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My Italian Home: ‘How we turned an old winery into our dream country retreat’

When Petteri Laine moved to Italy from Finland, Nordic renovation plans met the authentic Italian lifestyle he and his family had been searching for.

My Italian Home: ‘How we turned an old winery into our dream country retreat’
Petteri's extensive Piedmont restoration project with Scandi standards. Photo: Petteri Laine

Living among Italian vineyards and rolling hills in an area worthy of world heritage status may sound like the stuff of movies, but Petteri, along with his wife and children, turned this dreamlike aspiration into a reality after they embarked on their Italian home project.

They first toyed with the idea of living in Italy back in 2011, when they tried out the lifestyle in the Lake Como area.

After a successful 18 months, Petteri and his family decided Italy was the place for them to put down roots. So, they began their property search in the north of the country, covering a wide area including the regions of Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy and Veneto.

In December 2012, they found their ideal home and location in Barolo, in the northern region of Piedmont.

A dream property renovation project in Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Petteri Laine.

“It is beautiful countryside in this area, very ‘tranquillo’, and it is the authentic Italy in the middle of nowhere,” Petteri told The Local.

“At the same time, we discovered that quite a lot of international people visit Barolo from early April until almost Christmas time. It means there are nice restaurants, good quality food, nice and warm, welcoming people and yet, affordable pricing in the area too,” he added.

An affordable area is attractive when property hunting in Italy, naturally, as it opens up more possibilities when searching for a home.

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

An engineer by trade, Petteri had much bigger ambitions, however, with a substantial €1.3 million renovation budget that ended up going over by 20 percent in the end.

The project took three years, an extra year than planned, while the added time and costs came down to “their decisions”, he said, adding that “there were no big surprises”. It was, in part, due to “bad planning” and revising plans as they went along, according to Petteri.

Construction underway at Casa Visette, Piedmont. Photo: Petteri Laine.

However, they don’t have many regrets where the timescale and budget is concerned and are more than satisfied with the end result: their own home plus five apartments that they now rent out as holiday lets.

Named after the local flower and dialect, Casa Visette is now both the family’s home and livelihood.

Petteri said they were looking for “a place that has harmony”, close to civilisation, but still had its own sense of peace.

Not only did the property they found offer that, it came with “a million stories to tell”, as it was an old winery, which nobody really knows the age of.

It is composed of natural stone inside and rough estimates place it to around 200-300 years old, while its life as a wine producer stopped in the 1980s, Petteri told us.

The building had been owned by the same family for a hundred years and, full of stories and unknown exact origins, the property’s potential charmed the Finnish national.

READ ALSO: The real cost of buying a house in Italy as a foreigner

The expansive 650-square-metre property was a project to sink your teeth into, made even more challenging by the fact that the area was undergoing Unesco approval at the time of renovations.

Luckily for Petteri, he managed to get consent for certain planning permissions in time, which would have been much trickier to achieve once the area did become Unesco listed in 2014.

The old winery, the ‘heart of the home’, before construction began. Photo: Petteri Laine.

This includes installing features such as the tennis court and the swimming pool, which were given the go-ahead prior to the Unesco accreditation.

Even so, they weren’t allowed do whatever they liked with the property. In fact, the house had to remain the same shape and had to be in keeping with the rustic appearance of the local area.

However, their Nordic renovation plans were more related to energy efficiency and sustainability than detracting from the style of local houses.

“There was some freedom with the restorations, though. The council and planning committee told me I could paint the house any colour I liked – as long as it was the colour of the local soil,” Petteri told us with a laugh.

READ ALSO: How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property

The old winery being restored. Photo: Petteri Laine.

So how did they combine their Scandinavian building ambitions while keeping faithful to the area’s characteristics?

“We have geothermal heating, solar panels for heating the water and insulation for the whole house. It has been built with sustainable ‘Scandinavian standards’ in terms of floor heating, triple-glazed windows and a centralised heating system with a geothermal pump, for example,” Petteri said.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about installing solar panels on your home in Italy

This has kept bills down to around €1,000 per month in the winter, which although sounds a lot, he considers it good value for a property of that size.

The appearance of the house, on the other hand, is sympathetic to the local area.

“We didn’t use big stones as we originally wanted, as that’s not traditional in this area. We kept the wine cellar, the heart of the house, but the rest had to be redone due to its uninhabitable state,” he added.

Their approach was certainly in line with the other buildings in this particular part of Piedmont’s wine country. They reclaimed many parts of the old building and installed them in the one they live in today.

The stairs, for example, have been created from the old wooden beams and many features of the renovated property have been recycled from the original building.

Wooden beams from the original property now have a second life as stairs. Photo: Petteri Laine.

And while their budget might fool you into thinking anything is possible with such a large expenditure, no amount of money can shield you from Italian customs and protocol.

“You have to trust local suppliers. If you wish to be part of society and be accepted, trust in local suppliers,” he advised.

“Yes, you can search for alternatives from elsewhere, but if possible try to hire services from local people. It might not always be easy if you have new ideas they aren’t familiar with, but you can communicate them in a constructive way.

“Use pictures, ideas and drawings. It is important that they feel part of your project, not only the workers on the job,” he added.

Working with locals is key to renovation success in Italy, according to Petteri. Photo: Petteri Laine.

When it comes to the language, he said that it’s best to get help with Italian when you’re going through the buying and renovating process if you’re not already fluent. Although he now speaks Italian and feels part of the local community, he admitted he wasn’t sure what they were buying at first, so he called on an Italian-speaking friend to mediate.

As well as being mindful of Italian sensibilities and simply the way that things are done, he also recommended being there in person as much as possible to follow the progress, push it along and ask questions.

“Hidden extra works that you sometimes don’t see become really important. It’s all in the details,” he warned.

Their project was significant, in terms of both time and budget, but Petteri and his family seem to have taken it all with a good attitude and a sense of humour.

READ ALSO: Property: Why we decided to build our new house in Italy out of wood

A kitchen worthy of architectural accolade. Photo: Petteri Laine.

Since they permanently moved in at the end of 2018, their four children had grown in the intervening years and now just their youngest lives with them, while their eldest three study abroad.

After living in various countries in Europe, including Germany and Belgium, Italy is where they have planted themselves at last.

Their idyllic surroundings aren’t the only reason they’ve picked this corner of the world, but also the Italian culture overall has given them a sense of peace and contentment.

“We love the standard of living here. Everybody has a right to enjoy life whatever their education – everyone talks about wine and food, from the truck driver to the company owner. Cuisine and drink brings everyone together; it is a right for everyone,” he said.

“We chat with the locals in the village and get invited out. We’ll always be stranieri, but I do feel integrated here, which is so important for understanding what’s going on in the area and Italy beyond.

“We have a feeling that we are part of the community. It is peaceful, really peaceful.”

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

Do you have a renovation story to share? We’d love to hear from you – email us here.

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PROPERTY

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

Facing long delays and cost increases amid a renovation boom, some foreign buyers of Italy’s cheapest homes are now giving up on their dream renovation plans.

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

Finding builders these days is proving challenging for many buyers of Italy’s one euro homes and other cheap properties in need of major renovation.

While the wide array of building bonuses introduced by the government offering homeowners up to 110% deductions on expenses related to energy upgrades and reducing seismic risk, or to simple fixes, has breathed new life into the economy, it has been so much in demand that it has delayed the restyle plans of many foreign buyers.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s building ‘superbonus’ has changed in 2022

Patrick Brown, from the US, last year bought an old rural farm in Bergamo’s countryside for  €30.000 but is still looking for a building company to take on the repairs needed, including fixes to a partially collapsed roof, a new garage and modern bathrooms.

“I knocked at the door of at least eight firms in the area and they all told me I would have to wait some 7-8 months,” he says.

“They were too busy with other pending renovations and were facing a lack of builders and other professionals, including architects, engineers, and contractors,” he explains. “I found out quite unpleasantly that Lombardy is among the regions with the highest number of building bonuses related delays.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s building bonus: Can you really claim back the cost of renovating property?

Brown complains that the extension of building bonus schemes into this year by the government means he’ll have to look for builders in other nearby regions where demand might be lower, but at a higher cost to him.

Superbonus delays are causing buyers of cheap Italian properties to abandon their renovation plans. Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

“I was hoping the building delays would end when the pandemic abated, but now I face these new obstacles. In the meantime, as the months drag on, more parts of the roof are collapsing and the living room walls are starting to crack”.

Brown is feeling so downbeat he’s even considering getting rid of the farm before starting the renovation by selling it to the highest bidder – or to the neighbours.

READ ALSO: Italy’s ‘superbonus’ renovations delayed by builder shortages and bureaucracy

He says this bad experience is killing the “adventurous thrill of bringing back to life an old home”, and that friends of his who have bought a cheap dwelling in the surroundings are also facing the same problems. 

The shortage of builders is occurring all over Italy, particularly in Lombardy and Liguria. Rural areas, where there are many dilapidated homes and fewer building companies, are the most vulnerable. 

It’s also happening in deepest Sicily, where many towns have launched one-euro home schemes to lure new buyers.

In the town of Mussomeli, Australian chef Danny McCubbin, who runs a social kitchen for the poor, bought a house for one euro and was then forced to sell it back to a real estate agency for the same price.

READ ALSO:

He says it was very difficult to find a builder, and over time the house deteriorated. By the time he did find someone, high demand and the spike in inflation had doubled the cost to renovate it, so he thought it was not worth it anymore. 

Danny eventually bought a slightly more expensive property in better shape in Mussomeli, and says other foreign buyers who have faced the same delays are now renovating their one-euro homes themselves. 

Mussomeli mayor Giuseppe Catania explains that the high demand for all building bonuses from villagers meant that nearly everyone in the area was exploiting the tax breaks in order to redo their homes, with the town’s handful of building firms facing overwork and a shortage of builders.

Local architects in Mussomeli assisting buyers of one-euro homes say there could now be delays of up to five months, but it largely depends on the degree of renovation work required.

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

Firms are willing to squeeze in massive restyle projects that involve the entire restructure of a house, and are more profitable – rather than taking on minor fixes like redoing a kitchen. 

Some buyers have resold their cheap Italian properties as they can no longer go through with renovations. Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Also, if the buyer is willing to invest significant sums of money at once instead of doing the restyle project in phases, it is easier to find builders.

Catania is however confident that the situation will improve as measures have been taken by the town hall to boost supply: “Most of these bonuses are expected to expire by year-end, so the pace of new renovations will decrease, and in the next few weeks there will be an influx of new builders from other Italian towns to help out, perhaps even from abroad”. 

Given that many towns in Sicily have either been rocked in the past by terrible earthquakes or mass emigration which has caused abandoned buildings to deteriorate, says Catania, most families and condominiums are now rushing to benefit from the tax credits to give their homes a makeover or turn them into B&Bs. 

OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

But the delayed renovations are still pushing foreign buyers to have second thoughts. 

Anna Müller, from Switzerland, also had to give up her dream of living in a renovated cheap home in Genoa’s countryside. 

She says it took her contractor eight months to find an available builder and by the time he did, Susanna and her partner had decided that the house, for which they paid just €4.000, required too much work. Like Danny, they sold it back to a local agency, luckily for the same price they paid.

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