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PROPERTY

Searching for cheap Italian property online? Here’s what you need to watch out for

Online property listings in Italy can leave a lot to be desired - and discovered. So how do you know which homes are worth viewing? Our experts have some advice.

Searching for cheap Italian property online? Here's what you need to watch out for
What lies behind the walls of Italy's beautiful historic homes? All photos courtesy of D and G Design
With many of us currently unable to travel, online searches for Italian homes have increased.
 
While it’s a great idea to keep your dream of buying and restoring in Italy alive, there are some practical steps you can take to help you decide if a home goes on your ‘must visit’ list or is quickly discarded. 
 
Stuck in the 70’s?
 
As any internet house-hunter will tell you, there are an abundance of Italian homes listed by estate agents that showcase what life was like during a time when varying shades of brown were the western world’s favourite colour, minimal power sockets were needed, and an entire family could be fed using a stove of only two gas rings.
 
That 1970’s and 80’s decor is not only about floor-to-ceiling tiles in an array of clashing colours, olive green bathroom suites with plastic accessories, or the ‘Swedish sauna’ look of tongue and groove cladding.
 
These schemes and furniture can also offer you much needed information about the home’s condition.
 
Retro bathroom suites are often a sign the home lacks modern plumbing. Photo: D&G design
 
Electricity systems have been advanced over the past few decades, so if your potential home is a tribute to an era gone by, expect the electrical system to be as well.
 
This can also go for the plumbing, which may need to be completely replaced to make it in line with modern-day standards.
 
 
Look beyond the clutter
 
Home staging? What home staging? While there is a trend in some of the larger, more cosmopolitan Italian cities to realise the importance of staging a home for sale, this doesn’t always apply to owners who may not have set foot in their own property for years and see it as nothing more than a storage unit.
 
Dusty wine jugs, dismantled beds, religious icons, and walls displaying a gallery of long gone relatives may be crammed into cobweb-ridden rooms, with neither the estate agent or the current owner having had the foresight to at least attempt a clean up before the photographer arrived, leaving the bemused viewer with a heap of clutter to look past before determining the size or condition of the room.
 
What will you find underneath? Photo: D&G Design
 
Are the walls hiding earthquake or settlement cracks? Can you see the floor? What’s going on beneath those old broken tiles? Does the plaster need removing to investigate the structural condition of the home?
 
It’s not always easy to answer any of these questions from a carefully taken photograph.
 
Who owns the roof?
 
Walking into a home with a potential client of ours, we were alarmed to see the floor of one of the bedrooms strewn with dead birds. Reminiscent of a seen from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds,’ we ducked for cover as countless panicked pigeons flew head first into the closed window, desperate for a way out. Our client screamed, and we frantically fiddled with the window handle to set these kamikaze gulls free.
 
Quickly noticing that there was no fireplace or broken window from which our feathered friends could have entered, we had to determine that there must have been a hole in the roof. Photos of this room had shown no dead birds, (or live ones for that matter) and indeed no light pouring in from above, and it was only when our Ingeniere (structural engineer) assessed the property that he suggested the entire roof was in terrible condition and needed to be replaced.
 
Look closely at exterior images of the house, and try to zoom in on the roof. If no mention of the condition of it is made in the property description, ask the seller when it was last repaired or replaced.
 
The floor plans of terraced homes in historic centres are not always built in symmetry, rooms above one property can belong to the house next door, and vice versa. It is therefore not always clear as to who is responsible for any repairs needed to that portion of the roof.
 
Look at external images for the differences in window shutters to determine which rooms belong to which house. (Each home will usually have its own style and colour of shutter). Compare this with the floor plan. If the address is listed, zoom into Google Street View for a clearer picture of all sides of the house.
 
 
Abusive structures
 
A recent client of ours wanted an unsightly building on their roof terrace completely removed. Its low roof acted as shelter from the sun, but was made in asbestos and due to its proximity from the door, you had to be the height of a child to stand beneath it without damaging your back.
 
When checking with the local council, our Ingeniere discovered that the structure had been built illegally and any fine imposed by the local authority would be passed to the new owner. The estate agent our clients had purchased from had made no mention of this, and no pre-purchase survey had been carried out.
 
Furthermore, special permission had to be granted to remove the structure’s roof as its materials were toxic.
 
Ensure that all parts of the building are checked thoroughly. Was that extension built legally? Have any internal walls been knocked down or built? Was relevant permission obtained before previous works were carried out?
 
Local town halls keep a copy of the floor plan of all homes within their jurisdiction, and these have to match the actual properties.
 
Permission granted?
 
As mentioned above, there are rules around renovations and even what you do to the facade of your home that must be adhered to. That photo of a beautiful historic home in a centro storico (historic centre) looks appealing, but any works that you do to it will probably need to be approved by the local commune, many of which publish detailed guidelines on their websites.
 
From the colour and style of window shutters and rendered exterior walls, to whether or not you can create a rooftop terrace or add a balcony, you will need to investigate their requirements, particularly if the home is historical or in a conservation area.
 
Wall decor in older Italian properties is often a tribute to the past. Photo: D&G Design
 
Rules and guidelines change frequently, so just because the house next door added a roof terrace years ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be granted one now.
 
Permissions are not only exclusive to period homes; they may also apply to a country home or new build as well.
 
 
Earthquake evidence
 
It is true that there are bargains to be had in Italy, with some owners offloading an inherited home that they will never live in and is costing them a small fortune in property taxes.
 
But it’s also true that some of these bargains have been derelict for years and now require work to bring them up to a liveable standard.
 
Has a house had anti seismic work done? Unless it’s in Sardinia, the only part of the country without a fault line running through it, the chances are it will need some. Look for cracks in the walls and ask the seller what caused them, as well as if the property has ever had anti seismic works carried out.
 
A good estate agent will have made these checks before the property is listed. A good notary or solicitor will investigate these on your behalf before the sale goes through. But a good Ingeniere will check the facts before you commit to buying, enabling you to rule out any potential money-pits before you get to even the viewing or buying stages.
 

Member comments

  1. We are looking at a particular property in Abruzzo. Where can we find an ingeniere to do a structural survey and how much does this service cost? Thank you! Mark and Mona Johnson

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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.

READ ALSO:

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.

READ ALSO:

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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