Lake Como Rises Again – real estate
The Italian enclave gets new interest from American buyers

By J.S. Marcus – The Wall Street Journal

Lake Como, tucked against Italy’s border with Switzerland, has been home to ancient Roman grandees, Renaissance cardinals, Milanese industrialists and, most recently, to Russian billionaires and actor George Clooney. Now, with the dollar rising, a new wave of American buyers is taking an interest in the area.

The lake, about 40 miles long, has an array of towns and villages along its shore, running the gamut from high-priced resorts to rustic outposts.

Prime properties include lakeside villas dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, with outdoor pools, private piers and original details such as parquet floors and frescoed ceilings. Top prices range from $23 million to $32 million.

Along with the rest of Italy, Lake Como has experienced a decline in residential real-estate prices in the past few years, although the luxury properties have fared best, says Rupert Fawcett, London-based head of Knight Frank’s Italian department. Prices in the local luxury market have fallen 10% since 2010.

Lake Como, shaped like an upside-down Y, starts in the Alpine foothills north of Milan and stretches north into the Alps proper. The lake’s microclimates allow homeowners to grow olive and palm trees on their properties—and be on the slopes of St. Moritz in just a few hours.

The area represents several distinct real-estate markets. Deep-pocketed international buyers stay at their lakeside mansions for a few weeks in the summer, while budget-conscious Italians buy primary homes around the lake’s southern reaches and commute to Milan or Switzerland.

The mix also includes German second-home buyers looking near Varenna on the upper eastern shore, where prices are lower and lots are bigger than in the lake communities closer to Milan. Commuting Swiss also are a growing presence, happy to find that one million Swiss francs (about $919,000) can get them a grand Lake Como apartment instead of a two-bedroom flat back home in Lugano, 20 miles away. The Swiss franc surged 30% against the euro in January, and the euro remains about 10% to 15% below last year’s exchange rates.

Some of the distinct markets overlap in the southwest arm of the lake, which Mr. Fawcett calls “the first basin.” The section stretches from Como, the charming lakeside city that is the region’s hub, up the lake’s western edge to Laglio, where George Clooney has a villa. In-between are Cernobbio, a resort rising up into the hills, Moltrasio and Carate Urio.

Cernobbio’s Villa d’Este hotel, a 16th-century palatial villa first turned into a luxury hostelry in the 1870s, is a deluxe watering hole that draws visitors and residents. In high season, rooms average $1,100 a night.

Lakeside villas on the Como-to-Laglio shore start at $5.3 million, says Yasemin Rosenmaier, managing partner of Engel and Völkers, Lake Como, adding that they often need some renovation.

In Carate Urio, an 18th-century villa is on the market for $8.5 million. The 5,918-square-foot, four-bedroom home has a striking octagon-shape salon with a painted ceiling and lake views. But upstairs rooms need work.

Another 18th-century villa in Carate Urio, on the market for $8.4 million, underwent a complete renovation between 2000 and 2002. The sellers, Milan couple Pietro Paolo and Inge Cavalletti, took over the rundown villa from a group of resident nuns. The redo entailed rescuing painted-over frescoes and removing the original floors to fight dampness with new isolation panels. Luxury touches include terra-cotta tiles with a marbleized finish—a rarefied style associated with northwest Italy’s Lombardy region. Ms. Cavalletti says the couple spent $107,000 on the roof alone. The four-story home includes six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a gym, an outdoor pool and staff quarters on the top floor.

To the north in Mezzegra, Guido Mina di Sospiro—a Milanese writer now based in Annapolis, Md.—has put his family’s 19th-century villa on the market for $17.6 million. The 8,073-square-foot home, with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms, is on a 1½-acre lot.

Mr. Mina di Sospiro, 55, is a longtime observer of the Como scene. His great-grandfather, Italian industrialist Ercole Marelli, bought the property for the family in the early 1900s, and the writer has seen the area transformed from a bastion of upper-class Italian propriety to a freewheeling, cosmopolitan pleasure ground.

“Some of the new people are very interesting,” he says, citing a resident German record producer, “and some of the old people are very boring.”

He also has noticed the recent shift in buyers. “There used to be a lot of Russians, but now because of the strong dollar, Americans are coming back.”

Americans appreciate the Menaggio and Cadenabbia Golf Club, located farther north on the same western shore, says Ms. Rosenmaier. The club is the area’s premier course, dating to 1907.

Carate Urio, she says, appeals to those who want to be “close to Clooney,” but others like the two small resorts of Tremezzo and Menaggio, which are blessed with Belle Époque mansions.

On the opposite shoreline, Hansueli Jüstrich and his wife, Ruth Schönenberger, Swiss entrepreneurs based near St. Gallen in northeast Switzerland, bought a 5,219-square-foot villa in Varenna in January 2011. The three-story home, plus basement, has 260 feet of eastern shorefront, outfitted with a 968-square-foot boat house.

The early-20th-century, Art Nouveau house needed an overhaul. Lake Como is traditionally a summer destination. But the couple, working with local architect Savina Venini, wanted more use out of their investment, and embarked on a 15-month renovation of their five-bedroom, four-bathroom vacation home. “We replaced all the windows and put in a new heating system,” says Mr. Jüstrich, the 53-year-old co-owner of a cosmetics company. Now, he adds, “we can use the house all year long.”

The couple wouldn’t say how much they paid for the house or how much they spent on renovations, but Ms. Venini says clients typically spend about $800,000 to renovate a home that size. Ms. Rosenmaier says a starting price for lakeside villas in the area is about $2.7 million—around half of what it would be on the southwest corner of the lake.

While a lakeside villa is the most prestigious property in the Lake Como area, the hills above it can offer better views and a relief from punishing humidity.

Francesco Ugoni, a Como-area real-estate agent and entrepreneur, bought a property in the Cernobbio hills in 2012. He turned a single-story, 1,614-square-foot home into a two-story, 3,228-square-foot villa, with teak floors, wraparound terraces, adjoining guesthouse—and beautiful views. He paid $1.01 million for the structure and spent $1.9 million on the renovation, including $160,000 on an elevator with a shaft built through rock face. It is on the market for $3.7 million.

Although he has renovated and flipped other Como-area houses, he has special affection for this one, he says, which is a sumptuous riff on midcentury modernism. “I will be richer,” he says, looking ahead to a sale, “but sadder.”

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