FEBRUARY 2018 - Wood Rot and a Little Damp

Wood Rot and a Little Damp.

Just recently, one of those periodical reports based on the usual politically induced draughts, surfaced in the UK press about a 23% drop in house prices that Italy has sustained. This I do not know, and I’d hazard a guess, nor does the commentator who made the suggestion. Statistics, always being in the past tense, like averages, they generally find themselves either in front of, or behind, the curve. There is a relevancy problem when it comes to such statements. One that no doubt applies to the UK, as well as everywhere else. What the Latins called dis-convenio  or ‘something inconsistent’ – in this case the desirability of a property, and thus its value, may depend on factors that are not rational. Has the price of desirable houses gone up, and those not so desirable gone down, or have they lumped them all together, so there’s no change? One must remember, individuals always seem to think in the particular, not the general. Thus a ruderi (ruin) in Tuscany, will be worth more than a ruderi in Calabria. Will it, I ask? The reasons may be statistical, but it is not always logical. A cottage on the Costa degli Aranci would give something similar on the Marina di Bibona a lot more than a run for its money.

Nevertheless, one can’t help noticing change, such as Tuscany once being a magnet for those seeking a retirement or a second home. It still would be if buyers weren’t so concerned about the future; and from where most are sitting, it doesn’t look particularly impressive. Restoring an aged property was never cheap, so gambling away your investments, and sometimes your old home, became a sine qua non to be avoided. Especially when you were being bombarded by some economic soothsayer with their head in a dustbin! There was a flurry of Russian, and sundry eastern European potentates with money to burn, but even that source has dried up. Builders in Tuscany have felt the pinch. They miss the UK, German and Dutch big spenders. They probably won’t be coming back en masse any time soon. Nor has much credence been given to the travails of home grown hopefuls wanting to make a start on the ladder. I couldn’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t like to try and squeeze a Euro out of UniCredit or Monte Dei Paschi banks for a mortgage just at this moment.

The local consensus is that the prices in Tuscany have remained moribund, while those of other (northern) EU countries are reported to have risen. Given that money doesn’t grow on trees - more’s the pity - and a couple of hundred thousand whatever, even at ultra low interest rates, takes some prising out of any bank these days, the latter part of that statement remains suspect. Not that any of this is of much moment to the Greek citizens who each own 30,000 euros of the countries debt. No wonder no one wants to lend them money! But in Spain the sale of property is said to have increased. Now there’s a thing. Having suffered a property slump in the last few years, their prices have plummeted between 9 and 16 %, depending on which pundit you read. Starting from a low base is apparently the business. Seems to do a lot for sales, that sort of thing. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for Italy – and anywhere else where house prices are stuck in the doldrums. But then perhaps not. At 23%, consensus or not, Italian punters should be beating at the door! Shouldn’t they?

Somewhat suspiciously the economy in the Eurozone is said to be showing signs of some green shoots, but God knows where the EU spin doctors have planted the seeds. Certainly not in our back garden. Too many market indicators are hinting at an imminent crash for there to be all this pseudo hubris. Politicians cannot pick and choose from the macroeconomic reality to suit their own agenda - one swallow does not a summer make. Not in Europe it doesn’t. There’s plenty of talk about the E.C.B. squashing interest rates, but that’s no use to investors who need a return on their money. So where’s all this largesse coming from, on the other side of the Alps? No one seems to be saying. But you can wager it represents a lot of debt. One other reason may be the result of panic buying in expectations of a volatility in the value of money when the expected crisis in the Euro actually takes place. The ever increasing power of the EU sceptics appears to be gathering pace, so there’s a hint that its glory days may be numbered. Despite that, Italy can be relied upon to trip itself up in March with the Five Star movement blowing hot and cold over the Euro, and Salvini being only a king in waiting, having just decided he’s a national player. Berlusconi is still seen as a groping pair of hands rather than a safe pair, given that he’s totally unreliable, and could yet cry foul, and do a deal with Renzi of the PD who does a good imitation of Sandie Shaw’s Eurovision hit. Instead, it looks like he’ll do something by Nancy Sinatra! Only in Italy could some of the political front runners be banned from taking office because they have criminal records. In the UK it would be like the Kray brothers taking to the hustings. I don’t see Mrs May having done time, but Murky Merkel looks like someone who has form. Some people just don’t know when they’re out of fashion. Still, we all need a roof over our head, though a bonanza in property doesn’t seem to be on the horizon just yet, nor the incentive to dig up stakes. Despite all the speculation, perhaps the old adage was right. Sit tight, and remember, bricks and mortar are safer than money in the bank!

My wife, with her ever watchful eye, has seen the writing on the wall, and decided now is the time to invest her pocket-money in property. At the last count she has five very nice traditional Tuscan farm houses in her portfolio. All are in good condition, though I suspect the Energy Board has not plugged them in just yet. At least the roofs are up together, and the walls have recently seen a lick of paint, but most importantly, you don’t need deep pockets to get on this property ladder. I kid you not. They’re a real snip. Alright, before you start pestering me, I’ll come clean.

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This is really a story in itself. The American International League in Florence, of which a friend of ours was a leading light, cajoled us into visiting their Christmas Bazaar where they make a lot of the folding stuff for charity. They are also ‘estate agents’ for the aforesaid properties. They vary in size (H:L:W) from 8x5x5 to12x7x8 inches, so plenty of room for the grand piano!

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We first came across these bargains in festive 2016 and became the owners of three which startled our friends when they asked my wife what I’d given her for Christmas. ‘Three houses’ was the dead-pan answer, followed up with the unheard of factor ‘free of I.V.A.’ (Rates). For a moment we were famous!

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My wife gathered, from conversation with a member of the league, that the architect and builder lived near Florence, on the old Salt Road from Volterra, and created these models inspired by real properties in and around San Casciano. A year later on an autumn visit to Florence along the same old Salt Road, a sudden exclamation from my wife apprized me that San Casciano was where our ‘architect’ lived. “We’ll go and find him. I’d like to buy some more houses.” Oh yes. All we had was a name, but no one is more tenacious than my better half with the bit between her teeth. It took a couple of knocks on doors, and a friendly locals perusal of the telephone directory to establish he didn’t live in that little town, but the name cropped up twice four miles away in another village. I’d given up of course, and was thinking about a nice Brunello not a wild goose chase, but the lady insisted on asking the first person we met on arrival at the new destination. Knowing smile on the good lady’s face. We were parked a stone’s throw from his front door.

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On the top floor of a department block lived a 91 year old gentleman whose hobby was building miniature marine models. These exquisite creations in incredible detail, and perfect scale, take the breath away, and are so precise that an English Maritime Museum was keen to obtain his model of the Victory, despite not having the black painted upper part of the hull. His excuse for this was that the oak planking was too beautiful to cover. Agreed. If this seems a long way from delightful rustic houses using only recycled materials in their construction, you’d be right, but also wrong. The little cottages are more than a touch bizarre, and can truly be called rustic, but that is their charm, remembering that he is in mass production mode for charity. A model like the Victory took years to make, and represents an entirely different mental approach. But they both have something in common, and that is a wonderfully evocative sense of the real thing in its eye for detail, besides being so lovingly created.

One little property is my wife’s favourite, and is designed from a house at Gargonza, near Monte San Savino, which he used to visit in the summer holidays as a child. It is said to still exist.

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He and his wife are representative of the old Tuscany in their instantaneous dignity, warmth and generosity. As the mother of a now much extended large family, she will still set to, and insist upon single-handedly, producing both Christmas lunch for 12, and Christmas dinner for 17 guests. They don’t make them like that anymore. So there you are. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to buy a property for a good cause!