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Italian problems: Driving seven hours (in a heatwave) to sign a form

What do you do when you find yourself in the kind of infuriating situation that could only ever happen in Italy?

Italian problems: Driving seven hours (in a heatwave) to sign a form
Photo: DepositPhotos

It’s not news to anyone that Italian bureaucracy is tediously slow, and frequently malfunctions. But this week, a set of particularly Italian circumstances converged to leave me wondering, just briefly, why I ever thought moving to Italy was a good idea in the first place.

“No, we can’t send the form by courier. You have to come in person”.

On the phone, the Italian bank employee had sounded extremely bored.

I took a deep breath. “But we’re seven hours away and I’m working. Can we make an appointment to come next week?”

“No, we’ll be on holiday. Until September.”

“What, everyone? The whole bank?”

“It’s August,” he said, as if this was self-explanatory.

It was actually July 23rd but, like pretty much everyone else in Italy, this particular bank employee seemed to have already mentally checked out for the summer holidays. The extreme heat probably wasn’t helping.

“If you can’t come this week then we’ll just start the application process in September,” he said, sounding as if he was ready to nap.

I seethed inwardly, having already explained several times that we were in a rush to arrange the mortgage, as my husband’s work had just transferred him to the other side of Italy – from Tuscany back to his home city of Bari – at very short notice. Repeating this information again seemed unlikely to rouse this bank employee.

We considered switching banks, but we’d already spent weeks having meetings and getting our documents in order, and we needed to get the process rolling before our notary, too, went on a long summer holiday.

There was nothing else for it.

We were soon checking the traffic conditions for the long drive to visit this particular regional bank in Puglia. The motorways were busy with it being peak summer travel season. Checking the train schedules we remembered that today, of all days, there was a national rail strike.

He briefly considered trying the train anyway – a nine-hour journey at the best of times – until he remembered it was also 38 degrees outside.

We had found ourselves stuck with a perfect storm of bureaucracy, strikes, traffic, long summer holidays and insufferable heat, with some bad customer service thrown in.  I wondered: could this situation be any more Italian?

I made an ill-tempered comment about how “nothing works in this country”; and got a very characteristic response from my southern Italian husband. A broad smile and a shrug.

“No problem,” he told me repeatedly as he jumped into the car this morning, ready to set off on his seven-hour solo journey under the blazing sun.

“Things do function here, in their own way,” he told me brightly, not for the first time.

Italians may famously get worked up over certain important things (you know, like food) but when it comes to bureaucracy, the consensus seems to be “what’s the point in worrying?”.

After all, getting mad about bureaucracy in Italy would be about as useful as shaking your fist at the sky when it rains.

And maybe I’m slowly coming around to this way of thinking, or maybe I’m just too hot to care, but I know he’s right. This situation is annoying, it’s stressful, it’s ridiculous, it’s sweaty, and it’s oh so very Italian, but it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. And it’s definitely not worth getting upset over.

All of this was a reminder that the only way I’ll be able to cope with living permanently in Italy is to totally revise any expectations of how things “should” work, and adjust my mindset accordingly. And maybe go and open a bottle of wine.

Nessun problema?

I’m working on it.

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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

If you're renovating a home in Italy, will you need to pay a middleman to cut through the red tape and language barriers? Silvia Marchetti looks at the pros and cons.

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

The idea of snapping up a cheap, crumbling house in a picturesque Italian village may sound appealing – but doing so always comes with tedious paperwork and the hassle of renovation.

For this reason, a growing number of professional agencies have sprung up in Italy to cater to foreign buyers snapping up cheap homes amid the property frenzy.

In many of the Italian towns selling one-euro or cheap homes, there are now ‘restyle experts’ and agencies that offer renovation services handling everything that could become a nightmare: from dealing with the paperwork and fiscal issues to finding a notary for the deed, contracting an architect, surveyor, a building team and the right suppliers for the furniture.

They also handle the sometimes tricky task of reactivating utilities in properties that have been abandoned for decades.

I’ve travelled to many of these villages and looked at this side of the business, too. Hiring these ‘middle people’ comes with pros and cons, though the positive aspects can certainly outweigh the negatives – provided you’re careful to pick the right professionals. 

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

These intermediaries are usually locals who have expertise in real estate and a good list of suppliers’ contacts. This allows them to deliver turnkey homes that were once just heaps of decaying rubble, sparing buyers time and money – particularly those living abroad, who then aren’t forced to fly over to Italy countless times a year to follow the work in progress.

I’ve met several buyers from abroad who purchased cheap homes sight unseen after merely looking at photos posted online by local authorities, but then had to book many expensive long-haul flights to hire the architect, get the paperwork done, and select the construction team (a few even got stuck here during Covid).

Thanks to their contacts the local agents can ensure fast-track renovations are completed within 2-4 months, which could prove very useful as the ‘superbonus’ frenzy in Italy has caused a builder shortage meaning many people renovating property now face long delays

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

Their all-inclusive commission usually starts at 5 percent of the total cost of a renovation, or at 2.500 euros per house independently from its cost and dimension. The fee also depends on the type of work being carried out, how tailored it is and whether there are any specific requirements, like installing an indoor elevator or having furniture pieces shipped from the mainland if it happens to be a Sicilian or Sardinian village. 

However, buyers must always be careful. It is highly recommended to make sure the local authorities know who these agents are and how reliable they are in delivering results.

Town halls can often suggest which local companies to contact, and this gives the renovation legitimacy in my view. In a small village, where everyone knows each other, when the town hall recommends an agency there’s always a certain degree of trust involved and agents know that their credibility is at stake (and also future commissions by more clients). 

Word of mouth among foreign buyers is a powerful tool; it can be positive or detrimental for the agency if a restyle isn’t done the right way, or with too many problems.

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

So it’s best to avoid agencies from another village, even if nearby, who come to you offering fast and super-cheap services, or local agencies that are not suggested by the mayor’s office. 

Then of course there can be other downsides, which largely depend on how ‘controlling’ and demanding the client is. 

For those not based in Italy full-time, the most important consideration is: how much can you trust these professionals to deliver what you expect, exactly how you want it, without having to be constantly on the ground? 

Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

Language can be a major obstacle. There are technical building terms that prove difficult to translate, and if the local agency doesn’t have English-speaking renovation professionals with a track record in following foreign clients it’s best to look for an intermediary with a greater language proficiency. 

I remember meeting an American couple once who got lost in translation with a village agent for days, and had to hire a translator just to hire the intermediary.

It’s always useful to ask for a ‘preventivo’ (quote) with VAT indication, considering roughly how much inflation could make the final cost go up. Buyers should also sign a contract with the exact timeframe of the works and delivery date of the new home, including penalties if there are delays on the part of the agency. 

READ ALSO:

But, even when there is complete trust, I think it is impossible to fully restyle an old home from a distance, contacting intermediaries by phone, emails, messages or video calls only. 

Details are key and there’s always something that could be misinterpreted. Buyers based overseas should still follow-up the renovation phases personally, perhaps with one or two flights per year to check all is going well and up to schedule.

Asking to see the costs so far undertaken midway through the restyle is useful to make sure there are no hidden costs or unexpected third parties involved – like buying the most expensive furniture or marble floor when not requested, or hiring a carpenter to build artisan beds.

While there is really no such thing as a hassle-free renovation, these agencies can ease the pressure and do most of the burdensome work – but buyers’ supervision will always be needed.

Read more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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