Journal International Herald Tribune du 30 janvier 2009

Greek villa is a warm sanctuary

By Niki Kitsantonis

LAGONISI, Greece: When Bob Simpson left his native Aberdeen, a bustling port in northeastern Scotland, for a sleepy coastal suburb of Athens, he was keen to trade his job in offshore oil drilling for a more relaxed life in a warmer climate.

Eight years later, he says he has gotten more than he ever hoped for.

While areas closer to the Greek capital have been choked by residential and commercial development, the sparsely populated Lagonisi remains virtually unspoiled and the value of his home has soared.

"We're very lucky - we're in the midst of olive groves and vineyards, but we can be in central Athens in half an hour and at the airport in 20 minutes," said Simpson, 57, during a recent tour of the property, some 30 kilometers, or 19 miles, southeast of the city.

In 1990 Simpson and his Greek wife, Sofia, also 57, paid the equivalent of €60,000, or $80,000, for more than 8,000 square meters, or 2 acres, of land, set in a valley between the mountains and the coastline of the Saronic Gulf. They spent the next 10 years building their five-bedroom villa in stages, finally moving in 2000.

As for the cost of construction, "I gave up counting after a while," Bob Simpson said.

Still, the investment appears to have been a smart retirement plan: The property now would be worth €3.5 million, according to Holystone Property Development and Management Consultants, a local real estate agency.

The peach-colored villa, a blend of traditional and modern Greek styles, is surrounded by a large garden with orange, lemon and grapefruit trees, as well as a swimming pool and tennis court. But tennis has taken a back seat to golf, which the couple, both avid players, practice in nearby Glyfada, an affluent suburb with one of the few courses in the country.

They also spend a lot of time in the garden: When not entertaining friends, they prune. "It's pretty low maintenance - we do most of it ourselves," Bob Simpson said.

The two-story house is spread over 400 square meters, or 4,300 square feet, its two wings linked by an internal bridge. Inside, there are stone floors throughout the villa and large windows that bathe the rooms in light.

Two main bedrooms on the first floor open onto generous balconies with sweeping views of the surrounding olive groves that stretch to the sea. Three of the bedrooms have their own bathrooms and there are two additional half-baths.

The villa also has a studio apartment in the attic and a self-contained apartment and airy conservatory on the ground floor.

According to real estate agents, a steady number of foreigners and Greeks are expressing interest in building such luxury homes in Lagonisi, which, with just 400 or so residents, remains one of the few coastal suburbs of Athens with room for development.

"Demand for upper-end villas in Lagonisi is still strong despite a projected drop in many other areas, in line with the economic crisis," said Tim Hughes of King Hellas, an Athens-based international property consultancy.

A main attraction is that the location is secluded, yet accessible, he said. And demand is expected to sharpen even more as restaurants and boutiques are being added to the main waterfront area and the road leading to the airport is being improved, he said.

Agents estimate the cost of building a luxury home in Lagonisi at €1,500 to €2,000 per square meter, or $187 to $248 per square foot, similar to costs in much of Athens and the Aegean islands but cheaper than in affluent suburbs of the capital, where space is restricted and construction is more expensive.

As for land prices, they "vary wildly," depending on the size and location, Hughes said. Sale prices also vary according to the plot's size and location. Most top-end homes sell for €1 million to €3 million, he said.

Bob Simpson said the experience of building the villa was relatively stress-free. He hired an architect and civil engineer at the outset and found tradesmen for the smaller jobs by word of mouth. Overall, he attributed the success to constant supervision: "We were the project managers; we were here all the time," he said.

He advised against paying for work in advance - "you'll be bumped down the list of priorities" - and said that Greece's notorious bureaucracy and the tendency to bend rules can be daunting. "It's tough not having reliable guidelines - the truth often depends on who you talk to."

Still, his patience seems to have paid off. The house now rents for £5,500, or $8,000, per week during the peak summer period.

The couple decided to advertise their home for rent after accommodating the U.S. equestrian federation's delegation during the 2004 Games in Athens. "The Olympics got us started," said Bob Simpson, who relies on an agency in Britain to organize rentals. "Our guests enjoyed themselves so much that we wanted to do it again."

The couple also has found another way to use the property, thanks to the connections of their 29-year-old daughter Julia, a fashion stylist. The occasional splashes of orange and blue paint on the villa's otherwise white interior walls are the work of a Greek television production company, which will be using the house as the set of a new TV series, due to air in early February.

Simpson said transforming his home into a TV set had been unexpected but most welcome. "It's been a lot of fun," he said, "and it's another way of making the most of the house."

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