Abruzzo: like Tuscany - only cheaper
Undiscovered by foreign buyers, the Abruzzo region has it all - sun, sand, ski resorts and scenic hilltop villages, writes Liz Rowlinson
ALTHOUGH THE "green heart" of Italy is highly prized amongst Italians, the Abruzzo region remains wonderfully undiscovered by the rest of us. For it's easy to get the impression that the Italians are quite happy to keep it for themselves - a secret place still unspoilt by mass foreign tourism where they can holiday in peace.
The Romans like it as it's only a few hours drive away, but an enthusiastic local agent tells me the Italians will even travel from fashionable Tuscany to spend time in the Abruzzo!
For while a glut of British second-homes there might be a factor, the verdant region halfway up the leg of Italy - whose rolling hinterland resembles parts of Tuscany - has plenty to offer itself.
Alongside some of Italy's best-preserved medieval and Renaissance hill towns, it's got some of the most dizzyingly beautiful natural scenery - two-thirds mountains, a third national park and some fabulous local wines such as Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
Apart from nearby Rome - from where Ryanair flies to Dublin - the Abruzzo has its own international airport, Pescara, also served by Ryanair.
There are not many places where, should you be so inclined, you could be on a reputable ski slope and a Blue Flag sandy beach within the space of an hour and get dozens of hilltop villages full of empty ancient houses ripe for renovation.
So why are not more of us rushing over on a cheap flight, chequebook in hand to snap up a home? "It's not a question of negative perceptions but rather a lack of perceptions because nobody's ever heard of the Abruzzo," says Philippa Pignat of Chesterton International.
"It offers a similar lifestyle to Tuscany although it's much more diverse - you get ski resorts, hills and lakes - but it's 40-70 per cent cheaper.
"Tuscany is great if you want a well-known area, but you're not going to get a family home on its own with land for less than €600,000, which is what people want."
She cites a rural farmhouse in the central Abruzzesi town of Tocco da Casauria which they are selling for €341,810 that would be €1 million if it was in "Chiantishire".
The farmhouse - currently uninhabited - is going to be renovated into a two-bedroom home of 145sq m (1,561sq ft) living space spread over three floors. The setting - a tranquil olive grove in front of a panoramic swathe of national park which cannot be built upon - is a huge selling point and there's an ideal spot for a pool (allow €20,000).
Such a property - within 25 minutes of the beaches of the Adriatic coast - would rent for €150 a day.
The property's renovation is being overseen by Tocco-based developer Mario Mascatti, whose company Italian Dream Homes specialises in sourcing and restoring properties - and will also manage their rentals.
His other projects include Casa Marano, three apartments in an ancient townhouse overlooking the main square of a tiny hamlet and the Maiella mountains, selling for €127,700-€209,000.
He says that property in the Abruzzo is less expensive than neighbouring Lazio - where Romans also have weekend homes - but popular areas are going up about 10 per cent a year.
One of these "hotspots" is the nearby town of Roccacasale where about 50 British (plus a few Danish) families have bought homes over the past two years - some for retirement.
Why is it a hotspot while many other towns are only half populated? Well because, quite literally, it gets the sun all day and has some very scenic 500-year-old properties.
Another mini British hotspot, according to Mascatti, is Fossacesia, a seaside town south of Pescara. Although prices inevitably go up near the coast, Pescara averages €2,000 per sq m (€185.8 per sq ft), with the most expensive properties in the most developed ski resort of Roccaraso going for nearer €6,000 per sq m (€557.5 per sq ft).
Keen skiers should note that because of the Apennines' proximity to the Adriatic, precipitation patterns generally mean the resorts get more snow than the Alps.
Linda Travella of Italian specialist, Casa Travella, thinks a property near the coast can be better when you come to sell. "Properties in the hills might be cheaper but they can take a long time to sell, so I'd go for something about 10 minutes inland, such as the town just north of Pescara, Citta San Angelo, where you can get a three-bed with sea view for €120,000," she says.
If you like to ski, but also hike and boat, then there's Scanno, one of the most photographed parts of the region. A 70-apartment development (see right) is being built at the head of the tranquil little Lago di Scanno close to the medieval village of Scanno. "It's the first and last such project in this area," says Lucio Forgione of Overseas Homesearch, "being the only purpose-built complex in such a sensitive and spectacular location aimed at the international market."
Owners will get discounts on meals and services at the hotel - to be completed next year - contributing to returns of 6 per cent a year if they partake in the 12-year rental guarantee programme which allows for five weeks' personal usage.
"The Abruzzo is a popular destination for Irish buyers, but because Scanno has always been popular with Italians there's been a scarcity of properties for the overseas market," he says.
A situation which might not last for long.