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ECONOMY

Why finding a bargain Italian property could be harder than you think

Wondering if you can snag an Italian home at a bargain price? Not so fast. There are a few things you need to know about the Italian market before you put your offer in.

Why finding a bargain Italian property could be harder than you think
Photo: Unsplash/Mattia Berricchia

Italy may have eased most of its coronavirus lockdown rules, but the economic situation looks dire with half a million jobs lost and a major recession looming.

In this climate, those still in a position to make an offer on a house are keeping a close eye on how property prices could be affected.

But, as we reported recently, while the coronavirus crisis might have changed some things about the market in Italy, house prices don't seem to have fallen – at least, not yet. And while some prospective buyers may now be thinking of putting in a lowball offer on a dream Italian home, property experts say there are a few reasons why that might not work.

As Dave Benton of the Abruzzo.based VIgnaverde estate agency tells us, common misconceptions about the Italian market can easily trip up potential buyers.

READ ALSO: Demand surges for homes in the Italian countryside amid coronavirus crisis

He shared some advice which, while based on his experiences in the Abruzzo region, is also relevant to the rest of Italy – particularly in rural areas.

As he explains, the traditional rural property market here in Italy is very different to the urban market, and very different to the international market focused on expat buyers.

Here he busts a few myths, and shares some advice for those interested in making an offer on their dream home in Abruzzo, or elsewhere in Italy.

Don't presume anything

It's easy to imagine that, during a crisis and the subsequent recession, homeowners will be forced to put properties on the market, and could slash prices out of desperation.

But, as Benton explains, you shouldn't expect proud Italian homeowners to part with their properties too readily – crisis or no crisis.

“Contrary to some peoples' belief, Italian families, particularly in the countryside, have created great wealth for themselves over the years,” he says.

“After world war two, families built up their assets by buying land, working hard and building.”


“The determination to help future generations means that families have many properties at their disposal. Some are used by family members and some, for various reasons, are sold.”

Even after a tax on second homes was introduced, he explains, many Italian families were loathe to part with their properties.

“Up until around eight years ago, Italian residents paid very little tax on their properties,” Benton says. “This meant that families could own many properties with very little, if any, tax expense.”

“The mentality of holding on to properties wavered when tax payments were demanded. However many families who worked hard to create their empires continue to hold on to assets and find ways to reduce tax bills.”

Unfinished houses aren't always a sign of financial trouble

When looking for properties to buy in Italy you might come across quite a few unfinished building projects for sale.

“A huge misconception many of our property viewers have is that an unfinished house, means that funds ran out,” says Benton, adding that usually this “could not be further from the truth.”

“Many families built properties years ago when local planning was either non-existent (before 1967), or when planning was less stringent,” he explains.

“These same properties are often left uninhabitable for many years, until a family member either gets married or decides to move there. This is done to avoid or reduce second home taxes due to them not being habitable.”

Sellers may not actually want to sell

If you're hoping a seller will accept a low offer because they want to sell, you could be in for a disappointment.

“I would say 90 percent of our owners do not want to sell their properties,” Benton explains.

“Italian families are very proud of what they've created, and often they sell not because they need money, but because a property is simply an excess one.”

“They built them or bought them to help secure the future of their children. I hear the same story of sacrifices almost every time I visit a new property.”

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“Unfortunately for them, their children simply do not want them. Free home in Abruzzo? No thanks.”

It may be a strange concept for those of us coming from countries like the UK where getting a mortgage is the usual route to home ownership.

But, as Benton explains, in Italy it's far from unusual to hear about a son or daughter who turns down a free house in the countryside in favour of an apartment, often mortgaged, just a mile down the road.

“This kind of scenario is how and why most properties come up for sale,” he adds. “Families will sell houses and offer the money to their children to help them set up where they want.”

“Sometimes people move for work, but in my experience, most people do not want the hassle of restoring older properties and young Italians simply love their convenience.”

Above all, be respectful

While sellers may be open to negotiation, take care not to offend by making an unreasonable bid on one of these treasured family properties.

“Silly, disrespectful offers could be the excuse needed for the owner to change their mind about selling. Do not presume they all need to sell,” warns Benton.

“It is also very easy to offend an Italian.”

“What you should be doing is looking at the local market, speaking to your agent and making offers based on your budget, not based on what you think the personal situation of the seller is.”

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“I have learned many times, after living here for almost 12 years, not to judge a book by its cover. A sensible approach will be the best chance you have,” he adds. 

“Consider how you feel when you are selling and don’t believe everything you hear about the economic situation in Italy.”

“If you have a good relationship with your agent, work together to get the right deal and make friends with the sellers of your dream home in Abruzzo,” he advises. “By doing this, you will be repaid time and time again by these fantastic, proud people.”

“Understand the reasons why people sell, be mindful of their sacrifices.There are people here who saw and survived the atrocities of world war two. The coronavirus won't make anyone give away their homes.”

 

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PROPERTY

‘A life’s task’: The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home

Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years. They tell Silvia Marchetti exactly what they learned so others can heed their advice.

'A life's task': The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home
An old crumbling Italian property dating back to medieval times with all its historic appeal and fascination lures anyone with a penchant for bringing back ancient buildings from the grave.
 
But it can be tough work with many obstacles requiring energy, time, lots of money and above all, patience.
 
Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years and upgraded it to their lavish rural house, with a cool cocktail lounge under the former altar and master bedroom in what used to be the bishop’s private lodgings.
 
The church, with the original bell tower still hanging and well-preserved frescoed walls, is actually the center of a tiny hamlet isolated in the countryside near Gubbio featuring stables, a barn and storage room which were also renovated and a wide patch of land with olive groves. 
 
“It was all a heap of ruins but I fell in love with the place at first sight,” says Marilisa.
 
“I could feel it had a soul and the stones were ‘talking’ but I knew straight away it was going to be a long, hard work to fix it up”, she said.
 
It took the couple 7 years to complete the restyle and faced with the many challenges encountered along the way, they admit they often thought of giving up. 

Riccardo and Marilisa Parisi at their Umbrian home. Photo Marilisa Parisi
 
Old properties, which are rendered more impressive by the passage of time, naturally come with downsides.
 
Dilapidated homes have a strong allure but breathing new life into them isn’t always as easy as first imagined, warns the couple.
 
Their church-house, which the Parisi bought off the local curia (diocese), is classified as a monument of historical and artistic value by Italy’s state.
 
The first obstacle was dealing with Umbria’s art authorities (sovrintendenza) to make sure the restyle plan respected the structure and architecture of the place. 
 
They warned that the older a property is, the higher the risk that it could potentially be of artistic and historic interest, which entails a significant amount of restrictions (vincoli) and rules imposed by the sovrintendenza in restyling it, and more paperwork than an ordinary property. 
 
The Parisi’s advice to people interested in following in their footsteps is to check beforehand whether the local art authorities may have jurisdiction over an old property, which could complicate and delay the renovation. 
 
“You can’t just sketch any kind of super-cool restyle that pops into your mind,” says Riccardo.
 
“When the art authorities are involved, even if the property is yours, you must draw up detailed plans and maps of how it will look like, what the restyle will entail, what building materials will be used, and share these with the authorities.
 
“So you need to employ architects specialised in preservation. It must be a minimal, sustainable renovation that doesn’t radically change the original structure with excessive fixes,” he adds.
 
So tearing down walls, adding extra rooms or pulling down a roof won’t be possible.
 
Marilisa says: “We tried to recycle the original furniture and materials, we kept the ancient stone steps outside in the courtyard, the old wooden tables of the church which we turned into thick doors, the original terra-cotta pavements and the church altar hall where we have evening drinks.”
 
She admits that having to deal with the construction team on a regular basis was a major hassle, particularly since they had to drive from Naples each time to check on the progress of the work.
 
The couple felt the stress that comes with renovating a property at a distance, by phone or internet without physically visiting and overseeing the builders and architect. It can be risky as key instructions can easily go missing.
 
They suggest it is very important to hire construction teams that can do the entire work rather than splitting it among different building companies so to assure continuity and a homogenous makeover style and techniques. 
 
“If you take on such a challenge of renovating a large property you must make it your life’s task and invest a lot of passion, energy and be ready to spend more than expected”, says Riccardo, who prefers not to disclose how much money has been invested. 
 
The specific location of the property can also be an issue. Bureaucracy was head-splitting, the couple had to not only reactivate utility supplies but rebuild all basic infrastructure because their home is in an isolated spot in the middle of a dense Umbrian forest.
 
“The place is wonderful, surrounded by pristine nature, there’s nothing around us and that’s a major plus point. But having been abandoned for so many years there was no running water, electricity, gas, so to make our home liveable again we had to rebuild the water pumps and electricity grid, activate a landline and internet,” says Riccardo.
 
“These are all things you need to consider when you embark on such a mission.”
 
Roads are another problem to be taken into account. It’s difficult to find the place, one needs to follow the directions given by the Parisi as it’s not mapped.
 
There’s just a tiny unpaved country path leading to their Umbrian retreat from the main road which they had to clear through the thick vegetation that had grown over the property’s estate across decades. The path is wide enough for one big car and needs constant maintenance particularly when it rains. 
 
“If you buy and renovate a lovely crumbly property in an offbeat, isolated rural spot you have to know that you’re starting from scratch”, says Riccardo. 
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