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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.

Member comments

  1. If Italians never serve foreign foods, there would be no pasta, tomatoes or tomato sauce, chilis, chocolate, or even risotto Milanese. This totally misses the point. Italy since the days it was the seat of the Roman Empire has happily been a melting pot of everything from food, to culture, to religion. What can’t be lost is bringing Italian sensibilities and style to new things introduced here. A hamburger interpreted with an aoli and provolone is not more “un-Italian” than Veal Milanese. If you don’t believe me, go to Milan and call it a Schnitzel.

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‘A life’s task’: The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home

Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years. They tell Silvia Marchetti exactly what they learned so others can heed their advice.

'A life's task': The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home
An old crumbling Italian property dating back to medieval times with all its historic appeal and fascination lures anyone with a penchant for bringing back ancient buildings from the grave.
 
But it can be tough work with many obstacles requiring energy, time, lots of money and above all, patience.
 
Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years and upgraded it to their lavish rural house, with a cool cocktail lounge under the former altar and master bedroom in what used to be the bishop’s private lodgings.
 
The church, with the original bell tower still hanging and well-preserved frescoed walls, is actually the center of a tiny hamlet isolated in the countryside near Gubbio featuring stables, a barn and storage room which were also renovated and a wide patch of land with olive groves. 
 
“It was all a heap of ruins but I fell in love with the place at first sight,” says Marilisa.
 
“I could feel it had a soul and the stones were ‘talking’ but I knew straight away it was going to be a long, hard work to fix it up”, she said.
 
It took the couple 7 years to complete the restyle and faced with the many challenges encountered along the way, they admit they often thought of giving up. 

Riccardo and Marilisa Parisi at their Umbrian home. Photo Marilisa Parisi
 
Old properties, which are rendered more impressive by the passage of time, naturally come with downsides.
 
Dilapidated homes have a strong allure but breathing new life into them isn’t always as easy as first imagined, warns the couple.
 
Their church-house, which the Parisi bought off the local curia (diocese), is classified as a monument of historical and artistic value by Italy’s state.
 
The first obstacle was dealing with Umbria’s art authorities (sovrintendenza) to make sure the restyle plan respected the structure and architecture of the place. 
 
They warned that the older a property is, the higher the risk that it could potentially be of artistic and historic interest, which entails a significant amount of restrictions (vincoli) and rules imposed by the sovrintendenza in restyling it, and more paperwork than an ordinary property. 
 
The Parisi’s advice to people interested in following in their footsteps is to check beforehand whether the local art authorities may have jurisdiction over an old property, which could complicate and delay the renovation. 
 
“You can’t just sketch any kind of super-cool restyle that pops into your mind,” says Riccardo.
 
“When the art authorities are involved, even if the property is yours, you must draw up detailed plans and maps of how it will look like, what the restyle will entail, what building materials will be used, and share these with the authorities.
 
“So you need to employ architects specialised in preservation. It must be a minimal, sustainable renovation that doesn’t radically change the original structure with excessive fixes,” he adds.
 
So tearing down walls, adding extra rooms or pulling down a roof won’t be possible.
 
Marilisa says: “We tried to recycle the original furniture and materials, we kept the ancient stone steps outside in the courtyard, the old wooden tables of the church which we turned into thick doors, the original terra-cotta pavements and the church altar hall where we have evening drinks.”
 
She admits that having to deal with the construction team on a regular basis was a major hassle, particularly since they had to drive from Naples each time to check on the progress of the work.
 
The couple felt the stress that comes with renovating a property at a distance, by phone or internet without physically visiting and overseeing the builders and architect. It can be risky as key instructions can easily go missing.
 
They suggest it is very important to hire construction teams that can do the entire work rather than splitting it among different building companies so to assure continuity and a homogenous makeover style and techniques. 
 
“If you take on such a challenge of renovating a large property you must make it your life’s task and invest a lot of passion, energy and be ready to spend more than expected”, says Riccardo, who prefers not to disclose how much money has been invested. 
 
The specific location of the property can also be an issue. Bureaucracy was head-splitting, the couple had to not only reactivate utility supplies but rebuild all basic infrastructure because their home is in an isolated spot in the middle of a dense Umbrian forest.
 
“The place is wonderful, surrounded by pristine nature, there’s nothing around us and that’s a major plus point. But having been abandoned for so many years there was no running water, electricity, gas, so to make our home liveable again we had to rebuild the water pumps and electricity grid, activate a landline and internet,” says Riccardo.
 
“These are all things you need to consider when you embark on such a mission.”
 
Roads are another problem to be taken into account. It’s difficult to find the place, one needs to follow the directions given by the Parisi as it’s not mapped.
 
There’s just a tiny unpaved country path leading to their Umbrian retreat from the main road which they had to clear through the thick vegetation that had grown over the property’s estate across decades. The path is wide enough for one big car and needs constant maintenance particularly when it rains. 
 
“If you buy and renovate a lovely crumbly property in an offbeat, isolated rural spot you have to know that you’re starting from scratch”, says Riccardo. 
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