock! We were always told by older Italians that Umbria was traditionally a very poor part of Italy. Now we’ve noticed a lot of development – new houses being built for Italians. And the local communes are gearing up more for tourism.
        “We have very good local friends. I used to live in France and I have to say that the French aren’t quite as warm to foreigners and strangers as the Italians are. I’d advise anyone buying a house here to learn Italian, as you get so much more out of the place and the wonderful people. Don’t just buy because you think there’s going to be sun, or you think it’s going to be cheaper! Throw yourself into the place. The poet Horace said ‘there are two types of people – those who travel to change the climate and those who travel to change their mind’. Italy has things that will annoy you, like the bureaucracy and the driving, but you’ll never be disappointed with the food or the friendship, and the climate and culture are great.” 
www.casa-del-lauro.com


OUR HOME IN UMBRIA

Berenice Anderson, based in Oxford, bought and restored a 400-year-old house on an Umbrian hillside. Set amidst terraced olive groves overlooking the Vale of Spoleto, Casa del Cinguietto (‘Birdsong House’) provides a peaceful retreat for Berenice and her family several times a year. The rest of the time, it pays for itself through holiday rentals.
        “I’d been hankering after a house in Italy ever since I first visited the country in my 20s,” Berenice explains. “Later when I began to think seriously about buying one, I calculated that I would need to be able to rent it out to cover costs, and I knew that Umbria was a region that would easily attract rental clients. I understood that clients would prefer an old traditional house, and when I saw the setting of Casa del Cinguietto I knew that it would present a very appealing prospect in my advertising. It sits on a hillside below a medieval castle, in a small village called Campello Alto, with wonderful views across the Spoleto Valley.
        “It was a total ruin when I bought it. A few bureaucratic hiccups meant it took quite a long time to get all the planning permissions. (Amusingly, I got permission to build a swimming pool about twelve months before I got permission to restore the house!) It was a major restoration project and the building work took about two years. I used two excellent architects plus a local builder and his assistant. The quality of workmanship was extraordinary. The basic structure was sound, but we put on a new roof, lowered the floor where the animals used to live, added an extension and a fantastic pool. It all went ahead thanks to a mixture of naivety and optimism on my part! At first, the lovely local people would talk about the ‘mad Englishwoman’ who was spending years restoring the hopeless ruin, and then when the house was nearly finished, they all started talking about the ‘bella casa’ and how wonderful the restoration was!
        “The best thing about being there is the peace and quiet. The setting feels very private, but it’s not isolated. The pace of life in Umbria is leisurely and relaxing. People stop and chat to you, and it’s all very pleasant. Thankfully, there’s no antipathy whatsoever to foreign buyers. Local people are delighted that you’re restoring old houses and bringing them back to life. Building bureaucracy varies from area to area, but it rarely stops you doing what you want. It’s easily navigated.
        “The holiday rentals on my house have always been successful. By April this year I was already fully booked from April all the way through to August. It’s roughly the same every year. Financially, the house pays for itself.”     www.casadelcinguettio.com















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All photographs on this page
by Fleur Kinson






Where to Buy in Italy