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PROPERTY

Property: Why we decided to build our new house in Italy out of wood

Italy's landscape is dotted with stone and brick buildings, so the usual response when you tell Italians you're building a house out of wood is, 'Ma perché?'. But it's a surprisingly advantageous and efficient choice, as our project plans revealed.

If you’re hoping to renovate or build a property in Italy, you may not have considered wood as a material to realise the house of your dreams.

The novelty of the idea seems to breed scepticism, but since our geometra (surveyor) recommended it, we investigated the options and we agreed with his advice.

READ ALSO: ‘How we claimed Italy’s building bonus twice for the same property’

A geometra is invaluable in helping with the local authorities and guiding you on how best to navigate a renovation.

In his experience, using wood as the structure for a house is a wise decision as, firstly, the frame pops up in just a couple of weeks.

That’s in comparison to the roughly four months for a stone or brick structure that he says it takes – at least in northern Italy.

It’s important to point out that we are using wood only for the framework of the property and not for the walls too – it won’t look like a ski chalet in the middle of Emilia Romagna, where our property will be.

For the walls, we’ll be using a mixture of other materials including plaster board, insulation, panels and external fascias.

The speed of construction is a huge plus point, which is now essential after waiting months and months to get through the paperwork of buying the wreck and jumping through hoops to get to the project design.

Photo: Eric Cabanis / AFP

We’re also working against a deadline, as we are relying on the government’s Superbonus to build our property – financial aid introduced to help people renovate properties following the pandemic-induced economic slump.

With this scheme, homeowners could benefit from a 110 percent tax deduction on expenses related to property renovation.

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Luckily, the authorities extended the initiative until 2023, but based on our experiences of how long each stage of the process is taking, we can’t fully breathe out just yet.

Aside from how quickly it will be constructed, when plans finally get underway at least, wooden beams are also something we wanted from an aesthetic point of view. We’ll be in the middle of the countryside, so a rustic appearance lends itself well to the surroundings.

Plus, using wood saves energy due to its low thermal conduction and insulation properties, meaning that it will meet the highest energy efficiency rating.

Cost also plays a big factor. Although our geometra said the cost is actually comparable between building a structure out of wood or brick, the biggest saving is when the house is built – a wooden house has lower running costs than a traditional house.

Photo: Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash

Due to the mentioned insulating qualities of wood, houses made of this material boast low energy consumption and, therefore, low costs.

So for a house of the same size, layout of the rooms and use of the house, a wooden house will have lower energy bills than its masonry counterpart, because it needs less energy to be heated in winter and cooled in summer.

These qualities also create an ideal climate to live in all year round.

This should assuage fears of Italians who are dubious about wooden constructions, because of doubts about how they would cope in hotter and more humid weather.

We were initially concerned about wood from a cost perspective, as prices have risen sharply in Italy this year, according to reports.

Between September 2020 and April this year alone, timber prices rose by 60-70 percent. As an example, glued laminated timber, one of the most widely used, has risen from €400 to €700 per m³. And that’s the closest estimate we have to how much this project is going to cost.

Any time we ask for an overall quote, we are told it’s unknown until work actually gets underway – as prices climb in the meanwhile.

However, in our surveyor’s experience, costs of all materials have increased this year so there doesn’t seem to be a cheaper method.

All in all, considering the reasons of long-term costs, speed of installation and its appearance, building a house out of wood is the right choice for us – and it might be a prudent and well-informed choice for others building a home in Italy.

If you’re keen to buy a property in Italy, you may want to take a look at our guide to the additional costs you might not be expecting, and read up on some of the common mistakes to avoid when buying a house in Italy. See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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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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