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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. 

READ ALSO:

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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Where in Italy are house prices rising fastest?

Property values are expected to continue rising overall in Italy in 2023, but the situation looks much better in some cities than others. Here's how average prices compare.

Where in Italy are house prices rising fastest?

Until 2020 Italy’s real estate market had long suffered stagnation, weighed down by a large number of old, neglected properties which were proving difficult to sell.

But the pandemic turned Italy’s property market on its head, leading to the first increase in house prices for years at the end of the first quarter of 2020.

This trend has held up since, and industry experts cautiously predict further price growth in 2023 – albeit more modest than previously hoped.

Factors putting the brakes on growth include the soaring cost of living eroding households’ purchasing power, rising mortgage interest rates, the soaring cost of building materials, and a shrinking economy.

REVEALED: Where in Europe have house prices and rent costs increased the most?

Mortgages are also expected to become more difficult to obtain in 2023, meaning fewer people able to make a purchase.

But despite the gloomy picture overall, the outlook varies significantly around the country and some cities are expected to see a significant rise in prices this year.

Milan remains by far the most expensive major Italian city for a property purchase, but prices are rising faster elsewhere. Photo by Ron Dylewski on Unsplash

A recent report from Idealista Insights, the property search portal’s research team, looked at changes in the average prices per square metre in property listings in Italy’s biggest cities.

In 2022, the price per square metre “generally increased throughout the country, with ‘exclusive’ neighbourhoods becoming even more inaccessible to the average buyer,” the report found.

But, while bigger northern cities saw rising prices across the board, most southern cities were struggling with “stagnation”, it said.

Based on Idealista’s data, here are the ten most expensive cities to buy property in Italy, in order of the rate at which prices are rising.

  1. Genoa: the Ligurian capital is Italy’s tenth-most expensive city to live in – but prices here are rising faster than anywhere else on average, according to Idealista. An increase of 4.5 percent is forecast for Genoa in 2023, meaning the price per square metre will go from 1,602 to 1,674 euros.
  2. Bologna: Bologna records the second-highest price increase in Italy compared to 2022. The citywide average price per square metre will rise by an estimated 3.9 percent, reaching 3,419 euros.
  3. Verona: in seventh place we find the city of Romeo and Juliet, where the increase in prices is substantial, equal to 3.2 percent. The average cost will rise by around 80 euros per square metre, going from 2,483 to 2,563 euros per square metre.
  4. Milan: Italy’s economic capital will easily remain the most expensive city for property purchases, with prices set to rise by 2.9 percent compared to 2022. The average price per square metre is expected to exceed 5,300 euros, 150 more than now, with significant price variation between city districts.
  5. Bari: The capital of Puglia in the south-east is set to record an price increase of 2.8 percent, with the citywide average price per square metre going from 1,909 euros to 1,962 – making it the ninth most expensive Italian city in which to buy property and the only southern city to record a significant increase. 
  6. Turin: The northwestern city can expect an overall price increase of 1.5 percent, equal to around 30 euros more per square metre for a final price of 1,979 euros on average. 
  7. Florence: The Tuscan capital still has the second-highest prices, and can expect an average price increase of 1.4 percent, with the cost per square metre to rise from 4,128 to 4,184 euros .
  8. Rome: The capital may have some highly sought-after and expensive districts, but overall average prices will remain at around 3,336 euros, up slightly from 3,360 in 2022. This is equal to an increase of just 0.76 percent.
  9. Venice: La Serenissima remains the fifth-most expensive city to buy property again this year as the average price will remain almost unchanged with a reduction of -0.3 percent, meaning the cost per square metre will be around 3,090 euros.
  10. Naples: The southern capital is set to go against the trend, with a -1.5 percent drop in house prices expected. This means the average price per square metre will go from 2,737 to 2,696 euros, a difference of 41 euros.
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