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PROPERTY

My Italian Home: ‘How we renovated an apartment in a historic Bologna palazzo’

One reader from the US tells us how she and her husband found their apartment in Bologna's historic center, and made a few small updates... and then a few more.

My Italian Home: 'How we renovated an apartment in a historic Bologna palazzo'
The 19th-century palazzo in Bologna. All photos courtesy of Nicole Paolini-Subramanya

When Nicole Paolini-Subramanya and her husband, who currently live in Brooklyn, New York, decided they wanted to retire in Italy, the city of Bologna held far more appeal than the Italian countryside.

“I lived in Bologna for two years in the early 1990s, and absolutely loved everything about the city.  It's a vibrant and culturally rich university town,” Nicole says. “We have both lived in large cities most of our lives, so unlike a lot of expats, we weren't interested in the countryside.”

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: The ups and downs of buying a property for retirement in a hilltop village in Italy

Now in the final stages of renovating her new home in Bologna, she talks us through the process of finding, buying and then remodelling an apartment in a historic building, a process they've completed remotely while still living in Brooklyn.

How did you find the property?

“Once we decided that we were going to buy a place in Bologna, we started by searching all of the online real estate websites (immobiliare.it, casa.it, etc.).It took us almost a year to find anything that fit our criteria – we wanted a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in a palazzo antico in the very center of the centro storico (historic center), and we had a budget. 

Eventually, we put together a handful of interesting listings within our price range, contacted the agents, set up appointments, and flew to Bologna to see the apartments. But after viewing a few apartments that weren't quite right, walking the streets of Bologna and scanning adverts in real estate agencies' windows, we couldn't find anything that we liked.

We were discouraged, and out of ideas. We figured that we would probably need to put this fantasy aside for a while.

But a couple of days before our flight back to the States, a new listing popped up in the Ghetto Ebraico, a historic, central neighborhood. It was our dream location.

I called the agent for the apartment, and she rode right over on her bike to meet us at the palazzo, which was on a charming piazzetta (little square) with two restaurants and a wine bar across the street. The front of the palazzo was from the early 19th century, and had been added onto an older, 15th century building.

The square in Bologna's historic centre.

At a little over 70 square meters, the apartment was small and a bit dark, with only one bedroom and one bath, but it had an open soggiorno (living room), arched windows, the original wood-beamed ceiling, and a working fireplace. It had been professionally renovated about fifteen years before, so it was turn-key. It just felt right.

We turned to the agent and told her that we wanted to make an offer. By that evening, we were under contract

What was the buying process like?

We found the buying process to be very smooth, but it wasn't self-executing.  We had to put in a bit of time and effort.  

First, there were some minor (but time-consuming) administrative tasks. My husband didn't have a codice fiscale, and we didn't have an Italian checking account. We also needed to find a notaio (notary) to do the title search and draft all of the documentation.

Our agent recommended a notaio, but we were a little uncomfortable with using someone recommended by the agent.  Instead, we found a notaio through a friend of a friend. In most places, you also need to find a geometra to inspect the property, but we were spared that task  because Bologna requires the seller to retain a geometra to inspect and certify the property. 

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Our notaio (who had come with glowing reviews) had everything done within a month, but the sellers wanted to retain possession for a couple of more months. When we finally closed, it was actually fun. Our notaio was right out of central casting – courtly and charming, with an elegantly-tailored suit, a head of luxurious gray hair, and a grand sense of ceremony. 

He read through all the documents line by line in a deliberate, melodious baritone so that my husband and I could understand everything.

We were happy, the sellers were happy, our agent was happy… it felt almost like a wedding. Like we were marrying Italy.

How are the renovations going?

Our major issue was caused by a muro grosso, a “big” wall between the bathroom and the living area.

When we bought our apartment, we didn't plan to renovate. But (as you probably know), in Italy, the sellers take the kitchens with them unless you arrange otherwise. The kitchen in our apartment was fifteen years old, so we were happy enough to wave goodbye and find something new.

Then I said to my husband “well, as long as we are buying a new kitchen, maybe we should redo those  ceramic floors – they are making a dark place even darker.”  My husband then suggested that, as long as we were ripping up the floors, we should probably take the opportunity to put in a guest bathroom.

The soggiorno before renovation work began.

And why not move the kitchen while we're at it?

To make a long story short, we'd soon decided to gut the apartment.

Our agent put us in touch with an architect, Annagrazia.  Annagrazia went to see our apartment and emailed me with some ideas, and included some pictures of her other renovations. She could do the day-to-day construction management.  We could monitor the process remotely from the States through smartphones and email. We had an architect!

Over the next couple of weeks, Annagrazia came up with some initial plans.  The existing bathroom was awkwardly located, and blocked off half of one of our beloved arched windows. We were desperate to move it, and to add that half-bath. 

But to move the bathroom, we'd need to knock down the muro grosso between the bathroom and the soggiorno.  The bathroom was obviously a fairly recent addition to the 15th century portion of the apartment, so that wall couldn't actually be structural, right?

To find out, Annagrazia had the muratore (bricklayer) break through the plaster to expose the innards of the wall.  The engineer came to inspect. Given the substantial brickwork inside the wall, he couldn't say that it wasn't structural.

Worse, he would need the comune to approve the removal of the wall. To get that approval, he'd need to put together a structural report. To do that, he'd need to go into the units above and below us to survey the structure. Not all of the neighbours were happy with this.

But Annagrazia oversaw the whole operation, charmed the neighbour, Signora X, into letting the engineer access their storage space, and kept working on the plans. Four months later, the engineer was able to inspect.

I don't know if we had dumb luck or if this is the Italian norm, but we clicked with our architect right away, and she and her team have been a dream to work with. They are all talented, knowledgeable, professional, and tirelessly hard-working.

The apartment has had new plumbing, new wiring, new interior walls and a new subfloor.  The bathrooms will be finished by mid-January. After our frighteningly expensive custom windows are installed, the paving contractor will install our herringbone floors, and the marmista (marble worker) and falegname (carpenter) will install our kitchen and bedroom cabinetry.

We are expecting the apartment to be done by the end of March 2020 – a year from closing. The whole process took 16 months in total.

We are now looking forward to living in our apartment for several months at a time, with trips home to the States in between.

The biggest lessons we learned:

1. If you have a good architect or geometra, it is not difficult to renovate remotely.

2. Try to remember that your renovation is disruptive to your neighbors. They have to live with the noise, the dust, and the dumpster in the street. So hire professionals who will maintain an orderly construction site. Our neighbors were much more open to our renovations because Annagrazia's team had done work in the building before, and the neighbors knew that they were skilled and would keep the public areas free of debris. 

3. That said…if you buy an apartment (as opposed to a single family home), your neighbors will have some degree of control over your renovations. 

4. Old buildings often have surprises.  Our apartment was thoroughly inspected, but while pulling up floors and pulling down plaster, our workers uncovered a void in the subfloor under the existing shower, and cracks in the outside wall that we needed to stabilize with steel bands (cha-ching). When we removed the drop ceiling in the bedroom to expose the wood beams, we discovered why they had been covered in the previous renovation.  There were large gaps in the assito, allowing one to lie in bed and leisurely contemplate the plastic moisture barrier under the paving of our upstairs neighbor.  We're still trying to decide what to do about that ceiling. 

5. You can't always get what you want.  We really, really wanted marble bathrooms and the graniglie floors that are so characteristic of the region.  But unless we gave up marble kitchen countertops, we couldn't have stone in the bathrooms because of load limitations in our 15th century palazzo.  The fantastically heavy graniglie was a complete non-starter. Instead, we went with ceramic marmo finto (marble effect) for the bathrooms and walnut herringbone floors. We also had to give up the fireplace that had seemed so appealing when we first saw the apartment. It was a 1980s addition that took up a large corner of the small soggiorno, and it needed thousands of euros of updating.  Under Bologna's environmental laws, we would only be able to use it a couple of days a year.  It just didn't seem worth it (or green). Instead, we replaced it with a beautiful antique terracotta mantle. 

6.  Charming architecture can require expensive solutions. Because our quaint wooden windows were showing their age and were not energy-efficient, we had to have new windows fabricated to fit the arched window openings.  The windows were the second most expensive line item in the renovation.  Since our rooms were so small and had an irregular ceiling line (those wood beams), we resorted to custom-made cabinetry for the kitchen, bathrooms and bedroom. In retrospect, it may actually have been less expensive to buy a slightly larger place.

7. Darker spaces may require professional lighting design.  Our soggiorno does not have much natural light, so our architect recommended a lighting designer. When the project is done, we are assured that our soggiorno will be brightly (but naturally) illuminated.  But lighting does not come cheap.

8. Expect to go over-budget, and don't choose a project that stretches you financially.  When we chose our place, we were blinded by the charm. It was so old! So cute! We didn't register any of the practical shortcomings. Working around those issues (and a visit to the stone warehouses in Verona) has sucked many, many euros from our Italian bank account.  Fortunately, we anticipated our utter lack of preparedness, common sense and fiscal discipline, and we chose an apartment at the bottom end of our budget.  So we've been able to roll with the financial punches and have a lot of fun with the whole adventure. It also helps that our architect is a saint and talks us down from any particularly ill-conceived choices.

9.  There is a lot of coordination involved, and the project will take much longer than you think.  Even if – like us – you have the world's most diligent architect and construction crew.

Have you bought and renovated a property in Italy? We'd love to hear about your experience. Get in touch and let us know if you'd like your own Italian home to be featured.

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PROPERTY

‘It’s so frustrating’: My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

When US-based Davide Fionda embarked on renovating his mother's Italian property, he couldn't have imagined the obstacles and the timescale in store.

'It's so frustrating': My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

Building a home in Italy was almost inevitable for Davide, as he’s been visiting the same area in the Le Marche region, where his Italian-born mother grew up, since he was five years old.

Although he lives in Boston, US, and speaks with a charming East Coast twang, he’s also an Italian citizen and has long dreamed of having his own place to stay for the summer.

He began making this dream a reality back in 1997, when a barn that had been in his mother’s family for generations, in the village of Schito-Case Duca, was damaged by an earthquake.

“My mother, who had both her mother and sister in Italy, decided that it would be really nice for us to build our own new home instead of relying on family to host us each time we visit,” Davide said.

“The goal was simple. I would acquire the barn from my mom, renovate it and move in for the summers, as I’m a college teacher and can spend time in Italy,” he added.

“Simple” the goal may have been, but the project itself proved anything but, as Davide came up against unforeseen bureaucratic problems, legal hiccups and personal disappointments.

READ ALSO: The hidden costs of buying a home in Italy

As a former entrepreneur in his professional life, he said he’s “used to getting things done”, owning five companies and selling three.

But conquering Italian property renovation is his biggest challenge to date: “Never in my life have I had so many complications as I’ve had with this house,” he told us.

The earthquake-damaged barn. Photo: Davide Fionda

“In the beginning, I knew exactly what I needed and the costs to carry out the project. My mother was, and is still, living in the United States: the project started when she was approached by her godson, who is a geometra (civil engineer), to help her rebuild this barn.

“I started with what I could control. I sat down with an architect and we created a design. I did research on furniture and fixtures. But then the problems started,” Davide said.

His mother wanted a simple design: an open plan house with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the mountains, spanning two floors – a ground floor and a first floor for the bedrooms.

When they went to look at the progress in 2004, he said they were “horrified” at what they saw.

Instead of windows across the front as we asked for, with views of the spectacular Gran Sasso mountains, he took the entire view with two hallways for entering the property and for the bathroom. The bedrooms upstairs were unusable,” he added.

Davide describes himself as “not a typical Italian”, at two metres in height ,and says he always looks for suitable showers and beds when visiting Italy.

It was one of the reasons building his own home was so attractive, as he could custom-make it to fit his needs.

READ ALSO: What taxes do you need to pay if you own a second home in Italy?

But when they viewed the build, he discovered the first floor had ceilings of just one metre and 40 centimetres – not liveable for most people, never mind someone with Davide’s towering frame.

The results didn’t match the renovation plans that had been filed with the comune (town hall) – they wouldn’t have been approved otherwise, as Davide discovered Italian regulations deemed this height of ceiling in a bedroom uninhabitable.

He said he grew up with the geometra and knew him well, saying they were “best friends”. However, on raising the problems with him, Davide said the building professional “refused to fix the house”, adding, “he took my mother’s money and built a house with no bedrooms”.

He said his mother decided to stop construction after spending almost $100,000 on a house that they “could not live in”, adding that they “returned many times over the years to see the shell of the building that we thought we were going to call our home”.

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: How one ‘bargain basement’ renovation ended up costing over €300K

Faced with a stalled project and unsure what to do next, Davide tried to sell the property but got nowhere. He said the “market wasn’t right” for selling it, so he considered his options for fixing the botched renovations to date.

His Italian property project has been stalled for over two decades. Photo: Davide Fionda

Then, eventually, in January of this year he decided “he was sick of looking at it and it was time to act”.

He intended to use Italy’s Bonus ristrutturazioni (Renovation bonus), which allows homeowners to apply for a 50 percent tax reduction on carrying out renovation work.

On asking for professional opinions on whether the house qualified for this bonus, he said he asked five different people and got five different answers.

In the end, he discovered it was eligible and so he could, in theory, proceed with his latest plans.

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The aim is to create his mother’s original vision – an open plan space with huge windows overlooking the mountains and bedrooms on the first floor – but habitable this time.

Since the beginning of this year, however, Davide has been stuck and hasn’t made progress.

Setbacks have included trying to get a permit to renovate the house, which has proved difficult since the first geometra reportedly didn’t update the changes to the building.

This thorny issue goes back to exactly who owned the house, as Davide told us it had been sectioned off and parts of the house were owned by various members of the family.

The building headaches roll on for Davide. Photo by Martin Dalsgaard on Unsplash

“Italian law makes you want to rip your hair out,” he said.

Getting the deed in his name has been a huge obstacle in itself, as his mother wasn’t the sole owner and some parts of the land that belonged to her were never recorded.

It’s meant months of waiting while archives have been searched and deeds have been drawn up and transferred, made all the trickier by coordinating it all from thousands of miles away.

Plus, the house category was never changed to a residential one, listed previously as farmland and therefore illegal to live in.

It’s just more unexpected bureaucracy for a project that seems to have no end.

“It has been months and months of all these twists and turns, it’s so frustrating,” he told us.

“This has been a 25-year nightmare,” he added.

A partly restored, but unliveable barn for Davide now. Photo: Davaide Fionda.

Although Davide had originally planned to sort out the more practical parts of the project by the end of May, with a ticket booked to Italy to choose the windows, he’s still stuck in the paperwork part and can’t move forward.

Nothing has happened since January. Three or four times I said, ‘screw this’. But it’s not in my DNA to give up,” he said.

Although he has a strong will, the house has taken its toll on him.

Every time we go, this house stares us in the face and it’s upsetting. Family always ask us, ‘when are you going to finish the house?’ It’s a real source of heartache,” he told us.

From this point, he hopes the paperwork will be completed by August and then he can meet with the contractors to get the process started.

That in itself was a tall order, due to the construction demand and shortage of building companies Italy is currently experiencing.

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It’s a problem made even more challenging by the fact that he’s based in the States and had to find a company that would apply for the credit for the bonus on his behalf.

Despite it all, he’s hopeful that he will get the house they dreamed of by next August and says he’s learned a lot about renovating property in Italy.

For other would-be home renovators, he advised people to “adjust their timeframe expectations” and expect “anything to do with land or real estate to take forever”.

So what is his secret for not giving up, despite the rollercoaster of events and emotions?

It seems he’s holding on to his vision of blissful summers in il bel paese.

“The beauty of Italy is to be, sit in a town square and have conversations,” he told us.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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