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Aleksandra and Andrzej Novak-Zemplinski's house is enough to give most people a strong case of manor-envy. The beautiful late 18th-century property - with its columned gables, intricate, plaster-ceilinged interiors and antique portrait-covered walls, all shaded by stately trees and close to a 3.5-hectare park - is the very essence of gracious country living.

But visitors shouldn't be too jealous. Getting the house, which is located in the village of Tulowice about 60km north-west of Warsaw, to its current state has taken years of hard work.

"It's impossible to describe the horror of what was here [when we bought it 25 years ago]," Aleksandra explains. The doors and windows were gone, and the floors had been destroyed. The building had been used to store fertiliser for 15 years after the second world war and was then turned into a toilet by local people who used the grounds as a short-cut. The local municipality parked its trucks out front and dumped unused asphalt and cement out back.

"No one else wanted it, so we bought it from the state for pennies," says Andrzej, who makes his living as an architect and an artist who paints portraits of horses. "It had a negative real value. These properties aren't that expensive but the cost of repairing them is enormous."

Poland is full of such buildings - once grand palaces, castles and manors that were nationalised under the country's Soviet-backed communist rule and left to rot as a reminder of the lifestyle that had been destroyed. Indeed, Tulowice ended up being governed by the former gardener of the manor the Novak-Zemplinskis now own, and he went out of his way to ensure that it was devastated.

Although records indicate that there were 20,000 historical properties in Poland in 1945 - a testament to the important political and economic role once played by the gentry - only about a tenth of them still exist and most are severely damaged. The idea of acquiring and restoring any of these homes - and capturing any associated gains - may be tempting to both domestic and foreign investors. But, as the Novak-Zemplinskis demonstrated, such projects require patience and sacrifice.

Aleksandra remembers the time her husband sold a painting, the proceeds of which would normally have paid for a family holiday. "Instead he came home with a suitcase of door handles for the house," she says with a laugh.

"You can't think of it in economic terms, only in emotional terms," Andrzej says. "It's much, much cheaper to simply build a new house instead of restoring an old one. But here you have a sense that you're saving a bit of history."

Andrzej Mauberg also cares about restoring the past, which is why the banker drives from Warsaw every weekend to check on his 15 hectare property 20km south of the capital in the village of Brzesce. He bought the classic little Polish manor house, with its columned veranda and sloping roof, perched on a slope above a large pond, seven years ago. In the Soviet era the land was used as a collective farm.

Mauberg hired two workmen to handle renovations. Sometimes, when he shows up unannounced, he gets the impression one of them drinks on the job but the house is slowly progressing, with the exterior more or less restored. "This is no investment. It's really a hobby," says Mauberg, surveying the decaying stables and overgrown park. "It's a huge cost and an immense time-waster but it is a huge amount of fun. I'm trying to bring something back to what it was like in 1939, before the cataclysm." He hopes to move into the manor house in two or three years and then commute to Warsaw.

Both Mauberg and Andrzej Novak-Zemplinski come from families that owned estates before the war, which may help explain their zeal. They are, in a sense, returning to their roots a generation or two after their ancestors were thrown off the land.

So far, however, very few foreigners have been compelled to follow in their footsteps. Albert Krajewski, whose Kaza real estate agency specialises in historic Polish properties, says a few buyers from abroad have contacted him. "But so far we have had no final deals," he says. "A big problem is the climate and the lack of infrastructure," he explains. "Italy and Spain have eight months of great climate a year and cities that can supply high-quality entertainment. We don't have any of that in Poland, so what usually brings people is ethnic roots."

Krajewski's company currently has more than 150 listings, including a partially renovated 18th-century palace 100km from Warsaw for 2m zlotys (£330,000); a restored 19th-century manor on 60 hectares of land for 4m zlotys; and a huge 19th-century palace 100km from Warsaw on almost 4 hectares of land for only 275,000 zlotys.

But the cheapest property needs complete renovation. "If you buy something in a good state you need to add about a third of the purchase price to fix it up," he says. "If it is devastated you may have to pay 90 per cent of the purchase price or more."

Historic properties are usually under the control of state inspectors, which can make renovating very expensive. Roof tiles may have to be supplied from a single location far away to match the prewar look. Permission has to be obtained to cut down trees or to modify the look of the building in any way. And the Polish state is not wealthy enough to give much financial help.

Foreigners face an additional handicap of needing to get permission from the ministry of the interior before buying agricultural land, although Krajewski says it can usually be obtained.

With the effort and cost, rebuilding a historic property is not a great investment in the short term. But it could be in the long run, says Michal Sobanski, whose company, Restitutio ad Integrum, seeks the return of property confiscated under the communists. "Compared to western Europe, it costs relatively little to buy one of these properties and still not that much to renovate it," he says. "In 10 or 20 years, when Poland becomes a wealthier country, will it be worth more? I think so."

Some manor house buyers have decided to generate money in the meantime by turning their properties into businesses, usually conference centres or hotels. Marcin Popiel bought Kurozweki, his family's old estate in south-central Poland, from the state in 1994 for the equivalent of $60,000. At the time, the old castle, which dates back to the 14th century, was a ruin.

But in 1998, Popiel moved there from Belgium with his wife and eight children, and, using their own money, renovated the palace, eventually turning it into a 12-room boutique hotel, with a 30-horse stable and a herd of American buffalo as an additional attraction.

"We have been doing tourism for five years now and the place is paying for itself," Popiel says. "It's not making us a fortune but we make enough to maintain the palace and to keep renovating."

Beata Ostrowska-Harris has a similar plan. She and her sister bought back the family palace, Korczew in eastern Poland, in 1989 for a symbolic zloty. She now lives on the property with her English husband, and is trying to turn it back into a grand estate, buying surrounding land and fish ponds. The palace, no longer a ruin, now has several renovated rooms and the family hopes to turn it into a conference centre.

She wouldn't advise the casual second homebuyer to embark on a decades-long restoration of a Polish historic home. "It would have to be a very specific type of person, someone who has dedication to a wonderful house."

Aleksandra Novak-Zemplinski agrees. When asked if, knowing what she knows now, she would still have bought the ruin that later became their home, she pauses a long time, then looks at her husband, who is obviously head over heels in love with the house. "I'd have to think long and hard about it," she says, "but I'd probably do it."

Kaza, tel: 48 60165 1929;

Kurozweki, tel: 48 15866 7420;