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

Buying a cheap home to renovate in Italy sounds like the dream, but it can quickly turn nightmarish amid restrictions, red tape, and bickering relatives. Silvia Marchetti explains some of the most unexpected pitfalls and how to avoid them.

How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy
Italian towns have been selling off old houses, like this one in the village of Lecce dei Marsi - but purchases are often blocked by bureaucracy. Photo: Gregory Macera

With so many Italian towns offloading cheap old properties for sale, lots of people have been tempted by the chance to buy a fixer-upper in a sunny, rural area and live in the perfect idyll. And most are oblivious at first of what risks the purchase might entail. 

The older the properties are, the more potential traps along the way.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns launching alternatives to one-euro homes

There have been several villages in Italy eager to sell €1 and cheap homes that have had to give up on their plans once hidden issues came to light.

Back in 2014, the towns of Carrega Ligure, in Piedmont, and Lecce nei Marsi, in Abruzzo, tried hard to sell their old properties off at a bargain price but just couldn’t get past Italy’s labyrinthine red tape, hellish property restrictions, and scores of bickering relatives.

Both towns’ mayors found themselves chasing after the many heirs of unknown property owners who had emigrated in the 1800s. All existing relatives, who technically owned small parcels of the same house (whether they knew it or not), had to all agree on the sale.

Under Italian law, over time and generations a property ‘pulverizes’ into many little shares depending on how many heirs are involved (if one single heir is not named).

You can end up in a situation where you agree with two owners that you’ll buy their old house, and then one day another five knock at your door saying they never gave their consent, nullifying your purchase. So it’s always best to check beforehand the local land registry to see exactly who, and how many, are the owners, and where they are. 

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In Carrega Ligure and Lecce nei Marsi, families had long ago migrated across the world and the many heirs to some properties were impossible to track down.

But there were also other obstacles.

“We wanted to start the renovation project by selling dilapidated one euro houses, and then move on to cheap ones, but the tax office would not agree on the price – saying that the old properties had a greater value, that they weren’t classified as abandoned buildings but as perfectly livable houses in good shape”, says Lecce nei Marsi mayor Augusto Barile. 

This meant buyers would have ended up spending tons of money in property sale taxes.

“Even if these were just small houses, potential property taxes start at €700, and could have been much higher,” he explains.

“This would have been a nightmare for any buyer finding out about this at a later stage, after the purchase”.

Barile says the town hall had not made a prior agreement with the tax office to reclassify and ‘downgrade’ the value of the old buildings, which also required an update of the land registry. 

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

Council officials in the village of Carrega Ligure faced a wall of red tape when they tried to sell off abandoned properties. Credit: Comune di Carrega Ligure

Several potential buyers I spoke to back then said that when they found out about the tax office’s involvement by word of mouth (mostly thanks to village gossip at the bar while sipping an espresso), they fled immediately without even taking a look at the houses. 

The best advice in this case is to pay a visit to the local tax bureau ahead of any formal purchase deal and make sure that the old, dilapidated house you want to buy is actually ‘accatastata’ (registered) as such, or you might end up paying the same property sale taxes as you would on a new home. Hiring a tax lawyer or legal expert could be of huge help.

In Carrega Ligure, where old shepherds’ and farmers’ homes are scattered across 11 districts connecting various valleys, a few abandoned homes located near pristine woods came with a nice patch of land – which turned out to be another huge problem.

Old estates often cannot be disposed of due to ‘vincoli’ – limitations – either of environmental or historic nature, that do not allow the property to be sold, or simply due to territorial boundaries that have changed over time, particularly if the original families haven’t lived there for a long time.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s cheap homes frenzy is changing rural villages

In Carrega Ligure it turned out that “a few dwellings located in the most ancient district couldn’t be sold because of hydrogeological risks. State law forbade rebuilding them from scratch, as floods and mudslides had hit the area in the past”, says Carrega Ligure mayor Luca Silvestri.

Meanwhile, other properties were located within or close to the protected mountain park area where the village districts spread, and where there are strict rules against building to preserve the surroundings.

Another issue was that a few old homes came with a patch of land which was quite distant, on the opposite side of the hill, says Silvestri, making it inconvenient for buyers looking for a house with a back garden.

In this case, checking territorial maps, and speaking to competent bodies such as park authorities if there are ‘green restrictions’ in place, can spare future nuisances.

See more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

If you're renovating a home in Italy, will you need to pay a middleman to cut through the red tape and language barriers? Silvia Marchetti looks at the pros and cons.

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

The idea of snapping up a cheap, crumbling house in a picturesque Italian village may sound appealing – but doing so always comes with tedious paperwork and the hassle of renovation.

For this reason, a growing number of professional agencies have sprung up in Italy to cater to foreign buyers snapping up cheap homes amid the property frenzy.

In many of the Italian towns selling one-euro or cheap homes, there are now ‘restyle experts’ and agencies that offer renovation services handling everything that could become a nightmare: from dealing with the paperwork and fiscal issues to finding a notary for the deed, contracting an architect, surveyor, a building team and the right suppliers for the furniture.

They also handle the sometimes tricky task of reactivating utilities in properties that have been abandoned for decades.

I’ve travelled to many of these villages and looked at this side of the business, too. Hiring these ‘middle people’ comes with pros and cons, though the positive aspects can certainly outweigh the negatives – provided you’re careful to pick the right professionals. 

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

These intermediaries are usually locals who have expertise in real estate and a good list of suppliers’ contacts. This allows them to deliver turnkey homes that were once just heaps of decaying rubble, sparing buyers time and money – particularly those living abroad, who then aren’t forced to fly over to Italy countless times a year to follow the work in progress.

I’ve met several buyers from abroad who purchased cheap homes sight unseen after merely looking at photos posted online by local authorities, but then had to book many expensive long-haul flights to hire the architect, get the paperwork done, and select the construction team (a few even got stuck here during Covid).

Thanks to their contacts the local agents can ensure fast-track renovations are completed within 2-4 months, which could prove very useful as the ‘superbonus’ frenzy in Italy has caused a builder shortage meaning many people renovating property now face long delays

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

Their all-inclusive commission usually starts at 5 percent of the total cost of a renovation, or at 2.500 euros per house independently from its cost and dimension. The fee also depends on the type of work being carried out, how tailored it is and whether there are any specific requirements, like installing an indoor elevator or having furniture pieces shipped from the mainland if it happens to be a Sicilian or Sardinian village. 

However, buyers must always be careful. It is highly recommended to make sure the local authorities know who these agents are and how reliable they are in delivering results.

Town halls can often suggest which local companies to contact, and this gives the renovation legitimacy in my view. In a small village, where everyone knows each other, when the town hall recommends an agency there’s always a certain degree of trust involved and agents know that their credibility is at stake (and also future commissions by more clients). 

Word of mouth among foreign buyers is a powerful tool; it can be positive or detrimental for the agency if a restyle isn’t done the right way, or with too many problems.

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

So it’s best to avoid agencies from another village, even if nearby, who come to you offering fast and super-cheap services, or local agencies that are not suggested by the mayor’s office. 

Then of course there can be other downsides, which largely depend on how ‘controlling’ and demanding the client is. 

For those not based in Italy full-time, the most important consideration is: how much can you trust these professionals to deliver what you expect, exactly how you want it, without having to be constantly on the ground? 

Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

Language can be a major obstacle. There are technical building terms that prove difficult to translate, and if the local agency doesn’t have English-speaking renovation professionals with a track record in following foreign clients it’s best to look for an intermediary with a greater language proficiency. 

I remember meeting an American couple once who got lost in translation with a village agent for days, and had to hire a translator just to hire the intermediary.

It’s always useful to ask for a ‘preventivo’ (quote) with VAT indication, considering roughly how much inflation could make the final cost go up. Buyers should also sign a contract with the exact timeframe of the works and delivery date of the new home, including penalties if there are delays on the part of the agency. 

READ ALSO:

But, even when there is complete trust, I think it is impossible to fully restyle an old home from a distance, contacting intermediaries by phone, emails, messages or video calls only. 

Details are key and there’s always something that could be misinterpreted. Buyers based overseas should still follow-up the renovation phases personally, perhaps with one or two flights per year to check all is going well and up to schedule.

Asking to see the costs so far undertaken midway through the restyle is useful to make sure there are no hidden costs or unexpected third parties involved – like buying the most expensive furniture or marble floor when not requested, or hiring a carpenter to build artisan beds.

While there is really no such thing as a hassle-free renovation, these agencies can ease the pressure and do most of the burdensome work – but buyers’ supervision will always be needed.

Read more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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