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24th Jan 2022

Feature

How Italy's one-euro homes are helping to revive rural villages

  • Rural Italy has seen its villages becoming emptier every year. To stop this trend it started a program to sell houses at €1 (Photo: Revol Web)
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In recent years, dozens of depopulating rural towns across Italy - from the Alps to Sicily - have started selling crumbly old properties for just one euro, less than the cost of an espresso.

The goal is to breathe new life into their dying communities and revamp the local economy.

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  • The Sicilian village of Sambuca had streets full of empty houses. Now people are coming back, giving the village a second life. (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)

As villagers flee in search of a brighter future elsewhere there is a reverse incoming trend of foreign buyers eager to replace them and help revive these sleepy places.

Roughly 60 towns and villages have launched the alluring one-euro-home scheme, and even though there is no official national data on how many houses have been sold, at local level mayors involved in the project say it has been a success.

In the Sicilian towns of Gangi over 300 one-euro properties have been offloaded, while in Mussomeli roughly 150. And the pandemic has not stopped the purchases, nor more towns from adopting the same scheme.

"On the contrary, we were quite amazed that despite global travel restrictions and pandemic anxiety many foreigners this summer rushed to snatch a crumbly home, lured by the plus points of Mussomeli: fewer crowds where social distancing is guaranteed, a simple lifestyle, great food and a pristine scenery", Toti Nigrelli, Mussomeli's deputy mayor, told EUobserver.

The village of Sambuca, founded by the Arabs, this year placed a second lot of old houses on the market for €2 following the successful sale of 17 abandoned properties in 2019. Given the many applications, the houses were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder.

In Sambuca the influx of new buyers has revived the tourist sector and the real estate market. New taverns, B&Bs, and boutiques have opened, says deputy mayor Giuseppe Cacioppo.

Since 2019, roughly 150 properties have been sold, also by private sellers, while many old buildings have been given a makeover, with the local economy benefiting from over €1.5 bn in new funds.

"Foreign owners have well integrated into the local community, they're considered our townsfolk - citizens among citizens. You can spot them at the bar each morning sipping an espresso, chatting with locals, or working remotely. Sambuca is living a Renaissance", said Cacioppo.

The pandemic has in fact boosted the appeal of Italy's offbeat idyllic villages among global digital nomads.

At least 10 more towns launched, in 202, the one-euro home scheme, including Pratola Peligna in Abruzzo and Laurenzana in Sicily.

The villages selling homes for one euro, mostly located in the deep poorer south, have a dwindling depopulation either due to past mass emigration or natural calamities such as earthquakes.

In several of these towns hundreds of dilapidated properties are being advertised online by local authorities, who liaise between old and new buyers.

However, even though the thought of snapping up a home for a bargain might seem too good to be true, there are several downsides.

The new owners must commit to refurbish the crumbly home within a deadline of 3 years and pay a deposit guarantee of between €2,000 and €5,000 depending on town rules, which will be returned to them once the work is completed.

There is also quite a lot of paperwork to do while notary costs range between €2,000 and €5,000. Above all, unpredictable costs of rebuilding a ruin-like property from scratch is also another issue buyers must weigh up.

The basic renovation of a 70-square metre crumbly house starts at €20,000 euros and it depends on the budget people are willing to invest, says Nigrelli.

"Those looking to stay several months per year here, especially foreigners, might want to spend just a minimal sum of money if it's their summer home. People who opt to take up residency and make it their first home are likely to spend much more", he said.

Cosmopolitan villages

Israeli-Romanian Thea Haimovitz, a Kabbalah guru, purchased this summer for just one euro a cozy old multi-level stone building in Mussomeli's historical center, close to the overhanging castle.

"Luckily I don't have to totally re-do it, it's in a rather good shape. I decided to purchase it because, as per Kabbalah teachings, I want to bring back life and spirituality to this house, which may now appear dead but has a soul which is still lingering, waiting to be recovered", said Haimovitz.

She plans to open a Kabbalah academy and believes Mussomeli will turn into a cosmopolitan place with newcomers from all over the world.

"When you have people of different nationalities and background come together, their encounter sparks new energy and makes the village a happy, better place to live in", she noted.

Often, foreigners lured by the one-euro homes end up buying slightly more expensive properties which require no renovation, or very little.

Florida-based businessman Chris Hill visited Mussomeli in September and snatched for €20,000 a two-floor, old dwelling close to the main piazza with multiple entrances, a panoramic terrace, and a cellar. And it was even furbished. He plans to use it as a retirement retreat.

"I was shocked by the price. It's insane how cheap it is compared to property in the States. All I need to do is put air conditioning. It's just too perfect. I can park my motorcycle down the street. I hear the church bells in the morning and evening, it's lovely", he said.

There was no specific reason why he picked Mussomeli. "We drove by, stopped and thought it was the right place. We love the character, locals are amazing and super cool", he added.

What struck Hill was seeing the village metamorphosis throughout the day as people go from siesta-mood during hot hours to party time when it gets cooler.

"It's all very quiet then, at 5PM the city lights up like a Christmas tree, and the streets are buzzing with people," he said.

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.

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