What I wish I’d known about house buying in Italy

We’ve all been there and done that – spent long winter evenings drooling over landscape photographs of rolling Tuscan hills dotted with cypresses, and close up shots of lemons. We’ve lost hours to blogs that ooze sensual beauty and give your dreams a real urgency, and been absorbed by the various literary accounts of hilarious, yet always somehow successful, life transitions. And so much of it is true. Tuscany is utterly overflowing with postcard picture views and delights. Lucca too, while enjoying a relative anonymity next to Florence, is a little gem. Happily, if you’re reading this, you’ve made it – you’re here, or on your way. And I’m not going to rain on your parade. I count myself amongst the luckiest of the lucky, believe me, to live on a south-west facing hillside overlooking the hills and city, in many ways a truly enviable spot. I’m not a cynic and am not interested in any social divides, quite the opposite. But I’ve made some assumptions along the way and thereby many a mistake, and this post might help you to avoid one or two. As you read, I ask one important thing – that you suspend judgement. Try to avoid the persuasive voice of your current certainty, the “Oh for heaven’s sake, who would do that?!” voice, for you really don’t know until you get here what you’ll do . . . 

I wasn’t about to waste my capital on renting, from what I’d seen, something I seriously didn’t want to live in. So after 10 months in Italy, and fewer in Lucca, I bought a sweet little stone terratetto, totally renovated. It had a kitchen. And olive trees. And a sweet little garden. I loved it. And I still do. But as the classic ingenue who didn’t know the questions to ask let alone understand the answers, and with the Italian vocabulary of a small child, it was a brave thing to do. Or maybe a bit reckless. It’s certainly caused me many a sleepless night and numerous dips into a budget I had marked for fun. But still, there’s that view. Anyway, for you, this is what I’ve learned along the way. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, merely background reading to help you to arm yourself in readiness for the process. And it’s only one person’s opinion. 

Approach your search in the spirit of guerrilla warfare and forget any ideas of solicitude you may have when it comes to property agents. Agents commonly represent both buyer and seller – you may spot a minor conflict of interest here – and, these days, ask a 3% cut from both. That’s a hefty sum for a few phone calls, trips out, and a passive presence at legal and technical meetings. You need to be prepared to do the leg work yourself and to negotiate. I recommend an early conversation about mutual expectations with any agent you might want to work with and if things don’t feel right, move on. There must be as many agents as churches in Lucca and that’s quite an accomplishment. As most properties for sale are on the sites of a number of them, talking to a range of agents is definitely recommended, and allegiance is not required. You can work with as many as you wish – but be warned, once you’ve viewed a property with an agent, you’re their prize for that particular plot of gold. Don’t get this wrong. And perhaps most importantly, sign nothing an agent asks. Nothing. Under any circumstances. Ask a lawyer. 

So much depends on where you’re looking. If you’re planning on living within the walls, your choice will be made easier. If you’re outside, prepare for a treasure hunt. Agents will not tell you where a property is so it’s usually impossible to answer their question as to whether or not you want to view – location probably being your first filter. You’ll be given a map overlaid by a circle with the circumference of Saskatchewan and told it’s somewhere ‘in this area’. It could be along an unmade track in a forest, on a state highway, above a shop, or next to a cement factory. You couldn’t know. And don’t bother searching for the address given in an advert. There lies disappointment. You’ll be told it’s all for the privacy of the sellers – work that one out if you can. You can’t, because the reason has nothing to do with either client. Anyway, you’ll just have to cover this conundrum in your ‘mutual expectations’ conversation. Good luck with that one. 

From the joyous day you do manage to beat the agents in their game of hide and seek, and you find the place of your dreams, you’ll need help. Lots of it. How I wish I’d asked for more. Don’t skimp on professionals’ fees. It seems the jury is out on whether or not you need a lawyer to help with your purchase and, for me, the answer lies with the quality of your geometra. A geometra is a peculiarly Italian phenomenon, a chimerical creature pretty much essential to life here in one way or another. I have one now to whom I would entrust my life but I’m overly pernickety and he is my fourth. Sometimes – though by no means always, so ask – also an architect, a land surveyor, or an engineer, your geometra should know the ins and outs of everything, everything there is to know about the property and its conformity to the land registry. S/he should check the cadastral maps of your future home and those of all neighbours, and anyone else who may have a claim to land or to access, and you must know that your seller has full legal capacity. In many cases, properties are sold by families and require the written agreement of a number of family members, not just the one you meet. Your geometra will also check that everything to do with the property itself – from its habitability licence and permits and its conformity to building plans to whether or not the boiler’s had its two-yearly services (something required by law here). I’d like to wager a guess that very few properties for sale here are technically ‘legal’. Mine certainly wasn’t. A good geometra is worth his or her weight in gold. 

Take nothing at face value. If you’re in town, and you’re told your building has no condominium fees, ask what happens if the roof caves in or when the outside needs painting. If you’re outside the walls or up a hill with the goblins, don’t ever buy anything that isn’t clearly fenced and/or where those boundaries aren’t recognised on the cadastral map. If you must, I’d suggest one of two things. First, you could ask the owners to fence the land and register this with the commune before you complete the sale. Or second, you could ask your geometra to go to the archives and check the property ownership since records began – again, to check that no-one else might be able to claim rights to ownership or access. Then fence it off if you can or wish. This may sound extreme but it may also save you years of litigation that will make you wonder if you’re actually sane. You can trust me on this one.

If you don’t have the confidence that your geometra can handle all of this, or your sale is in any way more complicated, I’d recommend working with a lawyer too. There may be even more lawyers in Lucca than property agents so you start to get the picture. Things do go wrong and you should do all you can to head them off at the pass. A few thousand Euros more to secure your investment and your peace of mind can be money well spent. If you don’t have the language skills to work successfully with all your professionals (and who does for this kind of thing?) work with a translator too. In fact, work with a translator from the outset. They can negotiate with your agent for you. 

While on the subject of all of the professionals you will need, avoid the temptation to work with people recommended by another in the team. Choose professionals by independent recommendation and introduce them to each other – create your own team – that way you have some checks and balances. Of course, in a city the size of Lucca, you can never be sure of who knows whom but you can at least try. And if all of this is starting to sound scary, it really isn’t. Rest assured that there are lots of lovely professional people here who want you to succeed and who will look after you. And happily, lots of us know them. 

Finally, follow your instincts. This isn’t the simple truism it sounds when you’ve moved to a different country, and it’s why I asked you to suspend judgement while reading. Your desire to fit it in, and to ‘get things right’ will take a front seat and the sense and reason that have served you well all your lives at home can become the back seat passengers. Honestly, I look in despair at some of the things I’ve agreed to because I just wanted to fit in when, in fact, I was being singled out for exploitation simply because there was never any chance I would. Land is expensive to look after, for example, and ex-pats are seen as easy money. Single female ex-pats are a grass-cutter’s dream. I tried myself. I honestly did but . . . Whatever, ask me, one day, how €18 per hour doubles in the blink of an eye once the work is done. Most teachers, policemen, and medical workers long for the pecuniary rewards that can be commanded by wielding a frullino. “No” isn’t a word you’ll often hear directly here. It’s said in many different ways and I’ve learned, over the years, how to use these to decline politely and to avoid expense or unnecessary complication. ‘Fitting in’ is always going to be an aim here but living like a local is something gifted to you not something you achieve. 

Home, sweet home.

With this in mind, one of the key expressions that I look out for – and I have to admit it now makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – is ‘this is how we do it here’ – often accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. When I first arrived, I heard this as a rebuke for having got something wrong. I was duly reprimanded and would shuffle off apologetically. Now, however, I hear it simply as a statement from someone who’s not prepared to change the way they do things and provide a service I may be looking for even though they purport to offer it. They don’t have to, of course. And that’s fine as long as I understand it that way and have a choice. It’s all well and good if I’m merely unhappy about having been charged a premium for not knowing where my drink costs me more. But it’s not so good if I’m spending my life savings on a property and looking to trust a partner to help me in the process. My advice? Don’t hang around if you hear this expression or see the shrug. It means you’re no longer in charge of your destiny or, in other words, in control of your house purchase. 

And there you have it. It’s simple really, just a case of caveat emptor – as indeed it is everywhere in the world. And it’s nothing you can’t overcome with the support of friends. So buy your dream home here . . . join us all, Italians and immigrants alike, and contribute to the life of a beautiful city unfolding into the spring of a new year full of hope – because this is how we do it here. — by Lesley Roberts

“Italy was a bit of a random choice if I’m honest, but I spent many happy holidays driving around choosing exactly where to settle. Lucca is perfect.” Lesley Roberts arrived from Britain in 2015 and made the hills just to the north-west of the city her home in 2016. When not strimming or warding off wild pigs, she can be found in town, invariably with her intrusive labrador, Tina, as they enjoy the piazzas and pasticcerie, and walk the walls. In the summer months, she teaches yoga on the walls on a Saturday morning. Otherwise, she does nothing much. 

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