Buying a home in Italy: One American expat’s struggles

Chandi Wyant in Tuscany.

Chandi Wyant in Tuscany.


Frances Mayes’ 1996 blockbuster bestseller, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” made buying a home in Tuscany the pinnacle of Italian dreams. A garden. A beautiful kitchen to cook fresh Italian dishes. And, oh, that Italian sun. But it’s not always a love story. Buying a home in Italy can be a story of disillusionment.

Like me, Chandi Wyant is an American expat, travel writer, author and one-time Colorado transplant. Her book, “Return to Glow,” about her 40-day pilgrimage walk in Italy, has become a big hit. She moved to Tuscany for a second time last spring and was hopeful about buying a small house or apartment. It’s a long process and sometimes painful. In between moving out of freezing rental that had no heat, into another temporary rental with friends, she joined me for an online Q&A about her experiences house-hunting in Italy.

Homes in central Florence can be very expensive. Photo by Chandi Wyant

Homes in central Florence can be very expensive. Photo by Chandi Wyant


WHAT’S THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUYING A HOME IN ITALY AND THE U.S?

The market is not liquid like the U.S. market tends to be. Flipping houses is not a thing with Italians. About 70-80 percent of Italians own the homes in which they live. Property is passed down through generations — or if Italians don’t inherit a house, they tend to buy one and one only.

Property in Italy should not be seen as an investment. It’s better to buy if you want to live there forever. Although if you’re not going to live in the property you buy and if it’s near tourist attractions, you can rent it out for income.

If you are concerned about resale, you need to know that it is usually quite difficult to sell a house that is located in the countryside. The best places for resale are the historic centers of popular cities.

WHAT HAPPENED IN YOUR SEARCH?

I looked at about 20 places in Lucca and surrounding area, and about 20 in the center and the outskirts of Florence. Then I got burnt out and stopped.

WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?

Price range in Florence: To get a decent-looking but small two-bedroom apartment in the center or slightly on the periphery but not in a horrible area, you are looking at a minimum of 300,000 euros ($360,000) and the kitchen is likely to be barbie sized and it’s unlikely there will be a garden or a terrace. To get two bedrooms with radiant floor heat and a large garden in a great location you are looking at 550,000 Euro ($670,000).

Living in Tuscany does have its romantic side. Photo by Chandi Wyant

Living in Tuscany does have its romantic side. Photo by Chandi Wyant


WE ALL HEAR ABOUT THE CONFUSING ITALIAN BUREAUCRACY. HOW BIG A PART DOES IT PLAY?

The process of using a real estate agent is different in Italy than in the U.S. Americans are used to choosing a realtor based on who they feel is sympathetic to their wish list, and who they know will go to bat for them. In Italy you don’t have such a luxury. There is no central data base like Multiple Listings Services in the U.S. Realtors have their territory. They represent only some properties. And they work for the seller as well as the buyer, which doesn’t allow for the “They have my back” feeling.

In my experience I spent about a hundred hours during a two-month period, searching properties online, then requesting further info when I saw something interesting, and then I received an onslaught of calls in Italian from realtors and had to set up eight showings with eight different realtors for a two-day trip to Florence.

The amount of realtors I spoke to and met was dizzying and I couldn’t keep them clear in my head. Needless to say I find the U.S. system to be more straightforward and more pleasant.

Finally I found a realtor in Florence who seemed more competent than the others, and who I felt really was taking my criteria to heart. I asked her if I could be exclusively with her. The answer was “Yes but…”

Because of the lack of a MLS, my exclusive realtor had to ask other realtors if she could show their property to me, if I wanted to see one she didn’t represent. Sometimes she got a yes and sometimes a no.

Lastly, regarding bureaucracy, there are numerous complex technical and legal aspects to buying property in Italy and foreigners can easily get in over their heads. My advice is to take it slowly, rent first and do a lot of research about the market and the process and the expenses, and always hire competent legal assistance when buying a property in Italy.

HOW MUCH DID THIS EXPERIENCE TAKE AWAY FROM THE ROMANTIC NOTION OF BUYING A HOUSE IN TUSCANY?

If you have a lot of money to spend on a property in Italy you may possibly still feel the romance of it that is encouraged by enticing photos on real estate ads and by Hollywood movies. If you are on a budget it can be a painful process if you have the romantic version in your head.

A typical kitchen in Florence.

A typical kitchen in Florence.


WHAT’S THE WORST THING YOU DISCOVERED?

The kitchens. When you’re on a budget they’re awful. And even if you have $670,000 to spend on an apartment in Florence, the kitchen will likely be enclosed by walls with no window.

I viewed a new apartment in Florence (550,000 euros or $670,000). I couldn’t afford it but it had radiant floor heating and a large garden, so I just had to see it. (After going through the winter months in a rustic countryside place with no heat the thought of radiant floor heat, and new, air-tight construction sounded like heaven.) I walked into the main room, a nice big space, with large windows and a glass door at the end of it, opening to the garden. But at the back of this room where there were no windows was the kitchen with walls around it, all closed in.

While I love hundreds of things about Italy, I will never love a windowless kitchen in a closet.

(Italians think kitchens must be hidden which is why they’re typically built into windowless corners, or even literally found inside closets.)

I am actually very adaptable to many things. When I lived in India I had to go outside and dig a hole to go the bathroom. But I have not been able to relinquish my love of a kitchen that is the heart of the house, a place that is inviting and festive, with an island where guests can sit with their wine while the host prepares food.

My dream kitchen and my dream of living in Italy may not “marry well” (to take a phrase from Italian) and I have to find a balance.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW IN THE BUYING PROCESS?

After doing a huge push with my search through December and January, I became disheartened about what was available in my budget. And the dollar was getting lower, so I took a break. I may have to stray farther into Florence’s periphery to afford an apartment that feels attractive to me. My next task is to get to know those areas and learn how resale prospects may change for an apartment in the periphery versus in the center.


Chandi is a world traveler, photographer, writer and historian. She moved to Tuscany in the spring of 2017 after a long love affair with Italy that started in the 1980s when she first traveled there at age 19 and then returned the following year to live in Florence and learn the language. Chandi has a master’s degree in Florentine Renaissance history and has taught at colleges in the US and overseas. On her website, Paradise of Exiles, she blogs about how to move to Italy.

Chandi’s memoir about her 40-day pilgrimage walk in Italy has been featured on numerous travel websites and podcasts to rave reviews. You can get the book here.

You can find her on instagram and Facebook:
instagram @paradiseofexiles
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ParadiseOfExiles/

17 thoughts on “Buying a home in Italy: One American expat’s struggles

  1. I was lucky. I bought my tiny place in Orsara di Puglia from my cousin so I didn’t have to go through the usual bureaucracy. It used to belong to our Nonno and cost less than my new car! Places are a lot cheaper in smaller towns. I hope Chandi finds a place soon. Ciao, Cristina

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, everyone seems to get homes from relatives. My girlfriend got her apartment from her father. She hasn’t paid a mortgage in years. How is life in Orsara di Puglia? I know some people who bought into the romantic notion of living in small-town Tuscany would be ideal. They were bored stiff and moved to Rome. But they were single and had no families.

  3. I usually only spend the summer in Orsara, and this year I was also there in November. i live in Canada the rest of the time. The summer and festa times are wonderful in Orsara! Fresh air, good food and passeggiata in the evening, plus the population is bigger. The winter can be long and lonely, with not a lot to do, but my friends and relatives seem to do well there. Ciao, Cristina

  4. I am an American and we are selling our beautiful three bedroom three bath home that is in a little community right outside of Florence in the middle of Chianti. It has an American style kitchen and a beautiful tavern with a garden in the front and the back. Are usually is quite difficult to purchase property, however I do have one available if you know of anyone who is looking for a special place near Florence.

    • Hi Sue, I’d be interested in seeing the property you’re selling. We’re looking to buy something in Italy, but it must be very close to Florence. Your place sounds beautiful!
      Thanks!

  5. Sorry about your experience
    I sold in Abruzzo a beautiful small renaissance home, in a protected village (protected from speculation) I wish I had heard of these struggles before!
    Anyhow: rules are different in every nations, I bought and sold in the USA and sometimes the USA can be very painful especially with the new laws for loans etc
    But rules guarantee you , in the USA there are too few and loose ones at that: I saw homes with cracks in walls, mold under kitchen cabinets that obstructed a vent (GASP) etc etc
    so not so different where one is armed with experience for the various locals.
    Please understand Italian homes are centuries hold: don t expect Beverly hills and spacious this and that: there was not even a good toilet in the 1400 !
    the fun is in making it yours and some have been reappointed by great architects: good hunting
    PS I love Abruzzo, stop focusing on the usual regions, you miss out, check Marche Abruzzo Molise, Puglia the appenine in Emilia Romagna
    M Goodness: GORGEOUS places everywhere
    Ciao Amici!

    • We just bought a 1500 Sq Ft. apartment in Abruzzo. It is a little village between the Adriatic Sea and Gran Sasso mountains. My relatives all live there and the house cost less than a car. 25,000 euros. I paid another 7,000 plus for feeds and closing. The apartment needs renovation but hope to get started soon. From my balcony I can see the mountains and from by kitchen window I can see a little of the sea. I had them remove all from the apartment before settlement including the kitchen and I picked a new kitchen before returning to the US for $14,000 euros which includes all appliances, countertop, faucet, sink. This is a big kitchen by Italian standards and 13 meters. You are right that Italians do no like open floor plans as the architect was trying to talk me out of putting my sink at the window and said I should add a distinction between the kitchen and sitting room/family room. All very interesting. I can’t say it was a bad experience however I did have cousins who were involved all the way. The only thing that took me off course was the fact that I bought the house for one price but it was valued higher when I got to settlement and as a result I had to pay more taxes and I was also told that I could not qualify for the “first Home Benefits” in Italy and pay low taxes because I was not an Italian citizen. This was not told to me in advance and I was really surprised. None of this was told to me upfront which left a bad taste in my mouth and a little confusion issues with my cousins who took it personal that I questioned it and did not trust them. It was interesting to say the least but overall I so far am happy that we did this and look forward to the remaining process.

  6. I am just looking to buy some small house in Italy and the project is not to exceed 10.000 GBP!
    Of course including renovation and all costs related. We will see how I go.

      • I agree, unless you plan to spend hundreds of thousands even if you find one for 10,000 pounds, it would be very expensive to restore or may not even be possible to restore. be careful…

    • yes I have to agree because yearly taxes are very low in Italy, I think it is a good investment to buy especially now prices are low although it is a bit of a hassle to renovate but if you find the right people and take it slow, it can be done and much more reasonable than in the USA. I will have to see how it goes as I have not started the renovation yet, John.

  7. What bank would provide a mortgage to an American? I walked into a bank in Italy and they said they won’t give me a mortgage unless I work and live in Italy. I’m struggling to find a bank that will provide me with a mortgage, can anybody point me to the right direction?

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