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Vintage Malta

20th May, 2012
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When TV producer Natascha McQueen decided to buy a second home in Malta, she and her parents spent a weekend looking at properties of every size, shape and age. But it was only when they arrived at an apartment block facing the sea at St. Julians, that her mother said ‘this is the one’.

The building was still only a shell; it was the location in the former fishing village on the north coast 20 minutes west of Valletta which was special. For when the pretty young Maltese concert pianist Nadya Kissaun married the dashing British naval officer Robert McQueen, Nadya’s father offered to buy them one of the traditional boat houses on the water’s edge.

“They thought it would be too damp being so near the sea so they actually went for a place a couple of streets back,” says their daughter. Over the years the family lived in various homes in various countries as they followed Capt. McQueen’s career in the Fleet Air Arm. “But as my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary approached we all thought it would be nice to spend more time in Malta,” she adds. “It sounds very sentimental but it feels like completing the circle.”

Most of the old boat houses are long gone, replaced with developments such as the one where Natascha, single and in her forties, now owns a 110 sq m two bedroom apartment on the fourth floor with views out over the Med. Her family’s story encapsulates two of the distinctive qualities of the Malta property scene: the long standing British connection and the ongoing struggle to balance old and new.

This is nowhere more apparent than in somewhere like Tigne Point, a 30 acre commercial, retail and residential development on a promontory in Sliema at the mouth of the Marsamxetto Harbour. The Euro600m project includes Euro40m to restore Fort Tigne, the last to be built by the Knights of St John and a garrison for British troops from 1805 until their departure in 1979. A longer term master plan includes a low rise village on the bay’s Manoel Island and the restoration of its barracks and the buildings which once acted as quarantine quarters for visitors to Malta including Byron and Sir Walter Scott.

Prices at Tigne range from Euro235 for a one bedroom apartment to Euro2m for a four bedroom duplex with its own pool. The first phase went on sale in late 2002, the last in December 2011. All but 15 of the total of 280 properties have been sold, half to locals, the rest to mainly EU nationals of which the majority are Brits. It’s a pattern that’s repeated elsewhere, according to George Vassallo, a manager with Frank Salt Real Estate.

“They feel at home here, comfortable and welcome. There are familiar things like red phone booths and letter boxes – we’ve even now got your bendy buses – and shops like Marks and Spencer and Debenhams. We drive on the left and, of course, everyone speaks English – it’s an official language here – which is very helpful. It means you can live and mix with locals rather than just ex-pats which can happen in other countries.

“But you’ve also got fantastic weather and beautiful sea for swimming and diving and sailing. The place is safe and politically stable and because our banks have always been very cautious they haven’t been as hard hit as elsewhere. And we’ve all this amazing history.”

That extends from standing stones older than Stonehenge through occupations by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Roman, Byzantines, Arabs and French to the British: last month [April] was the 60th anniversary of the award of the George Cross to the island for its bravery in the face of intensive German bombing.

The legacy of the Knights of the Order of St. John, who were on the island for 268 years first as hospitallers for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land and later as a formidable fighting force, is everywhere. They built forts, watch towers, aquaducts, churches and cathedrals but their most spectacular achievement was the 16th century walled city of Valletta, the first ever to be laid out on a grid system.

Today it remains both a historic gem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place of modern commerce, culture and nightlife. Its spectacular Grand Harbour, for example, preserves the quayside warehouses, each with a different coloured door to indicate the type of goods stored, but can also accommodate giant cruise ships and Roman Abramovich’s 377 ft superyacht.

Property purchases in Malta range, says Vassallo, from the ultra modern to the old and authentic known as ‘homes of character’. The former are often in one of the eight Specially Designated Areas set up by the government to incentivise building and tourism. SDAs which include Portomaso and Pendergardens in St Juliens and Ta Monita in Marsascala in the South East corner are new build developments constructed by local investors.

Non-residents can own as many properties as they wish in SDAs; elsewhere they are limited to only one at a time and that must be worth over Euro99,000. The rule was brought in after Malta joined the EU in 2004 and there were fears that fellow Europeans would rush in and gobble everything up.

EU investment is evident all over the island: in road improvements and the restoration of parts of Valletta and the adjoining Three Cities area. New funds have just been received for the restoration of two old forts: St Elmo and St Anglo.

The capital’s most desirable street is the 100 yards of St Barbara Bastions where impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose mother is Maltese, has renovated an elegant 1900s house now worth an estimated Euro4.5m. Elsewhere a fine old palazzo or nobleman’s home might cost anything between Euro650,000 and Euro2m depending on size and a view. Unrestored ones can still be found for maybe Euro450,000.

Government grants are available for restoration but only to Maltese residents although anyone who has a job or is economically self-sufficient can apply for residency. The threshold for self sufficiency is set at a minimum capital of Euro14,000 or a weekly income of Euro84.95 for a single person or capital of Euro23,000 or weekly income of Euro93.10 for a married couple.

Sixty one year-old James Lewis, a former English lecturer at Bristol University, and his Alexander Technique teacher wife Philippa, 57, became residents when they bought their charming old house in Sliema four years ago.

“We wanted an adventure and it’s proved to be a good one,” says Philippa. “We do a lot of socialising, we’re always going out for supper or to the theatre or concerts. James is a churchwarden at the Anglican cathedral and we walk a lot and we swim most days off the rocks – we’re only five minutes from the sea. It’s also a lot cheaper than living in England, about half the cost, because there’s no council tax, low heating costs and we don’t need a car. Everything is handy and the buses are cheap.”

One downside is the fact that the limestone which gives Maltese buildings their distinctive golden glow is also porous and thus prone to damp: “you have to be careful to keep an old house well aired.” Another is the intense summer heat: the Lewises usually return to the UK for July and August.

They are now returning full time to be with Philippa’s elderly mother and have put the house on the market for Euro249,000. It had already been modernised when they bought it but it retains the traditional small central courtyard, winding staircase, roof terrace and characteristic galleria windows aimed at creating cooling through drafts. These sleepy back streets with their small local shops and religious plaques contrast with the bustling promenade of the resort.

Buying in Malta is fairly straightforward. The government’s land registry guarantees title, an independent notary takes care of the legalities and the onus is on the seller to ensure the place has no major defects. One peculiarity foreigner buyers should beware is ‘ownership of airspace’: some developers, for example, have been known to hold on to a penthouse in order to keep building upwards. Fees and taxes add around six per cent to the purchase price. Maltese bank mortgages are available for usually 70 per cent loan to value and at a rate of around 4.5 per cent.

Property is not particularly cheap compared to, say, Spain, partly due to the 400,000 islanders’ own love of it – even in a place only 19 miles by ten, it is common to have somewhere in town and somewhere by the sea – but buyers tend to get quite generously proportioned homes: even old houses in narrow side streets open up like Tardises.

After steady increases over the past decade which accelerated with EU membership prices have levelled out, even dipped in parts where there has been some overbuild. The Lewises expect to break even while Natascha McQueen who paid Euro450,000 says enjoyment rather than investment is her priority. “Obviously money is important and I’m hoping for long term capital growth but I’m not planning to flip this in two or three years so hopefully I’ll be able to ride any fluctuations.”

During her years as a travel programme producer for CNN she visited over 100 countries. “I’ve seen a lot of the world but Malta is where I chose to buy. It’s got all this history but 21st century living. And it’s only three hours from London.”

Source: The London Sunday Times; article written by Liz Gill

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