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The red flags to watch out for when buying an old house in Italy

Italy has no shortage of cheap properties for sale. But before you put down a deposit on a charming old ruin, look out for these warning signs that it's not such a bargain after all.

The red flags to watch out for when buying an old house in Italy
As well as considering restoration costs, those buying an old house in Italy should check for hidden problems that could prove expensive down the line. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

We’ve all perhaps been tempted by the idea of snapping up a cheap property in Italy, even if it’s abandoned and crumbling.

However, there are a number of red flags and potential ‘traps’ to be aware of before embarking on such an adventure, and not just when buying a one euro home.

READ ALSO: The cheap Italian properties buyers are choosing instead of one-euro homes

Usually the older the property is, and the longer it has been uninhabited, the harder it could be to land a safe purchase.

The uncertainty is not just tied to how much money fixing up a dilapidated property could actually cost you in the end. There are other risks as well. 

How many people really own the house?

Firstly, you need to make sure of the exact number of owners the building still has in order to have them all on board.

It may sound unbelievable to non-Italians, but it’s not unusual to find that even the smallest old properties are divided up between dozens of family members due to inheritance.

Thea Holowitz, from Romania, purchased a one-euro house in the Sicilian town of Mussomeli and found herself having to deal with 22 owners, who were all relatives and heirs to the same property.

“It’s been tough, I thought I was going out of my mind at first but then I took a deep breath, meditated a lot and understood all I had to do was talk to each single one in person, through the help of the town hall, and make sure all 22 accepted to sell their share of the building, and that they were all OK with selling it for just one euro”, she says.

According to Italian law, if a property is owned for instance by 50 different heirs each must agree on the sale, otherwise it’s a no-go.

READ ALSO: Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?

And as it often happens in Italy, bickering relatives are part of the scenery: one might refuse the sale just out of spite. 

Buyers must therefore make sure that the sale is transparent and involves all interested parties in order to avoid the risk of an unknown heir popping up in future to claim the sold property.

Mussomeli mayor Toti Nigrelli says it is quite a “normal procedure having to negotiate the sale with multiple owners” – distant cousins, relatives, nephews – who are often not on good terms. 

Other towns in Italy have failed in selling old abandoned homes because heirs would not agree to the sale of their crumbling family property – or on the sale price.

The passage of time is what gives these homes so much appeal – but it also causes problems. Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP

In deep rural central Italy. Interested buyers may go knocking on the door of each heir’s house asking to buy their tiny share so they can snap up the old family estate or stable to turn into a B&B. 

The best way to track down the heirs, or current owners, is through the town hall offices who have a list of the properties within their territory.

Illegal builds and prior debts

There are other slippery issues to be aware of. Before deciding to buy a cheap old rural estate near Rieti, in Lazio, Australian Patrick Smith did extensive research aimed at avoiding any potential traps that could hamper the purchase.

“There are issues few people, particularly foreigners, know about when they decide to buy an old property in Italy,” says Smith.

“For example, making sure the house is clear of prior debts, which may include a pending mortgage the old owners stopped paying and which will now have to be paid by the new owner.”

OPINION: Bargain homes and fewer crowds – but Italy’s deep south is not for everyone.

It is crucial to request an updated house plan from the local town hall in order to avoid facing a ‘condono’, which is a fine paid to legalize structural changes to the house which the former owners did not take care of.

“In my case the former owners had slightly changed the inside, removed a wall to create two adjacent rooms, but luckily they had already paid and settled the building amnesty”, says Smith.

Italian towns regularly launch amnesties on illegal building work to allow people who own a house to legalize any changes to their homes which they have not previously asked permission, by paying a fine. The amount depends on the square meters involved. 

In the worst case scenario, when structural changes made by former owners are not ‘legalized’ and are significant, like having added an additional floor, terrace or balcony without communicating these ‘fixes’ to the town hall, the sale could be blocked and the interested buyer would have to give up on his dream.

“Bottom line, you could end up spending unexpected sums of money to legalize changes made by previous owners without a building permit, even if decades have passed,” says Smith.

The passage of time may give old Italian homes their fascinating appeal, but it also causes problems. 

READ ALSO:

Smith warns potential buyers who have set their hearts on a particular property to make sure that the former owners, who perhaps now no longer live in it, did not cause any damage to the nearby buildings which would then have to be paid for by the new owner.

“Italian villages tend to be very old and it’s common that bathroom or kitchen water pipes may crack, flooding the adjacent house, or bits of the roof can crumble down onto the neighbors’ roof, partly destroying it”, says Smith.

Therefore before signing the purchase deed new buyers must enquire about any damages to third parties caused by the previous owners – or simply due to neglect and time – and which should be settled by the heirs before the sale.

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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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