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

Foreigners have been eagerly snapping up bargain properties in Italy under the one-euro homes initiative. But why are Italians themselves largely ignoring these offers? Silvia Marchetti explains.

OPINION: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country's one-euro homes
An Australian visitor tours one-euro homes for sale in the town of Gangi, Sicily. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Dozens of depopulated towns and villages across Italy are placing crumbling one-euro homes on the market for less than the cost of an espresso. From the nippy Alps to scorching hot Sicily, almost all regions have come up with this alluring scheme to lure new residents and revive their dying communities.

But while foreigners are rushing to snatch up a bargain home that comes with year-round sunshine – albeit with the burden of renovating it –  Italians don’t seem to have taken the bait. 

I’m not saying that none of the new buyers are Italian, just that when compared to foreigners they’re down to a minimum. When Sambuca di Sicilia in 2019 sold its first lot of cheap houses, those who applied and eventually bought them were nearly all foreigners, and just a few Italians.  

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

There are no official statistics on the nationalities of those who have bought a one-euro property, but I’ve talked to nearly all mayors involved in the initiative and they ended up confirming what seems to be the leading trend: Italians are much, much less interested than foreigners in buying a bargain home.

In the past five years people from all over the world have joined the so-called ‘one-euro buyers club’: from Brazil to Australia, the US, Europe, Russia and even Africa.

But when it comes to Italians, the few that I know of either come from larger but minor cities in Italy or from nearby towns and felt like simply moving to the countryside. And they’re either families or retired couples looking for a peaceful spot, not really young people willing to kickstart a new commercial activity or bring some buzz into town. 

Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

The main reason why Italians find one-euro homes less sexy than foreigners do is that they look more at the cons than the pros – because they know how things in their country work better than outsiders. 

The potential hassle of having to renovate a dilapidated property within a limited timeframe (usually three years), dealing with excessive red tape and paperwork, and then having to look after another house in Italy aside from their main home can be discouraging.

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

Italians, as opposed to foreigners, aren’t easily seduced by the romanticism of buying heaps of old stone with a history or by the thrill of the renovation, which actually scares them away. There are exceptions, of course: Italians falling in love with lost, forgotten villages where time stands still either because they were taken there by friends during their university years or because they want to escape the crowds.

The truth is, many foreigners snap up these one-euro homes not just because of the bargain price but because they actually carry out the restyle themselves and are excited about the project. They love to breathe new life into an old shepherd or peasant cottage and watch it transform. 

Most Italians on the other hand tend to be lazy with DIY makeovers and basically fail to grasp the potential and adventure of such an operation.

Talking to realtors, sociologists and real estate analysts I was shocked by their underestimation of the one-euro homes business and the economic revolution it has triggered in many Sicilian villages like Gangi and Sambuca, drawing investments and new people. 

Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

Some weren’t even aware of the huge success the scheme has had abroad and the global headlines it usually makes when one new town joins the club.

One realtor even replied: “I’m not sure it will have a future, and in any case, it will never kick off among Italians”. The last part of his observation is correct.

A Sicilian friend of mine brushed it away with a laugh. She, like many other Italians I have spoken to, says it would be “hell” to buy and renovate a one euro home. 

Among the reasons she listed not having time to follow the restyle and the nuisance of having to carry heavy water bottles and grocery bags from the car to the house. 

Logistics can be tricky. In small villages, where alleys are wide enough for donkeys and scooters only, the ancient district is accessible only on foot and during summer it’s impossible to find a parking spot (as Italians say: ‘dove la metto? me la metto in tasca’, or ‘I’ll have to put the car in my pocket’).

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Yet for foreigners this is all part of ‘living the rural adventure’. And for many, a nostalgic way to reconnect with the town of their ancestors who migrated abroad decades ago. 

In my view the ultimate reason why Italians aren’t so keen on the one-euro homes is that they’re already based in Il bel paese, aka ‘the beautiful country’ as they call their homeland. They were born and raised here so they can’t even fathom what it means for a foreigner to grab a slice of la dolce vita and be able to stay months in Italy in a very affordable way.

Spending even 50.000 euros in renovating a one-euro home is still way less than what any other type of property in Italy would cost. And it’s more than just a house. It’s a sort of ‘terminal’ or ‘launchpad’ from where you can explore not just the entire country but the rest of Europe. 

Many Americans and Russians who have snapped a one-euro home have also done it to have a ‘door’ to the Old Continent. Italy is a small country when compared to the States, distances are shorter, and you can cross several regions in a one-hour drive. From anywhere in Italy you can drive to go skiing in France, Switzerland, or Austria. From the port of Bari in Puglia you can hop on a ferry boat to visit Greece, Croatia and Slovenia, while stunning Corsica is a stone’s throw from Tuscany. Not to mention all the gorgeous, exotic Sicilian islands to discover.

Italians already have all this beauty at their disposal – in their ‘backyard’ – and such luxury, or luck, inevitably diminishes the appeal of the one-euro dwellings.

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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. 

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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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