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How to stay out of trouble when renovating your Italian property

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
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.

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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