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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

‘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.

'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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