It’s the definitive dream when it comes to property in Italy. Buying a cheap old ruin and turning it into your ideal home. Designing the layout you want, choosing the materials you love, and watching it all come together. Over the last thirty years, many thousands of British buyers have made this romantic dream a reality. And only very rarely has it turned into a nightmare.
Ooh, but isn’t it a bit unfair on the Italians? Snatching up all their old houses like that? Not at all. Italians are amazed and delighted by the foreign-restorer phenomenon. How wonderful that pale-faced inglese are voluntarily coming over to beautify old country buildings, preserve Italian history, and bring work to local builders!
But surely all the best old ruins are gone now? This is a reasonable assumption, given the long popularity of restoring, but it seems that old houses are an almost bottomless resource in Italy. There’s still an abundant supply of well-situated homes ripe for restoration. Why? Because given the choice, most Italians prefer to live in modern-built homes. Countless old rural houses were abandoned in the early 20th century (as struggling families emigrated to the New World or simply gave up farming for a life in the city), and very few modern Italians would ever dream of buying and restoring one.
Of course, restoring isn’t for everyone. Many lovers of old buildings are perfectly happy to buy a place already restored by someone else, and move straight in. Restoring a home yourself can be extremely time-consuming. It requires huge commitment, and necessarily drags you into the realm of the unknown. The finished property is just an idea, and who knows what expensive setbacks might happen along the way? The enterprise also often involves wallowing in Italian bureaucracy – in securing permissions and meeting regulations. Buy a ready-restored home, and you’ll have none of that.
So why does anyone do it? Chiefly for reasons of taste and cost. Simply, you can plan and style the home of your dreams. (Or if not entirely of your dreams, then at least as close to your dreams as possible on your budget.) You get all the satisfaction of having brought a home back to life, and built something lasting. You often get a better choice of location, too. “Normally, finished houses are quite hard to find in your ideal spot,” says Dermott Sales of Living in Le Marche. “At the moment I would say that there are twenty houses needing restoration to each finished house on the market.”
Cost-wise, it’s very possible to get a better final house for less money by restoring – especially if you know in advance how to sidestep money-wasting pitfalls. Certainly you will massively enhance the re-sale value of the property you originally bought, and are likely to more than cover your restoration costs too.
Obviously the final cost of restoring an individual property depends on a number of factors – most crucially its size and the quality of materials you use. Anticipate an average cost of between €500 and €750 per square metre of floorspace. Of course, you don’t have to restore every inch of the place if you don’t want to. Some buyers restore and occupy only a section of a large property. They might do the rest of the building (or buildings) in the future if inclination and finances allow.
Choice of building materials is a major consideration. Italy has abundant gorgeous materials and a very long tradition of their skilful use. You will find wonderful craftsmen here, able to build to the highest quality on projects large or small. If your budget is generous, then exploit all this available excellence to the max. If your budget is modest, you can still benefit from great builder expertise, but use cheaper materials.
Nick Carlucci of the Puglia-specialist agency Buyahouse-italy.com advises saving money on materials by shopping around. “The internet has made it very easy to check prices and compare different builders’ merchants,” he says. “It could be that you can buy the same tiles at a lower price in the next town or region.” Jason Jones of Italian Restorations suggests considering materials which are ‘new-made-to-look-old’ rather than insisting on reclaimed originals. “You can make a huge saving on these and they really do look great,” he says. Jason also suggests opting for “basic bathrooms in white, and pre-made kitchens. You have a fabulous selection in Italy and cheap doesn’t mean ugly.”
If you’re a dab hand at DIY, or quick to learn things like that, you can obviously save a considerable amount of cash by doing much of the physical restoration work yourself. Plastering, painting, carpentry, wiring, plumbing – do you have any of these skills? Could you pick them up? Or would you prefer to leave absolutely everything to the professionals?
When it comes to labour costs, be aware that location definitely comes into the equation. Just as it is more expensive to buy a property in, say, Tuscany than in, say, Puglia, so is it more expensive to have one professionally restored there. Labour costs – and sometimes even materials costs – are higher in more ‘prestigious’ regions. Lois Ferguson and Paul Harcourt Davies, who work as project managers on foreign-buyer restorations across a lovely chunk of central Italy, are particularly aware of the differing costs of professional building work from one region to another. “We frequently see this because we are based close to the borders of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio,” they explain. “By using a local builder from Lazio there would be a substantial saving on work of the same quality compared to a builder from Umbria. And by comparison, Tuscan prices verge on the astronomical.”
A big fear with restoration projects is that unforeseen problems will mean upwardly spiraling costs. The initial quote given by your builders can turn out to be a fraction of your final spend. An increasingly popular way of guarding against this is to choose a property with a fixed-price contract on its restoration work. There’s an agreed price in advance, and whatever happens along the merry road of restoring, you’re not going to have to lay out unexpected extra thousands.
As a restorer, your considerations will naturally go beyond mere money. You will want good work. And you don’t want the whole project to become a stressful millstone round your neck. How can you maximize the chances of things going smoothly, and of getting the best possible work?
Unless you are yourself an architect or builder, it’s crucial that you have good people working for you. “Choosing people that you like and can trust is fundamental to any project,” says Wanda Djebbar of Toscana Restoration. “The lowest price from someone you instinctively mistrust is not as good as a slightly higher one from someone who you think you’ll still be talking to next year! Doubly so given the importance of personal relations in Italian life.” By the same token, you shouldn’t assume that a higher-priced team of builders will necessarily be better. Check all prospective builders’ references, go and see work which they have previously done, and if possible talk to their previous clients.
Many foreign restorers in Italy assume that they should employ the services of a geometra, an Italian hybrid of architect and surveyor, who also navigates building-permissions bureaucracy for you. Sounds great. But can you really kill all those birds with one stone? Many agents and restoration experts advise using an architect (and possibly also a structural engineer) rather than a geometra.
Lois Ferguson and Paul Harcourt Davies say that “A geometra is essentially a quantity surveyor with a diploma rather than a university education. They are entitled by law to design houses up to a certain level. An architect is more expensive, but their training is long and to a very high level. Structural engineers can also help with certain aspects. But what a geometra is actually best for is getting plans through the local bureaucracy. Our recommendation would be to use a good architect with a project manager. There are quite a few British architects who have settled in Italy, speak Italian and know the local problems. A geometra can be brought in as and when you need to deal with bureaucracy.”
Dermott Sales of Living in Le Marche also recommends using an architect in conjunction with a project manager, rather than relying on a geometra. So what’s a project manager, and why should you consider using one if you’re not going to be in Italy for the duration of your restoration work? Essentially a project manager is someone independent of your builders – fluent in your language and that of your workers – who oversees your project and keeps it on course.
Lois Ferguson and Paul Harcourt Davies describe their work as project managers as being the “eyes and ears” of the buyer. “By visiting as often as is necessary, and frequently unannounced, we keep buyers abreast of what is going on through detailed notes and digital photographs,” they say. “Any problems can be solved quickly, and immediately referred back to our client. Most importantly, spending can be controlled.”
And on the subject of spending, there’s one final thing that anyone restoring a property in Italy ought to consider, and that’s putting in solar energy panels to help with the costs of heating and electricity. Utility bills can be eye-watering in Italy, and in a country with such abundant sunshine you’d be mad not to make use of it. Do the responsible thing. Reduce your property’s carbon footprint. And save yourself a fortune on bills in the long run.
Italy’s north is a prosperous, hard-working and highly-civilised place, with superb food and a wide diversity of landscapes. Restorers might find that bureaucracy and builders move just that little bit quicker here. It’s certainly not the cheapest part of the country, but there are still plenty of good-sized rural properties asking about €100,000 and needing only a little work. Smaller homes, village homes, and properties needing major work often ask just €50,000 or so. For bargains like these, look at the lovely Apennine foothills of Emilia-Romagna, the foothills of the Dolomites in the Veneto, anywhere in the hills and mountains of gorgeous Liguria, the mountainous parts of Lombardy except for its famous lakesides, and in the flat countryside round any of the lesser-known (but jewel-like) little cities of the vast Po Valley.
Tuscany and Umbria are the two regions most popular with buyers seeking a restoration project, so expect high property prices in both. Tuscany is still pricier than Umbria, and its costliest area is the countryside between Florence and Siena (a.k.a.‘Chiantishire’), where the majority of old farmhouses have already been lavishly restored. Expect to pay a minimum of €300,000 for a ruin. Things are much cheaper away from this gilded central stretch, and drop to quite affordable levels in Tuscany’s mountainous extremes of north and south. You might get a ramshackle village home here for just €50,000. Umbria offers especially good value around its lovely Lake Trasimeno near the Tuscan border – with neglected farmhouses starting at €100,000 and village homes at €50,000. Exquisite medieval hilltowns Todi and Orvieto are particularly popular with foreign buyers, and tumbledown homes in the countryside round both start at roughly double Lake Trasimeno’s prices.
The rural landscapes and medieval settlements of these two regions are almost as lovely as those of their highly-coveted neighbours Tuscany and Umbria – yet their property prices are lower. Thinly populated and peaceful, Le Marche and Lazio are nonetheless modern and well-organised places with solid infrastructure and good transport connections. If you can’t afford Tuscany or Umbria but you want to be able to visit them regularly, Lazio or Le Marche deserve your attention. Ruined farmhouses in either might cost you €70,000-€130,000, while semi-habitable ones requiring only a little work might cost twice as much. Expect to pay about €1,250 per square metre restoring a total ruin, and €750 restoring a place with a sound structure. Le Marche’s highest prices are near the coast, and lowest in the south and in the area around Urbino. In Lazio, arguably the two most appealing areas are the volcanic countryside north of Rome to the border with Umbria, and the Sabine Hills northeast of Rome.
Italy’s south has the country’s least expensive homes for restoration – a legacy of the mass emigration from this still relatively impoverished area. As well as tumbledown farms, village homes and even castles going for a song, you can find whole villages for sale in the mountains. Abruzzo and Calabria are twice blessed in terms of geography, with dramatic highlands and lovely coastlines. Both see more visitors than Molise and Basilicata – two beautiful but very underdeveloped places. Campania, meanwhile, is astonishingly lovely in many places and draws huge numbers of tourists but few foreign buyers. Across the Italian south, old properties aren’t prized by locals and you can find small village houses in need of work from €7,000-€45,000. Larger townhouses and farmhouses might ask €45,000-€150,000. Prices are lowest inland, and at higher altitudes. Most estate agents advertise their new-builds and seaside properties, and you’ll have to ask specifically to see what rustic ruins they have on their books.
While unquestionably part of the Italian South, Puglia deserves special attention. It’s by far the most popular part of the southern mainland with foreign buyers. It’s arguably less remote and ‘backwards’-seeming than other southern regions, and the landscape isn’t dominated by mountains (instead featuring rolling green hills and a rocky coastline). The region burst onto the property scene three years ago with the introduction of budget flights from London. No longer ‘undiscovered’, Puglia is still good value – with stable, steady growth having supplanted the mad initial boom. Fairytale conical ‘trulli’ houses are much loved by Brits. For a decent-sized home, seek three cones or more. With trulli,you can expect restoration costs to exceed your initial purchase price, but you can also expect good holiday rental prospects. Multi-coned trulli needing restoration in the popular Itria Valley area are readily available for under €100,000, with the very biggest asking less than €200,000. Stout, stately masseria farmhouses are also popular and can be turned into luxury homes. Puglian bureaucracy is especially flexible toward restorers.
Italy’s two largest islands, Sardinia and Sicily, are extremely different in character but each offer the would-be restorer an abundance of affordable options. Clean, unspoilt Sardinia is a holiday paradise with a very low population, no big cities, and a gentle, respectful culture. Loud, lively Sicily, meanwhile, is the Mediterranean’s most populous island. Sardinia has many village properties needing restoration, as well as tumbledown rural homes a few miles inland. You might spend €100,000 on a six-bedroom village home needing €20,000 of work. You can also find properties for five- or four-digit sums if you move further inland or into the mountains. Sicily’s north coast and its southeast corner are good places to invest. You might get a village home for €40,000 and spend the same restoring it. The south coast and the northwest tip are currently the island’s cheapest places. Asking local people is the best way of finding tumbledown properties for sale. Note that building work and bureaucracy move slowly on Sicily.
London-based Lyndsey Posner and her partner Ian Morley bought a ruined farmhouse near Orvieto in 2006. They spent fifteen months restoring it and now have the holiday home of their dreams – with four ensuite bedrooms, eco-friendly energy-generation, and extensive landscaped gardens. They make regular visits, and also offer holiday rentals. “We’ve always loved Italy more than anywhere else in the world,” Lyndsey explains. “We chose to restore a property so we could impose our own taste. It’s very rare that you can walk into a property and say it’s exactly the same taste as yours! You pay a lot more money for somebody else’s taste which inevitably you then have to change.
“The property was uninhabitable when we bought it. We ended up knocking it down and starting from scratch. We insisted on getting planning permission before we bought, which I think is very important. Our local commune was very good about restoration permissions, but it’s a good idea to check out what the attitude is where you buy. We used an English architect and she came up with a fantastic plan, which we then took to a local geometra. Then we hired a builder and our project manager, Lois Ferguson.
“If you can’t be there all the time, I think it’s very important that you have a local project manager who can communicate well with the builders and yourself, and take pictures and send progress reports. Someone’s got to be there every day sitting on top of the builders or they will go off and work on other projects!
“Anyone restoring a property should assume that it will go 50% over budget, and put aside emergency funds. What we went really over budget on was landscaping. Be aware that if you buy a farmhouse it will often be sitting in farmland, and farmland is not garden-land. We have two hectares, and when we bought there were only two trees on it!
“One of the things people don’t appreciate is the cost of utilities in Italy. I would advise anyone restoring to do what we did and put solar panels in. We also put in geothermal heating, and we dug a well. If you have gardens you need to water, you’ll see that mains water is very expensive. Especially if you’re retiring there, be prepared that you’re going to get utility bills which are far, far higher than in England.
“Most importantly with a restoration project, you have to suspend any preconceived ideas as to what’s going to happen, and just go with the flow! Through all the aggravations of restoring, I kept a positive attitude, and now it’s just wonderful having our dream house in Italy.”
Paul Harcourt Davies and Lois Ferguson bought a tumbledown farmhouse in southern Umbria in 2004. They moved in straight away, coping with inconveniences like no roof during weeks of rain and no windowpanes in the winter. Resilient and willing to learn, they did most of the building work themselves. And now they have a gorgeous home. Writer-photographer Paul organizes botanic and photographic tours of the area, while Lois uses her experience (and fluent Italian) to act as a project manager for other Brits restoring properties.
Swapping Britain for Italy was a mutual decision. “We were both at a watershed in our lives,” Paul explains, “and knew that if we didn’t do it then, we never would. We knew Italy well and didn’t view it through rose-tinted glasses. We knew we could put up with the bad things and enjoy the good.” The couple considered many different areas but kept coming back to the countryside north of Lake Bolsena on the Lazio-Umbria border. “Lois had led walking holidays here, and I’d done photoshoots,” Paul says. “We liked the abundant Etruscan relics, the sense of history, and we liked the rolling fields and the woodlands. We definitely wanted a property to restore. We both loved old Italian farmhouses and felt that restoring was the only way to get the house we wanted.” The house, when they found it, had sound walls but a bad roof. “We wanted to re-jig the place as little as possible and to restore it in the spirit of the original building.
“We didn’t do it the quickest or most sensible way. We took on complete control of the project, doing all the day-to-day supervision and materials-buying, bringing in other people only when we needed them. I put in all the electrics and did some carpentry. Watching other people, we taught ourselves to plaster. We were both prepared to learn. It’s been a real voyage of discovery. We removed tons of rotten plaster from the walls and underneath we found old arches and old bricked-in doors. It was almost like an archaeological dig. The house is now much truer to the original design of the building than when we moved in. And the old materials are visible – we can identify bits of Roman paving stones and old Roman lintels scavenged from elsewhere and used in the original construction of this place. It’s a complete mish-mash. That’s what gives it its character.
“The driving force of our restoration has been blind optimism and a very Italian-style belief that there’s always a way to get things done. Now it’s our paradise.”
For more about Paul’s tours or Lois’s project management, visit www.loisferguson.com and/or www.paulharcourtdavies.com.