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Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?

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Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?
Buying a house in Puglia is not for the faint-hearted (or anyone in a hurry). Photo: Depositphotos
16:24 CEST+02:00
There's a lot that can, and will, go wrong when you're trying to buy a house in Italy. And as The Local Italy editor Clare Speak discovered when trying to buy a house in Puglia, some of the problems you encounter can be very strange indeed.

I was well aware that buying a house in Italy wouldn't be easy. After all, I'd had plenty of warning from our contributors here at The Local - the most amusing (and also brutally honest) of which came in cartoon form - and I like to think I've done my homework.

We're buying a house in a place I know well - my husband's hometown - and overall I figured I knew, more or less, what to expect.

Italy's Puglia region is famous for many things, but efficiency is not one of them. Photo: Depositphotos

But some problems are just so strange that no one could ever have seen them coming.

“There's an issue with the paperwork,” frowned the woman at the bank, after I'd finally forced someone to look at our mortgage application - a mere two months after we'd rushed across the country in a heatwave to submit it.

Of course there is, I thought. When is there ever not? I mentally calculated whether we had time to go back to the town hall for a third time that day, to correct a spelling mistake or replace yet another lost form.

But she was still shaking her head, and tapping at the plans of the house with a startlingly long, red fingernail.

“The people selling the house don't technically own this part,” she said, pointing to a grey square that represented our tiny upstairs bathroom.

I just shook my head in confusion. How can they be selling something they don't own?

It turned out that the next-door neighbours had given the owners that room (which shares a wall with the house next door, but seems to be very much part of the house) “as a gift”. Probably to avoid comune admin fees, which would no doubt cost more than the piece of property itself was worth.

New neighbourhood: The church next to the house in Gioia del Colle, Bari. Photo: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons

But under Italian law, this means the next-door neighbours would still, technically, own our bathroom for another twenty years from the date they "donated" it, and also have the right to change their minds about the “gift” at any time.

“So who's the owner, then?"

She cleared her throat, and slowly began reading out a long list of names, complete with dates of birth, and death if applicable.

I counted them on my fingers, and I'd run out of fingers by the time she stopped reading.

“Ten people?” I accidentally shouted. “How can they all own my bathroom?”

The property was in the name of a now-deceased woman and her nine adult children. The oldest daughter, a Signora M, still lived in the house next door, and techically she owned the largest share of the bathroom – ten twenty-sevenths of it, to be precise.

I tried to visualise what ten twenty-sevenths of such a small room would even look like, and exactly how many of my bathroom tiles this Signora M was the proud owner of.

The tiny bathroom that caused so much trouble. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

“So if any of these people decide they want access to their property...?”

“Legally you will have to provide access,” she nodded.

A vision of this unknown family of ten tramping up and down my stairs to use the loo flashed through my mind. Could I put them all on a bathroom cleaning rota? It wasn't clear.

“And legally if they decide they want it back, you'll lose it, which is why the bank will require extra insurance.”

I think I died a little inside at that point. More insurance, after we'd already agreed to fork out for home insurance and life insurance - apparently a requirement of the bank. I'd been told to expect the cost of buying a house to be around ten percent of the property price, but we'd already sailed past that figure long ago.

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And it was especially frustrating since all of this was really just a technicality.

Some notary had, most likely, put all these names down on the property title when our bathroom was handed over as a "gift" - no doubt because the house next door is probably also split between the whole family. In Italy, houses are quite often passed on this way.

There's a high chance that these people named on the title either have no interest in our poky bathroom or had forgotten all about the whole thing.

But this didn't make our extra insurance cost any less: the bank quoted us almost a thousand euros for the policy.

And in fact, this was only one of many problems we discovered with the house – thanks to the bank or the notary – that the agency hadn't mentioned.

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It took a series of tense meetings with the seller and estate agent, not to mention me threatening to tear up the compromesso and cancel the whole thing (as we would be entitled to do at that point), before the seller agreed to pay up for the extra insurance on the house.

In the UK you'd probably have all the paperwork thoroughly checked over and get a survey done before even making an offer on a house. In Italy – at least in Puglia - this isn't the case.

We did have the documentation looked at by a notary before we agreed to buy the house, and we'd even obtained a signed declaration from the agency stating that there were "no issues" with the property or its ownership. Obviously, that didn't help.

The final and most thorough check of the paperwork by our notary revealed that issues we'd previously been told (by our agent and another notary) were "not a problem" were actually such a big problem that she blocked the sale until they were resolved.

As I found, it doesn't matter how well-prepared you think you are. “Expect the unexpected” remains the number one rule when living in Italy – and especially, it seems, when you're trying to buy a house.

Tales of property hell abound in Italy, from Milan to Bari. Image: Adam Rugnetta

Have you experienced a property-related nightmare of your own in Italy? We'd love to hear your story. Get in touch here.

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