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Is Italy’s one-euro homes frenzy coming to an end?

Italy's one euro homes captivated international audiences - but as renovation costs soar, would-be buyers are increasingly turning to other options, reports Silvia Marchetti.

The Sicilian village of Gangi has sold off 500 homes for one euro since 2015.
The Sicilian village of Gangi has sold off more than 500 homes for one euro since 2015. Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP.

In the past few years, dozens of depopulated towns across Italy have sold cheap and one euro homes for a song, triggering a property frenzy.

But with soaring inflation and sky-high building costs, the bonanza might be nearing its end, as people longing to live in a picturesque rural spot are starting to look at alternative options. 

One of the first towns to sell one euro homes in Sicily was Gangi, where over 500 crumbling buildings have been offloaded for the cost of an espresso since 2015, while more than 1,000 fixer-uppers have been sold.

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

“The best ones, particularly those in need of minimal fixes within our beautiful historical center, have all been snapped up”, says former deputy mayor Giuseppe Ferrarello.

“There are still some good deals regarding cheap homes, but prices have risen due to the high demand,” he says.

In Gangi, as in other Sicilian towns such as Sambuca and Mussomeli that have run similar schemes, what you could previously have bought for $15,000 – like a nice 50 square meter dwelling with a panoramic balcony in need of minimal renovation – now costs at least $20,000.

Soaring inflation, plus a lack of builders due to Italy’s superbonus tax breaks aimed at upgrading homes and making them ‘green’, has made it hard, and more expensive, to find construction teams available for a swift restyle. 

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

In the Tuscan town of Vergemoli where abandoned stone cottages scattered across five districts have been bought up predominantly by South American families for a symbolic one euro, mayor Michele Giannini is now mapping more areas of the municipality to identify old houses long abandoned by locals which could be placed on the market.

“We’ve run out of one euro homes at the moment, which is actually a very good thing because it means our scheme was successful, but there are still so many dilapidated properties which could be given a new life and we still need new folk to revitalize the place,” he says.

As the rising cost of living may soon spell the end of Italy’s cheap homes frenzy, people are opting for other solutions; mainly rentals of furbished, turnkey properties and country homes which are cheaper than those in the old town and even come with a patch of land, including olive groves and plots. 

The popularity of one euro home schemes may be on the decline.

The popularity of Italy’s one euro home schemes may be on the decline. Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP.

In Troina, a Sicilian town which two years ago placed one euro and cheap homes on the market, renting a cozy three-floor apartment on the outskirts of the old district where all the main shops and grocery stores are located starts at €400 per month.

In the Piedmontese mountain village of Carrega Ligure, meanwhile, a cozy farmer’s house can be rented for €250 per month. 

Jacques Noire, a French retiree from the countryside around Nimes, says that not having found an available cheap home in Troina (as they all sold out last year) ended up being a godsend.

“I came with the idea of snatching a house for some €10,000, but I found none, then I bumped into a local at the bar, we started chatting, somehow I understood his cousin was renting her entire ancient palazzo, far from the old neighbourhood near the fields, for like €600 euros per month,” he says.

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

“By 8pm, I signed a lease contract for six months and now I come and go, spending three months in Sicily and half in France”.

Noire says the plus points of a rental are not having to deal with head-splitting bureaucracy, a tedious renovation, hidden costs and the hassle of liaising with construction teams. 

Word of mouth is helpful, but convenient rentals can be also be found online.

In Latronico, set in deep Basilicata, Biccari in rural Puglia, and Carrega Ligure in Piedmont, the rising popularity of rentals has pushed local authorities to advertise on their websites not only old dwellings for sale, but also those available for lease.

“I think it’s extremely helpful giving people interested in moving here or spending their holidays the chance to have several options at hand, both for sale and for rent, and a direct contact with the owners.

“When deals are signed it’s nice to see them together at the bar celebrating, or having dinner in the middle of an alley”, says Latronico’s deputy mayor Vincenzo Castellano.

The municipal platforms that advertise the properties serve as ‘virtual meeting places’ where original owners and interested tenants can get in touch. 

In other towns that have run out of one euro and cheap fixer-uppers, people have gone on a hunt for the ‘ideal’ rural home surrounded by pristine sheep-grazing fields and orchards.

Located a few kilometers from the ancient districts, these ‘bucolic’ farmer’s dwellings are up to 40 percent cheaper than those located in the historic center, and come with patches of land.

In the countryside close to Maenza, a village mid-way between Rome and Naples, a few 120 square meter villas with patio, barbecue, lemon orchards and olive groves, in no need of restyle, have been snapped up for as little as €40,000.

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PROPERTY

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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