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How bargain homes made one Italian town €100 million in two years

After Sambuca di Sicilia became the poster child for Italy's one-euro homes project, local authorities say the town's fortunes have turned around as the area is now enjoying a 'Renaissance'.

How bargain homes made one Italian town €100 million in two years
Exotic architecture and courtyards filled with orange trees are part of the draw in Sambuca, Sicily - along with properties with a starting price of €2. Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

In recent years dozens of depopulating Italian villages have put up cheap homes up for sale in an effort to revitalize local communities, but one in particular stands out from the rest. 

Sambuca Di Sicilia, in deepest Sicily, has been the most successful of the ‘one euro home’ villages

Since 2019, when it first began to auction off crumbling buildings for a starting price of one euro, the village has enjoyed a Renaissance.

According to local authorities a total of roughly €100 million has flowed in due to the initiative, positively impacting the rural area’s local economy in spite of the pandemic slowdown. 

“Twenty new B&Bs have opened in town, while before there was just one,” says deputy mayor Giuseppe Cacioppo. “The cheap home sales have generated some €3 million, while overall renovations are worth over €20 million.”

Mayor Leo Ciaccio adds that Sambuca’s time in the global spotlight has spurred public investments, with roughly €40-€50 million earmarked for improving roads and reviving old underground cellars, while the remote village recently got its first helicopter pad for emergencies.

Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

The influx of foreigners seeking to grab a place in the sun by purchasing a cheap home, and who then end up staying in the village for at least one week a year, has already led to a 200 percent increase in tourism, according to Cacioppo, generating an estimated €8-€10 million in revenue.

Following the initial 2019 scheme Sambuca launched another auction of old dwellings last summer with a starting symbolic price of €2. 

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

All cheap homes in both auctions were eventually sold, with some going for up to €25.000 – with many going to foreign buyers who decided to purchase slightly more expensive homes in need of little work, breathing new life into the real estate market. 

A total of 135 empty homes in the area have been sold in just two years, which also means the local population benefited from the housing scheme. 

Many families were finally able to sell off empty houses which had been lying vacant for decades, and a positive chain reaction ensued.

“Other than B&Bs, new taverns, wine bars, artisanal shops also opened up, while local craftspeople, builders, carpenters, cleaning services, architects and engineers are now busy working on the sold homes. Some 50 houses have already been redone”, says Cacioppo.

So what is the secret of the success in Sambuca compared to other villages that have launched similar housing schemes? 

Firstly, the mayor says, it was the only town to offer old homes for sale which were already in the possession of local authorities. 

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

“Due to the earthquake that rocked the area in 1968 many buildings in the historical center were abandoned, and in time the town hall took them over to secure the area and launch a revival project,” explains Cacioppo.

“Unlike other towns, we are the direct owners so there is no need to liaise between local families and new buyers.”

“The fact that the town hall is the one involved party is a guarantee,” he says, adding that the process was not slowed by having to track down the legal owners of abandoned properties, many of whom emigrated long ago.

Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

Another plus point is the exotic feel of the village. The ancient old town features typical Arab-style dwellings with internal courtyards filled with orange trees, which hail back to Sicily’s spellbinding past.

The residents I spoke to were all ecstatic about the revamp of the village. Francesco Sciamé recently opened a B&B, called Donna Baldi Centellis, in a historical building complete with original majolica tiles. 

He says it was never the right time to open such a business, mainly because he’d have had zero customers. Now the B&B is constantly fully booked.

“I’ve always wanted to run a B&B and the success of the housing scheme offered me the opportunity,” he says. “Sambuca became known worldwide and foreign buyers started flocking here, so I offered them a place they could stay while house hunting. There was no reason to open it before, the village was unknown”. 

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

Riccardo Mulé has opened a wine bar, L’Enoteca del Re, on Sambuca’s main street where he makes cocktails with wild herbs that grow in the nearby fields. 

He didn’t quite start from scratch, given he already owned nearby Re Umberto Caffé, where locals meet for morning espresso, but he says the cheap homes frenzy pushed him to expand his business.

“I realized tourists were savvy clients, they wanted to taste traditional drinks with plates of local hams and cheeses. They did not want the usual Martini, but niche Sicilian liqueurs,” says Mulé.

Where will the town go from here? The local officials and residents I spoke to believe that Sambuca will become a crossroads for different cultures, as people from all over the world join the effort to revive the local economy.

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EXPLAINED: Will the latest change solve problems with Italy’s superbonus?

With lines of credit blocked and renovation work delayed, Italy’s political parties have agreed on further changes to the ‘superbonus 110’. Will this be enough to resolve issues for homeowners?

EXPLAINED: Will the latest change solve problems with Italy’s superbonus?

After weeks of intense back-and-forth, parties have finally agreed on the latest amendment to Italy’s famed building superbonus, the government’s financial incentive offering a rebate of up to 110 percent of the cost of works increasing a property’s energy efficiency or reducing its seismic vulnerability.

The scheme has proven incredibly popular over the two years since its introduction back in May 2020. But access has often been hindered by technical issues, with a number of authoritative political figures, not least outgoing premier Mario Draghi, criticising the bonus for its structural complexity. 

READ ALSO: Italy’s building superbonus: How will it change after the election?

A major issue concerns the credit transfer system, with many banks across the country recently refusing to buy or lend credit, and billions of euros’ worth of fraudulent claims – causing many financial operations, and therefore building work, to be frozen altogether.

These setbacks have left many homeowners concerned about whether they’ll be able to finish their renovation projects in time and even caused some to abandon their plans

Furthermore, as many as 40,000 construction businesses are said to be currently at risk of bankruptcy due to credit transfer blockages. 

Worker standing on scaffolding in Spain.

The latest government measure seeks to reopen lines of credit and save as many as 40,000 businesses from bankruptcy. Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP

The latest amendment, part of the government’s new cost-of-living-crisis aid package (the decreto aiuti bis), is intended to unclog existing lines of credit and save businesses from folding.

The change was approved by the Italian Senate on Tuesday, with the go-ahead from the Lower House now being the last remaining step before the changes are made into law – deputies are expected to greenlight the amendment on Thursday.

READ ALSO: Italy’s building superbonus: What’s the problem with credit transfers?

So what does the latest amendment entail and, more importantly, how is it expected to affect homeowners using the bonus?

The building scheme’s latest amendment is set to remove joint and several liability (‘responsabilità in solido’ in Italian) for all parties involved in the credit transfer chain, retaining the provision only for cases of “wilful misconduct or gross negligence”.

In other words, should cases of insolvency occur, the parties involved in the transfer of credit will no longer be collectively liable to pay the amount owed unless fraud or serious neglect can be proved. 

Naturally, the measure’s primary objective is to allow for easier circulation of credit in order to restart financial operations. 

It isn’t yet clear however whether the amendment will ultimately save those businesses whose credit had been previously blocked and allow homeowners to complete construction works by the given deadlines. 

Construction worker wiping sweat off his brow.

As things stand, 30 percent of renovation works on single-family homes must be completed by September 30th, 2022. Photo by Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP

On this note, it is worth mentioning that there was no provision made under the amendment to extend timeframes for claiming the bonus.

As things stand, those renovating single-family homes still need to complete 30 percent of renovation works by September 30th and must achieve 100-percent completion by December 31st in order to benefit from the funds.

READ ALSO: Nine things we’ve learned about claiming Italy’s building ‘superbonus’

Those renovating certain other types of buildings, or those in areas with higher seismic risk, have until 2025 to claim.

Looming deadlines notwithstanding, both the Italian Banking Association (Associazione Bancaria Italiana, ABI) and the National Constructors Association (Associazione Nazionale Costruttori Edili, ANCE) have expressed cautious satisfaction over the latest amendment, with the former praising the measure as a “step forward”.

Five Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, who was responsible for introducing the bonus while prime minister in 2020, commended the amendment, saying that a solution had finally been found for the “businesses, workers and families who had been forgotten by all”. 

Others aren’t sure however that the latest update will solve the issues for good. 

Notably, the president of the National Council of Surveyors (CNG), Maurizio Savincelli, said the amendment would not fully resolve the credit transfer blockage as “banks will likely wait for new measures, including memos from the Italian Revenue Agency” before they reopen lines of credit.

Please note that The Local cannot advise on individual cases. For more information on claiming Italy’s building bonuses, homeowners are advised to consult a qualified Italian building surveyor or financial advisor.

See more in our Italian property section.