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PROPERTY

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

There's a lot that can go wrong when you're trying to buy a house in Italy. And as The Local Italy's editor Clare Speak discovered when trying to buy a house in Puglia, some of the problems you encounter can be very strange indeed.

Italian property problems: Why do ten strangers own my bathroom?
Buying a house in Puglia is not for the faint-hearted (or anyone in a hurry). Photo: Depositphotos

I was well aware that buying a house in Italy wouldn’t be easy. After all, I’d had plenty of warning from our contributors here at The Local – the most amusing (and also brutally honest) of which came in cartoon form – and I like to think I’ve done my homework.

So when we began the process of buying a house in a familiar place – my husband’s hometown in the southern region of Puglia – overall I thought I knew, more or less, what to expect.

But it turns out that there are some problems so strange, and so peculiar to the Italian property market, that few people could have seen them coming.

“There’s an issue with the paperwork,” frowned the woman at the bank, after I’d finally forced someone to look at our mortgage application – a mere two months after we’d rushed across the country in a heatwave to submit it.

Of course there is, I thought. When is there ever not? I mentally calculated whether we had time to go back to the town hall for a third time that day, to correct a spelling mistake or replace yet another lost form.

But she was still shaking her head, and tapping at the plans of the house with a startlingly long, red fingernail.

“The people selling the house don’t technically own this part,” she said, pointing to a grey square that represented our tiny upstairs bathroom.

I just shook my head in confusion. How can they be selling something they don’t own?

Italy’s Puglia region is famous for many things, but efficiency is not one of them. Photo: Depositphotos

She was telling me that the next-door neighbours had given the owners that room (which shares a wall with the house next door) “as a gift”.

In Italy it’s possible to transfer property ownership as a ‘donazione‘ for various reasons. In this case, it was likely done in order to avoid the comune admin fees involved in a sale – as they would no doubt cost far more than the miniscule piece of property itself was worth.

But a donazione isn’t as simple as just giving part of your property away. Under Italian law, this actually means the next-door neighbours still, technically, own our bathroom for another twenty years from the date they ‘donated’ it, and also have the right to change their minds and ask for it back at any time.

“So who’s the owner, then?”

She cleared her throat, and slowly began reading out a long list of names, complete with dates of birth, and sometimes, death.

I counted them on my fingers, and I’d run out of fingers by the time she stopped reading.

“Ten people?” I accidentally shouted. “How can they all own my bathroom?”

The property was in the name of a now-deceased woman and her nine adult children. The oldest daughter, a Signora M, still lived in the house next door, and techically she owned the largest share of the bathroom – ten twenty-sevenths of it, to be precise.

I tried to visualise what ten twenty-sevenths of such a small room would even look like, and exactly how many bathroom tiles Signora M would be the proud, theoretical owner of.

Under Italian law, a property is automatically divided between the owners’ children if said owner dies without leaving it to anyone in particular. In Italy, houses are very often passed on and inherited this way 

So you can end up with an apparently not-that-unusual situation in which, over a few generations, old houses are carved up into countless shares – which can lead to whole families bickering over who gets to live there. And, as I was finding out, problems when trying to sell.

“So if any of these people decide they want access to their property…?”

“Legally you will have to provide access,” she nodded.

A vision of this unknown family of ten tramping up and down my stairs to use the loo flashed through my mind. Could I put them all on a bathroom cleaning rota? It wasn’t clear.

I was brought down to earth with a bump at that point as she hammered home what this meant for us now in practical terms: yet another expense.

“Legally if any of them decide they want it back, you’ll lose the property, which is why the bank will require extra insurance.”

I think I died a little inside at that point. More insurance, after we’d already agreed to fork out for home insurance and life insurance, a requirement of the bank.

I’d been told by numerous experts to expect the cost of additional fees related to buying a house to be around ten percent of the property price, but thanks to all the additional insurance on a house that wasn’t worth much to start with, we’d sailed past that figure long ago.

READ ALSO: Italian problems: Figuring out the post office (and how to get through the door) 

And it was especially frustrating since all of this was really just a technicality.

Some notary had, most likely, put all these names down on the property title when our bathroom was handed over as a ‘gift’ – no doubt because the house next door is probably also split between the whole family.

There’s a high chance that these people named on the title either had zero interest in our poky bathroom, or didn’t even know any of this had happened.

But this didn’t make our extra insurance cost any less: the bank quoted us almost a thousand euros for the policy.

And in fact, this was only one of a long list of problems we discovered with the paperwork on the house – thanks to the bank or the notary – that the agency hadn’t mentioned.

READ ALSO:

It took a series of tense meetings with the seller and estate agent, not to mention me threatening to tear up the compromesso and cancel the whole thing (as we would be legally entitled to do at that point), before the seller agreed to cover the cost of the extra insurance on the house.

But our problem wasn’t solved.

The final and most thorough check of the paperwork by our notary revealed that this and oher issues we’d previously been told (by our agent and another notary) were “not a problem” were actually such a big problem that she blocked the sale until they could be resolved.

In the UK you’d probably have all the paperwork thoroughly checked over and get a survey done before even making an offer on a house. In Italy – at least in Puglia – this isn’t the way things are usually done. This strikes me as odd since, with old houses like this, it’s pretty rare for the paperwork to actually be in order.

We did have a survey carried out and the documentation looked at by a notary before we agreed to buy the house, and we’d even obtained a signed declaration from the agency stating that there were “no issues” with the property or its ownership.

Obviously, that was useless – this discrepancy among others was never flagged up, or was deemed inconsequential. (I wasn’t too shocked to later find out that the first notary we went to was a good friend of the estate agent.)

As I found, it doesn’t matter how well-prepared you think you are, there’s always going to be something.

“Expect the unexpected” remains the number one rule when living in Italy – and especially, it seems, when you’re trying to buy a house.

Tales of property hell abound in Italy, from Milan to Bari. Image: Adam Rugnetta

Have you experienced a property-related nightmare of your own in Italy? We’d love to hear your story. Get in touch here.

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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy’s conservation rules

Old Italian homes featuring frescoes, loggias or ancient cellars are appealing, but such buildings are often protected by Italy’s cultural heritage authority - meaning lots of red tape for owners, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy's conservation rules

Italy is dotted with gorgeous hilltop villages full of centuries-old homes for sale complete with characteristic features. But many people don’t realise that these buildings, even if they’re abandoned or decaying, often fall under restrictions (vincoli) enforced by Italy’s ‘art authorities’, known as the sovraintendenza belle arti.

Due to the artistic and historic value of these buildings, they’re considered a part of the national heritage. This is usually because they date back to medieval and Renaissance times, or because they feature frescoed walls, emblazoned vaults or entrance portals with coats of arms. 

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Italy has the most UNESCO-listed cities in the world, and here these vincoli are even more binding. Many buildings in Rome have entrance portals sculpted by Renaissance masters which are ‘off-limits’ even if they’re in need of repair. 

It is a widespread way of protecting Italy’s heritage, and yet awareness of the risks buyers face if their property happens to be ‘supervised’ are often hidden, and are especially unknown to foreigners.

In almost every old rural village there are private houses and palazzos with ancient loggias, decorated ceilings and lavish stone columns, and even simple former farmers’ dwellings with ancient cellars, over which the art authorities have the final say on renovation work, even small upgrades like adding an extra room or pulling down a wall.

READ ALSO: Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Giovanna Rosetta Fraire was forced to give up her dream of buying a portion of a two-floor 1700s building in the village of Civita Castellana, in Lazio, because it needed upgrades but the frescoed walls, ceilings, decorated fireplaces and elegant entrance were ‘vincolati’ (under restrictions).

“It was a historic building with an artistic value. The peeling façade needed a makeover but it was still the original color dating back centuries so we couldn’t paint over it,” she explains.

“The rusty wrought-iron balconies were made in the 18th century while the location was in the heart of the historical center, right in front of the Gothic cathedral, so any change to the building would have affected the scenery, too.”

Fraire only found out about these rules by chance, just before signing the purchase deed, thanks to a tip from a local resident.

According to Italian law, fixes to similar buildings of value need to be coordinated and approved by the sovrintendenza, which seldom allows any changes to the exterior and only minimal ones inside crumbled rooms, for instance those struck by an earthquake.

Usually the structure of a ‘vincolata’ building cannot be modified at all: walls cannot be pulled down, nor a room expanded or divided in two.

And when old homes are embedded within the fortified medieval walls or share a wall with a castle or fortress it is even more complicated. 

Civita Castellana. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cesidio Diciacca bought a former abbot’s lodgings dating from the 1700s, embedded within the rampart in the village of Picinisco, north of Naples, 

He contacted the local belle arti before restyling it to find out whether there were any restrictions, which is always the best thing to do. Unearthing an updated map of your property from the catasto (land registry) is also useful. 

“The belle arti stopped all external changes as we are in the centro storico,” he says. “The only external fix allowed was to remove the top level of the guard tower which was ugly and out of place, and we had issues also placing solar panels. 

“The whole of the centro storico of Picinisco and neighboring hill towns are protected in some way which is both good and bad as it prevents necessary work of modernisation.”

It should be a matter of striking the right balance between preservation and valorization of old properties, but this is rarely the case in Italy when art authorities are involved. 

Cesidio Diciacca’s house in Picinisco. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Giovanna Rossi owns a tiny dwelling in the picturesque Tuscan village of Pitigliano, where old homes are cropped on a high plateau and carved from the tuff rock. 

Like most other villages in the area, Pitigliano has Etruscan roots and many dwellings come with pagan caves considered by authorities to be monuments of anthropological interest, a bit like Matera’s.

“I have this stunning underground canteen accessible from my kitchen but cannot change it in any way to make it habitable, it’s a pity. I just show it to friends and keep wine bottles in it,” she says. 

Even private gardens and patches of land, set within or close to ’archaic’ protected parks where Etruscan or Ancient Roman tombs and ruins have been unearthed, have archaeological vincoli and cannot be modified without the necessary green lights.

These are ‘vincolati’ by authorities unless there are specific geological permits which allow the construction of a swimming pool, a gazebo or tiny cottage, following land surveys proving the spot is clear of historic finds. 

That’s without mentioning that when a Roman sarcophagus or column pops out buried in your backyard, you must tell the belle arti at once or face fines, and potential seizure. 

Other European countries have similar rules, like Historic England’s listed buildings, but these seem to create restrictions to a lesser degree compared to Italy’s huge and sometimes cumbersome heritage.

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