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Like most visitors of the time, Mark Twain approached Lake Como by train from Milan. It was 1867, the American’s tour of Europe and the Middle East — recounted in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad — was in full swing and, despite the diversions of his carriage companions — “a monster-headed dwarf and a moustached woman” — he was falling for the local scenery. On arrival at the lake, Twain’s attention turned to “the multitude of pretty houses and gardens that cluster upon its shores and on its mountain sides”.
Impressive homes, remarkable views and quiet seclusion have propelled Lake Como to the top of the list of Italy’s mainstream leisure destinations. The average price per square metre in Lake Como is around €6,000, compared with around €3,250 in Tuscany and €2,500 in Umbria, according to Savills.
The area’s enviable characteristics may also have helped it dodge the worst of Italy’s recent property downturn. In the year to June, average prices across the 15 prime Italian markets monitored by Knight Frank fell 4.9 per cent. Over the equivalent period, prices in Lake Como haven’t budged, says the agent. While this is hardly spectacular, it is preferable to the 8.4 per cent drop in southern Tuscany, say, or the 13.5 per cent fall-off in Portofino.
Many of the top-end lakeside homes that attracted Twain’s attention were newly built by 19th-century merchants on the proceeds of Milan’s booming silk trade, says Jelena Cvjetkovic, of Savills’ international team. The railways brought the lake within easy reach of the city; today, affluent urbanites can make it to their lakeside villas in less than an hour by car.
Lake Como has long been a favourite among the European elite. Brits enjoy the mild summer; the Swiss like its proximity, says Amy Redfern of Knight Frank’s Italy team. Lately, the Russians have been trickling back; for homes below €500,000, the French are now showing more interest, says Cvjetkovic.
The appetite for large Italian renovation projects, which for years stoked the rural property market — most notably in Tuscany — is waning, say agents. While three-quarters of Savills’ clients who are looking for Italian homes say they are hunting for “historic” properties, those most in demand have already been renovated to a high standard, says Paul Tostevin of the firm’s research department.
Lake Como should benefit from this trend. Unlike in Tuscany, where rural farmhouses have been falling into disrepair for centuries, the relative youth of Como’s fine lakeside homes means few need much work.
Como received a sprinkling of stardust in 2012, when film star George Clooney bought the sprawling Villa Oleandra beside the lake in Laglio. “This coincided with a spike of interest in second homes globally, which saw the redevelopment of some lakeside villas into high-end apartment complexes with common facilities,” says Cvjetkovic. Savills is selling a new five-bedroom villa with a pool and a private dock in Laglio for €7.5m.
Detached lakeside homes require a hefty wallet, says Redfern. She directs those with a budget below €3m towards an apartment in one of the newly renovated villas, which boast shared grounds and a pool. There is the occasional opportunity for the more conservative wallet: Knight Frank is selling a three-bedroom lakeside apartment in Villa Plinianina in Torno for €550,000. The cheapest homes with lake access, boat house and private grounds will set you back €3m, says Redfern; for the best, you can easily part with €20m, but these rarely come on the market.
This being a buyer’s market, however, hunting hard will yield rewards. Savills is selling a detached 18th-century lakeside home with two bedrooms in Torno for €1.3m. A bit of hard negotiation is likely to help, too. The agent’s latest data show that prime Italian homes are currently selling, on average, for 12 per cent less than the advertised price.
• Average prime prices in Lake Como are €6,000 per sq metre, according to Savills
• Prime prices in Italy are still 30 per cent below their peak, according to Savills
• Regular flights connect Milan to London (two hours) and New York (nine hours)
What you can buy for . . .
€1m A two-bedroom apartment with outdoor space and a private mooring in Torno
€2.5m A three-bedroom house with lake views and pool in Laglio
€5m A four-bedroom period lakeside villa in Carate Urio with gardens, large private dock and servants’ apartment
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
Photograph: Anna Bryukhanova / Getty Images