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PROPERTY: How Italy’s cheap homes frenzy is changing rural villages

Foreign buyers are reviving abandoned Italian towns by snapping up one-euro homes, but do some areas now risk losing their charm as they become ever more international? Silvia Marchetti explains.

PROPERTY: How Italy's cheap homes frenzy is changing rural villages
The town of Gangi, Sicily, was among the first in Italy to start selling houses in the historical centre for one euro to combat depopulation. Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

As towns across Italy are putting up for sale old houses, often triggering property stampedes, those rushing to buy them are mainly foreigners.

Lured by the Italian idyll of great food, peacefulness, and the sense of authenticity that only rural spots still preserve, people in search of a second home don’t often realize immediately that what they want is exactly what other foreigners crave as well. 

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

If everybody is chasing after the same dream there’s a risk, in the long term, that it all shatters. What were once quiet places could turn out to be pretty crowded.

Speaking to second-home foreign owners in the towns known for selling off cheap properties, I discovered some are now worried that they could end up bumping into too many other foreigners.

After previously being the only outsiders rubbing shoulders with locals, they say such a scenario would destroy the Italian ‘village experience’ for them.

American Frank Cohen recently purchased several cheap dwellings in the historical center of Latronico, a picturesque and previously unknown village in the southern region of Basilicata, which has seen an influx of American and European buyers. 

“The last thing I want is to hang out with Americans, or that my next door neighbor speaks English,” Cohen says.

“I want to live among locals, go to the barber to take the pulse of everyday life and gossip, talk to the elders, dine with villagers out on the streets during the summer as is customary here,” he saya. “I want to live like a local.”

Cohen, who owns two adjoining properties on the same street, one with “three balconies and a panoramic terrace”, says he found out about Latronico’s bargain property offers “in the press”.

Alongside Latronico, the villages of Biccari in Puglia, Troina in Sicily, Zungoli in Campania and Ollolai in Sardinia have also recently launched successful housing schemes luring many foreign families, who have renovated properties to use as holiday homes and B&Bs. 

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

In Sambuca, Sicily, local authorities started selling cheap homes in 2019. German resident Susan Henson, who had already bought a home there years before, expressed concern that the village might no longer be a “hidden, secret retreat for few foreigners”.

“My house, which was in a good state when I bought it, is tucked away in the ancient Saracen district with a great view of the green rolling hills,” says Henson, a professional from Düsseldorf who discovered Sambuca during one of her many trips to Sicily. 

The Val D’Orcia region in Tuscany is understandably popular with foreign property hunters. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

While small villages may still be far from being contaminated by globalization, in the long run they do face the risk of going from being niche unknown spots to ‘mass destinations’. This process has already tainted the authenticity of other, larger towns, where the sense of indigenous community has been somewhat hollowed out. 

Cianciana and Gangi in Sicily have huge expat clusters, and English has almost become the second language which can be heard while walking in the streets, alongside Sicilian. 

Local real estate agencies cater almost exclusively to foreigners and have hired multilingual staff. A restaurant in Cianciana even serves all sorts of hamburgers and kebabs. 

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

Tuscany’s Val D’Orcia is another area which has had a massive influx of Americans and English who have bought farms, crumbling medieval towers and taverns at good prices, while the restyled Tuscan village of Castelfalfi is literally in the hands of foreigners.

But on the other hand, there are several examples of how foreigners have breathed new life into dying, depopulated places by buying and restyling dilapidated homes Italians have long abandoned. 

Near-abandoned hamlets in the Comino Valley in Lazio have been revived by Scottish families who have returned to the land of their ancestors. Their grandparents were natives who decided to migrate after the second world war in search of a brighter future elsewhere, leaving behind empty homes. Now, their grandchildren are coming back to open hotels and organic farms and revive ancient vineyards. They’re revamping the local economy. 

The first time I visited this pristine area it was funny hearing people say ‘hello’ to shepherds with a strong Scottish accent, and seeing red-headed, tall couples – certainly not the Mediterranean type – walk their dogs in the evening. 

Cesidio di Ciacca from Edinburgh restyled his family’s hamlet and opened a luxury resort in the village of Picinisco. He always felt a strong pull towards his roots: “My nonni came from here, as a kid I often visited but then, while growing up, I realized I wanted more. I wanted to reconnect with my origins and do something positive for the village”, he says.

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

Other spots which have been rescued by foreigners include Airole in Liguria, where there are numerous French and Dutch families, and Santa Giuliana di Umbertide in Umbria, brought back from the grave by Swiss people. 

It is tough to strike a balance between preserving authenticity and losing it, particularly given the appeal of Italy’s cheap homes. No mayor would, nor could, ever put a discriminatory cap on the number of houses sold to foreigners – which would be preposterous anyway.

Cultural hybridization is wonderful and since millennia Italy has been the Mediterranean’s melting pot of different civilizations.

I believe it all comes down to how villagers react to foreign ‘penetration’. It’s up to people living in these villages to cling onto their traditions and avoid turning too global themselves – for example by starting to serve foreign foods or following non-indigenous fads – no matter how many foreigners move in to the area. After all, such authenticity is the winning asset of these places.

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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.

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