However much you love Italy’s wonderful countryside, you can’t have failed to notice that Italy’s cities are among the country’s greatest charms. Who wouldn’t swoon to behold the glories of Florence, Venice or Rome? But almost every Italian city is appealing in one way or another. There’s always a well-preserved historic centre, often pedestrianized, and invariably peppered with beautiful buildings. There are abundant independent shops rather than streets of faceless chainstores. The citizens are enthusiastic about their home metropolis, and being Italian, they tend to uphold the same strong sense of community we admire so much in their nation’s small towns and villages. Each Italian city has its own strong identity, its local dishes and particular festivals – making it a unique place. Best of all, Italian cities are almost always rather small, built on a human scale rather than sprawling on and on. In fact, only three Italian cities have a population of more than one million (Rome, Milan and Naples). Even mighty Rome, which is more than double the size of second-biggest city Milan, is only a third as big as London.
British buyers in Italy are most often drawn to farmhouses in the countryside. But if you’re thinking of relocating to Italy, or looking to make a particularly safe investment in Italian property, you’d do well to consider an apartment in one of Italy’s cities. We privacy-loving Brits tend to shudder at the word ‘apartment’, but be assured that Italian flats are extremely well-built for comfortable, long-term living. City-central buildings are often centuries-old, with thick stone walls that guard against neighbourly noise. Further from the centre, modern apartment buildings in concrete might be less beautiful on the outside, but they’re not necessarily less sound-proof on the inside. Italians don’t consider apartments a second-class property option, and builders plan for quiet in their construction. Nice outdoor spaces such as balconies, patios and terraces further add to the appeal of most Italian apartments.
Urban properties everywhere tend to retain their value extremely well, because there’s rarely a shortage of people looking to buy in a city. In any city loved by tourists, there’s the added bonus of strong holiday rental prospects. If the city also draws students and international businesspeople, there can be medium-to-long-term lets to consider, too. So, in more ways than one, an urban property proves a strong investment. But it also offers practical advantages for your own holidaymaking. If you plan to make frequent short visits to your apartment, you’ll find that its urban location allows you to enjoy maximum visiting time – i.e., you can fly into the city and soon be at your flat rather than spending an hour or two driving to a farmhouse out in the countryside.
Obviously, owning a city apartment puts all that city’s delights and distractions on your doorstep. But it also means a much lower-maintenance kind of property than a rambling old house out in the sticks. If your apartment building has a communal garden or pool, someone will maintain them for you. The spese del condominio is an annual charge paid by all apartment-owners in the same building to cover the cleaning and maintenance of shared spaces such as gardens, corridors and lifts, and the upkeep of drains, boiler room, roof and so on. Talk to your estate agent to make sure you know exactly how much the spese del condominio will be before you buy. Remember that maintenance costs on a rural house are still likely to prove higher in the long run.
|| If, rather than a holiday home, what you want is to relocate to Italy, an urban apartment is a strongly recommended first base. It’s harder to feel isolated or lonely in a city, plus it’s easier to learn the Italian way of doing things with shops and services all on your doorstep. Your Italian language skills will be practised more often, and, when the inevitable longing for your mother tongue hits, you’ll also be more likely to meet fellow ex-pats and Italians who can speak English in a city than in most places out in the countryside.
Thinking about costs, savings and other practical matters, note that many Italian city apartments are offered for sale ready-furnished. This of course can save you the headache of hoisting sofas and fridges up several floors to your door – as well as buying them in the first place. Be aware that if you do opt for an unfurnished place, though, what we might consider ‘fixed’ furniture is often considered ‘unfixed’ in Italy. In this country where the kitchen is a semi-sacred place, fixtures such as fridges, cookers, countertops and cupboards are likely to be moved on to the next property along with the owner’s tables and chairs. So don’t expect all ‘white goods’ to automatically be in place when you move in! Be sure to clarify with your agent what exactly an unfurnished property’s kitchen will possess. Also check whether a parking space for the property is included. Many urban apartments do not include a free parking space or garage facility, and you might have to buy one separately (they can be between €10,000 and €30,000). Even if you don’t plan on using a car yourself when visiting the property, a parking space could be a big plus for some rental clients.
As you can imagine, certain features make a property far more attractive for rentals. Visitors usually don’t want to be too far from the city’s centre, of course. And another big factor is whether an apartment has any outdoor space. A balcony, patio or terrace will greatly enhance your property’s rentability. It will also bump up what you have to pay for the place, as you’d expect. If you’re refurbishing your urban apartment before renting it out, this will greatly increase its desirability. Don’t scrimp on materials or labour, as every penny you spend improving the place will prove a very good investment on subsequent rental returns and the ultimate re-sale price of the property.
The big question, of course, is which Italian city to choose. For many readers, this is a ‘no-brainer’. You’ll already have a serious affection for one particular city and it will be there that you’ll definitely want to buy. Others readers will be more open to advice and suggestion, seeking particularly good rental prospects or some other desirable factor. Let’s look through some options, starting with the three cities most loved by visitors and by foreign buyers: Venice, Florence and Rome. As you’d expect, these tend to be the most expensive cities in Italy, but they each offer superb holiday rental prospects – and for many more weeks of the year than rural locations.
Crowded, decaying and flood-prone, Venice is nonetheless one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. Its central island has a permanent population of less than 100,000, but it receives a staggering twelve million visitors every year. The least you can expect to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in Venice is about €250,000, while well-situated two-beds start at about €350,000. Note that old canalside buildings can be quite high-maintenance, being subject to damp and so on. Note also that Venice has some especially sleek and lovely modern developments in outlying areas such as Lido di Jesolo. You could reasonably expect rental returns of about €600 a week on a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, or €800-€1,000 per week on a two-bed, twenty-five weeks of the year. Andrea Redivo Zaglia of Veneto specialists Properties in Italy says you’re likely to get a 6-7% annual return on a Venetian property. He notes that while the city’s prices haven’t gone down since the onset of international recession in 2008, today’s vendors are often open to negotiation on asking prices. “Some of the best deals,” he adds, “can be made with properties needing refurbishment. These can be made very profitable if well restored and managed.”
A magnet for lovers of Renaissance art and architecture, Florence teems with visitors all year round. Its property prices are comparable with those of Venice. Linda Travella of the longstanding agency Casa Travella advises buying a home a short bus ride out rather than slap-bang in Florence’s crowded city centre. And what about mighty Rome? Property here can be slightly higher-priced even than in Venice or Florence, but rental returns are slightly higher too. In Rome you might consider buying on the city outskirts in order to save money. Plenty of holidaymakers and students are happy to rent a place on the edges of the city rather than in the centre – but make sure the nearby transport connections are good!
If the sky-high prices of Italy’s big three tourist cities aren’t what you’re looking for, you probably shouldn’t consider Milan, either. Italy’s super-slick, hard-working second city has property prices on a par with Rome’s. But have you thought about Turin, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Bologna, Perugia, Padua? Each is an attractive place with plenty of visiting tourists – and students – to form a decent rental clientele. Linda Travella of Casa Travella recommends considering a university city such as Padua to take advantage of two types of rental client. Perugia in lovely Umbria would be another good choice, since it has two universities, plenty of leisure visitors, but also a fair number of foreign businesspeople making short-to-medium-term stays in the city.
| Obviously, the most important factor in your decision is how much you love the city in question. Only you can know which particular metropolis feels right to you. Do some research, make some exploratory visits. Italy is full of great cities offering very strong investment prospects. They are also, of course, magical places with which you can fall in love.
– pop. 2,650,000
Italy’s brash, loud, vibrant capital is almost oppressively rich in history – from Classical treasures to medieval alleyways to Baroque fountains to Fascist-era monoliths. It’s a confident, thick-skinned place, secure in its achievements and unsurprised to receive 12 million visitors a year. For all Rome’s expense and congestion, a high proportion of ex-pats who settle down here ‘for a while’ never go home again. Property prices are very high. Apartments range from €2,500-€5,000 per m², with one-bedroom places asking about €300,000 on average; two-beds about €400,000. Holiday rental prospects are excellent, as are long-term lets to students or professionals.
– pop. 1,300,000
Milan is Italy’s wealthiest and probably best-dressed city. Capital of finance, fashion, design and media, this is a business-minded metropolis driven by cool-headed workaholics in razor-sharp suits. Sleek, fast-paced Milan might not be physically beautiful (beyond its dazzling duomo), but it offers assured comfort and quality at every turn. Shopping, nightlife, and the arts scene are all world-class. And the lovely northern lakes are never too far away. Milan’s property is pricy, with one-bedroom apartments asking around €200,000, and two-beds about €320,000. Lots of old palazzi have been converted into stylish flats.
– pop. 1,050,000
Magnificently set on a breathtaking bay beside a totemic volcano, Naples is an exuberant and thoroughly beguiling city. Its cheerful, free-spirited populace smile in the face of poverty and laugh at the rules of the road. Ex-pats generally steer clear of Naples, fearing its petty crime and traffic chaos. But it’s an intensely colourful spot, and handily close to Capri and the Amalfi coast. The food is glorious, and the cost of living low. Lots of people want to live here, and property is more expensive than you might expect. One-bedroom apartments in nice areas ask around €190,000 on average, two-beds about €260,000. Investors should consider long-term lets to locals.
– pop. 920,000
Enjoying relatively fresh urban air at the foot of the Alps, industrious Turin has elegant boulevards, Baroque palaces, sleek boutiques and French-influenced cuisine. It’s an appealing and under-rated place, with a lively café scene and access to great skiing in the winter. The city outskirts are dominated by characterless apartment blocks, but the centre is very attractive. Property prices are quite reasonable. One-bedroom apartments go for about €120,000 on average; two-beds for about €200,000. Long-term rentals to southern Italian migrant workers or students are a better bet than short-term lets to tourists.
– pop. 690,000
Noisy, bustling Palermo is Sicily’s capital and the island’s biggest city – superbly set on a wide bay. Formerly a mafia stronghold, it’s a much improved and revitalized place these days. The city’s architecture is full of exotic elements – testament to Sicily’s colourful past – and there are lots of attractive old properties to be restored. (Government grants can cover your restoration costs, but applications can take years to be approved.) Apartments are inexpensive, starting at about €1,000 per m² and rarely going above €2,500 per m². One-beds ask less than €100,000.
Zesty, colourful Genoa has thrived on seaborne trade for 1,500 years and it’s still Italy’s largest port. Eclectic in food and architecture, this cosmopolitan city stretches for miles along its cluttered shoreline, with the mouth-watering resorts of coastal Liguria never too far away. For property, Genoa can be one of the cheapest spots in Liguria, with larger properties offering particularly good value. One-bedroom apartments ask about €150,000 on average; two-beds about €230,000. Buyers hoping to let might consider long-term tenants, as well as the modest holiday rental market here.
– pop. 385,000
Inexplicably overlooked by foreign tourists, Bologna is a lively and prosperous city with a striking red-brick medieval centre. Home to Italy’s best restaurants and Europe’s oldest university, Bologna is genial, cultured, well-paced and easy-going. It offers a very high quality of life, but living costs can be substantial. Property prices have risen steadily, and the city is considered a good investment. Long-term rental prospects from students are very good. One-bedroom apartments ask about €170,000 on average, two-beds about €250,000.
– pop. 381,000
Stuffed full of exquisite paintings, sculptures and churches, Renaissance Florence is a magnet for lovers of art and architecture. The British have long adored this capital of Tuscany, and there’s no shortage of them here along with other ex-pats. Property prices in Florence are high, having long shown stable, steady growth, but the city is considered a good investment. Tourists visit at all times of the year, and there are also innumerable students to rent to. A one-bedroom apartment might ask €230,000; a two-bed €350,000. For all its loveliness, note that Florence can be crowded and traffic-choked.
– pop. 295,000
Often deemed the world’s most romantic city, Venice is a uniquely beautiful place that never leaves your imagination once you’ve visited. Crumbling, flood-prone and difficult to live in, it nonetheless draws thousands of rapturous ex-pats and millions of dazzled visitors every year. Property prices are sky-high, but holiday rental prospects superb. Prices are astronomical on the Grand Canal, and lowest near the train and bus stations, in Cannaregio, and in other less-touristy areas. Note that lovely old buildings are generally very high-maintenance and prone to damp. Newer developments on the city’s periphery can be very sleek and well-designed. Expect most one-bed apartments to ask at least €300,000.
– pop. 152,000
Umbria’s bewitching capital city is a small place – beftting this region of tiny settlements filled to the brim with history and elegant architecture. Population-wise, Perugia is only Italy’s 24th-biggest city, but it deserves inclusion here because it offers such good investment. It’s not overpriced, it has lots of tourists, lots of students (both giving good rental prospects), and it gives easy access to glorious surrounding countryside (where property is more expensive than in the city itself). One-beds average around €100,000, two-beds €180,000.
Wimbledon-based Chris Larkman and his wife Clare Gummett bought an apartment in Rome as an investment in 2001. “I lived in Rome in the sixties while training to be a Catholic priest,” Chris explains. “I subsequently left, but my love of Rome continued. Then I got married and had a family, and Clare and I often went back to Rome. I had this dream of buying somewhere to let out, making it pay for itself and giving us the opportunity to go there often.
“It’s a basement apartment, open-plan, in the most delightful courtyard right in the centre of Rome near the Campo de’ Fiori. The courtyard is so picturesque you see it pictured on tourist postcards as a view of quintessential Rome. We bought the apartment for just £72,000 and spent another £13,000 on renovation and furnishing. The price was low because it required renovation and is situated below ground, but it’s a lovely cool retreat from the heat of the city. We bought at the right time; prices in Rome have gone up hugely since then. We bought it as a business – the rentals pay the mortgage costs. In 2016 it’ll be ours completely. We visit every couple of months. In the wintertime when we don’t get so many bookings, we’ll be there for a week at a time. Other times we may be there for a few days.
“With the rentals, we’ve had tremendous success. We have at least 40 weeks booked every year, which is more than we ever dreamt of. Because of that success, we’ve also started managing the lets on apartments owned by friends we’ve made – several apartments in Rome, and one in Venice. We’re a small company with a personal touch and we spend a lot of time making sure all the properties are up to scratch.
“The best thing about owning somewhere in a city is it’s more or less a year-round rental opportunity. If you’ve got a farmhouse in Tuscany, it’s difficult to let it out beyond May to September. And a lot of that time you want to be there yourself anyway. We bought our apartment as somewhere to let out, but over the years it has increasingly become our second home. There’s a village atmosphere round that part of Rome, with bars where local people meet for their morning coffee – Angelo welcomes us knowing exactly what each of us wants, as if we were there the previous day. Then there’s Stefano at the shop where we buy our parmesan and prosciutto, and Anna at the dairies, and the bakers… The area is a really lively friendly village, and offers a beautiful life which is so different from ours here.” www.aplaceinrome.com
New Englander Jackie Reding fell in love with Venice on her first visit and swiftly bought a two-bedroom apartment in the lovely Dorsoduro district. She crosses the Atlantic every few months to enjoy time at the property and also to make sure it’s still in perfect condition for her holiday rental clients.
“I’d been thinking for a while about buying a property abroad, perhaps in the UK,” Jackie explains. “Then I went to Italy for the first time in 2008. I only had three days to spend in Venice, which wasn’t long enough. I had rented an apartment, right next door to the one that’s now mine. When I left I e-mailed the owner to thank her for a lovely stay and I added, half-jokingly, ‘If you ever want to sell your wonderful apartment, let me know!’ She wrote back and said ‘Well, as it happens, the one next door is for sale…’ I never dreamed it would all happen so quickly. I contacted Andrea Zaglia of Properties in Italy, and he showed me several apartments including the one I bought, just three months after staying in the apartment next door! It all felt ‘meant to be’.
“We did a little renovation work. We re-did the floor and plastered the walls. And we refitted the kitchen and bathroom. I had a vision of what I wanted it to be like. I bought it in November, and we opened for our first rentals in March the following year. The rentals market is very strong in Venice and we get plenty of clients. The apartment is well-stocked and I’ve paid a lot of attention to providing all amenities. I want people to feel very comfortable and at home there. I want them to fall in love with Venice, like I did.
“The rentals help pay the mortgage. It would be lovely to live there, of course, but I can’t right now with my two children at school here in New England and my husband’s work, but maybe one day we’ll finally move there, who knows? As a family we spend a summer month at the apartment every year, and then I go out regularly to ensure everything’s perfect for the rental clients.
“The property isn’t high-maintenance, but moderate-maintenance. In Venice a lot can depend on how old the building is. 500-year-old palazzi are wonderful, but some floors can suffer in high water. Our building is only about 100 years old. We’re right on the canalside, but our ground floor is at least a metre above street level, so thankfully we’re never troubled when acqua alta comes!
“My advice for anyone hoping to buy in Venice is: be prepared for the unexpected. Be flexible and adaptable. Stay relaxed, and embrace the Italian way of doing things!” www.cavenexiana.com