Doing the business in Le Marche
France may be saturated with Brit-owned B&Bs, but it’s still possible to buy a cheap guesthouse in Italy, finds Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times
It’s fun to live in the sun but hard to make a living. One option is to run a B&B. In France, Brits have opened so many that it has become known as the maladie anglaise. The market is saturated, not only because of all the Brits who own B&Bs, but also because an increasing number of British holidaymakers now own houses there, so they no longer need to rent a room.
Italy’s Le Marche region is proving a popular alternative destination. Between the Adriatic Sea and the Appenine Mountains, it is famous for great food, culture, rolling hills and cheap stone farmhouses: an irresistible combination for the expat.
Richard Dixon and Peter Greene bought a 12th-century property near Cagli, close to Urbino, in 1988. It cost them £17,000, and has two cottages, a vineyard and some land, with stunning views to the mountains beyond.
When they first arrived, there was a huge choice available. “We picked this one because it had two properties and it was close to the main road,” says Greene. “Some of the others we saw are totally cut off in winter; not very helpful if you’re trying to run a B&B business.”
He was working as a barrister in London and Dixon was a PR officer for the Greater London Council. “We were 32 and 36 and just wanted a change,” says Greene. “It felt like the right time to do it. And for £17,000, we couldn’t go wrong.” They set up their business a couple of years after moving over.
“A lot of people just rush into renovations and starting up the business, but it’s essential to get a feel for the house before you start knocking down walls.”
They rent out a cottage, which sleeps four, and a chapel, which sleeps two. “It has worked out well, but I have to say that when I look at some of the sums of money people are spending on wrecks now, I wonder how they are ever going to break even.”
Greene says that learning Italian is essential. He and Dixon recently won a battle against a local quarryman who wanted to dig up all the fields in front of the cottage they let. “We wouldn’t have got anywhere if we hadn’t spoken Italian. As it was, it was an extremely stressful time. My other piece of advice is to keep everything above board: it’s very easy to cheat the system, but it’s just not worth it. You need to get all your permissions in place, because if something goes wrong, like a quarry plan, you need to show what you’re doing and that you’ve followed every rule.”
There are three different legal structures for letting businesses in Italy. The simplest is the B&B, but the most rooms you can let out is three. At the end of the year, you file a simple declaration, and there is no Vat. The tax payable is graded depending on your income: the lowest band is up to €20,000 (£14,000). You have to be resident at the place, but there are no business taxes: B&Bs are rated family enterprises.
The “country house” structure is more complicated but allows eight rooms and a restaurant. You need to be in the countryside and will have to pay business taxes. If you want to go for Italy’s agriturismo structure, you have to prove that at least 50% of your income is from your farm or agricultural concern. Subsidies are available for all three structures, so find out what you might be eligible for. The best place to ask is the chamber of commerce or Confcommercio (www.confcommercio.it).
Jane and Ian Foster bought an old wine co-operative near the village of Cupramontana, close to Ancona, in 2001. They paid £60,000 for it and have spent about £400,000 doing it up. They let out three bedrooms.
“It’s been great,” says Jane. “But my advice to anyone is to really check your contract with your builders. You have to understand what is included and what is not, otherwise you could end up with beautifully tiled floors and no electricity.” Her husband agrees. “We have gone at least £50,000 over budget and we’re not finished yet. You should add 25% to your estimated cost and 25% to the time you think it’s going to take you, and then you may be coming close.”
The couple looked elsewhere before settling on Le Marche. “Tuscany was overrun with Brits and twice the price,” says Jane, who used to work for London Underground. “We came here to integrate into the community. We love the food, the countryside and the people.”
Giuliano Gnagnatti, whose company, Paradise Possible, promotes the region, says there are still about 60,000 abandoned farmhouses available. “But when we started the business in 1997, there were about 100,000. Prices have gone up dramatically since then,” he says. “A lot of that is due to Ryanair starting a daily flight to Ancona in 1999.”
Gnagnatti says a four-bed farmhouse needing restoration will cost about £150,000, and a ruin about £60,000- £105,000. Higher-quality restoration work costs about £700 per sq m; lower-quality work about £400 per sq m.
The rental market is vibrant. There is a lot to see and do; it is one of the few places in Italy where you can visit both beach and mountains the same day.
“The main thing you should consider if you’re looking to set up a B&B is the location,” says Gnagnatti. “You need to be easily accessible, as well as within a short drive to the main attractions.”
Eileen Cronin-Salomone, originally from Ireland but brought up in London, had already lived in Italy for several years before she set up a B&B.
“I was married to an Italian but when he died I sold up and went home,” she says. “That was in 1988. Then four years ago I suddenly realised how much I missed the way of life and the quality of life in Italy. I wanted to go back.”
Cronin-Salomone viewed about 600 houses in several regions before finding an old squire’s house near San Ginesio.
“It was my 50th birthday and the agent showed up where I was staying, telling me he had three places for me to see. I told him that I had a party to plan but he insisted. My daughter Erika and I went along. The first two were dreadful and by the time I had fought my way through the brambles to see the third I was in a terrible mood. Then I turned around to talk to Erika and I was right under the Sibellini Mountains.”
Cronin-Salomone, 53, paid £95,000 for the house and has spent another £245,000 doing it up. She now has three en-suite bedrooms that she lets. “People think running a B&B is a joy ride — it’s not,” she says. “Having said that, I absolutely love it. If I’m ever in a bad mood I just need to look at the mountains to remember why I’m here and how special it is.”
Although Le Marche has a lovely coast, the British are more interested in the interior, says Fabrizio Fangonesi, who runs Immobiliare Ambiente in Sirolo. “They all want old stone houses,” he says. “In fact, they’ve caused a big price increase in properties to renovate, but the market is stabilising now.”
There are plenty of places available with letting possibilities. If you can face renovating, Paradise Possible has a 16-room farmhouse for sale near Arcevia, for £140,000.
Valentino Cingolani, who runs agency Lovemarche, says the influx of Brits here peaked in 2002 and has stabilised. “However, I think it will pick up soon because Ryanair has just announced it is going to start flights from Liverpool to Ancona.”
Pam and David Bates bought an abandoned farmhouse, between the coast and the Sibillini Mountains in 2001 for £42,000. It has three storeys, with 330sq m of living space. They opened for business in 2003. “Just like the television programmes, we were ready, literally, 10 minutes before the first guest walked in,” says Pam. They spent about £240,000 doing up the property and will break even this year.
“It’s not an easy way to make a living,” she says. “You’re on call 24/7 and you need to be on top of the marketing at all times. I spend at least an hour every day on the internet, raising our profile with search engines.”
Pam’s advice is to start with a good business plan. “Lots of people just come over and say they’re going to run a B&B. That’s all very well, but how are you going to get your punters? You need to be internet-savvy and to know about marketing. I carry leaflets around the whole time and set myself targets of how many I have to distribute per month.”
She still works in London for an event firm, while her husband and daughter run Villa Sibillini. David says that despite the downsides, it’s worth it: “You’re never going to get rich, but you have the benefits of living in beautiful countryside, serving good food and wine. What could be better?”
Richard Dixon and Peter Greene, 00 39 0721 790 215, www.le-marche.com/rental; Jane and Ian Foster, 00 39 0731 789 657, www.cantinone.co.uk; Pam and David Bates, 00 39 0733 653 081, www.villasibillini.com; Casa Nostra, 00 39 0733 656 913, www.casa-nostra.it
Immobiliare Ambiente, 00 39 071 933 1821, www.immobiliareambiente.it
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019