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The red flags to watch out for when buying an old house in Italy

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
The red flags to watch out for when buying an old house in Italy
The passage of time is what gives some Italian homes so much appeal - but it can also cause problems. Photo by Adrian Schledorn on Unsplash

Italy has no shortage of cheap properties for sale. But before you put down a deposit on a charming old ruin, look out for these warning signs that it's not such a bargain after all.


We've all perhaps been tempted by the idea of snapping up a cheap property in Italy, even if it's abandoned and crumbling.

However, there are a number of red flags and potential 'traps' to be aware of before embarking on such an adventure, and not just when buying a one euro home.

Usually the older the property is, and the longer it has been uninhabited, the harder it could be to land a safe purchase.

The uncertainty is not just tied to how much money fixing up a dilapidated property could actually cost you in the end. There are other risks as well. 

How many people really own the house?

Firstly, you need to make sure of the exact number of owners the building still has in order to have them all on board.

It may sound unbelievable to non-Italians, but it’s not unusual to find that even the smallest old properties are divided up between dozens of family members due to inheritance.

Thea Holowitz, from Romania, purchased a one-euro house in the Sicilian town of Mussomeli and found herself having to deal with 22 owners, who were all relatives and heirs to the same property.

"It's been tough, I thought I was going out of my mind at first but then I took a deep breath, meditated a lot and understood all I had to do was talk to each single one in person, through the help of the town hall, and make sure all 22 accepted to sell their share of the building, and that they were all OK with selling it for just one euro", she says.


Under Italian law, if a property is owned for instance by 50 different heirs each must agree on the sale, otherwise it’s a no-go.

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And as it often happens in Italy, bickering relatives are part of the scenery: one might refuse the sale just out of spite. 

Buyers must therefore make sure that the sale is transparent and involves all interested parties in order to avoid the risk of an unknown heir popping up in future to claim the sold property.

Mussomeli mayor Toti Nigrelli says it is quite a "normal procedure having to negotiate the sale with multiple owners” - distant cousins, relatives, nephews - who are often not on good terms. 

Other towns in Italy have failed in selling old abandoned homes because heirs would not agree to the sale of their crumbling family property - or on the sale price.


In deep rural central Italy. Interested buyers may go knocking on the door of each heir's house asking to buy their tiny share so they can snap up the old family estate or stable to turn into a B&B. 

The best way to track down the heirs, or current owners, is through the town hall offices who have a list of the properties within their territory.

Illegal builds and prior debts

There are other slippery issues to be aware of. Before deciding to buy a cheap old rural estate near Rieti, in Lazio, Australian Patrick Smith did extensive research aimed at avoiding any potential traps that could hamper the purchase.

"There are issues few people, particularly foreigners, know about when they decide to buy an old property in Italy,” says Smith.

“For example, making sure the house is clear of prior debts, which may include a pending mortgage the old owners stopped paying and which will now have to be paid by the new owner.”

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It is crucial to request an updated house plan from the local town hall in order to avoid facing a 'condono', which is a fine paid to legalize structural changes to the house which the former owners did not take care of.

"In my case the former owners had slightly changed the inside, removed a wall to create two adjacent rooms, but luckily they had already paid and settled the building amnesty", says Smith.


Italian towns regularly launch amnesties on illegal building work to allow people who own a house to legalize any changes to their homes which they have not previously asked permission, by paying a fine. The amount depends on the square meters involved. 

In the worst case scenario, when structural changes made by former owners are not 'legalized' and are significant, like having added an additional floor, terrace or balcony without communicating these 'fixes' to the town hall, the sale could be blocked and the interested buyer would have to give up on his dream.

"Bottom line, you could end up spending unexpected sums of money to legalize changes made by previous owners without a building permit, even if decades have passed,” says Smith.

The passage of time may give old Italian homes their fascinating appeal, but it also causes problems. 

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Smith warns potential buyers who have set their hearts on a particular property to make sure that the former owners, who perhaps now no longer live in it, did not cause any damage to the nearby buildings which would then have to be paid for by the new owner.

"Italian villages tend to be very old and it’s common that bathroom or kitchen water pipes may crack, flooding the adjacent house, or bits of the roof can crumble down onto the neighbors' roof, partly destroying it", says Smith.

Therefore before signing the purchase deed new buyers must enquire about any damages to third parties caused by the previous owners - or simply due to neglect and time - and which should be settled by the heirs before the sale.


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