Sitting under a cafe awning, savoring a breeze that carries the scent of evening meals simmering on the stove and nearby vineyards and fields verdant now in early July, all while catching drips off a cone of delectable local gelato, I feel most fortunate. This is a village, alive with families, festivals, ancient buildings and tradition, that I can visit and perhaps become a part of for years to come.
When my daughter suggested establishing a family vacation house somewhere, the idea seemed far-fetched at best. Property values were taking off across the US, particularly in favorable locations, which included the coasts of Washington and Oregon or the northeast. So, where to gather? Working steadily through the myriad of internet real estate sites and buying blogs, it became clear that the US was out.
No ticket was required to search further afield. Both North Africa, Morocco in particular, and Europe called, but it wasn’t long before heart and mind focused hopefully on Italy. Not yet recovered from the recession, Italian real estate is remarkably affordable. It can be said without exaggeration that almost any working American family that doesn’t spend over its income, is able to plan for the long term, and loves Italy could find and purchase a vacation home, provided the family chooses wisely.
But where and how to find it? From the east coast of the US, Italy is at least 7 hours away. Add four hours for California and the Pacific Northwest. So, frequent visits to find that Dolce Vita aren’t likely. Prep first, travel later has proven an effective mantra for many buyers. Prep helps acclimate the buyer to the country, its real estate, and the process. Not surprisingly, it starts with the internet.
Real estate in Italy, as in other locales, is sold through various types of businesses. These include, but are not limited to agencies in other countries, independent Italian agencies, and in-country consolidators.
- REAL ESTATE AGENCIES IN OTHER COUNTRIES, England for example, are geographically close enough to form associations with local Italian realtors. Right Move and GateAway are two examples of this, with vast inter-connected networks of local realtors and their own employees. Both have property lists stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Greece. Selected agents from these organizations may travel back and forth to individual countries to promote the benefits of placing ads on their site by reviewing stats on clicks and sales from views. Thus, they serve as foreign consolidators for Italian realtors. In addition, those same agents can make appointments with local realtors when clients want to visit properties. The British examples of cross-country property sales are past masters at creating international linkages and providing related services. They may have tours of various areas such as Abruzzo, Tuscany, or Umbria. In comfortable vans or buses, groups of up to 20 or more possible buyers wend their way through the countryside, visiting one little hamlet after another, viewing homes and apartments in a range of prices. Hotels are booked at budget rates and the tours stop regularly for meals and other necessities. One benefit of this type of property search is … English. Everyone connected to the tour and host will speak English, and all the specifics about a purchase will be covered in detail. They may also charge a fee for the service, though not all do.
- INDEPENDENT ITALIAN AGENCIES such as Edil Casali and Casa di Famiglia, two agencies I have dealt with personally and which operate in different parts of the province of Lazio, often have exclusive rights to the properties they sign, but they may also place an ad with a consolidator for a fee or percentage of sale. Neither of these two agencies will pop up on a Google search. I found Casa di Famiglia, which has the added benefit of virtual tours for most houses, through a consolidator’s site. When an ad is placed, the source realtor’s agency is included. Naturally, the hope is that the potential homeowner will use the link to access more information, thereby granting the consolidator a click. If an interesting prospect turns up in searches, search for the website and review what else was on offer. Affordable homes abound in Italy. In the case of Casa di Famiglia, there are currently around 350 homes for less than $50,000 in the area they serve, which is part of the province of Lazio.
Edil Casali, another independent agency and one headed by an owner with decades of experience, came to my notice when I asked a barista if he knew of any realtors for his town. It turns out Edil Casali serves the region near Orvieto. The benefit of working with a local realtor is that they know the region intimately, including the train and bus routes, and they frequently are a font of background information on the house. This property-specific knowledge can end up saving the buyer money.
3. IN-COUNTRY CONSOLIDATORS — Tecnorete, Tecnocasa, and ImmobiliareCaserio (for the Abruzzo region) are three Italian consolidators to whose sites I returned over and over. These companies act in a similar fashion to the international realtors in #1, but they have a quicker response time and more information on the homes advertised. For example, I contacted a British consolidator about a house, waited two days for a response, and was told that I should contact the Italian agency directly. I wrote to Immobiliare Caserio about a home, received an almost immediate response and was supplied with the information requested.
Independent Italian agencies may or may not have employees who speak English. Using Skype, I contacted many agencies during my search and heard “No English” regularly, or a short cobbled-together phrase like, “Call Monday, 9 morning.” Do not be discouraged. Google Translate works well for short, specific phrases, either spoken or written. Larry and Sergey’s little language wizard also applies to translating Italian into English, which makes understanding real estate ads a breeze. Over time, key words and phrases will become familiar: cucina (kitchen), soggiorno (livingroom), camera da letto(bedroom), single or double — in terms of bedroom size (singolo, matrimonio), and centro storico (historic district). I encourage shoppers to ask questions freely, since not all information will be included in the posting.
LOCATION — As an inhabited land for well over 2500 years, Italy is populated in every nook and cranny, where even accents can change within a 10 mile radius. No wide, open spaces separate the villages, hamlets, towns and cities, though traditions, wines, and festivals may. From a bustling urban environment to smaller locales where everyone knows everyone else and may well be related, the choice is vast.
Searching through sites and looking at a map can help orient the potential part-time Italian. While I might choose to avoid the regions prone to terremoti, or earthquakes, others are attracted to those rugged slopes and sharp crags. In addition to maps, distance searches and transportation searches aid in measuring ease of accessibility. A vibrant, architecturally fascinating village not far from the Adriatic might be ideal if you don’t mind a three-hour bus ride from Rome. Similarly, that quiet, serene mountain village may beckon, but there are 10 miles of switchbacks between the village square and a main road.
SIZE — Properties in Italy sell on the basis of square meters versus square feet. The math is approximately 9 x ? meters (meters are 39″ against a yard’s 36″) . Thus, a 60 meter house is just shy of 650 sq. ft. What a shopper might not expect is that the 650 sq. ft. could be spread out on three or four floors, with each floor having a minuscule footprint that results in lots of stairs.
Stairs are the norm in Italian houses. The staircase may be interior, that is from one part of the house to another, or exterior, meaning a hike from street to door. In visits to 20+ different properties, I encountered only three that were nearly stair-free, one with a roof caving in, another with a few steps to the entry, and a last property with a few steps to another level within the house. If a buyer plans to grow old in Italy, stairs matter.
1. MQ — square meters
2. PREZZO — price from minimum to maximum
3. LOCALI — number of rooms (Not just bedrooms, all rooms)
4. BAGNI — bathrooms
5. STATO — condition of the property.
a. RISTRUTTURATO — renovated
b. HABITABLE — liveable — This does not mean the property is in good condition.
c. DA RISTRUTTURARE — to be renovated — These properties may be authentic ruins.
d. ARREDATO — furnished
SAMPLE AD from Casa di Famiglia
Surface: approx. 100 sqm with a garden and terrace
Price: € 29.000 — Energy Status: J
Apartment in good condition, on two levels of about 100 square meters, two steps from the square and all the main services.
The property is composed of: first floor kitchen with fully functional fireplace, large living room with terrace, two bedrooms and bathroom.
To finish the property a nice garden.
Distances: Carsoli about 15 km
Rome about 60 km.
Months of searching narrowed my own focus to Lazio and Abruzzo. I set up appointments for specific days and times with five realtors, flew to Rome, rented a car. A week later, I returned to the US and had a phone conference with the family, during which we made a definite choice. Three months later, I signed the final papers, but that is another story.