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LONDON: ITALIAN SAFE HAVEN?

PROPERTY

Italians squirrel most cash into London homes

Italians have overtaken Russians and Emiratis as the top buyers of luxury property in central London, with one expert telling The Local the UK capital is a “safe haven” for those facing economic uncertainty at home.

Italians squirrel most cash into London homes
Italian buyers typically favour the wealthy neighbourhoods of Knightsbridge, Chelsea and South Kensington. London photo: Shutterstock

The Italian share of the market jumped from 2.7 percent to 6.7 percent in a year, figures from Knight Frank real estate consultancy show.

Meanwhile, London fell out of favour with rich Russians, whose market share fell from 6.5 percent to 3.7 percent. Buyers from the United Arab Emirates were also taking their cash elsewhere, with their share in the market falling to just 1.4 percent this year from 5.3 percent in the first seven months of 2013.

The change sees Italy top the list of foreign buyers in luxury property in London, ahead of France (4.1 percent) and Russia. The French now make up 27 percent of the eurozone buyers, below Italy’s 44 percent.

Italians have spent an average of £4.4 million (€5.5 million) buying a home in central London this year. They typically favour the wealthy neighbourhoods of Knightsbridge, Chelsea and South Kensington.

Tom Bill, head of London residential research at Knight Frank, told The Local that the city is seen as a secure option for foreign buyers.

"During bouts of economic uncertainty in Italy, prime central London property will be a safe haven," he said.

"It’s proven to be a good long-term bet over the decades, outperforming assets like gold over the past 30 to 40 years. Supply is not keeping up with the demand and so there is upward pressure on prices."

With Italy slipping back into recession in the second quarter of this year and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struggling to get his reform agenda off the ground, London has additional appeal.

“The rule of law and relative political stability, transparency of ownership and the education system” were listed by Bill as just some of the benefits the city offers wealthy buyers.

Meanwhile, Italians are also flocking to the UK for work. Figures released in December by the British government showed a 52 percent increase in the number of Italians arriving in the country, as unemployment at home hit 12.5 percent.

READ MORE: Surge in the number of Italians moving to the UK

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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy’s conservation rules

Old Italian homes featuring frescoes, loggias or ancient cellars are appealing, but such buildings are often protected by Italy’s cultural heritage authority - meaning lots of red tape for owners, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy's conservation rules

Italy is dotted with gorgeous hilltop villages full of centuries-old homes for sale complete with characteristic features. But many people don’t realise that these buildings, even if they’re abandoned or decaying, often fall under restrictions (vincoli) enforced by Italy’s ‘art authorities’, known as the sovraintendenza belle arti.

Due to the artistic and historic value of these buildings, they’re considered a part of the national heritage. This is usually because they date back to medieval and Renaissance times, or because they feature frescoed walls, emblazoned vaults or entrance portals with coats of arms. 

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Italy has the most UNESCO-listed cities in the world, and here these vincoli are even more binding. Many buildings in Rome have entrance portals sculpted by Renaissance masters which are ‘off-limits’ even if they’re in need of repair. 

It is a widespread way of protecting Italy’s heritage, and yet awareness of the risks buyers face if their property happens to be ‘supervised’ are often hidden, and are especially unknown to foreigners.

In almost every old rural village there are private houses and palazzos with ancient loggias, decorated ceilings and lavish stone columns, and even simple former farmers’ dwellings with ancient cellars, over which the art authorities have the final say on renovation work, even small upgrades like adding an extra room or pulling down a wall.

READ ALSO: Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Giovanna Rosetta Fraire was forced to give up her dream of buying a portion of a two-floor 1700s building in the village of Civita Castellana, in Lazio, because it needed upgrades but the frescoed walls, ceilings, decorated fireplaces and elegant entrance were ‘vincolati’ (under restrictions).

“It was a historic building with an artistic value. The peeling façade needed a makeover but it was still the original color dating back centuries so we couldn’t paint over it,” she explains.

“The rusty wrought-iron balconies were made in the 18th century while the location was in the heart of the historical center, right in front of the Gothic cathedral, so any change to the building would have affected the scenery, too.”

Fraire only found out about these rules by chance, just before signing the purchase deed, thanks to a tip from a local resident.

According to Italian law, fixes to similar buildings of value need to be coordinated and approved by the sovrintendenza, which seldom allows any changes to the exterior and only minimal ones inside crumbled rooms, for instance those struck by an earthquake.

Usually the structure of a ‘vincolata’ building cannot be modified at all: walls cannot be pulled down, nor a room expanded or divided in two.

And when old homes are embedded within the fortified medieval walls or share a wall with a castle or fortress it is even more complicated. 

Civita Castellana. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cesidio Diciacca bought a former abbot’s lodgings dating from the 1700s, embedded within the rampart in the village of Picinisco, north of Naples, 

He contacted the local belle arti before restyling it to find out whether there were any restrictions, which is always the best thing to do. Unearthing an updated map of your property from the catasto (land registry) is also useful. 

“The belle arti stopped all external changes as we are in the centro storico,” he says. “The only external fix allowed was to remove the top level of the guard tower which was ugly and out of place, and we had issues also placing solar panels. 

“The whole of the centro storico of Picinisco and neighboring hill towns are protected in some way which is both good and bad as it prevents necessary work of modernisation.”

It should be a matter of striking the right balance between preservation and valorization of old properties, but this is rarely the case in Italy when art authorities are involved. 

Cesidio Diciacca’s house in Picinisco. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Giovanna Rossi owns a tiny dwelling in the picturesque Tuscan village of Pitigliano, where old homes are cropped on a high plateau and carved from the tuff rock. 

Like most other villages in the area, Pitigliano has Etruscan roots and many dwellings come with pagan caves considered by authorities to be monuments of anthropological interest, a bit like Matera’s.

“I have this stunning underground canteen accessible from my kitchen but cannot change it in any way to make it habitable, it’s a pity. I just show it to friends and keep wine bottles in it,” she says. 

Even private gardens and patches of land, set within or close to ’archaic’ protected parks where Etruscan or Ancient Roman tombs and ruins have been unearthed, have archaeological vincoli and cannot be modified without the necessary green lights.

These are ‘vincolati’ by authorities unless there are specific geological permits which allow the construction of a swimming pool, a gazebo or tiny cottage, following land surveys proving the spot is clear of historic finds. 

That’s without mentioning that when a Roman sarcophagus or column pops out buried in your backyard, you must tell the belle arti at once or face fines, and potential seizure. 

Other European countries have similar rules, like Historic England’s listed buildings, but these seem to create restrictions to a lesser degree compared to Italy’s huge and sometimes cumbersome heritage.

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