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PROPERTY

My Italian Home: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

Australian-born Lisa Chiodo tells The Local how she built the life she’d always dreamed of after buying a bargain Italian property, allowing her family to live self-sufficiently.

Lisa Chiodo and her family are living the mortgage-free dream in the Italian Alps.
Lisa Chiodo and her family are living the mortgage-free dream in the Italian Alps. Photo by Lisa Chiodo

The tale of how Lisa and her family ended up in a hamlet at the foot of the Italian Alps is an accidental one, and it’s an outcome she has been grateful for ever since they moved there in 2013.

She and her family were inspired by the northern Italian region of Piedmont in 2005 when they first moved to the area for two years, before returning to Australia.

But they couldn’t shake the desire to come back to Italy and live the lifestyle they’d fallen in love with.

“We love everything about Italy and now we’ve found a way to live well without getting into debt. We only need a certain amount of money to live comfortably here,” she told us.

READ ALSO: The cheap Italian properties buyers are choosing instead of one-euro homes

After originally buying a property in Liguria with the intention of renovating it, they looked for a fixer-upper second home in Piedmont.

To afford the second base, they searched for ‘the cheapest property in Piedmont’ and stumbled upon the building they have in fact called home for nine years now.

The house as it looked when they bought it. Photo: Lisa Chiodo

Lisa and her husband bought the old farmhouse in Bobbio Pellice, Val Pellice, a hamlet dating back to the 15th century, for just €8,000. They abandoned their Liguria plans when they realised the mortgage-free life they could live with such a small house price.

Due to the lower cost, they could afford to buy the adjoining building too for just another €6,000.

As well as these two buildings they also own the adjoining outbuildings and an apple orchard of 40 trees.

“We are fairly self-sufficient, have no mortgage and we grow our own food. We love this very traditional rural farming community – you see people taking their cows up to high pasture and chickens and goats roam past the house.

READ ALSO: How can a non-EU citizen get a mortgage to buy property in Italy?

“It’s the quintessential Italian image of Fiat 500s trundling past on medieval streets, and the people here are lovely and friendly. The community is solid as we rely on each other, which is so different from our old life where we never saw the neighbours,” she said.

But thanks to their motivation and DIY-skills, they have spent neither much time nor money on their countryside abode. With a spend of just €14,000 on two buildings, you’d expect the renovation work needed to be considerable.

Lisa tells us the main renovations were replacing the windows and doors, and redecorating with a lick of paint, which took around three to four months.

 

Photos: Lisa Chiodo

Despite being a historical building dating back to the 1600s, the house was already liveable when they bought it so they could move in straight away, giving them a chance to do the essential jobs and work on the adjacent building at a slower pace.

“If you renovate property, you live in a half-done house forever,” she said, referring to the fact that they’re still doing renovation work nine years after moving in.

In total they’ve spent no more than €20,000, plus expenses such as notary fees on the ongoing project, and have even separated a section of the building that is now used as a B&B – one room that can sleep up to four people.

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

Photo: Lisa Chiodo

Very little outgoings and a small B&B income of around €6,000 per year, plus some earnings from her husband’s part-time work as a chef, is all they need to live their lives as they want.

Their ability to be largely self-sufficient throughout the whole process also comes down to their experience of renovating and selling properties in Australia, as well as their thrifty attitude.

“We beg, borrow and steal for this house,” Lisa joked.

Even part of their heating system is a pellet heater that her husband recovered from work, which was lying unused and broken. With just €26 for parts and his handiwork, it was back up and running and is now installed in their home.

They additionally have a wood oven, gas bottles for the kitchen and a wood heater upstairs, generating monthly bills of just €60 on average.

“Everything in our house has been given or is second hand. We live frugally, but it works. We are pretty much semi-retired already and have left the rat race. There’s no keeping up with the Joneses,” she added.

Photo: Lisa Chiodo

Their story is an inspiring one in an era of glamourising overwork and stress, particularly as Italy is often painted as a place to slow down and work to live, rather than live to work.

Although this may not always be the case across the whole country, in this case Lisa and her family certainly have found their slice of ‘la dolce vita’ in rural Piedmont.

READ ALSO: Cost of living: How does Italy compare to the rest of the world in 2022?

When they returned to Italy from Australia in 2013, they arrived with just a suitcase and AUS $20,000 (around €12,650).

“You can think your life away. We kept thinking we had to prepare, but in the end we just came with a bag. It’s better to just do it,” Lisa said.

Lisa and her family in Piedmont. Photo: Lisa Chiodo

And nothing can equip you for how to settle into such a small community and make connections – theirs has just 16 residents, including their family of four.

“My husband went to the local village bar every morning without fail – he didn’t make friends right away, but he kept buying a coffee, saying hello and once he had made friendships, we then looked at renovation,” Lisa told us.

“Once you know people to talk to, you can find the best supplies and get a better price. If we’d have just come in like a bull out the gate and used a plumber from another town, for instance, and not stuck to all the local customs, we wouldn’t have got very far.

“Having a close friend to introduce us to other tradesmen has been invaluable. He’s been here his whole life and gets one price because he’s local, born and bred.

“You might get a different price – there are no fixed quotes for renovation in Italy and you’ve got to accept that. We wouldn’t get the best price, but we got a better one than we otherwise would have,” she added.

They haven’t used any of Italy’s various building bonuses so far, but they plan to access some this year when they enter the next phase of their project – they plan to build a large terrace ‘under the stars’.

READ ALSO:

For those looking to buy and renovate in Italy, she advised people to “go with the flow”.

“Never roll your eyes – you can’t expect it to be like your home country. You’re moving through Italian culture and have to accept that,” she said.

But does living in such a tiny, rural place come at another cost?

For Lisa and her family, their lives are more fulfilled than they ever have been and they say they don’t miss out on anything.

“There is always something to do! It is much more peaceful where we live but we can still go to the city if we want to.

“I just love it when I walk out the door and look up at the Alps, especially when it’s covered in wildflowers in the spring – it’s a whole type of different life. In Australia, it was always about going to the shops, but this is a much better environment to bring up the children,” she said.

She also noted the good bus links to the next village two kilometres away, which is where their children go to school and that the city of Turin is just an hour away.

You can also, if you like, walk to France as it’s that close to the border.

And even though the entire local population could fit round a large dining table, Lisa told us there are a lot of people passing through thanks to the abundant hiking trails on their doorstep.

“If I hear anyone speaking English, I shout ‘Hello! Would you like to come in for a coffee?’” she added.

Photo: Lisa Chiodo

For them, there are no regrets in their move to Italy and property restoration – and nothing that they feel they miss.

“We don’t have to work full-time to live this life. Every day’s a surprise. Everything is interesting and different – it’s a crazy and beautiful life.”

Lisa runs the Renovating Italy Facebook group, providing tips and advice to people renovating property in Italy. She also runs membership group, the Renovating Italy Club, providing access to experts and insider know-how on Italian property.

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

Do you have a renovation story to share? We’d love to hear from you – email us here.

Member comments

  1. Caveat emptor. I think one needs to be a bit cautious when buying these old houses. My wife bought a cheap 18th century stone house and renovated it. However, she ended up having to pay an engineering firm to add a steel substructure to meet earthquake safety standards. It was still a good deal in the end, but it probably took more time and effort than most people would want to invest.

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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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