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PROPERTY

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

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.

The red flags to watch out for when buying an old house in Italy
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

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.

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

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.

According to 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.

READ ALSO: Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?

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.

The passage of time is what gives these homes so much appeal – but it also causes problems. Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP

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.”

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

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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PROPERTY

‘It’s so frustrating’: My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

When US-based Davide Fionda embarked on renovating his mother's Italian property, he couldn't have imagined the obstacles and the timescale in store.

'It's so frustrating': My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

Building a home in Italy was almost inevitable for Davide, as he’s been visiting the same area in the Le Marche region, where his Italian-born mother grew up, since he was five years old.

Although he lives in Boston, US, and speaks with a charming East Coast twang, he’s also an Italian citizen and has long dreamed of having his own place to stay for the summer.

He began making this dream a reality back in 1997, when a barn that had been in his mother’s family for generations, in the village of Schito-Case Duca, was damaged by an earthquake.

“My mother, who had both her mother and sister in Italy, decided that it would be really nice for us to build our own new home instead of relying on family to host us each time we visit,” Davide said.

“The goal was simple. I would acquire the barn from my mom, renovate it and move in for the summers, as I’m a college teacher and can spend time in Italy,” he added.

“Simple” the goal may have been, but the project itself proved anything but, as Davide came up against unforeseen bureaucratic problems, legal hiccups and personal disappointments.

READ ALSO: The hidden costs of buying a home in Italy

As a former entrepreneur in his professional life, he said he’s “used to getting things done”, owning five companies and selling three.

But conquering Italian property renovation is his biggest challenge to date: “Never in my life have I had so many complications as I’ve had with this house,” he told us.

The earthquake-damaged barn. Photo: Davide Fionda

“In the beginning, I knew exactly what I needed and the costs to carry out the project. My mother was, and is still, living in the United States: the project started when she was approached by her godson, who is a geometra (civil engineer), to help her rebuild this barn.

“I started with what I could control. I sat down with an architect and we created a design. I did research on furniture and fixtures. But then the problems started,” Davide said.

His mother wanted a simple design: an open plan house with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the mountains, spanning two floors – a ground floor and a first floor for the bedrooms.

When they went to look at the progress in 2004, he said they were “horrified” at what they saw.

Instead of windows across the front as we asked for, with views of the spectacular Gran Sasso mountains, he took the entire view with two hallways for entering the property and for the bathroom. The bedrooms upstairs were unusable,” he added.

Davide describes himself as “not a typical Italian”, at two metres in height ,and says he always looks for suitable showers and beds when visiting Italy.

It was one of the reasons building his own home was so attractive, as he could custom-make it to fit his needs.

READ ALSO: What taxes do you need to pay if you own a second home in Italy?

But when they viewed the build, he discovered the first floor had ceilings of just one metre and 40 centimetres – not liveable for most people, never mind someone with Davide’s towering frame.

The results didn’t match the renovation plans that had been filed with the comune (town hall) – they wouldn’t have been approved otherwise, as Davide discovered Italian regulations deemed this height of ceiling in a bedroom uninhabitable.

He said he grew up with the geometra and knew him well, saying they were “best friends”. However, on raising the problems with him, Davide said the building professional “refused to fix the house”, adding, “he took my mother’s money and built a house with no bedrooms”.

He said his mother decided to stop construction after spending almost $100,000 on a house that they “could not live in”, adding that they “returned many times over the years to see the shell of the building that we thought we were going to call our home”.

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: How one ‘bargain basement’ renovation ended up costing over €300K

Faced with a stalled project and unsure what to do next, Davide tried to sell the property but got nowhere. He said the “market wasn’t right” for selling it, so he considered his options for fixing the botched renovations to date.

His Italian property project has been stalled for over two decades. Photo: Davide Fionda

Then, eventually, in January of this year he decided “he was sick of looking at it and it was time to act”.

He intended to use Italy’s Bonus ristrutturazioni (Renovation bonus), which allows homeowners to apply for a 50 percent tax reduction on carrying out renovation work.

On asking for professional opinions on whether the house qualified for this bonus, he said he asked five different people and got five different answers.

In the end, he discovered it was eligible and so he could, in theory, proceed with his latest plans.

READ ALSO:

The aim is to create his mother’s original vision – an open plan space with huge windows overlooking the mountains and bedrooms on the first floor – but habitable this time.

Since the beginning of this year, however, Davide has been stuck and hasn’t made progress.

Setbacks have included trying to get a permit to renovate the house, which has proved difficult since the first geometra reportedly didn’t update the changes to the building.

This thorny issue goes back to exactly who owned the house, as Davide told us it had been sectioned off and parts of the house were owned by various members of the family.

The building headaches roll on for Davide. Photo by Martin Dalsgaard on Unsplash

“Italian law makes you want to rip your hair out,” he said.

Getting the deed in his name has been a huge obstacle in itself, as his mother wasn’t the sole owner and some parts of the land that belonged to her were never recorded.

It’s meant months of waiting while archives have been searched and deeds have been drawn up and transferred, made all the trickier by coordinating it all from thousands of miles away.

Plus, the house category was never changed to a residential one, listed previously as farmland and therefore illegal to live in.

It’s just more unexpected bureaucracy for a project that seems to have no end.

“It has been months and months of all these twists and turns, it’s so frustrating,” he told us.

“This has been a 25-year nightmare,” he added.

A partly restored, but unliveable barn for Davide now. Photo: Davaide Fionda.

Although Davide had originally planned to sort out the more practical parts of the project by the end of May, with a ticket booked to Italy to choose the windows, he’s still stuck in the paperwork part and can’t move forward.

Nothing has happened since January. Three or four times I said, ‘screw this’. But it’s not in my DNA to give up,” he said.

Although he has a strong will, the house has taken its toll on him.

Every time we go, this house stares us in the face and it’s upsetting. Family always ask us, ‘when are you going to finish the house?’ It’s a real source of heartache,” he told us.

From this point, he hopes the paperwork will be completed by August and then he can meet with the contractors to get the process started.

That in itself was a tall order, due to the construction demand and shortage of building companies Italy is currently experiencing.

READ ALSO:

It’s a problem made even more challenging by the fact that he’s based in the States and had to find a company that would apply for the credit for the bonus on his behalf.

Despite it all, he’s hopeful that he will get the house they dreamed of by next August and says he’s learned a lot about renovating property in Italy.

For other would-be home renovators, he advised people to “adjust their timeframe expectations” and expect “anything to do with land or real estate to take forever”.

So what is his secret for not giving up, despite the rollercoaster of events and emotions?

It seems he’s holding on to his vision of blissful summers in il bel paese.

“The beauty of Italy is to be, sit in a town square and have conversations,” he told us.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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