Dozens of foreigners vie for €1 homes in Sicily

At least 50 people are competing for €1 homes up for sale in a Sicilian village, with prospective owners coming from as far away as Brazil, property broker Marie Wester told The Local.

Dozens of foreigners vie for €1 homes in Sicily
Potential property buyers have to propose projects they will bring to Gangi. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Few foreigners had heard of Gangi until earlier this year, when locals came up with an idea that put the Sicilian village firmly on the map.

Faced with a dwindling population – down to around 7,000 – the municipality put 20 empty properties in the village up for sale, with a €1 price tag.

Word quickly spread internationally, with 8,000 would-be property owners contacting Wester to ask about the sale or arrange visits to rural Sicily.

“Around 150 people came to Gangi from all over the world,” she told The Local.

“There were British people, French, Australians, Americans and many Brazilians. A lot of the Brazilians are second generation Sicilians and want to come back,” Wester said.

Aside from the €1 fee, buyers must pay purchasing costs of around €6,000, while the cost of renovation work could run to €35,000.

Photo by Tiziana Fabi AFP

READ MORE: Homes for sale for a euro in ancient Sicily village

Despite the additional costs competition remains tough, with local authorities currently scrutinizing 50 applications via Wester’s property agency, in addition to others directed to the municipality.

Potential buyers also needed to come up with ideas for developing the village.

“The municipality wanted to prioritize people who can do something for Gangi, so with each application people had to say what they would create,” explained Wester, who presented her clients’ proposals to the local authority.

Among the proposals were B&Bs, an international cookery school, a dentist “who does movie stars’ teeth” and a producer wanting to set up a film set.

Buyers from all walks of life and of all ages have applied; couples, mother and daughter duos and families are all keen to move to Gangi, Wester add.

A few young single people also submitted applications, which Wester said is unusual in the Sicilian property market.

Although residents of the sleepy Sicilian village were “very surprised” by the sudden influx of foreigners, Wester said they have been supportive of the initiative.

“It’s also something that makes them proud; they realize they have a very nice little town and people want to come,” she said.

Gangi’s success has prompted other municipalities – where budgets are low and citizens’ face high unemployment – to come up with similar projects to revitalize their communities.

“It’s been an inspiration,” said Wester, who will head to another village this week to discuss a similar proposal.  

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PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy’s conservation rules

Old Italian homes featuring frescoes, loggias or ancient cellars are appealing, but such buildings are often protected by Italy’s cultural heritage authority - meaning lots of red tape for owners, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy's conservation rules

Italy is dotted with gorgeous hilltop villages full of centuries-old homes for sale complete with characteristic features. But many people don’t realise that these buildings, even if they’re abandoned or decaying, often fall under restrictions (vincoli) enforced by Italy’s ‘art authorities’, known as the sovraintendenza belle arti.

Due to the artistic and historic value of these buildings, they’re considered a part of the national heritage. This is usually because they date back to medieval and Renaissance times, or because they feature frescoed walls, emblazoned vaults or entrance portals with coats of arms. 

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Italy has the most UNESCO-listed cities in the world, and here these vincoli are even more binding. Many buildings in Rome have entrance portals sculpted by Renaissance masters which are ‘off-limits’ even if they’re in need of repair. 

It is a widespread way of protecting Italy’s heritage, and yet awareness of the risks buyers face if their property happens to be ‘supervised’ are often hidden, and are especially unknown to foreigners.

In almost every old rural village there are private houses and palazzos with ancient loggias, decorated ceilings and lavish stone columns, and even simple former farmers’ dwellings with ancient cellars, over which the art authorities have the final say on renovation work, even small upgrades like adding an extra room or pulling down a wall.

READ ALSO: Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Giovanna Rosetta Fraire was forced to give up her dream of buying a portion of a two-floor 1700s building in the village of Civita Castellana, in Lazio, because it needed upgrades but the frescoed walls, ceilings, decorated fireplaces and elegant entrance were ‘vincolati’ (under restrictions).

“It was a historic building with an artistic value. The peeling façade needed a makeover but it was still the original color dating back centuries so we couldn’t paint over it,” she explains.

“The rusty wrought-iron balconies were made in the 18th century while the location was in the heart of the historical center, right in front of the Gothic cathedral, so any change to the building would have affected the scenery, too.”

Fraire only found out about these rules by chance, just before signing the purchase deed, thanks to a tip from a local resident.

According to Italian law, fixes to similar buildings of value need to be coordinated and approved by the sovrintendenza, which seldom allows any changes to the exterior and only minimal ones inside crumbled rooms, for instance those struck by an earthquake.

Usually the structure of a ‘vincolata’ building cannot be modified at all: walls cannot be pulled down, nor a room expanded or divided in two.

And when old homes are embedded within the fortified medieval walls or share a wall with a castle or fortress it is even more complicated. 

Civita Castellana. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cesidio Diciacca bought a former abbot’s lodgings dating from the 1700s, embedded within the rampart in the village of Picinisco, north of Naples, 

He contacted the local belle arti before restyling it to find out whether there were any restrictions, which is always the best thing to do. Unearthing an updated map of your property from the catasto (land registry) is also useful. 

“The belle arti stopped all external changes as we are in the centro storico,” he says. “The only external fix allowed was to remove the top level of the guard tower which was ugly and out of place, and we had issues also placing solar panels. 

“The whole of the centro storico of Picinisco and neighboring hill towns are protected in some way which is both good and bad as it prevents necessary work of modernisation.”

It should be a matter of striking the right balance between preservation and valorization of old properties, but this is rarely the case in Italy when art authorities are involved. 

Cesidio Diciacca’s house in Picinisco. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Giovanna Rossi owns a tiny dwelling in the picturesque Tuscan village of Pitigliano, where old homes are cropped on a high plateau and carved from the tuff rock. 

Like most other villages in the area, Pitigliano has Etruscan roots and many dwellings come with pagan caves considered by authorities to be monuments of anthropological interest, a bit like Matera’s.

“I have this stunning underground canteen accessible from my kitchen but cannot change it in any way to make it habitable, it’s a pity. I just show it to friends and keep wine bottles in it,” she says. 

Even private gardens and patches of land, set within or close to ’archaic’ protected parks where Etruscan or Ancient Roman tombs and ruins have been unearthed, have archaeological vincoli and cannot be modified without the necessary green lights.

These are ‘vincolati’ by authorities unless there are specific geological permits which allow the construction of a swimming pool, a gazebo or tiny cottage, following land surveys proving the spot is clear of historic finds. 

That’s without mentioning that when a Roman sarcophagus or column pops out buried in your backyard, you must tell the belle arti at once or face fines, and potential seizure. 

Other European countries have similar rules, like Historic England’s listed buildings, but these seem to create restrictions to a lesser degree compared to Italy’s huge and sometimes cumbersome heritage.