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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
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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EXPLAINED: What will happen with property prices in Italy in 2023?

Housing prices in Italy have risen over the past couple of years - but will the trend continue into 2023? The Local takes a look at what the experts are predicting.

EXPLAINED: What will happen with property prices in Italy in 2023?

Italy’s property market has been steadily on the up since 2020, and the most up-to-date figures for 2022 are no exception.

According to provisional data from Italy’s National Statistics Office (ISTAT), in the second quarter of this year Italy’s Housing Price Index (HPI) grew by 2.3 percent compared to the previous quarter, and 5.2 percent on same period last year.

The HPI tracks the price changes of residential housing as a percentage change measured from a specific start date.

The growth was primarily driven by new builds, ISTAT’s numbers show; while the value of existing properties increased by 3.8 percent compared to the same period last year, new dwellings gained 12.1 percent in market value.

Italy’s real estate market suffered from several consecutive years of stagnation up to the end of 2019, weighed down by the high number of old, neglected properties on the market which were proving difficult to sell.

But the Covid pandemic caused an unexpected shake up of the market, leading to the first major jump in Italian property values for years at the end of the first quarter of 2020.

A combination of government stimulus packages and a desire among second home hunters to escape cramped lockdown conditions created renewed interest in Italy’s property market in 2021 – a trend which has continued into 2022.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about having a second home in Italy

But with soaring inflation and a worsening cost of living crisis, what are experts predicting for 2023?

According to the latest forecast from the research institute Scenari Immobiliari (Real Estate Scenarios), Italy’s housing market is expected to experience modest growth next year, albeit at a slower rate than in 2022.

Factors putting the brakes on growth include the soaring cost of living eroding households’ purchasing power, rising mortgage mortgage interest rates, and a shrinking economy: Italy, along with Germany, is expected to slip into a recession next year.

Certain financial aid measures introduced under the previous Draghi government to promote home ownership – such as a bonus for first-time buyers under the age of 36 – will come to an end by the start of next year.

Italy’s ‘superbonus 110’, which offered a 110 percent tax deduction for home renovations, led to such high demand that it caused the building materials and construction costs to skyrocket and resulted in major project delays, ultimately discouraging buyers from investing in fixer-uppers.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s cheap homes frenzy coming to an end?

And the European Central Bank’s decision to raise interest rates means the Euribor, the rate tied to mortgages in Italy, has risen steeply, which will have knock on negative effects on housing demand and prices.

Despite all this, interest in Italy’s housing market has far from dissipated.

Demand from international buyers and hybrid workers who have negotiated remote working arrangements in the wake of the pandemic remains high.

A 2022 report by the global real estate consultancy Knight Frank found that in survey of over 1,000 global buyers, Italy was among the top five choices for second home destinations, with UK and US buyers ranking the country in their top two.

This means that industry professionals are cautiously optimistic about Italy’s property market performance in 2023.

Scenari Immobiliare anticipates that Italy’s real estate sales will amount to around 140 billion euros in 2022; a 10 percent increase on 2021.

In 2023, they predict that figure will rise to 148 billion, amounting to a 6.5 percent annual increase – not as high as 2022 forecasts, but still clear growth.

“The strength of demand is still robust,” said Scenari Immobilari’s president Mario Breglia, speaking at the institute’s 2023 European Outlook forum in September, “but external conditions are negative and are trying to make the market change direction”

“It is time for more difficult sailing, needing experienced skippers and care in choosing the right direction. But every storm is bound to blow over.”

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