What are houses of character?

Honey-coloured limestone, wooden balconies, exposed wooden beams, arched or vaulted ceilings, spiral stone staircases, cellars, courtyards or gardens (many now fitted with pools) and flagstone floors or artisanal, intricately-patterned tiles: no two homes are really the same.

Traditional properties, many of them centuries old, are one of the hallmarks of towns and villages around Malta and Gozo. They come in all shapes and sizes but share a number of traditional architectural features that lend them their unique character and make them stand out from other property types.

The history of these houses ranges from remote farmhouses in idyllic rural locations to quaint village homes, stately townhouses and even massive imposing palazzos showcasing the pinnacle of the architecture of their period.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when appreciation for these properties began to rekindle, many were bought up and converted for modern living, often with luxury high-quality furnishing and finishes. These houses of character can usually be bought ready to move into, but for those looking to tailor-make their dream home specifically to their liking, a number of unconverted properties can still be found around Malta and Gozo, offering unique opportunities for the right buyers.

Buying an older property can be an exciting and hugely rewarding decision, whether as a home or as an investment, but it is not without potential drawbacks, particularly for the unprepared. So if a house of character sounds appealing to you, let’s look at the ups and downs of this unique property type.


A unique piece of history

As they say: they just don’t build them like they used to. For many potential buyers, the opportunity to own a slice of history is one of the main draws of houses of character. These homes simply ooze charm and authenticity and fulfil a nostalgia for an older way of life. Stepping into one of these homes is like stepping back in time to the period in which they were built, which could be as far in the past as 500 years ago.

The history of these buildings—the people who lived in them and their previous uses—is woven into their fabric, so buying a house of character means becoming part of that history. Because of the importance of traditional buildings to the community, town or village the property is part of, buying one also means preserving and protecting that heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Moreover, while many modern developments can seem pretty similar in style and layout, no two houses of character are the same. You might find unique features like old mill rooms, fireplaces, stone arches, wine cellars, or quirky nooks and crannies offering unique decorating opportunities. These traditional features can never be truly recreated in modern buildings, meaning your property will always be one of a kind.

Unspoiled locations

Because of their historic nature, houses of character tend to be located in very specific settings which add to their charm and value. These properties can be found in most localities around Malta and Gozo, but they are most common in old village cores which still retain a traditional feel, with narrow, winding alleys and a quieter, more peaceful environment than the busy streets of more urbanised areas. Or perhaps you’ll find a renovated farmhouse in a small countryside hamlet, with the promise of fresh air and open space.

As the pace of development in Malta and Gozo increases, these areas are becoming increasingly popular as more and more people look for a return to the peace and quiet and sense of community they offer, away from the hustle and bustle. Buying a house of character in one of these areas immerses you in the heart of these traditional environments, and as many are protected by law from excessive development, your new neighbourhood is likely to retain the character that first drew you to it for longer.

A solid investment

Houses of character can vary tremendously in price depending on their size, location and features (including of course whether they are being sold converted or unconverted) but in general, a house of character will cost less than a comparable modern home of similar size, meaning you could get more for your money.

As the supply of these properties is limited by their very nature, they also tend to show good increases in value over time. This is particularly true of properties that may have a specific historical significance in themselves or as part of their surroundings. And of course, any renovations you carry out have the potential to massively increase your property’s value.

While houses of character can make great homes, they are also very promising as rental investments. Many property owners have found they are popular as long- and short-term rentals with expats and tourists looking for an authentic experience. Farmhouses in Gozo, for example, are extremely popular as holiday rentals while many larger properties have been successfully converted into boutique accommodation.


Is the village lifestyle for you?

Traditional locations also mean being surrounded by a more traditional way of life, which, for all its charm, is not without its drawbacks.

For example, tightly-packed village cores and narrow streets means driving and parking can be constant challenges, while transport connections may not be as efficient as in more trafficked areas and you may need to travel further to find amenities like large supermarkets.

Noisy neighbours may be more of a nuisance—check for any loud barking dogs on nearby rooftops! —and you could find that the sense of anonymity that some enjoy in larger towns and cities is entirely lacking here.

Depending on your perspective, the traditional festi that take over most towns and villages in summer, could be a highlight of the season, or an unwelcome intrusion on your peace and quiet. Festi bring with them excitement and pageantry but also loud fireworks and music, large crowds and road closures.

Even isolated rural farmhouses may not be entirely immune from disturbances, from heavy machinery on nearby farms to gunshots at dawn during bird hunting season.

Alterations and maintenance costs

If you’re buying an unconverted house of character, then you probably already expect to spend a significant amount transforming the property into what you’ve dreamed of: in fact, the renovation project may be part of the excitement!

However, even with a house of character that is ready to live in, you may find additional costs quickly outstripping what you’d pay on a modern home. Old properties can throw up unexpected issues all the time, so maintenance works are likely to be needed more often, and costs for the works may be higher because of the sensitive nature of the property (perhaps even requiring specialist repair companies).

In certain cases, planning policies intended to protect historic buildings may limit the sort of works and alterations you can carry out or impose additional conditions on the works you do implement. Something as simple as replacing doors or windows could come with a lot of red tape where historic properties are concerned.

Whether you’re looking for a long-term home improvement project or a quick move-in, looking into the additional costs, time and issues involved is a must with houses of character.

Built for a different time

There’s no getting around it: houses of character were not built to serve as 21st century homes. Of course, this is part of their charm, and a look around some of the spectacular conversions available on the market will quickly show that this is not in itself a reason to stay away.

Still, some of the quirks of these properties may not be to everyone’s liking: individual rooms may be small or lack windows and natural light, or the building itself may have an odd layout more suited to some previous use than to a modern home. Old limestone houses are also notoriously difficult to keep warm in winter, and damp and humidity are particularly problematic, while courtyards need shading to protect from the blazing summer heat.

Homes like this have their own personality, and you have to be ready to make accommodations for it if you decide to buy a house of character.

The RE/MAX takeaway

Having the right real estate agent is vital to making your search easier and ensuring you find the right property for you. Whether you’re looking for a unique home or an investment property, your expert RE/MAX agent can give you the best guidance on the houses of character available to buy in Malta and Gozo. Get in touch today at www.remax-malta.com.