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PROPERTY

How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property

Buying and renovating a home is rarely a straightforward process, and here in Italy you could face some very unexpected problems - and even end up in trouble with the authorities.

How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property
Think carefully before you decide to buy a quirky old Italian property to renovate. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP

Some common issues can be avoided, as Le Marche-based renovation expert Gary Edwards from D&G Design explains.

You may have read about the issues faced by Dame Helen Mirren when she bought and attempted to restore two properties in Puglia.

The first, purchased in 2012, caused a neighbour to launch a lawsuit, claiming that she had not been consulted about planning applications that affected her boundary wall. During a second dispute in 2018 when Dame Helen was renovating her beachside property, local police halted the work, insisting that correct permission had not been applied for.

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

And issues such as these do not just affect celebrities. As property renovators who have worked on numerous projects in both the UK and Le Marche, we have seen a multitude of errors made by home owners who are not aware of local planning regulations and laws when buying a home in Italy (and indeed in the UK.)

Our advice, which goes for all situations that buyers find themselves in, is ‘do not do anything that you wouldn’t do at home.'

Even Dame Helen Mirren has had trouble with Italian property regulations. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Get the right advice

House surveys prior to purchase are not a legal requirement in Italy, and there will be estate agents who tell you that you do not need one. Or you may assume that if the agent says the house can be modified in any way you choose, that this is the correct information.

But we insist that our engineer or geometra visits a property that our clients show interest in and carries out a full audit of the works that will need to be done, together with the cost of each element. This ensures that there are no surprises.

Get realistic quotes

You may think that a simple rewiring job will suffice or be aware that the roof needs to be repaired, but what if the rewiring requires planning permission or the entire roof needs to be replaced?

One thing to note is that engineer’s quotes may differ greatly. Some engineers or technical teams can offer a low lead-in price that inflates as the job goes on, as ‘discoveries’ are made during the project. We ask our engineer or geometra to quote with a ‘worst case scenario’ approach, and you should too.

Find a good surveyo

We have seen structural surveys that leave a lot to the imagination. Recently a new owner produced one that was nothing more than a brief description of the property, on two sides of A4 paper and that anyone with good vision could have written.

A disclaimer at the bottom of page two stated that, should any defects be found in the home post-purchase, the surveyor would not be liable for missing these.

A property in Abruzzo in need of some TLC. Photo: propertyupto50k.com

Know the rules on planning permission

Much like in the UK, a listed building will require planning permission from the local council before any work begins.

This is to ensure that works are carried out in a sympathetic manner and that period features are retained and not damaged, or worse, thrown away. In the UK these applications do not cost anything and can be submitted by the homeowner

In Italy however, there is a charge for planning applications (charges vary depending on what you are asking for) and applications must be submitted by an engineer or a geometra.

Think about earthquake-proofing

In seismic zones, local planning departments will usually insist that large scale works include earthquake-proofing if the property has never had this type of work done.

We were slightly horrified last year when a prospective client who had purchased a tiny house and felt no need for any kind of assessment on the property, told us ‘as my cousin in Naples said, if this house hasn’t collapsed in an earthquake before, then it’s not likely to now.’

Regardless of what relatives, or anyone else for that matter may say, there are regulations and rules around restoration that, if not adhered too, can incorporate hefty fines and even prosecution. This is not unique to Italy, the rules are strict in the UK as well.

Check what's really possible before you buy

The good news is that local councils will permit many types of work to be carried out on period homes, particularly if the home has been neglected and run down for years. But a simple glance around your new town will not guarantee that you will be allowed to do similar work to your neighbours, who may have made their modifications during the 70’s and 80’s when rules were more relaxed.

Just because the people next door were able to build a roof terrace does not mean that you will be able to.

We are lucky to work with a geometra who has very good relationships with most of the local comunes in Le Marche and is able to ascertain what will be permitted before clients buy a home.

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If you require written permission from the council prior to purchase, a planning application can be submitted by the current owner at your request, provided you pay the fee.

It’s a small expense if your desire for that new roof terrace, extension, widening of windows or knocking down walls are the deal-breaker to whether or not you buy a property. A report from an engineer or geometra is also a great negotiating tool should you discover that the house is overpriced.

Our engineer’s pre-purchase audit has helped many a homeowner evaluate the potential a house holds for them, and has ensured our clients have avoided some of the horror story outcomes we frequently read about online.

So rather than have your dream in pieces, go for peace of mind.

Dame Helen, I know it’s a bit late, but I hope you are reading this for house number three!

Property expert Gary at work. Photo: D&G Design

Member comments

  1. In absolute agreement with your advice. We have bought and restored 5 houses in Piemonte over 20-odd years and our geometra has saved us many times. I particularly wanted to suggest using a good geometra, not only for the preliminary assessments, and technical expertise–but, also for organizing estimates and work schedules. I am the on-site manager of our projects, but I have in hand a clear and detailed geometra’s compilation of works–signed by the builder, including an end of works clause whereby time overruns are fined.

  2. I recently purchased a home in Piedmonte in the village of Exilles in the Susa valley. At the time of purchase I new the roof would need replaced and I am hopeful I can do this in the next year. The house I bought comes with a Rustic designation at this time. I know I need electrical as well as plumbing, but truly I would like to first get a new stone roof put on.

    I did receive a bid from a local roof contractor, but I have had mixed messages about whether work can begin without an architect or Geometra? Should I reach out to the commune first to get an idea of the permits? I really can’t find a play by play guide to how to begin my project for the roof. Do you have to have a geometra, or can you start with the roofing contractor?

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PROPERTY

‘It’s so frustrating’: My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

When US-based Davide Fionda embarked on renovating his mother's Italian property, he couldn't have imagined the obstacles and the timescale in store.

'It's so frustrating': My 25-year Italian property renovation nightmare

Building a home in Italy was almost inevitable for Davide, as he’s been visiting the same area in the Le Marche region, where his Italian-born mother grew up, since he was five years old.

Although he lives in Boston, US, and speaks with a charming East Coast twang, he’s also an Italian citizen and has long dreamed of having his own place to stay for the summer.

He began making this dream a reality back in 1997, when a barn that had been in his mother’s family for generations, in the village of Schito-Case Duca, was damaged by an earthquake.

“My mother, who had both her mother and sister in Italy, decided that it would be really nice for us to build our own new home instead of relying on family to host us each time we visit,” Davide said.

“The goal was simple. I would acquire the barn from my mom, renovate it and move in for the summers, as I’m a college teacher and can spend time in Italy,” he added.

“Simple” the goal may have been, but the project itself proved anything but, as Davide came up against unforeseen bureaucratic problems, legal hiccups and personal disappointments.

READ ALSO: The hidden costs of buying a home in Italy

As a former entrepreneur in his professional life, he said he’s “used to getting things done”, owning five companies and selling three.

But conquering Italian property renovation is his biggest challenge to date: “Never in my life have I had so many complications as I’ve had with this house,” he told us.

The earthquake-damaged barn. Photo: Davide Fionda

“In the beginning, I knew exactly what I needed and the costs to carry out the project. My mother was, and is still, living in the United States: the project started when she was approached by her godson, who is a geometra (civil engineer), to help her rebuild this barn.

“I started with what I could control. I sat down with an architect and we created a design. I did research on furniture and fixtures. But then the problems started,” Davide said.

His mother wanted a simple design: an open plan house with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the mountains, spanning two floors – a ground floor and a first floor for the bedrooms.

When they went to look at the progress in 2004, he said they were “horrified” at what they saw.

Instead of windows across the front as we asked for, with views of the spectacular Gran Sasso mountains, he took the entire view with two hallways for entering the property and for the bathroom. The bedrooms upstairs were unusable,” he added.

Davide describes himself as “not a typical Italian”, at two metres in height ,and says he always looks for suitable showers and beds when visiting Italy.

It was one of the reasons building his own home was so attractive, as he could custom-make it to fit his needs.

READ ALSO: What taxes do you need to pay if you own a second home in Italy?

But when they viewed the build, he discovered the first floor had ceilings of just one metre and 40 centimetres – not liveable for most people, never mind someone with Davide’s towering frame.

The results didn’t match the renovation plans that had been filed with the comune (town hall) – they wouldn’t have been approved otherwise, as Davide discovered Italian regulations deemed this height of ceiling in a bedroom uninhabitable.

He said he grew up with the geometra and knew him well, saying they were “best friends”. However, on raising the problems with him, Davide said the building professional “refused to fix the house”, adding, “he took my mother’s money and built a house with no bedrooms”.

He said his mother decided to stop construction after spending almost $100,000 on a house that they “could not live in”, adding that they “returned many times over the years to see the shell of the building that we thought we were going to call our home”.

READ ALSO: My Italian Home: How one ‘bargain basement’ renovation ended up costing over €300K

Faced with a stalled project and unsure what to do next, Davide tried to sell the property but got nowhere. He said the “market wasn’t right” for selling it, so he considered his options for fixing the botched renovations to date.

His Italian property project has been stalled for over two decades. Photo: Davide Fionda

Then, eventually, in January of this year he decided “he was sick of looking at it and it was time to act”.

He intended to use Italy’s Bonus ristrutturazioni (Renovation bonus), which allows homeowners to apply for a 50 percent tax reduction on carrying out renovation work.

On asking for professional opinions on whether the house qualified for this bonus, he said he asked five different people and got five different answers.

In the end, he discovered it was eligible and so he could, in theory, proceed with his latest plans.

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The aim is to create his mother’s original vision – an open plan space with huge windows overlooking the mountains and bedrooms on the first floor – but habitable this time.

Since the beginning of this year, however, Davide has been stuck and hasn’t made progress.

Setbacks have included trying to get a permit to renovate the house, which has proved difficult since the first geometra reportedly didn’t update the changes to the building.

This thorny issue goes back to exactly who owned the house, as Davide told us it had been sectioned off and parts of the house were owned by various members of the family.

The building headaches roll on for Davide. Photo by Martin Dalsgaard on Unsplash

“Italian law makes you want to rip your hair out,” he said.

Getting the deed in his name has been a huge obstacle in itself, as his mother wasn’t the sole owner and some parts of the land that belonged to her were never recorded.

It’s meant months of waiting while archives have been searched and deeds have been drawn up and transferred, made all the trickier by coordinating it all from thousands of miles away.

Plus, the house category was never changed to a residential one, listed previously as farmland and therefore illegal to live in.

It’s just more unexpected bureaucracy for a project that seems to have no end.

“It has been months and months of all these twists and turns, it’s so frustrating,” he told us.

“This has been a 25-year nightmare,” he added.

A partly restored, but unliveable barn for Davide now. Photo: Davaide Fionda.

Although Davide had originally planned to sort out the more practical parts of the project by the end of May, with a ticket booked to Italy to choose the windows, he’s still stuck in the paperwork part and can’t move forward.

Nothing has happened since January. Three or four times I said, ‘screw this’. But it’s not in my DNA to give up,” he said.

Although he has a strong will, the house has taken its toll on him.

Every time we go, this house stares us in the face and it’s upsetting. Family always ask us, ‘when are you going to finish the house?’ It’s a real source of heartache,” he told us.

From this point, he hopes the paperwork will be completed by August and then he can meet with the contractors to get the process started.

That in itself was a tall order, due to the construction demand and shortage of building companies Italy is currently experiencing.

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It’s a problem made even more challenging by the fact that he’s based in the States and had to find a company that would apply for the credit for the bonus on his behalf.

Despite it all, he’s hopeful that he will get the house they dreamed of by next August and says he’s learned a lot about renovating property in Italy.

For other would-be home renovators, he advised people to “adjust their timeframe expectations” and expect “anything to do with land or real estate to take forever”.

So what is his secret for not giving up, despite the rollercoaster of events and emotions?

It seems he’s holding on to his vision of blissful summers in il bel paese.

“The beauty of Italy is to be, sit in a town square and have conversations,” he told us.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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