The Italian vocabulary you’ll need when renovating property

The Italian vocabulary you'll need when renovating property
Photo: Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash
If you're planning an Italian renovation project, here's a guide to some of the terms you'll need to be familiar with.

Many people who purchase a house in Italy are drawn to older, neglected properties with the potential to renovate (ristrutturare) or restore (restaurare) – and no wonder.

It’s easy to get fired up about the idea of giving a new lease of life.to an abandoned farmhouse (rustico) full of charming period details, or a cute townhouse (terratetto) going for a song – and the country has no shortage of unloved older homes which might otherwise be left to rot.

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You might even have bought a ruin (rudere/rovina) and plan to knock it down and start again – something that you may be able to claim back costs for under building bonuses currently available.

And while many foreign buyers do achieve their dreams of restoring an old Italian property, these veterans are likely to tell you it’s an experience not for the faint-hearted. After all, there’s nothing like a tangle of Italian bureaucracy to put a dampener on your dreams.

And if you don’t speak Italian – at least, not yet – the process can feel overwhelming. Not only is there new vocabulary to learn, but you’ll be talking about a process that’s likely to be quite different to that in your home country.

To help you get started, here’s a guide to some of the vocabulary you’ll need during the renovation process in Italy.

The planning stages

You may be hoping to fix up the old wooden beams (travi a vista), restore the vaulted ceilings (soffitti a volta) or rebuild the wood-fired oven (forno a legna). You might want to make new additions, perhaps installing a roof terrace (terrazza panoramica) or a pool (piscina).

You’ll probably need to tackle some less exciting aspects first – from fixing up the roof (rifacimento del tetto) to updating the infissi (fixtures, such as windows and doors) and impianti (systems, such as plumbing and electrics), and hooking up servizi (utilities).

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If you’re in a rural location, this could mean anything from installing a septic tank (fossa settica) to digging a well (pozzo). And the popularity of photovoltaic systems (impianti fotovoltaici) and underfloor heating (riscaldamento a pavimento) is shooting up in Italy, so that might be on your wish-list too.

Older houses in Italy very often have an awkward internal layout (disposizione interna)  – think miniscule bathrooms and kitchens, walk-through bedrooms, or dark and dingy corridors. So you might want to move a wall (spostare un muro), build a new partition (costruire un muro divisorio), or add an extension (aggiungere un ampliamento).

Of course, what’s actually possible will depend on your budget (which is also ‘budget’ in Italian – just with a heavy accent). You’ll need quotes (preventivi) for every part of the project from qualified professionals – and the right paperwork, which we’ll talk about below.

Photo: Henry & Co/Unsplash

Geometra or engineer?

No doubt you’ve already heard that your project will need a geometra, an engineer, and maybe an architect too. You may not need all three – this depends on the scale and complexity of your project. 

Figuring out who exactly you do need can leave foreigners stumped, as equivalent job titles either don’t exist or look a bit different in their home country.

As every project is unique, you’ll want to ask the advice of a building professional to find out exactly which services you will need. But to give you an idea of the difference, here’s a basic breakdown of what each term refers to:

The geometra, or surveyor, is indispensable to most renovation projects, large and small, and finding a good one can save a lot of trouble down the line. As well as providing initial surveys and cost estimates when buying a property or planning a renovation, they may also serve as project manager – and they’ll deal with permits and paperwork at the comune (town hall). 

For this reason it’s important for the geometra to be based in, or regularly work in, the municipality your property is in. Their long-standing relationships with the staff at various bureaucratic offices could make all the difference. 

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Ingegnere – An engineer can do much the same work as a geometra, but is a more highly-qualified technical professional (with higher fees to match) who would, for example, work with an architect to make sure a design is safe and sound. They may be needed for larger, trickier projects, like a complete rebuild.

Architetto – An architect, in Italy, is usually only really needed if you’re designing a new building or tackling a more ambitious reconstruction project. This professional will usually deal more with the creative side of a building’s design, usually with technical support from an engineer (though this isn’t always the case).

Many architects also prefer to work with a geometra who can take care of more mundane tasks, like dealing with the comune. This is why, if your project requires an architect, you might need to hire all three.

Many people however choose to draw up their own plans for smaller projects together with their geometra.

Photo: Green Chameleon/Unsplash

Direttore di lavoro – the project manager, keeping on top of the schedule (programma) and budget among other things. An architect, an engineer, or a geometra could all play this role, or you might take it on yourself if you can be on site.

Other professionals needed to work on your project could include the idraulico (plumber), elettricista (electrician), muratore (stoneworker) or falegname (carpenter). 

You might hire them independently, although it’s probably much easier to work with an imprenditore edile (building contractor). Either way, your geometra or engineer will no doubt have some recommendations.

Still, especially if you’re on a budget, you might end up doing a lot of jobs yourself – and you’ll soon be on first-name terms with the staff at your local DIY store (fai-da-te/bricolage) and the rubbish dump (discarica).

Getting paperwork in order

All building work in Italy legally requires some form of planning permission, whether you’re adding a balcony or embarking on a total rebuild. You definitely don’t want to end up with an edilizia abusiva (illegal building).

Your ingegnere or geometra will need to submit these applications – and there are fees involved, so make sure these costs are included in any preventivi.

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The good news is that your geometra will have plenty of practice in dealing with the paperwork for smaller projects. A denuncia di attività (notice of works) is often enough for anything that won’t alter the exterior of the property – though rules can vary from one part of Italy to another.

For major works though you will require a permesso di costruzione (building permit) and/or concessione edilizia (planning permission). Depending on the scope of your project, an architect or specialist engineer might need to do some careful negotiating with the comune.

Other than that, the two most important things you’ll need when embarking on a renovation or restoration project in Italy are pazienza (patience) and, preferably, un sacco di soldi (a lot of money)!

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.


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