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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.

'A life's task': The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home
Taking on a renovation project in Italy is not an easy task. Photo: Silvia Marchetti
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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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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