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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: 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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