What they say about Puglia

Italia! December 2004
Alan Tootill

Puglia - the Apulia of ancient times is the jewel of the Mezzogiorno, the Italian south. Fought over and colonised by the Messapians, the Greeks, Romans, Normans and Spanish, it has passed through many hands in its turbulent history. Its culture and architecture demonstrate its importance as a crossroads of Mediterranean civilisations, Greek and Roman, East and West, Europe and Africa.

But until recently the "heel" of Italy has been off the beaten track for most British tourists. All this changed th is year with the introduction of Ryanair and British Airways flights to Bari and Brindisi. Now the choicest areas of the region are within easy reach of both international airports, and there will not be a better time to sample Puglia's delights, or to find a home here.

Why come to Puglia? Well don't come here if you just expect a warmer version of northern Italy. The landscape and culture is definitely Mediterranean, and this is reflected in the relaxed lifestyle, the agriculture and the architecture.

What you will find is a wealth of small towns to explore, each with their individual character and history. Here you will find Conversano, a town built around a Norman cathedral, towns like Cisternino and Ostuni with a maze of whitewashed alleyways reminiscent of a Moorish kasbah or a Greek town. Martina Franca has an eighteenth century elegance, and Alberobello boasts World Heritage status as the capital of the trulli.

For cities Lecce is hard to beat. Dubbed the "Florence of the Baroque" this cultured city has a wealth of architecture on show, from a Roman theatre and amphitheatre to extravagantly decorated churches. The region's capital, Bari, is also fascinating with a historical centre dominated by its evocative basilica devoted to the city's patron saint St Nicholas (Santa Claus). The southern port of Taranto is full of south-Italian character.

A glory of Puglia is the length of its coastline, with many fine beaches on both the Adriatic and Ionian coasts. In some areas you will have to share the beaches with north Italians who come to enjoy the coasts in summer, but it is possible even in the height of summer to find small family beaches, or glorious sandy beaches backed by sand dunes, which avoid overcrowding.

Puglia produces a high proportion of Italy's olive oil, wine and wheat for pasta, and coastal regions are devoted to market gardening. This rich agricultural production makes it a gastronomic delight. The wines are now gaining international recognition, especially the white wines of Locorotondo and the reds of the Salento region, many based on the delicious Primitivo grape. The olive oil is superb and there are many tasting opportunities for this as well as wine. The local markets are full of local produce in season - mostly organic, even if not officially declared as such - and vegetarians will have many feast days, with a mouth-watering variety of crops to savour, including many we do not even have a name for in Britain. The long coastline means fish and seafood lovers find a hu ge variety to tempt them.

Puglia is a fascinating and welcoming place to visit, but many Britons are now looking at Puglia with a view to buying property there. The reasons are clear to understand - its mediterranean climate, mild in winter and hot in s ummer, and prices which are temptingly affordable compared with northern Italy and Tuscany.

Many buyers are attracted by the area's most distinctive feature - the trulli. These cone-shaped buildings are unique to the area. Alberobello is the trulli capital, with over 1,000 trulli in the town. The surrounding area, spreading towards Cisternino, Martina Franca and Ostuni, is known as the Itria Valley, and is the most sought-after location for trulli houses. But bargains can also be found further afie ld, where purchase price and restoration costs can be substantially less.

The theory is that trulli are cool in summer and warm in winter, due to their thick stone walls. But because their air volume is larger than a normal room, and unless they are damp-p roofed, they can be expensive to heat in winter. They can, though, provide perfect atmospheric character properties for living in or for rental.

A group of trulli for restoration can be purchased from as low as 20,000 euro, however it is important to understand that a small group of, say, 3 cones, will not be able to provide a home without extension. The amount by which you can extend a group of cones varies from place to place - each town has its own rules - so it is important to purchase through an agent you trust to give you accurate information on development potential.

Habitable and restored trulli are in demand - this is an area of the property market in Puglia which is moving quickly. Whereas two years ago a habitable property of three bedr ooms including trulli in the Itria Valley area would have cost about 80,000 euro, today it is hard to find the same for under 140,000.

Unrestored trulli provide excellent investment potential. Although the costs of restoration and extension can exceed th e original purchase cost, there will certainly be a leap in the market value of the property when restored, as restored trulli are comparatively hard to find.

There is also a wider range of property which Puglia offers.

A masseria is a south Italian farmstead. This can be a humble farmhouse, or it can be a classic walled and fortified masseria, often with a large parcel of land. Many of the large masserias are being converted into up-market hotel accommodation, or "agritourism" projects which combine hotel accommodation with direct selling of farm produce. A range of masserias is available, many offering investment opportunities. Others offer the chance to develop and restore an elegant period character home. Prices range from 200,000 to 1 million euros or more.

Other country properties range from simple stone structures to modern villas. It is hard to find small villas in the Itria Valley, but south of Ostuni you can still pick up a habitable villa with an acre or more of land for a bargain price of around 50,000 euros.

There are bargains, too, in the luxury villa market, where large modern properties are on offer for enticing prices. Expect to pay between 200,000 and 400,000 euros for a three-bedroomed villa with garden by the sea. Prices are cheaper inland. You will be lucky to find a villa with a swimming pool, as the Italians prefer to enjoy the beach culture, but there is generally no problem with installing a new pool.

Anyone considering investing in Puglia would be wise to take the step now. Across the region many rural areas are subject to severe development constraints, and this will put a premium on existing property as demand mounts. The market is active, and with more Britons expected to take advantage of direct international fli ghts from London prices look set to rise for the foreseeable future at rates well above the Italian national average. Local agents forecast a price rise of some 25% over the next year for the types of property in demand.

Up to now the rental market has be en for north Italian clients who take properties for a month or more during the summer. This has changed significantly this year - with Puglia opened up to the British holiday market there is a huge opportunity for holiday letting, particularly character trullo holiday homes or villas near the sea. You can expect a high proportion of weeks let May to September, particularly if you advertise your property through internet rental agencies, and rental prices are comparable with or higher than other Mediterr anean destinations.

Until a couple of years ago purchasing property in Puglia relied on luck and speaking the language. Now all this is changing, as estate agents start acquiring some English, and gaining knowledge of what foreign buyers expect of them. But you will still find it hard to walk into an estate agent\rquote s office and get much information about the properties they offer, their details and location.

Fortunately help is on hand, with a number of English-based companies offering internet shop windo ws for property. Choose one with local representatives in Puglia who can help with finding suitable houses to view and interpret during viewings. They can offer guidance on the purchase, from making offers through to completion, and may also offer after -sales service, including advice on restoration and providing contacts for professionals and tradesmen.

Although the buying process appears similar to that in England there are significant differences in approach and it helps to have someone with local k nowledge and experience. The practice in Puglia is not even necessarily the same as, for example, Tuscany.

Italians do not normally have surveys performed prior to purchase, but an English agent will be able to advise whether this is appropriate, or whether a quote for renovation works should be obtained before commitment. \par \par On the legal side a public notary ensures a valid sale, and collects the government tax on house purchase. He or she works neither for vendor not purchaser, but the costs are usually paid by the buyer. Italians do not usually seek independent legal advice. A reputable Italian estate agent should liaise closely with the notary to ensure that any problems of the sale are identified and dealt with.

One hurdle the prospective buyer has to face is acting quickly enough to secure the vendor\rquote s commitment to sell. Puglians act swiftly in making purchases and sales. There is no "under offer" period as in the UK, and a vendor could well sell to another buyer or withdraw the property if there is any lengthy delay between making an offer and signing a contract. It's best to be decisive, and only employ a solicitor if problems arise.

It can take as little as a couple of weeks from signing a contract to completion. The buyer will require an Italian tax code, which can be obtained in the UK from the Italian Consulate, and it is helpful to open an Italian bank account, especially if the buyer is expecting to spend extended periods in Puglia.

After the purchase it is usually a straightforward and quick process to get electricity or water contracts switched to the new occupier, and the agent may assist with registration for local council taxes - ICI - which is generally very low compared with Britain. Electricity is usually the only mains utility connected to a rural property, and it is easy to pay bills over the internet. Most properties outside towns rely on underground tanks for their water supply, filled either by rainwater or by water tanker delivery in summer. Sewage disposal is norma lly by a septic tank or soakaway.

The new owner will need to get a permit to stay in Italy for longer than 3 months at a time - a Carta di Soggiorno - this needs application to a main provincial police station. It allows you to live in Italy for 5 years, and is renewable.

If you are intending moving to Italy permanently, this may be followed by an application for residence. This takes longer - up to 6 months - and has pros and cons.

The pros are that you pay less for utilities and council tax, and you can buy and register an Italian car. A potential big pro is that provided you obtain residence within 18 months of buying your first Italian property you are taxed on the purchase at a rate significantly less than non-residents. The potential downside is that you become 100% immersed in the Italian tax system, and are taxed (subject to double taxation arrangements with eg the UK) on your worldwide income at Italian rates.

Living in Puglia, you will almost certainly need a car, as Puglia is not well-ble ssed by public transport away from the main rail or town-to-town bus routes. In theory you can only use your UK car in Italy for 6 months before re-exporting it, which makes residence desirable if you are here all year round.

On the whole living is cheap compared to the UK, with some notable exceptions such as car insurance. It is often a surprise to find how little tradesmen charge. The crime rate is low, especially inland. If you are keen to maintain links with the UK, satellite TV will give you BBC radio, television and more. But don't neglect acquiring some skills in speaking Italian, as fewer people speak English than in northern Italy.

Health care is generally reckoned to be superior to that in the UK, and the local hospitals are currently under going reorganisation to provide extra specialist skills. School provision is good, and school buses provide transport from the rural areas to nearby towns. Shopping facilities range from small local shops to a few out-of-town hypermarket malls.

You will find the people here relaxed and friendly, and very helpful. New neighbours will be curious about your arrival, and if you show willing with a smattering of Italian you will find them very generous and hospitable.

One thing you will learn to live with is Puglia's long lunch break - mandatory between 1pm and about 4.30. Just about time to enjoy some of those delicious vegetables or seafood, washed down with a glass of wine. And maybe a nap in the sun.