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How not to buy a house in Italy: The top mistakes to avoid

So you've found your dream home in Italy and you're ready to make an offer? Here are a few pointers on what you definitely shouldn't do next.

How not to buy a house in Italy: The top mistakes to avoid
A house for sale in the Aosta Valley region of Italy. Photo: Idealista

If you’ve long been dreaming of buying your own property in Italy, it’s not a bad time to do so. Italy is still the only EU country where house prices are actually falling (and have been for some time) while mortgage rates also remain low.

Whether or not house prices do eventually fall due to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent financial crisis – and there is no real sign of this happening yet – Italy already offers favourable conditions for buyers and a market full of good-value properties.

READ ALSO: What’s wrong with the Italian property market?

So it might be tempting to rush out and make an offer on that house you’ve had your eye on. But first, take a quick look at our list of the most common mistakes made by home-buyers in Italy (both Italian and foreign), including a few I made myself. Hopefully after reading this you’ll be able to avoid any problems of your own later on.

Underestimating how long it takes

The average time for the completion of a property sale in Italy is 4.5 months, but of course sometimes it takes a lot longer.

This applies particularly if you’re buying a home close to holiday season – August or December, when offices shut down for weeks if not months and everything is on a go-slow.

As someone who once made an offer on a house at the end of July (out of necessity, despite knowing the timing meant it would be a nightmare) I got to spend a few months in an uncomfortable temporary living situation while the notary, estate agent, geometra, and everyone else involved in the sale enjoyed nice, long summer holidays.

In case you didn’t know, the whole of Italy grinds to a halt for summer holidays during the month of August (officially. In reality, it’s often from mid-July to mid-September.)

And you won’t get much done in December either, as Christmas stretches on for a few weeks in many parts of the country.

Instead of fuming with rage, I strongly recommend planning to buy your house at absolutely any other time of year – if you have the choice.

But still, be prepared for everything to take four times longer than you might reasonably expect.

Forgetting about the cost of buying

The house might be a bargain but Italian VAT (sales tax, called IVA in Italy) is not.

Neither is registration tax, or any of the many other hidden charges that will probably apply when you buy your property. If you’re non-resident in Italy or buying a second home, these costs are even higher.

According to Idealista, these taxes and costs usually add up to not-trivial ten percent of the value of your property. Sadly, many a buyer has found they have no choice but to back out after realising they don’t have the necessary funds available on top of their deposit payment.

Not being aware of extra mortgage costs

Again, mortgage rates are low right now but there are still plenty of extra expenses and taxes slapped on. The mortgage tax is generally two percent of the loan amount.

And don’t forget that many Italian banks demand you take out various types of insurance – property insurance, life insurance, and even mortgage insurance, which might be sensible, but is another major upfront cost – often running to thousands of euros.

The dream: but don’t bankrupt yourself for it. Photo: Depositphotos

Taking out a long-term mortgage

While in countries like the UK a 25-year (or even 30- or 40-year) mortgage is pretty standard, that’s not the case here. Instead, 10- or 15-year mortgages are the norm.

As Idealista writes: “calculating all the interest on a mortgage with a term of 25 years or more, the house becomes too expensive.”

Taking on too much debt

You might think you can handle a big chunk of debt, but the Bank of Italy would disagree.

It advises that your mortgage repayments, when added to any other debts you may have (car payments, credit cards, personal loans) must not exceed 35-40 percent of the total income of the mortgage holder.

Some Italian banks are stricter on the percentage than others, but all will turn you down for a mortgage if your debts exceed the 40 percent mark.

Thinking your property will increase in value

This is far from guaranteed in Italy, as statistics on property prices show. Even when prices are on the increase, the Italian property market for the most part is hardly an investor’s dream.

While buying a house to live in is one thing, Idealista warns that anyone seeing property here as an investment could end up very disappointed indeed.

Avoiding agencies

Foreign buyers are often put off by the majority of Italian estate agents they encounter. With their sky-high fees (around three percent, for both buyer and seller) and less-than-impressive sales tactics (which typically include rudeness, showing no interest in buyers’ needs, and leaving houses dirty and cluttered for viewings) you might think you’d be better off with a private sale.

But, while they might not be so hot on customer service and have never heard of “home staging”, Italian estate agents are usually invaluable when it comes to negotiating with the seller on price, as well as in navigating the bureaucratic minefield and dealing with authorities.

Some readers do report that private sales have gone smoothly – with the help of a good lawyer, notary, and a few local contacts – but it’s not recommended for a first-time buyer or someone who doesn’t speak the language.

Italy is full of beautiful properties, but they often need renovation work. Photo: D&G Design

Not bargaining hard enough

When Italian estate agents suggest properties that are outside your price range, don’t immediately turn them down. Particularly in the south, or outside of big cities, you can bargain much harder than you might expect.

“Many potential buyers ignore properties because they think they can’t negotiate on the price,” writes Idealista. “Prepare to bargain and always have a counter offer available.”

In some areas it’s not unusual to make offers as much as 20 or even 30 percent below the listed price. Sellers and agents know this, which is why listed prices are often inflated. Keep this in mind when searching online.


On the flip side, you can expect sellers to bargain hard, too. “Another mistake is to accept a higher price for fear of losing the house,” Idealista adds. “If your budget is 180,000 euros, for example, don’t move from there.”

“If that’s not enough, it’s not the home for you.”

Even if you had your heart set on a property, try to remember that Italy is full of beautiful homes and there will always be another.

Getting emotionally attached

“Sometimes buying a home is more of an emotional decision than a rational one,” Idealista writes.

While this is a problem with property purchases everywhere, it’s an especially big danger for foreign buyers who think they’ve found their dream home in the sun, perhaps after several costly property-hunting trips to Italy, or with retirement nearing after years of dreaming about the move.

This leads people to rush into making an offer, or pay far more than a property is worth.

Make sure you stand your ground, take all the time you need to reflect, and don’t let agents or anyone else rush you into a decision. While some types of property will sell faster than others, the Italian market generally moves at a slower pace than in countries like the UK.

Plus, the house might be lovely, but Italy is packed with lovely houses of all shapes, size and descriptions. So before you sign anything, make absolutely sure it really is ‘the one’ for you.

Read more in The Local’s Italian property section.

Member comments

  1. We bought a house 5 years ago in a village 2 km above Lake Como. We went to Italy in June and our Real Estate Agent showed us ten houses, and one of them turned out to be our dream house. We gave them an offer which they accepted. The whole process went very smoothly. We did not use an Italian bank, as we had the money ready. It took 4 weeks from we first visit the house till we moved in.

    As we are from Norway we needed to get an Italian fiscal code. This was a part of the buying process.

    We did not use an Italian bank, as we had the money ready.

    This is the Real Estate we used:

    Ti auguro il meglio

    Jo, from Norway.

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For members


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.