Silvia Marchetti, CNN
Buying a cheap property in Italy is an attractive prospect for many travelers, particularly with the ever-growing number of towns offering up homes for next to nothing through regeneration schemes.
While some have been brave enough to take the leap and snap up a house ranging in price from one to a few thousand euros in a rural Italian village, others are likely to have been deterred by the fear of something going wrong.
But are there any red flags potential buyers should be looking out for when deliberating over purchasing such a home? And how do you know when you’re treading on slippery grounds?
When it comes to offering advice and invaluable tips on this particular subject, no one is better placed than those who’ve actually done it themselves.
In January, Italian town Biccari made headlines when it began selling off both dilapidated one euro homes and ready-to-occupy houses in need of just minimal fixes — the latter being the most successful.
Mayor Gianfilippo Mignogna chose to offer up the homes in a bid to revive the ailing town, which has seen its population dwindle over the years as numerous residents left to find work in Italy’s cities or in other countries.
Here three of those who bought, or helped to buy, one of the turnkey properties recount their experiences.
Mariano Russo, an Argentinian with Italian roots, purchased a cozy 55-square-meter, two-floor house in Biccari for €7,000 (around $7,800).
Russo’s home was refurbished when it was sold — even the walls were freshly painted — and has a panoramic terrace, while the entrance is situated on a picturesque alley of the town’s historic center. Aside from the purchase price, the notary for the purchase deed cost him an extra €3,000 ($3,400).
“It’s already livable. We might just modernize the grid running water system and heating, perhaps fix parts of floors,” says Russo, a manager of Argentina Per Il Mondo, an organization uniting Italian-Argentinians across the world.
“The structure is solid, even though it’s an old house there’s no mold on the walls and the roof is in a perfect shape.”
According to Russo, the buying process was very smooth thanks to the support of the local surveyor in charge of the project.
“It’s crucial to have someone that guides you along the way, we were lucky to have this agent,” explains Russo, who plans to live in Biccari with his wife and two daughters for much of the year.
“He prepared the paper work for us and helped us pay the property taxes. He made sure the home was free from any prior debt, which is something you don’t want to find out after you’ve bought it.”
However, Russo almost found himself getting stuck in the labyrinthine nightmare others have found themselves in when purchasing a an Italian property with multiple owners.
This home had two owners — sisters who lived in different cities. Both had to first agree to the sale, and then on the final price.
Thankfully the pair were on good terms and things turned out well. But this isn’t always the case.
According to Italian law, even if a property has 1,000 different owners, each person must agree on the sale, otherwise it can’t go ahead. And let’s just say Italy has its fair share of bickering relatives.
Therefore buyers, with the help of the town hall, must stave off the risk of an unknown heir popping up out of nowhere further down the line to claim back the sold property.
Russo notes that it’s also important to make sure that there are no pending mortgages on the property and all minimal fixes or renovations completed by previous owners have a legal permit for which the cost has already been paid. Otherwise the new owner will have to settle it themselves, or face legal consequences.
Buyers should also be aware of any damages to third parties that may have been caused by the home’s former owners before signing the purchase deed.
For example, if a damaged water pipe has flooded a neighbor’s kitchen, or a fallen tile roof has cracked a building adjacent to the property.
Even previous remodeling could be an issue if it wasn’t properly approved or retrospectively authorized via a so-called building amnesty.
“One sister couldn’t be present the day of the deed so she delegated the other one to sign-off on her behalf,” explains Russo.
“We made sure everything was OK with the sale. The sisters had remodeled the house in the past, taken down a wall to unite two rooms, but the building amnesty had been settled.
“This must all show up in the papers, before the sale. Nobody wants any last minute trouble.”
If such a remodeling has not been communicated to the town hall, which is a legal requirement, the new buyer could find themselves in a situation where the purchase deed — and the sale — is declared null.
The right middleman
Finding an efficient agent was a key factor for Rolf Bauer, a retired engineer from Germany, when choosing a bargain home in Biccari.
“I like the village vibe, I believe fate sent me here. I drove over to Puglia this summer to pick a home and it was the first town I stopped in. It was perfect,” says Bauer, who paid €30,000 ($34,000) for his renovated house.
“I immediately found the surveyor’s office, he was great. Having the right person who helps you pick the house most suitable for you is very important.”
He opted to buy in Puglia as opposed to Sicily, where various towns are selling homes for one euro.
“Sicily is too far down south, plus I never wanted a one euro home,” he explains. “It requires too much work.”
Bauer, who owns other properties in Europe, found the agent’s charges — under €500 ($560) — to be well below those he’s incurred in other countries.
As he’s taken up residency in Biccari, Bauer doesn’t have to pay property taxes, which was another selling point.
“I realized you have to do something with money, use it to relax and enjoy life,” he says. “I’m a collector of houses, and in Biccari I found a warm place where I can live several months per year. I hate cold weather, here I probably won’t even need to set up the heating.”
His 150-square-meter house is spread over three floors, with panoramic views, and features vaulted ceilings, an open kitchen, a big cellar and a stone staircase leading to the front entrance.
Bauer completed some of the minor work, such as retiling the floors, upgrading the electrical system and putting in a new shower, himself. He plans to turn the upper floor bedroom into a veranda.
Unlike most buyers, Bauer didn’t source any of the furniture, appliances, or even the light bulbs, locally.
Instead he had them shipped in from countries like Germany, where he says prices, and sometimes quality, can be better.
“It depends on what you want, and whether you have contacts of suppliers in other places like I do. It’s always good to take a look around and compare stuff,” he says.
Bauer, who is a keen squash player, has already been living in his new Biccari abode for two months, and is very much enjoying the experience.
Although the language has been somewhat of a barrier — Bauer does not speak Italian — he’s been relying on translation apps so far, and has found that locals will often make the effort to try to understand if they are interested in talking to him.
The process of buying a cheap Biccari dwelling was a little more complicated for Aksana Klimavets, a Russian interpreter based in Italy who assisted a Moscow businesswoman in buying an old dwelling here for €15,000 (around $16,800).
Tucked away on a narrow cobblestone alley, the three-floor house was fully refurbished at the time of the sale, with freshly painted white vaulted ceilings, marble staircases and a panoramic terrace overlooking a tiny piazza — the former owners even left behind a stroller.
But according to Klimavets, finding an available notary to witness the signatures on the deed was incredibly hard, while the sale process took several months.
“When we did manage to find a notary we were told to transfer the money straight away just before the deed, which is impossible given strict Russian rules on outgoing international payments that take many days,” she explains. “The bank needs to check and authorize, and this delayed the sale.”
In order to speed up the process, Klimavets’ client decided to wire the money to the notary well in advance of the rescheduled meeting to sign the agreement, which meant buying the house unseen.
Once this was settled upon, the client flew in from Moscow to sign the deed and discovered that the notary had accidentally added the wrong address.
“Luckily we double-checked or we would have ended up buying someone else’s property,” adds Klimavets.
When she and the buyer eventually met with the owners, they discovered that, not only did the house have five heirs, it had been inherited several times over.
“That home has a really long history, during the deed meeting, the notary read to us the list of past owners and now we’re in contact with one heir to transfer utility bills,” she explains.
After overcoming this hurdle, the new owner then had to go through the process of opening a bank account in Italy, which can be particularly difficult for those from Russia, before being able to pay any bills or enjoy her holiday retreat.
But despite these many challenges, Klimavets says her client has fallen in love with Biccari’s clean streets and pristine surroundings.
“For Russians, Puglia is a top destination,” she adds. “There’s the [international] airport in Bari and the tomb of St. Nicholas, which is a Russian-Orthodox pilgrimage site.”
The buyer, an unnamed business woman, is looking forward to being able to make the most of her new property, and plans to add more windows and another fireplace.
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