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OPINION: Bargain homes and fewer crowds – but Italy’s deep south is not for everyone

If you’re considering a move to rural southern Italy there are pros and cons to be aware of, writes Silvia Marchetti.

The Covid-19 pandemic stands as a growth opportunity for Italy’s poorer southern regions, eager to lure foreigners with fewer crowds, super cheap homes, great food, cozy beaches and pristine natural settings. 

READ ALSO: These are the Italian towns offering houses for one euro

Social distancing is particularly guaranteed in offbeat rural villages and towns where old traditions survive alongside an idyllic, pre-industrialization vibe and superb scenery. 

The south still offers a glimpse of genuine, authentic Italy which particularly appeals to tourists looking for under-the-radar destinations and to people willing to relocate in quiet, picturesque spots. 

In the past two years several villages have introduced incentives to attract foreigners longing for year-round sunshine. And it’s not just about offering homes for the cost of an espresso, even if the number of towns selling crumbling buildings for one euro has increased since the pandemic outbreak.

In Sicily the towns of Laurenzana, Troina and Castiglione di Sicilia recently joined the one-euro club, also offering low local taxes for buyers and renovation funds. 

Last year Cinquefrondi, in Calabria, promised one.euro homes in a ‘Covid-free’ safe haven with zero contagion cases.  

Photo: Alberto Bigoni/Unsplash

This year Taranto, one of Puglia’s main coastal cities, replicated the one-euro houses project following the success of the first operation launched in 2019. There are currently 50 empty buildings on sale in the picturesque old district, waiting for new owners. 

And the good news for non-Italian buyers is that you don’t need to take up residency in order to buy a one euro or cheap home. 

Other places have come up with different, perhaps more appealing offers in an attempt to invert the negative depopulation trend which plagues the south. 

Latronico in Basilicata and Biccari in Puglia have placed on the market cheap redone (turnkey) homes for as little as 10.000 euros, in no need of a restyle and often also refurbished. A few available properties are stone villas that come with orchards and olive groves. Rentals in Latronico are also very low, roughly 200 euros per month. 

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Life tends to be cheaper in villages far from the main cities of Palermo (Sicily), Bari (Puglia) and Reggio Calabria (Calabria). The food is locally grown, pasta is still handmade by grannies and you can spot grazing sheep from balconies. Such bucolic locations offer peacefulness and are ideal for detox, unplugged long stays. 

But there are also the cons of relocating to Italy’s deep south. The ‘Mezzogiorno’, as Italians call the southern end of their peninsula, has been lagging behind the richer north ever since before the birth of the Italian republic, when Italy was a patchwork of fragmented, bickering states.

The fact that in the past two centuries local families and youth have fled in search of a brighter future in the rest of Italy or abroad – and many still do – speaks for itself. Even though since the end of the second world war the economic outlook has improved, some vulnerabilities persist.

Photo: Gianluca Carenza/Unsplash

The average income in the southern regions is half that in the northern ones, and the development gap embraces all sectors, from infrastructure to health services and labor market opportunities. 

Hospitals in the south are generally far away from small towns, and are fewer than in northern areas. There are roughly 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people versus 3.5 beds in the north, compared to a European average of 5 beds 

READ ALSO: The ups and downs of buying a property for retirement in an Italian hilltop town

And in the south it takes you much more time to get from one place to another due to the smaller network of railway and highways, while many country roads are old and in need of upgrading.

What can be fascinating for an outsider – desolate roads with hairpin curves and unique panoramas – is also penalizing for the region.

Mobile coverage and high-speed internet connections are other major negatives in the south when compared to other parts of the country. In Molise, even though it’s one of Italy’s smallest regions, just 9 percent of the entire population has access to high-speed internet.

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The deeper and more off-the-grid you go, the weaker ICT development is. In many remote rural spots you’re lucky if your phone captures a GPRS signal and you are able to place an international call. 

But the pandemic is triggering a tiny revolution.

Many southern towns have grasped the potentials of remote working – re-branded ‘south working’ – to lure newcomers and teleworkers. Investments in broadband connection have been boosted while there are new digital labs equipped with everything a remote worker could need.

And there are more plus points. Castelbuono in Sicily for example offers remote workers long-stay accommodation discounts and restaurant vouchers alongside co-working spaces in beautiful old medieval lodgings.

Life in the sunny rural south might be great for retired people, maybe a bit less for younger couples or singles unless they’re looking to open an activity or a B&B. It depends on your expectations and dreams.

I have considered buying a cheap property in Sicily or somewhere close to the sea, to stay just a couple of months per year, mainly in spring and summer, surely not year-round. 

But I wouldn’t buy a one euro house – the only reason being I’m just too lazy to deal with the renovation. They are, however, a real bargain.

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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

If you're renovating a home in Italy, will you need to pay a middleman to cut through the red tape and language barriers? Silvia Marchetti looks at the pros and cons.

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

The idea of snapping up a cheap, crumbling house in a picturesque Italian village may sound appealing – but doing so always comes with tedious paperwork and the hassle of renovation.

For this reason, a growing number of professional agencies have sprung up in Italy to cater to foreign buyers snapping up cheap homes amid the property frenzy.

In many of the Italian towns selling one-euro or cheap homes, there are now ‘restyle experts’ and agencies that offer renovation services handling everything that could become a nightmare: from dealing with the paperwork and fiscal issues to finding a notary for the deed, contracting an architect, surveyor, a building team and the right suppliers for the furniture.

They also handle the sometimes tricky task of reactivating utilities in properties that have been abandoned for decades.

I’ve travelled to many of these villages and looked at this side of the business, too. Hiring these ‘middle people’ comes with pros and cons, though the positive aspects can certainly outweigh the negatives – provided you’re careful to pick the right professionals. 

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

These intermediaries are usually locals who have expertise in real estate and a good list of suppliers’ contacts. This allows them to deliver turnkey homes that were once just heaps of decaying rubble, sparing buyers time and money – particularly those living abroad, who then aren’t forced to fly over to Italy countless times a year to follow the work in progress.

I’ve met several buyers from abroad who purchased cheap homes sight unseen after merely looking at photos posted online by local authorities, but then had to book many expensive long-haul flights to hire the architect, get the paperwork done, and select the construction team (a few even got stuck here during Covid).

Thanks to their contacts the local agents can ensure fast-track renovations are completed within 2-4 months, which could prove very useful as the ‘superbonus’ frenzy in Italy has caused a builder shortage meaning many people renovating property now face long delays

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

Their all-inclusive commission usually starts at 5 percent of the total cost of a renovation, or at 2.500 euros per house independently from its cost and dimension. The fee also depends on the type of work being carried out, how tailored it is and whether there are any specific requirements, like installing an indoor elevator or having furniture pieces shipped from the mainland if it happens to be a Sicilian or Sardinian village. 

However, buyers must always be careful. It is highly recommended to make sure the local authorities know who these agents are and how reliable they are in delivering results.

Town halls can often suggest which local companies to contact, and this gives the renovation legitimacy in my view. In a small village, where everyone knows each other, when the town hall recommends an agency there’s always a certain degree of trust involved and agents know that their credibility is at stake (and also future commissions by more clients). 

Word of mouth among foreign buyers is a powerful tool; it can be positive or detrimental for the agency if a restyle isn’t done the right way, or with too many problems.

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

So it’s best to avoid agencies from another village, even if nearby, who come to you offering fast and super-cheap services, or local agencies that are not suggested by the mayor’s office. 

Then of course there can be other downsides, which largely depend on how ‘controlling’ and demanding the client is. 

For those not based in Italy full-time, the most important consideration is: how much can you trust these professionals to deliver what you expect, exactly how you want it, without having to be constantly on the ground? 

Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

Language can be a major obstacle. There are technical building terms that prove difficult to translate, and if the local agency doesn’t have English-speaking renovation professionals with a track record in following foreign clients it’s best to look for an intermediary with a greater language proficiency. 

I remember meeting an American couple once who got lost in translation with a village agent for days, and had to hire a translator just to hire the intermediary.

It’s always useful to ask for a ‘preventivo’ (quote) with VAT indication, considering roughly how much inflation could make the final cost go up. Buyers should also sign a contract with the exact timeframe of the works and delivery date of the new home, including penalties if there are delays on the part of the agency. 

READ ALSO:

But, even when there is complete trust, I think it is impossible to fully restyle an old home from a distance, contacting intermediaries by phone, emails, messages or video calls only. 

Details are key and there’s always something that could be misinterpreted. Buyers based overseas should still follow-up the renovation phases personally, perhaps with one or two flights per year to check all is going well and up to schedule.

Asking to see the costs so far undertaken midway through the restyle is useful to make sure there are no hidden costs or unexpected third parties involved – like buying the most expensive furniture or marble floor when not requested, or hiring a carpenter to build artisan beds.

While there is really no such thing as a hassle-free renovation, these agencies can ease the pressure and do most of the burdensome work – but buyers’ supervision will always be needed.

Read more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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