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

For one British couple, turning an old village school in Umbria into a new home became a bigger project than they'd originally planned on.

My Italian Home: How one 'bargain basement' renovation ended up costing over €300K
London couple Tim Walker and his wife slowly retired to Italy while renovating their Umbrian property. Photo: Tim Walker.

The story of how Tim Walker and his wife moved to Italy is a familiar one: happy holidays and fond memories of Italy built up over years of travelling to the country planted the seed for retiring to il bel paese.

In 2011, they came across an old property in Todi, Umbria, a hilltop medieval town.

The building was “unappealing” and “featureless”, according to Tim, but they were taken with it and could see its potential.

On closer inspection, they discovered it was once a village school that dates back to the 1850s, with classrooms downstairs and accommodation for the teacher who lived upstairs.

Charmed by the history and the quaint hamlet of just 30 residents in which it resides, they decided to buy it. At that point, they weren’t sure when they would move to Italy to retire.

Over the years, they came out to visit the property for about five to six weeks a year, taking on the project themselves. It was a DIY effort and “didn’t involve anything serious or structural”, he told us.

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

“We did some cosmetic work to make it bearable, as when we bought it, it was your grandmother’s house – not very attractive with aged decor,” he said.

The old kitchen that Tim described as ‘decrepit’. Photo: Tim Walker.

They carried out some renovation works themselves, including building some kitchen furniture. Photo: Tim Walker

“We spent seven years thinking about what to do with it, making small changes ourselves in that time, but then we began the project which was much more extensive,” he added.

The former London professionals decided to speed up their retirement plans in light of Brexit and get residency in Italy before it became much more complicated for British nationals.

READ ALSO: How British citizens can retire to Italy after Brexit

So, in 2019 they embarked on their house project on a much bigger, structural scale.

Although Tim said the project started off as “bargain basement”, costs quickly mounted, they had a few surprises when it came to some essential jobs and the price of certain items far outstripped what they were expecting.

“We spent a lot more than we initially intended. We could have spent a lot less definitely, but when it comes to renovation, there are no limits,” he said.

However, it wasn’t a case of just wanting to add more and more to the project. The property turned up a few unexpected jobs, as is often the case with old buildings that haven’t been restored – sometimes, ever.

For their 170-year old home, they found that they went over by 10 percent for core building costs. They weren’t anticipating to have to pay for extra foundations, but they discovered there were, in fact, no foundations.

They also discovered that the cost of windows and shutters were much more expensive than they had planned on. In the end, that cost them double their initial estimate, with some quotes coming in at three times as much.

READ ALSO: How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property

Other big-ticket expenses included the external insulation or ‘cappotto‘, but he admitted “they made choices” and chose the more expensive, durable option.

The house also needed to be earthquake-proofed, and they made necessary plumbing and electricity upgrades, which all in all, has led to a safe and energy efficient home.

In the end, their renovation cost came in at €320,000 – a price far exceeding what anyone would describe as the ‘bargain’ they initially envisaged.

For some, such huge surprises, along with the hidden fees of buying a house in Italy in the first place, can derail a project entirely.

READ ALSO:

Luckily for Tim and his wife, they were in a position to foot the bill and take a much broader view of the situation, as that’s the place they want to stay.

If we were looking to sell it in five years, would we make our money back? Who knows? But it doesn’t matter, as we are looking to live here, we’re not looking to sell it on,” he said.

Beyond the fundamental jobs, they made their own adjustments according to their vision for their home, such as raising the ceilings and knocking down rooms to open up spaces and allow more light in.

The living room got more than a lick of paint. Photo: Tim Walker

After structural work came their personal design choices, such as opening up rooms. Photo: Tim Walker

They also have land with the home, which they are working on clearing and have planted olive trees, some of which are already productive.

They couldn’t be happier with the spacious retired life they’ve constructed after living in a Victorian terrace in England.

But, of course, it came with lessons along the way.

Aside from the inflated budget, Tim said they learnt a lot about the house renovation process in Italy.

The more you can pin down what you want to do before you start is absolutely essential – it’s when you change your mind mid-project the costs start to ramp up,” he told us.

He also pointed to the importance of solid relationships with the people carrying out the work, such as the geometra (civil surveyor) and building companies.

“It is absolutely crucial to have a good relationship with the people renovating your home. We were available all the time and wandered over most evenings to see progress,” he said.

“It is really important to be there and take decisions. If you’re doing the project at a distance, you need to find a way to get constant updates and pictures,” he advised.

One area people who are renovating property in Italy need to be aware of are the cultural differences, according to Tim.

Things happen differently here than they do in the UK or US – it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the way they do it, they’ll work that way anyway. If you try to impose your value and methodology on an Italian geometra, an architect or constructor, you’re going to get out of shape,” he warned.

In fact, they managed to get a reduced VAT rate on the renovations, because they worked with a geometra who could negotiate that on their behalf.

Although they didn’t use any building bonuses in their works, any discounts are a gain in the face of mounting expenses and fees.

Tim also pointed to the language of construction when renovating Italian property – which goes beyond simply understanding Italian.

Our builders and geometra were using words for things were not in the dictionary or translator,” he said.

To work around that, he said he used the help of an Italian friend at first who could interpret. Someone who can communicate what you want is an asset, according to Tim, as without it, you may not always get what you planned.

He described their process as a “slow burn” and that their life in Italy was a natural progression after first buying a little bolthole in 2005.

It’s an attitude that seems to suit them well in their tiny community. “We’ve spent a long time getting to this point – I feel absolutely blessed every day I’m here,” he said.

“It’s true that you’re always a foreigner but I have to say I haven’t found moving here particularly challenging. We don’t miss our cheddar cheese and baked beans – that’s not where our heads are. That’s part of the reason why we’re here, to live differently.

“We love being here. We have felt very welcome both by the local community and also the immigrant community that we’re part of. We are incredibly lucky.”

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.

Member comments

  1. We did extensive renovations in 2019/2020 and our geometra earned his nickname of Purtroppo as every week there was another unfortunate unseen complication requiring more money and time. The important lesson was to try to use a geometra who has done work in the immediate area and he knows the local Comune building requirements. Also check the geometras references.

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PROPERTY

How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Buying a cheap home to renovate in Italy sounds like the dream, but it can quickly turn nightmarish amid restrictions, red tape, and bickering relatives. Silvia Marchetti explains some of the most unexpected pitfalls and how to avoid them.

How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

With so many Italian towns offloading cheap old properties for sale, lots of people have been tempted by the chance to buy a fixer-upper in a sunny, rural area and live in the perfect idyll. And most are oblivious at first of what risks the purchase might entail. 

The older the properties are, the more potential traps along the way.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns launching alternatives to one-euro homes

There have been several villages in Italy eager to sell €1 and cheap homes that have had to give up on their plans once hidden issues came to light.

Back in 2014, the towns of Carrega Ligure, in Piedmont, and Lecce nei Marsi, in Abruzzo, tried hard to sell their old properties off at a bargain price but just couldn’t get past Italy’s labyrinthine red tape, hellish property restrictions, and scores of bickering relatives.

Both towns’ mayors found themselves chasing after the many heirs of unknown property owners who had emigrated in the 1800s. All existing relatives, who technically owned small parcels of the same house (whether they knew it or not), had to all agree on the sale.

Under Italian law, over time and generations a property ‘pulverizes’ into many little shares depending on how many heirs are involved (if one single heir is not named).

You can end up in a situation where you agree with two owners that you’ll buy their old house, and then one day another five knock at your door saying they never gave their consent, nullifying your purchase. So it’s always best to check beforehand the local land registry to see exactly who, and how many, are the owners, and where they are. 

READ ALSO:

In Carrega Ligure and Lecce nei Marsi, families had long ago migrated across the world and the many heirs to some properties were impossible to track down.

But there were also other obstacles.

“We wanted to start the renovation project by selling dilapidated one euro houses, and then move on to cheap ones, but the tax office would not agree on the price – saying that the old properties had a greater value, that they weren’t classified as abandoned buildings but as perfectly livable houses in good shape”, says Lecce nei Marsi mayor Augusto Barile. 

This meant buyers would have ended up spending tons of money in property sale taxes.

“Even if these were just small houses, potential property taxes start at €700, and could have been much higher,” he explains.

“This would have been a nightmare for any buyer finding out about this at a later stage, after the purchase”.

Barile says the town hall had not made a prior agreement with the tax office to reclassify and ‘downgrade’ the value of the old buildings, which also required an update of the land registry. 

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

Council officials in the village of Carrega Ligure faced a wall of red tape when they tried to sell off abandoned properties. Credit: Comune di Carrega Ligure

Several potential buyers I spoke to back then said that when they found out about the tax office’s involvement by word of mouth (mostly thanks to village gossip at the bar while sipping an espresso), they fled immediately without even taking a look at the houses. 

The best advice in this case is to pay a visit to the local tax bureau ahead of any formal purchase deal and make sure that the old, dilapidated house you want to buy is actually ‘accatastata’ (registered) as such, or you might end up paying the same property sale taxes as you would on a new home. Hiring a tax lawyer or legal expert could be of huge help.

In Carrega Ligure, where old shepherds’ and farmers’ homes are scattered across 11 districts connecting various valleys, a few abandoned homes located near pristine woods came with a nice patch of land – which turned out to be another huge problem.

Old estates often cannot be disposed of due to ‘vincoli’ – limitations – either of environmental or historic nature, that do not allow the property to be sold, or simply due to territorial boundaries that have changed over time, particularly if the original families haven’t lived there for a long time.

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

In Carrega Ligure it turned out that “a few dwellings located in the most ancient district couldn’t be sold because of hydrogeological risks. State law forbade rebuilding them from scratch, as floods and mudslides had hit the area in the past”, says Carrega Ligure mayor Luca Silvestri.

Meanwhile, other properties were located within or close to the protected mountain park area where the village districts spread, and where there are strict rules against building to preserve the surroundings.

Another issue was that a few old homes came with a patch of land which was quite distant, on the opposite side of the hill, says Silvestri, making it inconvenient for buyers looking for a house with a back garden.

In this case, checking territorial maps, and speaking to competent bodies such as park authorities if there are ‘green restrictions’ in place, can spare future nuisances.

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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