PESCALIA, Italy -- My mother made sure I gave the original chestnut ceiling beams their due admiration. "Others pay a fortune to have these put in," she tells me. The old town house my parents bought in this northern Tuscan village about two years ago doesn't look like much now, but Rina Barsotti, their real estate agent, says the house will be habitable a year from now.

My parents bought the property to feed my mother's penchant for the romantic and remote. Having grown up in Switzerland, Tuscany was a perfect fit for her because "it makes you feel like you went back in time," she says.

Like many foreigners buying property in Tuscany, my parents are mainly concerned with authenticity and charm. Buyers like a pension fund manager in London who conducted research all over Europe before deciding to buy Italian property, however, also have a sound investment in mind.

While lawyers, diplomats, bankers and intellectuals of the 1980s still form the bulk of Italian property buyers, people from all walks of life are now buying across the various market levels, says Steve Emmett, managing director of Brian A French & Associates (a member of Mayfair International Realty ), partner in Immobiliari Brian French Italia, and chairman of the Federation of Overseas Property Developers Agents and Consultants (FOPDAC).

"In effect, a stable, mature market has gained a new lease on life," Emmett says.

More Pleasure Than Business

The weakening dollar hasn't deterred American buyers, says Emmett. Mostly, it's culture and history, not financial gain, that attracts foreigners, although some are still looking for ways to move their money out of the U.S. market or diversify their assets.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the American Stock Exchange recently listed an international real-estate exchange-traded fund, WisdomTree International Real Estate Fund ( DRW) and Charles Schwab & Co. launched the Schwab Global Real Estate ( SWAIX) mutual fund.

Further, the 2007 Coldwell Banker Previews International Luxury Survey states that 31% of luxury homeowners in the U.S. have their retirement holdings in real-estate investments, and that luxury homeowners remain positive about the market regardless of the recent cooling of the U.S. real estate market.

Still, "I'd be careful with the word 'investment' in reference to Tuscan real estate ," says Barsotti, a licensed real estate agent for Bagni di Lucca-based real-estate and property service Toscana Verde .

Real-estate prices in the Tuscany region have skyrocketed in the last few years, partially due to Italy's changeover to the euro, making it harder to profit from property.

Generally, you won't lose money, says Barsotti, but to make it you have to take into account how much renovation needs to be done. And only diligent marketing will let you turn a profit from renting it out.

Resale value is always hard to calculate, Barsotti adds, even though the market has stabilized and you don't see as much of a yo-yo effect on property value. Just pay careful attention to your arithmetic throughout the buying process, she counsels.

Tasteful by Law

"It's beautiful, but what will it be like 10 years from now?" asked my mother while driving through the popular lakeside town of Passignano sul Trasimeno in Umbria. Looking down at the impressive villa of a prominent celebrity who calls this town home, I wondered whether the area will suffer from the impact of tourists and major developers.

But Riccardo Luculli, senior partner in Immobiliari Brian French Italia, assures me that "Italy will be Italy forever" because laws ensure real-estate hot spots like Umbria and Tuscany will keep their local charm for years to come.

It started when the Medici family moved into the countryside in the 14th century and brought a certain standard of quality and taste with them, says Luculli. Today, cultural standards as well as the law dictate whether you can build a pool and even the color of your house.

How strict or lenient regulations are depends upon each town's city council's adaptation of national laws, Barsotti adds. Some areas still don't allow pools because they ruin the landscape, and in Umbria, a pool has to be at least 50 meters from the house, Luculli points out.

In general, the traditional style -- terra-cotta floors and wooden-raftered roof -- is preferred, but councils tend to be very open-minded, says Barsotti. They're not forcing anyone to make changes, but if you get permission to redo your terra-cotta roof tiles, don't be surprised if you're asked to replace your aluminum windows with wood, she says.

These restrictions may at first seem stifling to the unaccustomed foreigner, but they soon appreciate the security and value added to their property. Besides, locals appreciate buyer fix-ups because it increases the value of surrounding properties, says Barsotti.

Despite restrictions, the difference in the Passignano sul Trasimeno area in the past ten years is astonishing, says Emmett, with small towns around the lake doubling in population during the summer months. But the changes are positive, he says, especially for local businesses that survive on tourist money.

The Charm Money Can Buy

Brian A French properties range from 500,000 euros to 3 million euros, as more and more buyers look at the top end of the market, says Emmett. "The more expensive properties are almost easier to sell," he says, as clients opt for the most beauty and character their money can buy.

Approximately 70% of Emmett's clients use their property as a getaway rather than a permanent residence.

Brian A French's clients come from the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Belgium and Australia. They are also attracting the Russian market, because, Emmett says, people are often drawn to cultures drastically different from their own.

Barsotti's younger clients, who often have less money to invest, opt for a much cheaper and sometimes derelict building in northern Tuscany for 40,000 euros to 50,000 euros. "It may not be their dream house, but it's a first step into the area," she says.

No matter how much they spend, it's most difficult for foreigners to accept how long it takes to accomplish certain things in Italy, says Emmett. "To be honest," he says, "it took a year to get broadband Internet in our office." Generally speaking, allow three months from choosing a property to completion of sale, he cautions.

Pay With Caution

Italian real estate agents must be licensed with the local chamber of commerce, unlike in other countries like the U.K., where estate agency is vastly unregulated, says Emmett.

His clients have never had any problems from a legal point of view. " Emmett keeps his promises and never, never leaves a customer alone in the jungle of Italian bureaucracy," says Luculli, who recommends using the services of an overseas mortgage broker such as Baydonhill .

But many foreigners are thrown to the wolves due to their unfamiliarity with the Italian market, cautions Barsotti. When Toscana Verde opened, "I had many people coming in asking for advice or an explanation," she says.

Above anything, make sure your agent is registered in the chamber of commerce. Everyone is selling real estate in Italy, says Barsotti, but if they are not registered, you shouldn't use them.

Plus, says Emmett, many Italians selling property will try to get a higher price from foreign buyers. "Without the intervention of an experienced agent, you could well be paying over the odds," he says.

Barsotti is registered with FIMAA , which is over 300 years old and keeps agents up to date with constantly changing national regulations, among other perks.

In general, says Barsotti, be wary of the title "consultant." Also, be aware of overcharging by U.S.- or U.K.-based agencies, she says, showing me a chart that clearly outlines my parents' expenditures and bills for their property.

Beyond all the paperwork, Italy stands as proof that la dolce vita mixed with tradition never goes out of style. With the right price range and a solid agent, it's hard to go wrong with a Tuscan home.



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