Lifestyle

They bought a $1 house in Italy; here's what happened next

Cities and villages offer mega deals

(CNN) - It seemed like a deal too good to be true. A new house -- and potentially a whole new life -- for sale in sunkissed rural Italy for the princely sum of just one euro, or little over a dollar.

Over the past year or so, numerous small towns from Sicily in the south to the northern Alps have been offering such bargains in the hope of attracting new residents to revitalize dying communities.

The deals have made headlines on CNN and beyond, captivating millions of people hooked on the romantic notion of abandoning the metropolitan rat race for a simpler life.

Many of the towns were inundated with inquiries. Phones rang off the hook. Websites creaked under the strain.

But did anyone actually buy? And when they did, what happened next? Did they become ensnared in Italy's notoriously byzantine bureaucracy?

Did they run smack into the language barrier? Did the houses turn out to be money pits? Did la dolce vita quickly sour, leaving buyers feeling ripped off and despondent?

CNN Travel caught up with some of the pioneering buyers -- or "€1 citizens," as the locals call them -- who did what most of us have only been willing to daydream about to discover whether it's been worth it.

Holiday escape

Morgane Guihot, who hails from near the city of Nantes, France, was among the first buyers to snap up the €1 deals being offered in Mussomeli, a beautiful town deep in the heart of Sicily where narrow, ancient streets cluster around a crumbling hilltop citadel.

The home she and her husband paid pocket change for is intended as a second family home.

Most of the deals do require purchasers to commit to investing in renovations -- something which Guihot, 27, and her husband, 31, have wasted no time in getting underway.

They've nearly completed restyling their 50-square-meter Mussomeli abode, having painted the walls and fixed the floors.

"We just need to finish the bathroom," she says. "As we're both artisans and renovators we did most of the work ourselves, which was minimal, and it was great seeing our two-room house come to life again.

"The 15 square-meter panoramic terrace is fabulous."

They'll be using the Sicilian abode, along with their two young children, as a holiday house during Christmas and summer breaks.

"When we decided to invest in a second home, we were lured by the attractive bargain prices in Mussomeli when compared to France's expensive estate market," Guihot adds.

"But what conquered us the first time we visited was the charm of the place. It's super cute and locals are so welcoming."

While the couple is used to rural living at home near Nantes, the move to Mussomeli has taken them somewhere far quieter.

"Even if it's not such a big change for us what makes it exciting is the great location," Guihot says.

"The town is close to beautiful Sicilian destinations and not isolated as opposed to other villages. Here you've got everything you need, shops, supermarkets.

"You can lead a cool lifestyle. It's simply great".

There were, apparently, no unpleasant surprises.

"Everyone has been real kind and the girls working at the real estate agency followed us every step of the way, helping us with the paperwork and the translation of the deed.

"It went better than expected. And even our home -- we thought it would be in a worse shape.

"Oh, we'd do it over and over again."

While she and her husband are relatively young, they're already thinking about Mussomeli becoming a retirement haven.

"We're still very young, who knows. For now it will be our holiday house, that will give us plenty of time to properly learn Italian."

Bucolic retirement

While many buyers set out to purchase dilapidated houses with the bargain basement price tag, some have ended up settling for more expensive homes in better shape.

After a long tour of Mussomeli's €1 buildings, Belgian businessman Patrick Janssen picked a "superior" dwelling at a higher price, which he has now almost completely refurbished.

Like many, he was lured by the media coverage of the cheap homes and the prospect of making a life-changing move.

"I'll be honest, we didn't buy a €1 house," he says. "We were shown something like 25 old buildings, some badly in need of repair, so at the end we opted for a three-room decent building for €10,000 and I invested more money in the renovation."

But it wasn't just the poor state of the buildings that steered him away from the € end of the scheme.

"I thought, if I buy a nice home, not crumbling down and I neatly fix it making it brand new again, it would last many more years," Janssen adds.

"My five kids, in 20 years time, would have a house still in perfect shape. If something happens to me, they'll have a good place where they can live and while they grow up they can come here with their friends."

For the time being, his plan is also to use it just as a holiday house where the family can spend several weeks or months per year.

"But now, giving it a second thought and after discovering the beauty of the place, it might become my future retirement spot."

Janssen has made the purchase with long-term plans in mind and weighing many factors, primarily the short distance between his main home in Brussels and Mussomeli.

"Sicily is around the corner. With just a two hours flight we escape from Belgium and reach Catania's airport. That's certainly a big plus point if you come from a European country to spend the weekend".

Mussomeli, when compared with frenetic Brussels, is another world, he says.

"People in Belgium don't relax. Life here is simpler, the town is cozy and the surrounding nature spellbinding. It's perfect to recharge one's batteries and detox".

Janssen's house has a panoramic terrace overlooking the old district's tile rooftops, quaint churches and narrow alleys.

"This corner of Sicily is wild, intact, green, not crowded. It's a perfect starting point to explore the rest of the island."

The purchase also went pretty smoothly for Janssen. Paperwork turned out easier than expected, despite Italy's bad reputation for red tape and excessive regulation.

"Actually, I was quite surprised in finding that buying and renovating a house is so much easier in Sicily than in Belgium".

Blood ties

For some there was something more powerful than the prospect of a cheap house to entice them -- like DNA and ancestry.

Chicago-based financial adviser Meredith Tabbone was among 16 buyers who secured an old dwelling in Sambuca, also in Sicily, which is famous for its Arab-style courtyards.

Tabbone has Sicilian blood running in her veins. Her ancestors came from Sambuca.

After CNN first broke the news in January that local authorities were selling off abandoned buildings to reverse depopulation, the village faced a property stampede.

Interested buyers from all over the world invaded Sambuca, sending thousands of requests.

The mayor, unable to meet sky-high demand and clearly sensing a business opportunity, auctioned the properties to the highest bidder. The houses were sold for up to €25,000 -- considerably more than €1, but still a bargain.

Tabbone submitted a bid for two dwellings without even visiting the town.

"When friends forwarded the article I realized that Sambuca happened to be the town where my family is from," she says.

"My great-grandfather emigrated to the States a long time ago. I had always wanted to visit Sicily but had never been to my hometown. I'd been meaning to go since the past 10 years, never had the chance."

Tabbone was amazed at finding that her bloodline lives on in its original place.

"I still have relatives living close to my new house, a few blocks away, but I haven't yet met them. I will next time I go though".

Tabbone bid €5,555 for each of the two houses and got the one located on a street at No .5.

"Five is my favorite number," she adds. "That's why I bid that precise sum and selected that particular house in that spot".

She did most of her paperwork online and Google-mapped the properties. But after winning the bid in May, she was forced to postpone her first trip until June.

"I had broken my ankle. I bought the house sight unseen".

Her new dwelling, with three bedrooms, tiled ceilings, curved stairs and two entrances, turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

"It's different from what I expected," she said. "I Googled it but had really no idea what it was going to be like. At the end it turned out to be much better than I thought. The balcony is nicer."

The house currently has no water nor electricity, but for Tabbone it's "like a blank canvas that I can bring to life with all those beautiful and cute Italian things that make a cozy home."

The building's history is an added attraction.

"The ground floor is where the stables were located," Tabbone says. "In the 1700 to 1800s horses were kept downstairs while families lived on the upper floor. There are still the ropes."

Tabbone has completed her paperwork and got hold of the blueprints. She's coordinating with architects on the next steps. It will be a basic restyle.

"People tend to think dealing with the paperwork is complicated. But really, it's not. It was all very smooth, a very easy process. Everybody was like 'gosh, it can't be easy'. But it was.

"You can download and fill in all required documents online, even apply for your new fiscal code to pay for property taxes in Italy. I found the architects on Instagram before setting foot in Sambuca," she says.

Tabbone says her ultimate goal is to qualify for Italian citizenship and make Sambuca her future retirement home.

"For now I'll be spending a few months a year. I'm only 40 but have started to think about my future, when I'll retire from work. People in Sambuca are warm, sweet and kind."

Overcoming stereotypes

While Tabbone may have found the process relatively simple, things have been less smooth sailing for New Yorker Kenny Sanchez, who purchased a home in Zungoli, Campania earlier this year.

Sanchez says he put in a bid on one of the town's €1 homes on a whim and never thought it would be approved.

"I knew a lot of people would be doing the same and thought I had little chance," he admits. "I did not expect to be granted a home in Italy. It was quite a surprise."

Sanchez visited Zungoli during the summer, and says locals were very welcoming.

However, the home he is now the proud owner of may not be habitable for a few years yet.

"The house seemed like it needs a lot of work," he says. "There are some major things that need to get repaired, including the roof.

"We were able to make the arrangements to renovate it within three years. That time frame should be ample for us to fix the necessary things and make it livable."

The paperwork side of things has also been moving slowly, which means he hasn't been able to move forward with any of the repairs.

"We are still waiting for the contract of sale," he says. "Since we don't have that yet, we haven't been unable to start anything."

Once the renovations are complete, Sanchez plans to travel to Zungoli with his family every year.

"Right now, we are looking to have it as a summer house or a place were we can get some respite from the US in Italy,"

"Zungoli is absolutely beautiful and we're very excited to have this opportunity. "

Many newcomers are considering settling down for good in Italy.

Another purchaser, UK-based Pakistani businessman Muhammad Ramzan, says he would like to enroll his kids at the local school in Mussomeli.

Like Janssen, he too opted for a slightly more expensive house, which he plans, for now, to use as a summer home for his family.

"Television reports were talking about this appealing initiative, I wanted to take a closer look," he said. "I had never been to Sicily nor Italy so had no idea what to expect. After seeing the poor conditions of a dozen €1 houses, I decided to spend more and bought one for €4,200 in need of minimal repair.

"It just requires some painting and my dad, who does that as a job, will be taking care of it."

Ramzan says the real estate agency helped him navigate through the whole process, easing paperwork which took months to complete.

"It can be a bit hard if you come from a different country or area," Ramzan says. "The agency personnel made it all feel more trustworthy, they were really helpful given I needed a translator and the notary deed had to be drawn up also in English."

His three-story dwelling in the historical center features a balcony with a great view of Mussomeli's hilly landscape and the spectacular cliff-hanging fortress, known locally as the Castle in the Sky.

"My wife loves art and the beauty of this place is so inspiring," he said. "Lovely weather. It's silent and peaceful."

He took several trips to Mussomeli before making a final decision.

"I had to see for myself so I met people, the neighbors, we went out for drinks together and became friends. I visited the local school for the kids and took long strolls late at night to see if the place was really safe..

"There's no mafia, people tell a lot of bad stories. There's this prejudice that Sicily is all about 'The Godfather' movie. But during my nights out I saw no danger, everything was quiet and safe."

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.


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