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The Italian vocabulary you’ll need when renovating property

If you're planning an Italian renovation project, here's a guide to some of the terms you'll need to be familiar with.

Many people who purchase a house in Italy are drawn to older, neglected properties with the potential to renovate (ristrutturare) or restore (restaurare) – and no wonder.

It’s easy to get fired up about the idea of giving a new lease of life.to an abandoned farmhouse (rustico) full of charming period details, or a cute townhouse (terratetto) going for a song – and the country has no shortage of unloved older homes which might otherwise be left to rot.

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

You might even have bought a ruin (rudere/rovina) and plan to knock it down and start again – something that you may be able to claim back costs for under building bonuses currently available.

And while many foreign buyers do achieve their dreams of restoring an old Italian property, these veterans are likely to tell you it’s an experience not for the faint-hearted. After all, there’s nothing like a tangle of Italian bureaucracy to put a dampener on your dreams.

And if you don’t speak Italian – at least, not yet – the process can feel overwhelming. Not only is there new vocabulary to learn, but you’ll be talking about a process that’s likely to be quite different to that in your home country.

To help you get started, here’s a guide to some of the vocabulary you’ll need during the renovation process in Italy.

The planning stages

You may be hoping to fix up the old wooden beams (travi a vista), restore the vaulted ceilings (soffitti a volta) or rebuild the wood-fired oven (forno a legna). You might want to make new additions, perhaps installing a roof terrace (terrazza panoramica) or a pool (piscina).

You’ll probably need to tackle some less exciting aspects first – from fixing up the roof (rifacimento del tetto) to updating the infissi (fixtures, such as windows and doors) and impianti (systems, such as plumbing and electrics), and hooking up servizi (utilities).

 READ ALSO: The real cost of buying a house in Italy as a foreigner

If you’re in a rural location, this could mean anything from installing a septic tank (fossa settica) to digging a well (pozzo). And the popularity of photovoltaic systems (impianti fotovoltaici) and underfloor heating (riscaldamento a pavimento) is shooting up in Italy, so that might be on your wish-list too.

Older houses in Italy very often have an awkward internal layout (disposizione interna)  – think miniscule bathrooms and kitchens, walk-through bedrooms, or dark and dingy corridors. So you might want to move a wall (spostare un muro), build a new partition (costruire un muro divisorio), or add an extension (aggiungere un ampliamento).

Of course, what’s actually possible will depend on your budget (which is also ‘budget’ in Italian – just with a heavy accent). You’ll need quotes (preventivi) for every part of the project from qualified professionals – and the right paperwork, which we’ll talk about below.

Photo: Henry & Co/Unsplash

Geometra or engineer?

No doubt you’ve already heard that your project will need a geometra, an engineer, and maybe an architect too. You may not need all three – this depends on the scale and complexity of your project. 

Figuring out who exactly you do need can leave foreigners stumped, as equivalent job titles either don’t exist or look a bit different in their home country.

As every project is unique, you’ll want to ask the advice of a building professional to find out exactly which services you will need. But to give you an idea of the difference, here’s a basic breakdown of what each term refers to:

The geometra, or surveyor, is indispensable to most renovation projects, large and small, and finding a good one can save a lot of trouble down the line. As well as providing initial surveys and cost estimates when buying a property or planning a renovation, they may also serve as project manager – and they’ll deal with permits and paperwork at the comune (town hall). 

For this reason it’s important for the geometra to be based in, or regularly work in, the municipality your property is in. Their long-standing relationships with the staff at various bureaucratic offices could make all the difference. 

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Ingegnere – An engineer can do much the same work as a geometra, but is a more highly-qualified technical professional (with higher fees to match) who would, for example, work with an architect to make sure a design is safe and sound. They may be needed for larger, trickier projects, like a complete rebuild.

Architetto – An architect, in Italy, is usually only really needed if you’re designing a new building or tackling a more ambitious reconstruction project. This professional will usually deal more with the creative side of a building’s design, usually with technical support from an engineer (though this isn’t always the case).

Many architects also prefer to work with a geometra who can take care of more mundane tasks, like dealing with the comune. This is why, if your project requires an architect, you might need to hire all three.

Many people however choose to draw up their own plans for smaller projects together with their geometra.

Photo: Green Chameleon/Unsplash

Direttore di lavoro – the project manager, keeping on top of the schedule (programma) and budget among other things. An architect, an engineer, or a geometra could all play this role, or you might take it on yourself if you can be on site.

Other professionals needed to work on your project could include the idraulico (plumber), elettricista (electrician), muratore (stoneworker) or falegname (carpenter). 

You might hire them independently, although it’s probably much easier to work with an imprenditore edile (building contractor). Either way, your geometra or engineer will no doubt have some recommendations.

Still, especially if you’re on a budget, you might end up doing a lot of jobs yourself – and you’ll soon be on first-name terms with the staff at your local DIY store (fai-da-te/bricolage) and the rubbish dump (discarica).

Getting paperwork in order

All building work in Italy legally requires some form of planning permission, whether you’re adding a balcony or embarking on a total rebuild. You definitely don’t want to end up with an edilizia abusiva (illegal building).

Your ingegnere or geometra will need to submit these applications – and there are fees involved, so make sure these costs are included in any preventivi.

READ ALSO: How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property

The good news is that your geometra will have plenty of practice in dealing with the paperwork for smaller projects. A denuncia di attività (notice of works) is often enough for anything that won’t alter the exterior of the property – though rules can vary from one part of Italy to another.

For major works though you will require a permesso di costruzione (building permit) and/or concessione edilizia (planning permission). Depending on the scope of your project, an architect or specialist engineer might need to do some careful negotiating with the comune.

Other than that, the two most important things you’ll need when embarking on a renovation or restoration project in Italy are pazienza (patience) and, preferably, un sacco di soldi (a lot of money)!

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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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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