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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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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.