|The beach at Sciacca, setting for Giardini Sul Mare|
Occupation by a succession of great civilisations has made Sicily a rich melting pot with a deep seam of insularity. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards for centuries fought over the island and now a new group of outsiders – foreign second-home buyers – is making its presence felt.
Sicily sits just 3km off Italy’s coast but somehow remains a world apart. The island is one of the last outposts of traditional Italian life, with a coastline mostly unsullied by large beach developments. Baroque towns brim with sites of architectural and historic interest, fishing villages maintain a centuries-old rhythm of life and small beach resorts have a level of service that is rough-edged yet hospitable.
In recent years, foreigners have begun to discover these charms, with mainly British and German buyers piling into resort areas. Now they are being joined by wealthy investors from eastern Europe and developments of luxury villas and apartments are appearing alongside older properties ripe for renovation. That prices are 30-50 per cent lower than in more established Italian holiday hotspots only adds to the appeal.
“With the best climate in Europe and significantly lower prices than Italy, it’s just such an obvious place for a property boom,” says Mary Walker, British owner of a 30-year-old, €105,000 coastal apartment near the eastern town of Catania.
Bozena Wiercinska, who moved to the island from Warsaw last year, agrees. She and her economist husband Marek bought a town house in the western town of Cianciana for €14,000 and they now run a language school in Corleone. “We were seeking to change down a gear in life and ... we love the fact Sicily is so uncommercial, the landscape so wild and the traditional way of life intact,” she says. Sicily suffers from its associations with the Mafia but “contrary to its reputation, we found everyone so welcoming and open,” she adds.
Among the most notable of the new property developments is the Rocco Forte-linked Verdura Golf and Spa Resort, which opened earlier this month on the south-west coast near Sciacca, a working port known for its terme (spa) and its February carnival. This coast – less built-up than the island’s others – has been earmarked by the government as an area for golf developments.
Spanning 230ha, Verdura will include 1.8km of beachfront and about 60 villas, priced from €2m up to €5m for a Moorish seven-bedroom property arranged around a courtyard with private pool, gym and sauna.
Until now, most holiday homes in Sicily have been either small, low-end developments located around the tourist hubs of the east coast or individual high-spec properties elsewhere on the island.
Crumbling historic homes in need of renovation are another option and they can be found all over the island. A small stone house with an olive grove in the rural south-east sells for about €50,000 but in the west properties are cheaper still.
“Where else can you get something for €8,000?” asks Jo Passafiume, of Sicily Properties and Projects, who with her husband Tony specialises in sourcing properties in need of renovation. She cites some recent sales: an old monks’ sanctuary bought for €85,000 and being transformed into a luxury five-bed property with €500,000 of improvements; and a 100-year-old three-bed stone town house in the centre of Cianciana bought for €50,000 and sold for €120,000 after €50,000 of modernisation.
“There’s a plentiful supply as many Sicilian families are keen to offload two or three inherited properties that are sitting empty,” says Passafiume.
|The baroque town of Ragusa|
Meanwhile, in the popular resorts of Cefalù – a good base for hopping off to the Aeolian Islands – and Taormina, prices tend to start about €200,000, though higher-end homes are also on offer. Fabrizio Vitellino of Buy in Sicily is selling a grand 15th-century home in Taormina with seven bedrooms and 700 sq metres of living space for €2.5m.
“British buyers spend about €150,000 each but many of my clients are Russian or eastern European and want more exclusive beachside properties costing €500,000- €1.5m,” he says.
As the tourist property market evolves, new high-end developments are looking to mimic Verdura. Neighbouring Giardini Sul Mare is being marketed by Pure International and will launch next month. It will contain 120 two- and three-bed villas in landscaped gardens priced €390,000-€700,000. Aimed at people seeking a high-quality holiday home rather than super-luxury, it will offer communal facilities with a focus on local produce such as wine and olive oil.
“Until now tourist services have been lacking,” says Sciacca’s deputy mayor, Giuseppe Segreto. “However, the town is more authentically Sicilian than Taormina and it doesn’t close down in the winter, unlike those focused on tourism.”
Even lesser known and less expensive is south-east Sicily, including Ragusa and the historic towns of Noto, Catania and Siracusa. Three years ago, architect Teddie Busuttil, from Malta, bought a derelict farmhouse on 8ha of olive groves north-east of Ragusa for €100,000, intending to renovate it as a second home. But he has since amassed six pieces of land and plans to divide them into single-hectare plots and sell them on (with necessary construction permits) to other foreigners, especially fellow Maltese. Malta is only 90 minutes away by catamaran, but properties in Sicily sell for about one-fifth of the price.
“Sicily shares our climate, landscape and panoramic views but it is less crowded,” Busuttil says. “And with the opening of Comiso airport [a former Nato base] to international flights in 2010 this area will be opened up to foreigners for whom it will be a 25-minute drive [to Ragusa], rather than 90 minutes from Catania airport.”
One downside of the island is the time it can take for things to be completed, especially planning applications. Verdura took more than six years to get off the ground and faced local political opposition as well as the hefty bureaucratic processes involved in the transfer of multiple parcels of land. On the upside, however, the quality of new construction is high as it must conform to very stringent anti-seismic and cement quality regulations.
Anyone buying a new home should check that it has the necessary approval because “these days the government will tell you to knock down a property without planning permission,” says Passafiume, referring to a historic lack of regulation which has now been tightened up. There has also been an attempt to regularise once-rife illegal builds with successive “sanatoria” laws that allow the owner of a property without planning permission to rectify the misdeed – by paying a fee by footage, for example – and obtain legal approval for it.
The island’s often reckless attitude to pollution – as a result of industrial development – does not seem to have hurt the popularity of its beaches, and locals say the only areas affected are Gela on the south coast, which is home to an oil refinery, and Termini Imerese, the north coast location of a Fiat car factory.
Hospitality is generally warmer than on the mainland and the quality of service higher in tourist areas, although the traditional post-lunch closedown prevails in many towns. As the number of foreigners swells this could change, but for many people it is part of Sicily’s charm.
“With such high-quality uncrowded beaches, unbeatable cuisine and diverse culture, it’s a very attractive proposition for buyers,” says Busuttil. “Now, when prices are low and the market is emerging, is the time for foreigners to invest.”
Buy in Sicily, tel: +39 3493707563, www.buyinsicily.co.uk
Italian Property Hunter, tel +44 (0)2076024483, www.italianpropertyhunter.com
Sicily Properties and Projects, tel: +390922987949, www.sicilypropertiesandprojects.com