A villa in Laglio, where actor George Clooney has his home.
Many locals credit the actor with reviving international interest in the area.
Lake Como Rises Again
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.
Lake Como, tucked against Italy’s border with Switzerland, has drawn luxury-seekers since Roman times.
Now, with the dollar rising, a new wave of American buyers is taking an interest in the area.
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 has many overlapping real estate markets, including Carate Urio on its southwest shore,
about an hour’s drive north of Milan.
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.
Lakeside villas on the Como-to-Laglio shore start at $5.3 million, says Yasemin Rosenmaier,
managing partner of Engel and Völkers, Lake Como.
Direct lake access such can double a home’s price, agents say.
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.
A morning jogger in Carate Urio on the lake’s southwest shore. Lake Como attracts everyone
from international second-home buyers to commuters to Milan.
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.
This18th-century villa in Carate Urio is on the market for $8.4 million.
It 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.
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.
The lakeside terrace of the Cavalletti family’s Carate Urio villa.
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.
One of the lake’s grandest homes is Villa Olmo in the city of Como, built for an Italian aristocrat
in the late 18th century and now used for exhibitions.
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.
A Como visitor arrives by sea plane.
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.
A church in Carate Urio.
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.
A covered lane in Carate Urio.
An ivy-covered villa in Laglio, a town on Lake Como that has gained popularity since actor George Clooney bought a home there.
Como’s late-Gothic cathedral. The streets surrounding the cathedral are popular for shopping and dining.
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.
A medieval tower dominates Via Cesare Cantú, a pedestrian street in Como’s historic center.
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.
The small harbor of Varenna, a village-like resort on the lake’s eastern shore.
Lakeside villas here start at about $2.7 million, or half of what they might cost on the southwestern shore.
“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.”
In 2011, married couple Hansueli Jüstrich and Ruth Schönenberger, Swiss entrepreneurs,
bought this 5,219-square-foot villa in Varenna and completed a major overhaul.
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.”
The couple worked with local architect Savina Venini, who designed these lights for the stairwell.
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.
A guest bedroom on the home’s second floor.
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 home’s master beddroom with a tub. Mr. Jüstrich says the house was originally
a dingy gray on the outside. The facade was painted a red ochre.
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.
Lake Como architect Savina Venini, left, with her clients, Hansueli Jüstrich and Ruth Schönenberger.
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.
Some small resorts on the lake close down during the winter months, but the town of Como
is bustling year round, including this piazza in front of the cathedral.
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.”
In Mezzegra, on the west shore, Guido Mina di Sospiro, a Milanese writer now based in Annapolis, Md.,
has just put his family’s 19th-century villa on the market for $17.6 million.
The 8,073-square-foot home has seven bedrooms and six bathrooms.
The Wall Street Journal, 2015.11.25