'You need Italian friends to get things done'

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David Brenner was a sports presenter with the BBC before he set up VillasFor2 with his wife, Pauline, in Abruzzo. Photo: David Brenner.
17:36 CET+01:00
With the job market in Italy being tough, one of the only ways for a foreigner to make a living is by going it alone. David Brenner, a former BBC sports presenter, talks us through the process of setting up his holiday rental business, VillasFor2, in Abruzzo.

What made you leave the BBC for Italy?

It was a fact of life within the BBC that once you start getting a few grey hairs, your remaining time there is limited. I was in my late 50s and I still had to work. But the only thing I was trained to be was a journalist, it was all I knew.

So my wife Pauline and I started to think about what we could do next.

We had no experience in travel and leisure and no research behind us, other than that we’d never been able to find a villa that would accommodate just two people, so we thought there was a gap in the market.

We did think about buying a bed and breakfast in the UK but the prices were insane, so we decided to look outside. We didn’t want to go anywhere that didn’t have a good wine and food culture. So after ruling out Spain and France, we decided on Italy.

It was late 2006/early 2007 when we started looking for property, at first in Tuscany. But we soon realized property there wasn’t affordable. We liked Umbria but it was landlocked and Marche was very nice, but we finally decided on Abruzzo. We looked at 96 properties - three fell through for no other reason than it was Italy, for stupid reasons.

The 97th we saw, in May 2007, is the one we bought. The house in the UK went up for sale, I left the BBC in September 2007 and we came here in the October.

So how did you go about getting planning permission, especially with not speaking any Italian?

We were really lucky to have found a superb project manager. We received planning permission in a month because he knew people at the planning department who trusted him; they knew the work would be done to the highest safety standards.

So the planning permission came in April 2008, the builders started in June and we were in by the spring of 2009. The builders broke records. We managed to sell our house in the UK just before the recession hit there.

Builders are often the bane of such projects. How come yours were so good?

They were flawless. We signed a contract so that they purely worked for us. They worked for 9-10 months and were here from 7am until about 4pm.

Surely you encountered some problems along the way?

Certain people who we’d put faith in let us down - Italians tend to say what they think you want to hear. For example, we wanted to set up a holiday rental business, with the initial idea being to buy a farm and do up some units. The estate agents said ‘yes yes, this is possible’ but then we found out agricultural land couldn’t be built on.

A couple of other times we took people at face value, but we were very much mistaken. Thankfully, we didn’t lose any money. We’ve seen lots of people get caught out and they had to go back to the UK. Some people can be unscrupulous.

We had to register with doctors, deal with lawyers, get settled, etc, with no language skills. There were times when it could have gone spectacularly wrong, but we were saved by the skin of our teeth.

Italy’s among the most corrupt countries in Europe. Did you experience any such thing while setting up your business?

There is this misconception that Italy is a country where you can just bribe your way out of any problem, that money could change hands and you’d get what you wanted done. I’ve come across astonishing incompetence, for example with the electricity and gas companies, but dishonesty...bribes...I truly have never encountered that. Clearly there are parts of Italy where that does happen. I can only speak for where we are. There is some “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”, but I’ve honestly never encountered anything like “give me €1,000 for a permit”, for example.

You’ve managed to build a successful business amid a global recession. How come?

First of all, out of 499 properties for rent in Abruzzo, we’re the only one that caters just for couples. Also, our clients are recession-proof. They’re either young people without children or older people whose children have flown the nest. Year on year, business has got better. This was our best year.

What advice would you give other foreigners looking to do the same?

You’ve got to speak Italian. You’ll struggle in a place like Abruzzo unless you speak the language. There’s an incredible willingness among Italians to help, but you’ve got to make the effort too. Even knowing the language a little bit goes a long way. I did a CD course but that doesn’t really teach you comprehension. I still goes to a class once a week.

Decide on the area you want to move to. And when you buy, everywhere looks good in the summer, so visit the place in the winter too.

You’ve got to be aware that unemployment is extremely high, you can’t just come here expecting to work in a bar or whatever. In order to work in the Italian system, you need italian qualifications. People who live here either do what we do, or are retired, or work in the building industry. You need to have a clear idea about what you’re going to do.

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You’ve also got to realize that the Italian tax system is draconian, punitive and incredibly complicated. You have to declare everything, don’t think that because your pension pot is less than €10k a year that you don’t. Ignorance is no excuse.

You’ve really got to learn the ropes of the system quickly, and those ropes are difficult to learn and whatever the ropes are this year will be different next year. This is when you need can come here and live in your own bubble but you should make an effort to integrate with Italians. Italians are very friendly, the moment you move in someone will be knocking at your door, inviting you over.

Also, don’t give everything up at home. It would have been a good idea to keep a bolt-hole in the UK, but this never occurred to us.

So how has making friends Italians helped you and your business?

When we came to Abruzzo, we knew absolutely nobody. Then after four or five months we went to the local market, heard English people and so found a small expat group...we have good English and Italian friends here now. You need a good support network.

There’ve been a couple of occasions when we needed to go to the local council, or we needed a favour and on our own, it’s useless; it’s only when one of our Italian friends helps that we got things done. The Italians also like to show off that they have the contacts and know the right people. All of a sudden, the problem disappears.

Moving here is a full body immersion. You’ve got to grasp it with both hands, the more you put in, the more you’ll get back.

Click here to check out David and Pauline's villas in Abruzzo.

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