Beautiful landscapes, great weather and world-beating gastronomy make Piedmont a northern Italian treasure trove. Visitor numbers keep rising, yet property here remains surprisingly affordable, says Fleur Kinson.
In a sensible world, Piedmont would be among the Italian regions most popular with overseas buyers – up there with the likes of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. It has all the kinds of things foreign buyers usually favour: lyrical hilly countryside, pretty farmhouses set amidst vineyards, handsome and super-civilized towns, elegant lakesides and celestial peaks with great skiing. Foreign buyers tend to rather like good food and wine too, and Piedmont excels in both to such a degree that many say it offers Italy’s absolute best. And yet, for all this, Piedmont hasn’t seen anything like the levels of foreign-buyer interest you might expect. It’s a bit of a mystery, really.
The region is situated way up in Italy’s north (it borders France and Switzerland, as well as the Italian regions of Lombardy and Liguria), so perhaps many home-hunters have assumed that Piedmont’s climate isn’t quite as lovely as that of regions further south. But statistically, less rain falls in Asti each year than in Florence or Rome. And you don’t produce some of Italy’s premier wines without lashings of sunshine (mighty Barolo and Barbaresco are both Piemontese). Perhaps would-be buyers have always heard that Italy’s south is its cheapest part, and assumed that a wealthy and well-equipped region like Piedmont – with its slick infrastructure and high quality of life – would be just too expensive for them. But Piedmont’s property prices are considerably lower than those of central Italian regions with similar appeal. You might get a habitable farmhouse in Piedmont’s wine-growing country for €150,000, or a village home in the same desirable landscape for €60,000. That’s less than half of what you’re likely to pay for similar properties in Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. Not only does Piedmont have geography, climate and gastronomy on its side, it has affordability too.
Piedmont’s geography is so diverse that it’s worth spending a moment telling you all that’s here. In the region’s north and west, magnificent mountain scenery cradles charming Alpine villages, and offers some of Italy’s best skiing (the same can be said for the teeny tiny Valle d'Aosta region cradled by Piedmont's northwest). Piedmont’s northeast features gem-like Lake Orta and the gilded western shores of Lake Maggiore – serene and sophisticated places decorated with elegant, fruit-coloured villas. Moving south, through a flat expanse of bright green ricefields, Piedmont soon starts to rise and undulate into the exceptionally beautiful hills of ‘Le Langhe’ and its neighbouring areas – gastronomically legendary places yielding white truffles, world-class wines and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any comparably-sized rural area of the world. It’s little surprise that the Slow Food movement started here and still maintains its headquarters here.
A large proportion of foreign buyers in Piedmont have favoured its verdant southeastern hills, choosing areas such as Le Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. This lovely swathe of Piedmont first started coming to the attention of foreign buyers from around the year 2000, and until the international financial crisis hit in 2008 properties in the area were increasingly sought-after; their prices rose by as much as 25% over about eight years. Sales have been much slower since the onset of the recession, and now five years later prices are slightly lower than they were way back in 2008. As is usual for Italy and its remarkably stable property market, southeastern Piedmont’s prices certainly haven’t plummeted; rather they have modestly sunk a bit and vendors are more open to offers below their asking prices – making now a very good time to buy. All the things that had been drawing pre-recession buyers to this lovely, unspoilt place are still here, and the area is certainly able to soak up many more foreign buyers without putting a dent in its character. Currently you might get a restored village home in the southeastern hills for about €60,000, a three-bed country home for less than €150,000, or a luxury character home for €300,000 and upwards.
Lesley Wisbey of Piedmont Property says that “In the wine areas of Monferrato and Le Langhe the market is active and strong. Given the overall economic climate, we now see clients wanting to be sure they make good property investments, and that’s easy to do in an area with growing tourism and great potential for return on your investment from holiday rental income – not to mention future increases in property prices.” Lesley adds that rural locales immediately surrounding the Le Langhe towns of Alba and Barolo see the highest property prices, and advises bargain-hunters to investigate other stretches of the Le Langhe area. Richard Edwards of Piemonte Property concurs, and highlights the potential of the area around the Le Langhe town of Asti. He says “The Asti area is always a little cheaper, and offers very good value for money.”
Both Lesley and Richard agree that holiday rental prospects are very good in Piedmont’s leafy southeastern hills. Note that the rentals season doesn’t just include the summer – the area’s big gastro-tourism events and festivals draw in lots of visitors during the spring and summer too. Many prospective buyers are probably wondering about restoring tumbledown rural homes in southeastern Piedmont. Richard Edwards doesn’t recommend undertaking a restoration project at the moment. He says “Builders’ prices have gone up and the prices of fully-restored houses have come down, so it makes little sense to restore now. It’s a much better idea to buy a house that’s ready to move into.” Lesley Wisbey is similarly hesitant to encourage restoring. She says “Doing a restoration is good because you get something perfectly tailored to your personal taste. But it isn’t always the cheapest solution, especially as there are currently some very keenly priced fully-restored properties available here.”
Piedmont’s delicious southeast isn’t the only part of the region to interest foreign buyers, of course. You might prefer to take advantage of Piedmont’s lovely lakes or magnificent high mountains, or even its one slick big city, Turin. Let’s take a quick look at the appeal and the market of these other places.
Italy’s gorgeous northern lakes are among the most desirable and expensive places in the country. Green mountains plunging into glittering blue water, watersides strung with elegant little towns – who could fail to fall for that? As mentioned earlier, Piedmont’s portion of the northern lakes consists of the popular western half of Lake Maggiore and all of tiny Lake Orta. Maggiore is an old favourite with British visitors, and there are some very good-value apartments here – particularly in converted period villas. One-bedroom apartments can go for about €150,000 and two-beds for about €200,000. Summer rental prospects are really excellent, and you might expect to get €700 a week on a one-bed apartment, €850 on a two-bed. Note that charming Lake Orta has slightly lower property prices and sees slightly fewer visitors.
Piedmont is a region well known to skiers, and if you’re a fan of the white stuff and of dramatic mountain scenery generally, then look to the region’s north and west. Together with the tiny adjacent Valle d’Aosta region, Piedmont offers world-class skiing from unspoilt and picturesque resorts. As you would imagine, the winter rental scene up here is very strong (with a fair few summer hikers trickling in, too). Prices cover a very wide range, with some studio apartments asking less than €100,000 and some large three-bed flats going for €400,000 or more. Note that Italian buyers and visitors like to be situated in the very heart of a ski resort if possible, so property prices drop considerably if you’re willing to buy just ten minutes outside a resort’s centre. You might also save money buying a mountain home needing some renovation, as Italian buyers prefer something modern and fully-functioning. In Piedmont’s Alpine areas, you might find a one-bedroom house needing renovation for around €100,000, or a three-bed for €200,000. As for rentals, you could expect to rent out a ski-oriented property for about fourteen winter weeks, asking around €650 per week for a studio and perhaps €1,200 for a two-bed. Helen Thomson, who owns the Chalet Le Reverier, points out that ski holiday rentals are extremely good in Valle d'Aosta, Italy’s smallest official region. People are less keen to pay the higher prices of French slopes, but still want top-notch skiing in beautiful, well-equipped resorts. Valle d’Aosta fits that bill perfectly.
No discussion of Piedmont should omit the region’s distinctive capital, Turin. An often under-rated metropolis, Turin has wide boulevards, elegant Baroque façades and miles of arcaded pavements flanked by sleek boutiques. For all its hard-working industry (it’s famously the home of Fiat, among other companies), Turin’s air blows in clean and fresh from the imposing Alps visible around the city – making it a very liveable and rather inspiring place. The city’s population is manageable too, with just under a million inhabitants. That makes it by far the biggest city in Piedmont, but by international standards Turin is still a pretty small place. It has to be said that there’s not a lot of tourist rental potential in Turin, but medium-to-long-term lets to students and to professionals are a safe bet. City apartments are a fraction of the cost of Milan or Rome, with two-bedroom homes going for about €200,000.
You should note the appeal of Piedmont’s towns and settlements generally – places such as Alba and countless others. Many buyers in Italy want to be out in the countryside, but Piedmont is one of several Italian regions where the towns and small cities are particularly delightful places to live. Efficient and orderly but relaxed and easy-going, Piedmont’s towns and small cities enjoy a very healthy pace of life, with a strong emphasis on good food and contented community. They’re safe, tidy, attractive and well-organized. It is perhaps no surprise that the Slow Food movement that began in Piedmont eventually expanded to include the concept of Slow Cities – places where daily life is easy and pleasurable.
All round, you’re sure to see by now that Piedmont has a huge amount to offer. Visitor numbers reflect this, with more people sampling the region every year. Foreign buyers ought to take rather more notice of this place and its manifold blessings. Glorious landscapes, stunning gastronomy and surprising affordability – what more could you want?
With its beautiful Alpine backdrop and its wide, elegant boulevards, Turin is an attractive and much under-rated city. Switched-on and techno-savvy, Turin prospers on its car-manufacture and hi-tech industries. Its glossy bars and cafés are lively with students, and its miles of arcaded pavements glitter with sleek boutiques. Some of the city outskirts can be fairly characterless, dominated by uninspiring apartment blocks, but the more central areas are very likeable indeed. While property in Turin can be almost double the price of similar accommodation in Piedmont’s other towns and small cities, the city is still much cheaper than nearby Milan – northern Italy’s other economic powerhouse. One-bedroom apartments go for about €120,000 on average; two-beds for about €200,000. The rentals scene is dominated by southern Italian migrants who’ve come to Turin to work, and students at the university here. So, think mid-to-long-term rentals rather than short-term holiday lets.
West of Turin, Piedmont’s spectacular Alpine area spreads to the border with France. It’s a skier’s paradise, with the busy ‘Milky Way’ network of resorts offering together about 400km of excellent slopes. The unspoilt, picturesque villages round here flank thoroughly modern ski facilities – made even better by an estimated billion-euro investment in the run-up to 2006’s Winter Olympics. Sestriere, just 60 miles from Turin, draws a metropolitan crowd at the weekend. It was Italy’s first purpose-built ski resort, and it’s still a fashionable and well-equipped place. Nearby lie attractive towns-cum-resorts like Pinerolo, Pragelato, Claviere, Cesana and Sauze d’Oulx. Bardonecchia is especially loved by snowboarders, and family-oriented Sansicario is best known for its challenging runs. Property in Piedmont’s Alpine area is popular with local buyers as well as with foreigners. Ski-oriented studio apartments ask about €100,000. Holiday rental prospects are excellent. In addition to the eager snow-crowd, smaller numbers of summer walkers are drawn to the area, making year-round rentals a possibility. You could reasonably expect to rent out a ski property for 14 weeks in the winter, garnering €600 a week for a studio apartment and €1,200 for a two-bed.
With 100,000 inhabitants spread across 8,500 square kilometers, Valle d’Aosta is Italy’s smallest region and one of its most thinly-populated. It’s a very wealthy and contented place, however, tucked up against the border with Switzerland and enjoying a mixed Swiss-French-Italian culture. With such celestial mountain scenery, it’s fitting that the huge national park up here (Italy’s oldest) is named the Gran Paradiso. Valle d’Aosta’s skiing is amongst the best in Italy, with stylish Courmayeur regularly acclaimed as the country’s superlative ski resort. Summer hikers are much less numerous than winter visitors in Valle d’Aosta, but they still offer some potential for year-round holiday rentals. Property in Courmayeur is hugely expensive, with villas here asking more than a million euros, but a little cottage needing work five minutes away from a lesser-known ski resort can cost as little as €80,000. Prices tumble just a short distance from resorts, with ready-converted 3-bedroom properties asking less than €200,000. A small apartment right next to a ski slope, meanwhile, might ask €150,000.
Lake Maggiore’s long and popular western shore – including its number one resort, Stresa – lies in Piedmont. So does all of tiny Lake Orta. Both lakes have the exquisite landscapes, elegant atmosphere and pretty buildings you’d expect from Italy’s northern lakes, and both are blessed with villa-studded islands that greatly enhance their charm. Maggiore is much better known than little Orta, and is today particularly popular with older British visitors. As befits a long-loved holiday destination, property prices on Lake Maggiore can be quite high, with one-bedroom apartments going for about €150,000 on average, and two-beds for €200,000 or more. But many of the properties on offer are charming, with plenty of apartments available in converted period villas. Rental prospects are excellent, and in the summer you could charge about €650 a week for a one-bed apartment, €800 for a two-bed. Lake Orta’s property prices are a bit lower than Lake Maggiore’s, and slightly fewer visitors find their way here. Piedmont’s lakesides are within easy daytripping distance of certain ski resorts. If you were to choose to buy halfway between a lake and a piste, you could have access to summer and winter entertainment, and/or rent your property to two kinds of holidaymaker.
Southern Piedmont is a super-fertile realm of teeming agriculture and wonderful foodstuffs. The pancake-flat Po Valley area grows tons of rice, its bright green paddyfields stretching for miles into the distance. Further south, hills and ridges start to appear and eventually dominate the landscape. Lushly green and meticulously farmed, these beautiful hillsides produce some of the best food and wine in Italy. It’s down here in hilly southern Piedmont that the property market is really going to be something to watch over the next couple of years. Foreign buyers have started to ‘discover’ the place – with the lovely area called Le Langhe being particularly prized. Vine-clad Le Langhe produces the stunning Barolo wine, as well as the world’s best white truffles. Its property prices are the highest in southern Piedmont, yet remain great value for money. Habitable country homes with several bedrooms here go for about €200,000. Beyond Le Langhe and the other wine areas of Piedmont’s hilly south, similar properties ask only about €120,000. But prices down here have risen steadily over the last few years and will surely keep doing so as foreign buyer interest grows further. Note that there’s not a lot for sale in the south that needs major restoration. Old properties are generally well-maintained. Holiday rental prospects are very good. There’s a shortage of self-catering accommodation across much of Piedmont’s south, and the holiday season is very long thanks to good weather and popular autumn food festivals.
London-based Ingrid and Phil Blades own a large farmhouse surrounded by vineyards in the Monferrato area of Piedmont. They produce and export their own red and white wines,and offer holiday rentals.
“We spent two years looking for the right property,” Ingrid says. “We considered Tuscany, Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna, as well as Piedmont. We fell in love with Piedmont because of the landscape, and because it’s an area that isn’t full of tourists or ex-pats. To enjoy the lifestyle here you’ve got to integrate well with the community, and learn Italian. Piedmont is real Italy, far from the package-tourist trail. You also get far more property for your money in Piedmont than you would in Tuscany. We didn’t want to be in Italy’s south because of the excessive heat in the summer. We love the climate in Piedmont, and the fact that there are very distinct seasons. Proper fluffy snow in the winter, a short spring, long summer, and wonderfully golden autumn – my favourite time of year here.”
The Blades’ property is a very old farmhouse, ‘Vecchio Podere Santa Cristiana’, which had previously been owned and partially restored by a well-known Italian racer and Ferrari test-driver. “We did further restoration work,” Ingrid explains, “and now we have two self-catering holiday apartments in addition to the five en suite bedrooms inside the main house which we run as a B&B. We put in a swimming pool too, and spent a lot of money on the vineyards. Really the reason we bought the property was because of the vineyards. They were fairly neglected, and we had to bring them fully back to life. We did the usual English thing of working all hours, including in the midday sun. All our neighbours kept telling us “Piano, piano!” – which in this context means ‘slowly, slowly!’ So that’s the name we gave our Barbera d’Asti wine, Piano Piano. We ship to London and Manchester and sell from there. We restored the vineyards biodynamically, which is better than organic, and involves fully respecting natural processes, the seasons and the whole ecosystem around the vines.”
Ingrid says the rentals are going well, as southern Piedmont increasingly appeals to discerning travellers. The region’s legendary gastronomy is a big draw, and visitors love the idea of staying somewhere surrounded by working vines. Ingrid points out that “You need to drive here, and that deters a lot of people who would normally go on package holidays.”
Ingrid and Phil go out to Piedmont very often, and especially at key stages in the wine-producing year. Back in the UK, they attend wine fairs and events to promote their Barbera d’Asti and Moscato d’Asti wines. Sounds rather an idyllic life, doesn’t it? www.stayinpiedmont.com www.piedmontwine.com
Buckinghamshire-based Penelope and Richard Meredith own a large farmhouse overlooking vineyard-covered hills in the Le Langhe area of southeastern Piedmont. They and their four grown-up children enjoy frequent visits, and maintain a very successful holiday rentals sideline.
“We’d always loved Italy,” Penelope explains. “The food and wine, the scenery, the people. We’ve always found Italians incredibly welcoming and friendly. We thought about buying a property in Spain or in France, but our hearts kept coming back to Italy. We became acquainted with Piedmont because friends had a property there. We loved the region because it was so Italian, so unlike more touristy areas where people in shops switch to English when you go in. It’s also the home of the Slow Food movement, and the food is second to none. It seems to us that you can go to a Michelin-starred restaurant and then to a local trattoria and have an equally stunning meal!
“Our house, Cascina Pomona, is a three-hundred-year-old farm estate about 25 minutes from Alba. So we’re in white truffle country. Lesley Wisbey of Piedmont Property found it for us, and she was so helpful from start to finish. It’s two buildings – two sides of a square. They were fully renovated about twelve years ago by a Milanese businessman who used the property as a holiday home for his family. He had restored it so beautifully that it won an award in 2002 for the most sympathetically designed restoration in the Langhe area. It has typical stone floors, vaulted ceilings and two big open fireplaces. He put in a magnificent kitchen with a big industrial oven. The main house has three en suite bedrooms and the little house has two more. The location is secluded, but not remote, with a village about five minutes away. And we have wonderful views across vineyards.
“It being two separate buildings works very well for us, especially if we have rental clients who want to be a little bit separate – maybe the grandparents want to have their own space or perhaps the children want to make noise on their own. The rentals have been amazing. I advertised as soon as we bought the house in December 2012, and by early February all of July and August was booked!
“We go out there every four to five weeks, sometimes just for a long weekend. One of the reasons for choosing Piedmont is that it’s a quick hop, especially as we live so close to Heathrow. And there’s a wide choice of airports to fly into. Milan Linate, Milan Malpensa, Turin, Genoa and Bergamo are each a drive of two hours or less from our house. It’s our haven of calm. The minute we arrive and step into that courtyard everything just melts away and we relax completely.” www.ownersdirect.co.uk/italyb/IT10267.htm