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Italy has more than its share of stylish holiday-home locations but one of the most celebrated, Lake Como, now offers unusually good value after several years of price falls. Not that purchasers of waterfront homes around this 56 square mile lake usually require financial incentives to buy.
The lake, just an hour from Milan and its airports, is regarded as one of Europe’s most attractive areas, and its hillsides are scattered with historic villas and palaces. Prices of homes on the water’s edge are therefore high and relatively robust.
For example, an eight-bedroom, lakeside villa, with a separate cottage and small private harbour is on the market with Sotheby's International Realty for €28m. The property, which includes three moorings, is located close to the small town of Laglio on the lake’s western shore.
A modern six-bedroom, four-bathroom villa close to the village of Colico on the northern part of the lake, with an adjoining two-bedroom staff apartment, is on sale through Gascoignes International for €8.9m.
These are among mainland Europe’s highest values outside of the major cities. They are also up to 20 per cent more expensive than Italy’s other lake districts of Garda, which lacks Como’s dramatic landscape, and Maggiore.
Como’s advantages mean not only higher prices but also more stardust. The privacy afforded by the position of the lake and nearby hills, the accepted use of helicopters and private launches for travel, and excellent weather – average highs of 26C for three months each summer – makes it unsurprising that Como attracts celebrity purchasers. Yet the stellar prices paid by these and other homebuyers may have been higher still but for a housing downturn, which in Italy – unlike in many countries – is not yet considered to have ended.
Italian second-home values in most areas are down as much as 30 per cent since 2008, according to Rupert Fawcett of estate agency Knight Frank. He says the scarcity of large waterfront homes in perfect condition at Como has kept the values of these properties high but an oversupply of flats and smaller villas just inland has led values to drop by about a fifth.
“We are reaching bottom,” he says. “Expect some price stability over the next few years.”
International buyers wishing to secure a property in Como before prices rise may also be encouraged by a change in Italy’s fiscal regime. From January this year a purchase tax on second homes has been reduced from 10 per cent of a property’s official “cadastral value” – the value put on it by local authorities based on often-outdated maps and appraisals – to 9 per cent. Associated land taxes have also been cut from 18 to 12 per cent.
“Cadastral values of older homes are typically considerably less than sale prices, sometimes 50 or even 70 per cent less. But there’s a drive to revise cadastral values [upwards] as there’s such a disparity between cadastral and actual prices,” says Gemma Bruce of Casa & Country Italian Property, an agency that finds and sells homes for clients. The current reduced tax may account for a rise in business this year for Casa & Country and other buying agencies in Lake Como, such as Ultissimo.
“International buyers were historically dominated by Britons and Americans. This has expanded significantly”, says Paul Belcher, managing director of Ultissimo, who points out that Asian and Middle Eastern clients are now common. Other agents report that Russians and other east Europeans are showing an interest, too.
Overseas buyers want three different types of home: some require “lock-up-and-leave” apartments, of which there are only a few on sale; a small number of buyers with patience want to take on a major renovation of an old property; while the majority of bigger-budget buyers seek individual period houses, ideally on the water.
Agents say most buyers look in the first basin of Como’s Y-shaped lake, from Como town to the Bellagio peninsula on the east shore and to Menaggio on the west. The west is considered easiest for access to Milan’s airports and the Swiss border.
The most favoured small towns around the lake are Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Bellagio and Laglio, but each town or village has different features. Some have olive groves, some see the sun early or late, while others specialise in watersports or food. Most have small populations, unspoilt streets, cafés, shops, hotels and a variety of modest houses and large mansions.
Como Lake Resort is a new development of 13 two- and four-bedroom apartments, located on the western shore, a few minutes from Cernobbio. The properties are on sale with Knight Frank, priced €1.2m to €2.8m.
Although buyers seeking quietness and quality may start their search at the lakeside, they often end up settling for a home some distance away.
Sometimes this is because they cannot afford lakeside prices but, says Rupert Fawcett, it may also be because they discover that waterfront “houses can run very close to the roads and the majority of older properties are in need of updating”.
Even if a buyer succeeds in securing a home on the lake with a private mooring, this does not make it immune from price falls in Italy’s volatile market. For example, Knight Frank is selling an 11-bedroom waterfront villa with 10,000 sq ft of interior space spread over four floors. The downside is that each storey is independent of the others, the garden is less than half an acre and there is no pool. Since going on sale, the price has been cut from €5.7m to €4.8m.
To many, however, securing a sound investment is not the main reason they opt for Lake Como. Instead, it is the area’s charm and history that draws them. If that means much of the stock is in need of repair, leaving the area with a slightly faded charm, so what? Lake Como has been a beauty spot since Roman times: it is still beautiful today.
● Lake Como is 1,300ft deep in places, making it one of Europe’s deepest lakes
● There are 70,000 residents in the 31 villages and towns around the lake
● Buyers should check building permits on modern homes, some of which have been built illegally
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A small apartment in a complex high in hills near the lake
€1m A two-bedroom apartment in Como, a short walk from the lake
€5m A four-bedroom villa close to the lake with a small garden