In the lands of the gods

Highly desirable yet famously scarce, property on the choicest Greek islands has always had a discreet cachet. But falling prices are now presenting would-be buyers with some heaven-sent opportunities, says Catherine Moye.

September 27 2010
Catherine Moye

Just like the roots of gnarled old olive trees, Greeks tend to sink their capital deep into the soil of their native territory. In few parts of the world are people so fiercely sentimental about their land and homes as they are in Greece – especially island property. And who can blame them? This land of more than 1,400 islands is rightly revered as the home of heroes and gods. Today’s Greeks are mortal, however – especially in the pocket.

“The Greek population as a whole is very asset-rich and there is a big cash cushion in most families,” says Emma Woods, Savills International’s associate agent on Corfu. “But prices have fallen because many are encountering cash-flow problems or are coming under pressure to pay the new asset tax on land and property.”

At one time, Corfu’s sarcastic pronunciation as “Cor! Phew!” suggested that the island was destined to become the exclusive preserve of sunburnt simpletons on Club 18-30 holidays. In fact, it has achieved a successful divide between youth-centric resorts to the south and the villas around the north-east coast. Many of these villas belong to wealthy Britons; in fact, Prince Philip was born at Mon Repos. Families such as the Glenconners started the influx of the British aristocracy to Corfu’s north-east back in the 1960s and it has since been dubbed “Kensington-on-Sea”.

Andrew Langton, managing director of Aylesford International property consultants, has owned a house on Corfu for more than 20 years. He believes Greece’s economic plight has produced “the best opportunity to buy land here in 10 years”. This prospect also applies to other islands such as Paxos and Kefalonia.

For example, couched in the hills on the north-east coast of Corfu, one can just make out the cream turrets of Nathaniel Rothschild’s family villa on its own peninsula. Directly above it, with the same sea prospect, a one-and-a-quarter acre plot of land is on the market for just €180,000 (through Savills). This idyllic corner of the world was thrust into the spotlight in 2008 when it was the location of meetings between the then British shadow chancellor George Osborne and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska on the latter’s superyacht.

On the coast at Nissaki, Sharlie Rees-Davies, widow of the late Conservative MP and QC William Rees-Davies, is selling a coastal acre plot with planning permission to build a 200sq m villa. The price is €1m.

“My husband was one of the first foreigners to build on the island, and they made it famous between them,” says Rees-Davies, who retains three villas on Corfu. “Anthony Barber, the Heseltines and Lord Montague would stay. It’s a magical island and the British families all formed a close bond there.”

The cost of building a home on Corfu has also fallen sharply as out-of-work builders price more competitively, according to Woods. “Three years ago a good-quality property was being quoted at €1,800 per square metre. That figure has fallen to somewhere around €1,500 – a saving of between 15 and 20 per cent,” she says.

Langton believes that the austerity measures introduced by the German loan to the nation have not yet filtered through to the price of property, and values could drop by a further 20 per cent. He also feels that the effect of the slump in the value of the pound against the euro has taken many British buyers out of the Corfu market.

Having said that, Aylesford and Savills are both flush with homes for sale that wouldn’t normally be seen in such a sought-after region. At the high end they are mostly built in a rustic Venetian style but with all mod cons inside, and cost between €1.5m and €12m. Expect to negotiate on price, but don’t expect a bargain.

St Nicholas Beach House is a modern property in the traditional Venetian style, with a tangerine-and-lemon colour scheme. Like most villas on the north-east coast, it is built in a private position on a steep peninsula and has 150m of sea frontage. The villa has five bedrooms and bathrooms, plus a gym and games room. There is an infinity pool, gazebo and path winding down through the property’s olive grove to a secluded beach (price on application through Aylesford).

Occupying a large sea-front position, the six-bedroom Villa Allegra is in walking distance of the centre of the popular Kassiopi village. Large terraces wrap around the villa, from which two stone staircases lead down to a pool area with exceptional sea views (€3.75m, through Aylesford).

The social life in north-east Corfu is largely played out behind villa walls, but it is also the fashion to take lengthy animated lunches, especially on Sundays, at one of the three tavernas at the Bay of Agni. It was at one such simple outdoor restaurant, Taverna Agni, that Peter Mandelson, George Osborne and Nat Rothschild are said to have dined together in 2008.

People-watchers take note – the only way to get to Agni comfortably is by boat. As the waters are too shallow for commercial ferries, this usually means by yacht. Should the likes of the Murdochs, Lord Sainsbury, the Duke of Westminster or the Agnelli family wish to eat at the Agni, they take a dinghy from their superyachts to a little jetty. On the waterfront and a stone’s throw from Taverna Agni is the quaint, blue-shuttered, one-bedroom Agni cottage. For the first time in its 100-year history it is for sale. At €595,000, that isn’t bad for such an illustrious social scene (through Savills).

Those wishing to do more than just put their feet up and survey the glitterati could convert a 17th-century stone olive press into a luxury home. Nestling by an old stone bridge in the village of Loutses, this was a working olive press until 25 years ago. Set over two floors, it has 0.75m-thick stone walls and sits in 1,700sq m of its own land. The price is €295,000 (through Savills) and a further 2,961sq m of adjoining land is available by negotiation.

But if converting an old olive press sounds like a back-breaking endeavour, consider the example of British architect Dominic Skinner and his wife Claire. Five years ago they bought the Rou Estate, an entire village that lay in ruins close to the Rothschild estate. Their intention was to restore the 17 houses, plus outbuildings, into luxury homes built around a health spa. Some were to be sold and others rented to discerning visitors. After an intensive and detailed restoration programme, the abandoned shepherds’ shacks are now immaculately finished homes with wildflower gardens; a former quarry below the village cradles the health spa and swimming pool.

The Rou Estate is now one of the most successful and upscale resorts on the island, and the last three homes are now for sale. One of these is Lavandula, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in an elevated position on the edge of the village with far-reaching views over the Ionian Channel (€595,000 through Savills International).

Such a house rents for €4,000 a week during peak season. In Corfu the season runs for 26 weeks from May until the end of October, with an eight-week high summer peak. Rental yields are some of the highest in the Mediterranean – a potential that led north-east regulars Richard and Patricia Cookson to establish the London-based travel agency CV Travel, connecting owners of fabulous villas with those eager to rent. Even a standard villa will rent for £3,500 per week in peak season. On the downside, the costs involved in buying a home in Greece are steep: about 16 per cent of the purchase price, in taxes, agents’ fees and other charges.

Over in the Aegean between Piraeus and the Peloponnese lie the Saronic Isles. One of them, Spetses, is another island where a smattering of notable British Grecophiles have established a discreet presence. Indeed, the whole island is so discreet that until earlier this year there wasn’t an estate agent to speak of there. Cars are banned in Spetses town and people get around on cycles, scooters or in a donkey and trap – quite remarkable, considering the combined trappings of local villa owners could easily sink a fleet of Greek supertankers. Life may seem simple but with Athens less than three hours away by hydrofoil and road, many leading Greek families have homes here, including the Niarchos, Leventis and Costopoulos families together with other Athenian ship-owners and bankers.

Spetses’ place in Greek high society was underscored in August of this year when Nikolaos, son of the former King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie, married Tatiana Blatnik at Agios Nikolaos monastery. A wedding party was held at the Poseidonion Grace hotel, where 10 upmarket one-, two- and three-bedroom suites are now for sale (price on application through Savills). The Poseidonion has been a Spetses landmark for nearly a century, its elegant Côte d’Azur style echoing that of many private villas here. Acquired earlier this year by the Grace hotel group, it has undergone a meticulous restoration programme, bringing it up to the highest standard while preserving the original architecture.

The island’s strange mix of luxury and simplicity extends to the property business. John Mangoletsi, a Briton who has been on Spetses for 35 years and who operates the island’s sole estate agency shop in association with Savills, often negotiates deals informally over the taverna table – an understated style befitting the bucolic simplicity. But do not be deceived: homes on Spetses are as expensive as their exteriors are nun-like in their modesty.

“Prices here are around €7,000 per square metre,” says Mangoletsi. The Venetian-style Kaftani House, a four-bedroom house with en-suite bathrooms and verandahs on three sides, costs £1.57m. Another four-bedroom house at Skanavis with magnificent sea views comes in at just over £2.8m (both through Savills). The upside of these prices is good rental returns. “Even for a standard villa you will receive between €30,000 and €50,000 holiday rental income for a 10-week season,” says Mangoletsi.

The Greeks are to be commended for preserving their coastlines in a way that puts the Spanish and Portuguese to shame. Despite hosting mass-market tourism, they have shunned the large-scale residential developments that sprang up in parts of Europe over the past 10 years. Any new homes built tended to be subject to strict regulations to retain the architectural style of each island – and thus far, most have escaped the house-price crash affecting over-developed parts of the Mediterranean.

Other islands to consider buying on include Kefalonia, Paxos and especially the fashionably cosmopolitan island of Mykonos, in the Aegean. “Once you’ve swum in the Aegean, you’ll never be able to swim in another sea, the waters here are so clear, cool and refreshing,” says Roi Deldimou of Beauchamp Estates, the high-end agent on the island. On a hillside overlooking Super Paradise Beach is Super Paradise resort, a new development of four luxury villas each of around 280sq m and set within generous grounds.

Built in local granite and with magnificent sea views, these four-bedroom villas have been designed with outdoor living and entertaining in mind. Large terraces boast 55sq m swimming pools and built-in barbecues. Inside, the flooring surfaces range from timber in the bedrooms to porcelain in the bathrooms and antiquated stone in the living areas. With their spacious Italian-designed kitchens, tropical-style shutters and state-of-the-art equipment throughout, these villas introduce a level of modern luxury not commonly seen on Mykonos (€2.5m-€3.5m, through Beauchamp Estates). Others include a high-spec four-bedroom whitewashed villa overlooking Mykonos town for €2.5m (through Beauchamp Estates).

This mythic home of gods and heroes has some delicious offerings for mere mortals, too.

See also

Greece, Houses