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September 17, 2009, The New York Times
Overseas Buyers Fall for Corfu's Historic Charm
CORFU, GREECE - The global recession and a glut of properties, mostly put on the market by Britons trying to take advantage of the strong euro, have led to sale prices declining significantly in the past year on the Greek island of Corfu.
"Some house prices have dropped by 10 percent in the last 12 months, others even more," said Sarah Prifti of the Corfu Home Finders agency, which has an office in the island's diminutive capital, Corfu Town. "As a result, we are seeing a lot of serious interest from overseas buyers with as little as €100,000 who are looking to make cash offers for village homes in need of renovation."
Corfu's balmy climate, azure seas and beautiful mountain vistas - along with a distinctive architectural and historical legacy - have made the island a popular choice for northern European, and especially British, second-home buyers since the second half of the 1980s. Britain ended its administrative control here in the mid-19th century but the town's cricket pitch is still in use and ginger ale is served in local cafes.
But now it is not only the exchange rate that is encouraging some Britons to sell up. Many among Corfu's community of retired expats are aging, and prefer to spend their last years at home.
Currently, Mrs. Prifti's agency has a listing of €475,000, or $679,500, for a semi-detached villa perched above Agni Bay, on the coveted northeastern side of the island, with three ensuite bedrooms and an infinity pool. It also is marketing a renovated schoolhouse with uninterrupted sea views in the nearby village of Apolisies for €490,000.
In Corfu Town the entry-level value for used apartments outside the historical center is around €2,000 per square meter, or $267 per square foot. Newly built houses away from prime locations start at €2,500 per square meter; vacation homes on the secondary market are usually sold fully furnished.
According to Rahdy Elwan, an architect raised in Washington D.C. who has been practicing on the island for the past 10 years, Corfu surprises many first-time visitors.
"Corfu just isn't the typical Greek island of the imagination, full of white buildings with blue shutters. It's much greener here, and the Venetian influence makes for a more ornate style, with terra cotta tiles and ochre predominating.
"The effect is more like Dubrovnik than one of the Aegean islands such as Mykonos," said Mr. Elwan.
The island's strict regulations have protected its design aesthetic, other than the concrete construction of two or three hastily built tourist resorts.
According to Mr. Elwan, working with Corfu's building stock presents its own challenges: "Clients often set their hearts on old Venetian village houses, but they also want modern convenience. I have to think of ways of combining the cozy, reduced spaces of the old style with a more open-plan concept of living."
Mr. Elwan said he has noticed increasing interest from potential U.S. buyers in the last two years; he is currently working on a commission from an American who is building a 200-square-meter, or 2,153-square-foot, villa. Most of Mr. Elwan's projects have ranged from 200 square meters to 300 square meters and cost €1.2 million to €1.4 million, depending on their proximity to the sea.
Some 640 square kilometers in size and with a permanent population of 107,000, Corfu is a sickle-shaped island in the Ionian Sea to the west of the Greek mainland, just a little more than 3 kilometers, or about 2 miles, from Albania at its closest point.
Property in the northeastern corner of Corfu, facing the rugged, mountainous Albanian coast, is the most prized. Several of Britain's wealthiest banking and retail clans - including the Rothschild family - have discreet compounds on the stretch of coast around the fishing village of Kalami.
The concentration of wealthy British property owners in this corner of the island has earned it the nickname "Kensington-on-Sea," after the prosperous London neighborhood. Prince Charles is an occasional visitor.
When it comes to selling real estate, there are marked differences between locals and newcomers. While foreign homeowners keen to offload their properties will usually advertise widely, native Corfiots - in common with many other Greeks - tend to do everything possible to keep property within the family and so avoid distressed sales.
"There was next to nothing overtly for sale in the countryside before about 1980," Mrs. Prifti recalled. And there still is a noticeable lack of statistics about the volume and value of real estate transactions on the island.
Despite recent declines in pricing at the lower end of the market, Mrs. Prifti said "something special or exclusive will always find a buyer." For example, she said, an increasing number of Russians are snapping up second-hand villas with sea views in the €1 million to €1.5 million price range.
Russians, American and other non-EU nationals do have to obtain a permit to buy property on Corfu, a procedure that takes three or four months to complete.
Although the island has a rather narrow economic base - the mainstays are tourism and olive oil production - the attractive lifestyle it offers mainland Greeks is bringing money and skills to the island.
"Many Athenians have settled here in recent years," says Michael Conitsiotis, a local jeweler. "Good schools and a less hectic pace mean that it's a great location to bring up a family."