Tony Miller is a BAFTA film judge and British cinematographer whose credits include Fleabag, Remember Me and Endeavor. Tony and his wife Jo came to us with the hopes of finding their dream house in Tuscany, a place they’d visited numerous times and where they had already created many memories. Their budget was €500,000 but they were willing to increase this to €700,000 if the property was somewhat renovated already. This case study will provide invaluable information on adding value to a property from Tony himself who, after finding his dream Tuscan home, has carried out extensive and some very imaginative restoration works, and in doing so has just about doubled the value of his property..
Of course, when on the hunt for a property, everyone has their own requirements depending on their family, lifestyle, budget and long term plans.
“Our requirements for a Tuscan family house were very specific. It had to be no more than 10 minutes from an airstrip (to land our old Cessna Silver Eagle), close to a village, rentable when we were not using it and within 30-40 minutes of the Tuscan coast. If not immediately, it needed to pay its way and we hoped to add capital value to it as it would be a key part of our pension planning. Our budget was up to €500,000 or €700,000 if it was relatively renovated. One of our requirements included an existing pool, or permission granted to build one.”
A swimming pool on the grounds of a property is usually very attractive to buyers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t fancy a dip in the pool under the rays of some Italian sunshine? Whether you’re a length swimmer, a cannonball jumper or a feet dipper, all members of the family can get endless enjoyment from a swimming pool. Of course, permission from your local council is required beforehand but usually, permission is granted in most areas. Swimming pools usually are not permitted within historic towns and villages so you’ll need to be in the countryside. (Tip: if you find a house you like which doesn’t have a pool, we can of course check the planning regulations to see if a pool would be permitted there and maximum dimensions etc, but to be even more certain, you can make the purchase conditional on the pool permission which is then applied for in the name of the sellers after the first contract is signed. If granted, the sale proceeds, if not, the contract becomes null and void and the deposit – held by the agency – is returned).
Due to personal circumstances and financial pressures, some sellers are much more keen than others to sell their houses, and we of course know which ones they are. Just ask us!
“Nothing is ever perfect, but by thinking laterally we soon found quite a few options. Part of this was finding out how long properties had been on the market and how keen the owners might be to sell and drop the price accordingly. Casa Tuscany are a very fair barometer for this and unlike some of the local estate agents, they tell you the truth. Their ability to astutely point you in the right direction and help you through the whole process was invaluable.”
Finding the perfect house is rarely a fast process, it can sometimes take years to find that house you’ve been dreaming of. Tony flew over to Italy three times before finding the house he and his wife eventually ended up buying.
“On our third trip, exhausted and having seen some lovely properties but not “the one”, we were about to head for the hotel (and bar) when the agent insisted that we see one more she had set up – way above our price bracket. Arriving down an impressive quintessentially Tuscan cypress-lined driveway we saw a large house – bigger than we were looking for with an incredible view. The grounds were overgrown and badly cared for – it seemed like almost nothing had been done since the owner had passed away. But if you looked carefully, it was obvious that this had been someone’s pride and joy and had been thought out and planted with attention. It had a massive pool (18 x 8 metres) – full to the brim of sludge, mud and multiple frogs. 150 acres of mixed farmland – a vineyard, 4 olive groves, a small fruit orchard, arable land and acres of forest that stretched back into the hills. There was a large early 19th century 4 bedroom traditional farmhouse set in mature tended gardens with an incredible view towards Volterra. Set back from the main gate was a stable and horse paddocks that could easily convert into a large garage or further accommodation.”
This house that Tony and Jo almost went away without seeing was full of potential! On the surface it looked a little run down, dilapidated in areas and sure, the state of the pool may have been off putting to many but Tony and Jo were able to see through all that and realised that actually, the property had so much going for it. The property was an old farm on the outskirts of Chianni, a delightful medieval Tuscan hill town that looks across to Volterra and Terricciola. Local folklore in the village claims that this small holding was the centre of the local resistance during the second world war and that there are three SS officers buried in the grounds. Allied airman would hide in the forest behind the house. (Tip: so many people decide against a property because it’s not in perfect condition. If adding value is your aim, this is exactly what you should be looking for of course. Neglect and abandonment should be your keywords!)
The house belonged to an elderly gentleman who had sadly passed away 3 years before Tony’s viewing, leaving his widow his last asset. She lived in Milan and wasn’t keen on country life so was eager to sell. Since the property had been on the market for almost three years, the price had already been reduced from €1,200,000 to €850,000.
“As we left, the owner said to me “I need to sell it”. I apologised and said it was way out of our price range and any offer we made would be an insult for such a beautiful place. All we could hope to afford would be €480,000. She snorted in disgust and we were ushered out the gate.”
Tony and Jo were sure they’d just seen the dream property but ultimately put it out of their minds as it was simply too far out of their price range. Adding to the sting that they didn’t have the budget for it, this house was just a short 12 minutes from a 600 metre grass strip where they could have landed their plane.
“Back in London, three weeks later, we had a call from the agent saying the owner would sell it for €550,000 if we completed within 4 weeks. After a bit of horse-trading for all the garden machinery, we agreed to €500,000 holding our nerve.”
By 2017, 18 months after first deciding to buy in Tuscany, Tony and Jo were the proud new owners of the house and exciting renovations began almost immediately!
“We arrived during a heatwave with temperatures reaching 42º C. We started by digging out the pool – back breaking work in the hot sun but it soon cleaned up and within a few days we were swimming in a crystal clear pool, albeit with a slight chlorine overdose.”
Having previously renovated multiple properties, Tony and his wife were already equipped with the knowledge of what to look for, the most effective value boosting renovations and thrifty ways to carry them out.
“I must stress up front that I have renovated many properties over the years and always done my own architecture and design work including drawing up plans. So I do have a relatively good knowledge of building practices, how to budget and what we can realistically achieve.”
The next step for Tony and Jo was tackling the surrounding land that accompanied the house. Certainly a laborious task but one that will often lead you to find all sorts of exciting hidden gems and works of nature.
“We then started the month-long job of clearing and taming the land and discovered the garden – a mature, well cared for two acres around the house – with an irrigation system, fig trees, apple trees and carefully planted mature cypresses for shade. From the start we realised that the views were exceptional and that the house was independent and yet close to the village.”
A lovely area to sit and admire the far reaching views.
Whilst trawling through the surrounding land, Tony discovered a beautiful waterfall…! They’ve now created a path directly from the house through the forest that leads to the waterfall.
A property with easy access to amenities and yet with the opportunity to enjoy complete privacy is extremely sought after, especially when there are also stunning views to be admired. (Tip: if you want to be within walking/cycling distance (2km) of amenities, use our advanced search and tick the ‘within walking distance of amenities’ box. Maybe we should add a ‘within 10 minutes of an airstrip one..?)
“From the start, we decided to let some of the garden grow wild. We left all the olive groves and vines to local farmers to take care of and profit from, in exchange for a few bottles a year. This suited us and has meant that the olives are now extremely well cared for.”
If you find yourself in a position where you fall in love with a house that includes vineyards and olive groves but you’re not so keen on the idea of having to maintain and make use of them then you may consider following in Tony’s footsteps with this one. It’s a great idea to let to local farmers use them then reap the benefits of a stunning landscape surrounding your house, a few free bottles of wine or oil annually and a good opportunity to get to know the locals.
“In the winter, we started work on the house in earnest. Clearing out the previous owners old junk and general chaos we discovered that the house was in good condition, with a relatively new roof and windows, a central heating system that functioned and well-proportioned rooms.”
By simply clearing all the rooms of things left by the previous owner, Tony and Jo were able to get a really clear idea of the condition of the house. This allowed them to start prioritising what needed doing and therefore start gathering materials and forming an idea of costs and timescale.
“Aided by my cousin Ian – a New Zealand builder and architectural draftsman and along with his Latvian sidekick and master joiner, Janis, works progressed fast. In that first four months, we moved the kitchen downstairs to where it could open onto the terrace and we opened up the front two storerooms, one of which was on a slant designed for winemaking. Thinking laterally (and as a BAFTA film judge who has to watch many films a year)…. we turned the sloping wine room into a 16-seater cinema with old 1930s seats bought from the Liverpool Playhouse and shipped out, Dolby 5.1 sound and a 4K projector. The front aspect of the living room/cinema was opened up to glass and light and the spectacular views towards Volterra.”
Tony and his small team of workmen achieved a lot in 4 months. Moving the kitchen to the lower level so that it opens out on to the terrace adds a lot of value straight away and entices buyers and renters alike as it creates a fantastic social environment and a great space to entertain guests. The photos above show that the original kitchen was very outdated, dark and unimpressive but the new kitchen is bright, spacious and equipped with state of the art appliances.
Transforming the wine room in to an classic 1930s cinema was inspired. As Tony and his family didn’t have their sights set on learning the ropes of winemaking, this space could have gone unused or wasted but instead they’ve offered something that is very rarely available in similar properties. Renters and potential future buyers will also appreciate the fact that Tony has kept the cinema to a style that very much compliments the rustic building it’s housed in. Not many people can say they’ve watched their favourite film on an ultra high definition screen whilst sitting in original 1930s cinema seats and glancing over at far reaching Tuscan landscape views as the sun goes down. That’s pretty special and something that would absolutely increase the value of a property.
“Upstairs, we added another bedroom and bathroom, giving us a total of 5-6 double bedrooms. We increased the pool terrace and built a pool shack that would become the famous ‘Jo Jo’s Cocktail Bar’, now loved by all, and the centre for many parties.”
It’s a given that adding bedrooms and bathrooms to a property adds value – the more bedrooms and bathrooms, the more people can stay/live there and therefore, the more it’s worth. Decorating and furnishings are important though, especially if you’re planning to rent the property out. Everyone has different taste but keeping to fresh, clean and comfortable decor, you can’t go wrong. Tony and Jo have achieved just that with their gorgeous bedrooms.
“The house has a large wine rack of local wines and an honesty box as well as the fully stocked cocktail bar. We run both of these and the landline on trust. Those who rent the house leave money for what they have used. We reason that when you are renting a house for up to €5,000+ per week, what we lose a little on wine, we gain on great reviews. Everyone loves JoJo’s cocktail bar, and our experience is that trust seems to engender trust.”
Lovingly named after Tony’s wife, Jo Jo’s Bar is positioned beside the pool and has proved very popular with guests. Details like this are a lovely personal touch and adds another level of fun and activity to the house. Guests don’t have to go out for drinks, they’ve got it all at their fingertips right there at the villa. The honesty box is such a brilliant idea. Of course, you can’t guarantee that everyone who rents your house will be totally honest but just the pure fact that Tony and Jo are willing to put that trust in their guests would likely be enough for them to be honest in return.
“Every aspect of building in Italy requires permission and the local geometra is the key. The first two we tried we ‘let go’ but as soon as we turned to the local village geometra – Lara, (and had her and her mother round for drinks), things turned around.”
Making sure you get the right people on board is paramount. Sometimes it might take a bit of trial and error, such was the case for Tony and Jo but ultimately, finding people you get along with and can build a level of trust with is a great advantage, especially if you’re going to need their advice and services frequently. Always feel free to ask us for recommendations.
“We plotted the works very carefully and intentionally used a mix of local building talent. In retrospect – all our positive relationships are local (specifically from the village). Using local talent has been key. The economy is very reliant on tourism and we have plotted carefully to make sure that we involve as many people from the village as we can. For all building works, we usually ask for a quote and make a fixed price agreement. As stated, we start with the local craftspeople in the village and accept a slightly higher price, although most of the time now they are the more competitive. Tuscany seems to function on relationships.”
Making use of local tradespeople wherever possible is definitely a good idea when you’re renovating a property. As Tony pointed out, many areas depend on tourism and in smaller areas consider their neighbours as friends. It’s a brilliant way to make connections and get to know people when moving to a totally new area.
Living room before
Living room after
“But of course, we have made many mistakes, overpaid, gone to Ikea, forgotten something – gone back to Ikea and then found we are missing a part, sworn at Ikea etc.”
As you’d expect, renovating a house comes with its learning curves. You’re bound to make mistakes and get carried away with some things, especially in the beginning.
“We tend to source most of our own materials and many of the larger purchases (such as all the air-conditioning units, tiles and pool equipment etc) come from Bricoman – a discount superstore in Florence.”
It’s always good to shop around to find the best deals on appliances and fittings. Saving on these more expensive things could substantially cut your renovation costs.
“To date we have spent just over £135,000 on renovations works and approximately £25,000 on the pool which has included converting it to salt chlorination, a new terrace and pool shack.”
WAS IT WORTH IT?
Now sleeping up to 14 people, Tony and Jo rent out their renovated property throughout the summer months with the exception of August, which is when the family spend their time over in Tuscany and enjoy the house they’ve worked so hard on. Over the last two seasons, the house generated an income of €39,000 in 2019 and €42,000 in 2020, even despite Covid-19. This upward trajectory is a testament to Tony’s hard work and they expect to make at least €50,000 next season.
“Our fixed yearly costs for caretaker, services, local tax, repairs, insurance, machinery etc are about €25,000 a year, and I annually spend an additional €8-10,000 on major projects and new machinery, although that is now decreasing. Our intent has never been to make a profit, but to afford to keep the house. The reality that we are more than breaking even is very reassuring. If we did not spend all of August in residence, we could increase the income significantly.”
Of course there are running costs that come with renting out a property but as long as your rental income covers these annual costs, you generally won’t have to worry and once you start building a rental history and improving the house as the years go by, you are adding to the value. Tony is a busy man with endless energy, but not everyone wants to put in the hard graft. Many people prefer to buy something which is already restored, and brings in an income. This is now one of those properties.
“Next year we intend to install a 1960s 30ft American silver Airstream trailer behind the house in a secluded location, as our teenagers insist – “like Dad we really need our own private space”. This will add an additional 4-5 berths and act as a popular overflow to the house.”
A large 1960s Airstream trailer would be another quirky and unusual addition to the property and something that isn’t on offer elsewhere. Ideal for younger members of the family to enjoy some independent space. Similarly to Jo Jo’s Bar, it adds a sense of fun, a personal touch and it’s something different that make this rental house stand out.
“The house is now conservatively worth around €1 million and we are still adding value – upgrading the interior furniture and furnishings will be next. We have been frugal in its development and thought very carefully about how to make it pay.”
There’s no denying that Tony and Jo managed to get a really good deal on this house due to the owner being desperate to sell as well as the house being in a state of outdated and overgrown disarray. It goes to show that patience is vital when it comes to finding the dream house, and that there is no substitute for actually getting over there and looking! It’s also important not to disregard a property immediately because the pool is a mess or because the furniture is old fashioned but to find the potential in the property and visualise what it could become with some work. Tony’s prior knowledge when it came to house renovations would have been beneficial to their process but like any restoration, mistakes were made and lessons were learned. All the hard work has paid off as not only do they have a stunning house to retreat to over August each year and create precious memories but they own a lucrative property that will bring in great extra income in the years to come.
You can find out more about Tony’s stunning renovated property and even rent it HERE.