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PROPERTY: How Italy’s building bonuses are delaying the restyle of one-euro homes

Facing long delays and cost increases amid a renovation boom, some foreign buyers of Italy’s cheapest homes are now giving up on their dream renovation plans.

PROPERTY: How Italy’s building bonuses are delaying the restyle of one-euro homes
Cheap one euro homes continue to go on the market in Italy. Photo by Alex Vasey on Unsplash

Finding builders these days is proving challenging for many buyers of Italy’s one euro homes and other cheap properties in need of major renovation.

While the wide array of building bonuses introduced by the government offering homeowners up to 110 percent deductions on expenses related to energy upgrades and reducing seismic risk, or to simple fixes, has breathed new life into the economy, it has been so much in demand that it has delayed the restyle plans of many foreign buyers.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s building ‘superbonus’ has changed in 2022

Patrick Brown, from the US, last year bought an old rural farm in Bergamo’s countryside for €30.000 but is still looking for a building company to take on the repairs needed, including fixes to a partially collapsed roof, a new garage, and modern bathrooms.

“I knocked at the door of at least eight firms in the area and they all told me I would have to wait some 7-8 months,” he says.

“They were too busy with other pending renovations and were facing a lack of builders and other professionals, including architects, engineers, and contractors,” he explains. “I found out quite unpleasantly that Lombardy is among the regions with the highest number of building bonus-related delays.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s building bonus: Can you really claim back the cost of renovating property?

Brown complains that the extension of building bonus schemes into this year by the government means he’ll have to look for builders in other nearby regions where demand might be lower, but at a higher cost to him.

Superbonus delays are causing buyers of cheap Italian properties to abandon their renovation plans. Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

“I was hoping the building delays would end when the pandemic abated, but now I face these new obstacles. In the meantime, as the months drag on, more parts of the roof are collapsing and the living room walls are starting to crack”.

Brown is feeling so downbeat he’s even considering getting rid of the farm before starting the renovation by selling it to the highest bidder – or to the neighbours.

READ ALSO: Italy’s ‘superbonus’ renovations delayed by builder shortages and bureaucracy

He says this bad experience is killing the “adventurous thrill of bringing back to life an old home”, and that friends of his who have bought a cheap dwelling in the surroundings are also facing the same problems. 

The shortage of builders is occurring all over Italy, particularly in Lombardy and Liguria. Rural areas, where there are many dilapidated homes and fewer building companies, are the most vulnerable. 

It’s also happening in deepest Sicily, where many towns have launched one-euro home schemes to lure new buyers.

In the town of Mussomeli, Australian chef Danny McCubbin, who runs a social kitchen for the poor, bought a house for one euro and was then forced to sell it back to a real estate agency for the same price.

READ ALSO:

He says it was very difficult to find a builder, and over time the house deteriorated. By the time he did find someone, high demand and the spike in inflation had doubled the cost to renovate it, so he thought it was not worth it anymore. 

Danny eventually bought a slightly more expensive property in better shape in Mussomeli, and says other foreign buyers who have faced the same delays are now renovating their one-euro homes themselves. 

Mussomeli mayor Giuseppe Catania explains that the high demand for all building bonuses from villagers meant that nearly everyone in the area was exploiting the tax breaks in order to redo their homes, with the town’s handful of building firms facing overwork and a shortage of builders.

Local architects in Mussomeli assisting buyers of one-euro homes say there could now be delays of up to five months, but it largely depends on the degree of renovation work required.

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

Firms are willing to squeeze in massive restyle projects that involve the entire restructure of a house, and are more profitable – rather than taking on minor fixes like redoing a kitchen. 

Some buyers have resold their cheap Italian properties as they can no longer go through with renovations. Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Also, if the buyer is willing to invest significant sums of money at once instead of doing the restyle project in phases, it is easier to find builders.

Catania is however confident that the situation will improve as measures have been taken by the town hall to boost supply: “Most of these bonuses are expected to expire by year-end, so the pace of new renovations will decrease, and in the next few weeks there will be an influx of new builders from other Italian towns to help out, perhaps even from abroad”. 

Given that many towns in Sicily have either been rocked in the past by terrible earthquakes or mass emigration which has caused abandoned buildings to deteriorate, says Catania, most families and condominiums are now rushing to benefit from the tax credits to give their homes a makeover or turn them into B&Bs. 

OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

But the delayed renovations are still pushing foreign buyers to have second thoughts. 

Anna Müller, from Switzerland, also had to give up her dream of living in a renovated cheap home in Genoa’s countryside. 

She says it took her contractor eight months to find an available builder and by the time he did, Susanna and her partner had decided that the house, for which they paid just €4.000, required too much work. Like Danny, they sold it back to a local agency, luckily for the same price they paid.

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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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