Buyers from around the world have been snapping up dilapidated Italian homes at rock-bottom prices in recent years, as many depopulated cities and towns try to revive their decaying communities by offering real estate bargains.
While the prospect of substantial structural improvements, coupled with the bureaucracy that buying a home in a foreign country often entails, may be daunting to some, others have seized the opportunity.
Of course, each buyer will have a different vision for their new renovation project. Some choose to keep things as simple as possible, focusing on making the house livable again while keeping costs down.
And there are also those who decide to go all out.
Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, the first to complete renovations on an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, fall into the latter category.
The couple, from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland, were among those who bought a historic home in Sambuca, situated in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities auctioned off 16 abandoned houses with prices starting at a symbolic one. . euro: about $1.
Ahmadi and Spencer were already interested in buying property in Italy and had been considering looking in the Sicilian region when they read about the plan on CNN in 2019.
“It was love at first sight,” Spencer tells CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with nice old stone pavements reminiscent of those in [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lights at night are very romantic.”
They were thrilled when they learned that their offer of €10,150 (about $10,372) for a 1,000-square-foot palazzo had been accepted, and they quickly went to work giving the property a spectacular facelift.
Two years later, and well before the three-year deadline implemented by local authorities, his Italian stash is complete.
Ahmadi and Spencer, who work on global development projects, spent about $250,000 to transform the dilapidated property into a lavish home, which they say looks like “a Renaissance home.”
They plan to split their time between the US and Italy, spending about half the year in their two-bedroom home, along with their daughter and grandchildren.
The renovated house has beautiful marble bathrooms, but its most outstanding feature is undoubtedly an interior elevator that the couple uses to go up and down its three levels.
So what made them decide to have an elevator, complete with a security camera and phone, installed on the property?
“We want to grow old here, do yoga every day and have coffee on the deck overlooking the misty lake,” explains Spencer.
“So we thought it would be great to feel as comfortable as possible by avoiding all those narrow steps and not having to go up and down four windy stairs several times a day.”
While a quarter of a million dollars may seem like a hefty sum to spend on such a project, they believe it’s actually less than the amount they would have spent on something similar in the US.
However, an interior elevator is definitely not a typical accessory for homes in this small town, and its glamorous interior design has caused quite a stir among the locals.
The couple say they have received visits from several residents eager to see up close the transformation of this once dilapidated home.
“The locals welcome us with cakes and come to my house curious to see what we’ve done with the ruins,” says Spencer, before revealing that they were recently treated to a “nice bottle of wine” at the local bar.
In addition to the elevator, the house has a relaxation area, a guest suite, a master bedroom and a living room with a modern open kitchen.
There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace overlooking the hills and Lake Arancio, located near the ruins of the Moorish fort Fortino di Mazzallakkar.
Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already been returned the 5,000 euro (about $5,100) deposit they initially gave as part of the purchase agreement, which stipulated that the renovation work would be completed in three years.
The couple are currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the mornings, they take their elevator down to the ground floor to enjoy a morning cappuccino and pastries at the local bar. They then go for a walk, before returning home for a day of remote work.
“It’s a smarter house than we have in the US, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras,” adds Spencer, explaining that they can manage the alarms and devices on their US property from Sambuca.
After buying their new house, they bought an unused 100 square meter section of their neighbor’s house for €5,000, which they have since renovated and connected to their property.
“We love the tranquility of Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the city’s slow lifestyle philosophy, symbolized by a snail sculpture in the main square.”
While some travelers choose to use Sicily as a base to explore more of Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, the couple focuses on exploring the region.
They have already visited the city of Marsala in the province of Trapani and the salt pans of Trapani, and they love to take long walks along the narrow country lanes to visit the local food markets and try different delicacies, including snails.
“In the US, highways are everywhere. But there is no rush here,” says Massoud. “Slow travel allows us to enjoy the beautiful views.
“To drive just nine kilometers and go through the hills, it takes us almost two hours, but that’s what makes the adventure so special.”
Although they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short period of time, which is particularly impressive considering the various issues brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a few minor hiccups along the way.
Getting the furniture through the narrow doors and windows of his 300-year-old palazzo proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa went up in the elevator) and finding the right furniture was also time-consuming.
“As Americans, we have access to many stores in the United States, where we can buy things at all kinds of prices,” says Spencer.
“But finding good quality fine furniture here in Sicily that you really like can be a problem. You need to know the right place for top-notch traditional wood pieces, antiques, and thrift stores. In addition, some pieces are in catalogs but are not available”.
Although the structure of the building has been renovated, it was decided to keep the original windows, along with the uneven gold colored stone walls, majolica floors and vaulted ceilings to preserve some of the historic elements of the house.
Massoud and Spencer also chose to keep some items left behind by previous owners, which they discovered during their first visit, including a 1967 calendar still hanging on the walls.
His house is one of several in the Saracen neighborhood that were abandoned after a catastrophic earthquake struck Sicily’s Belize Valley in 1968 and devastated the area.
The council was inundated with interest from hundreds of foreign buyers after offering 16 of the houses in 2019, and then auctioned off 10 more buildings in 2021, this time for a symbolic €2 each.
While some of those who participated in the second auction ended up buying their home unseen due to Covid-19-related restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy with his brother in 2019 to view the property and verify the property. Sicilian city before your offer.
“Accompanied by my husband, I sent my brother-in-law out on a scouting mission to see what the city was like,” says Spencer.
“He is an engineer and he said that the foundations of the town and the houses in Sambuca are very solid, despite the earthquake.”
Massoud is very grateful that both the sale and the renovation went so well, explaining that the council helped them with paperwork and legal matters, helping them overcome the language barrier.
While he notes that they had to apply for an Italian tax code, or social security number, and open a bank account in the country before buying the house, which meant the process wasn’t entirely “painless,” he’s glad with how things went in general.
“In the US, I have to deal with the subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” says Massoud, who supervised all the work together with the architect.
“I was lucky to find a good architect and I contributed with the electrical work, designing the location of the luminaires”.
The couple were impressed by the quality of the work of the local tradesmen and builders, saying they found it far superior to anything they had encountered in the US.
“Italian artisans are amazing,” says Spencer. “How they transformed this space into something new is amazing. It was a shell, now it looks like a Renaissance house.”
However, the final bill surprised them, as they had not realized that 10% VAT would be added to the construction costs.
Before embarking on the renovation of their Italian home, Massoud and Spencer were often warned about the risks involved in buying and improving a large home abroad.
But they say they had full confidence in the Sambuca housing scheme, which aims to support local economic development, and are delighted with the end result.
“I could pinch myself,” says Spencer. “We were very lucky. I could be telling you a lot of nightmares, but I’m not, because it all worked out pretty well. Much better than it would have been in a small town in the United States.”
The CNN Wire
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