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