Monday, February 19, 2007

a weekend in August

With some hindsight, I always used to say that you couldn’t comment on life in Italy if you weren’t a resident here, I amend that now to, you have no idea of the real workings of Italian life until you buy a house.
Certainly, in our case buying a property in the ancient village of Castelnuovo in the province of Como, developed our capacity for patience and irony beyond what we could ever have imagined. As my foreign friends had always warned me, there is no end to the curved balls thrown at you by the property market in Italy. Yet we came like lambs to the new green grass disregarding all the dire warnings.
So, from the safety of our cosy rented apartment, we began our initiation. Firstly finding an apartment or a house that is for sale, is the first hurdle, the second is finding one that will be available for occupation within a year of buying it, the majority of housing isn’t constructed yet and is sold ‘off plan’.
After asking everyone we knew, or came across, we finally discovered buying privately wasn’t done. Later we realised, after making many evening and weekend visits to Estate agents, that we were expected to pay 25% of the purchase price as an offer, to be taken seriously and then, after paying the agent and the notaio-notary their fee, (another ten thousand up front), plus the balance of the purchase price, we would have to wait for about nine months to move in. While the present owners used our money to finance the purchase of their new condominium, we would continue to pay rent, with no definite date to move in. Moreover, they were not prepared to pay occupational rent for our prepay while we waited for the paid up notaio who would take four months to register the property in our name.
I was told that the risks were: that they may change their minds, and if they experienced delays on their not yet built condominium, it would be our problem not theirs. That our money, would be almost impossible to retrieve, since the whole Italian legal system runs on a five year delay, and the advice I’d always been given, was never to go to court in Italy if you are in the right, but only if you are in the wrong.
The solution seemed simple, choose a house that was already empty. Well, there aren’t any.
There is this chain going on in every city, people waiting to move into a property they had paid for months ago, while the former owners waited for the rain to stop so the builders could complete the apartment block they had promised to move into a year ago.
Actually there are a few empty properties, the catch?. They are old and needing restoration, and therefore uninhabited, since the majority of this post rural, post farmhouse, boxy concrete apartment loving generation, dream of a condominium with newly built concrete walls, plastic windows, double glazing and triple locking doors.
We traipsed around with sycophantic agents, showing us examples of building sites that would one day sprout into palaces. While we continually reminded them we wanted something ancient (Italian for old), with character, were prepared to do some restoration, and wanted to be near the train station. Somehow they couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that we didn’t want a condominium.
Finally months later, we boycotted all the estate agencies and looked in a newspaper published in our province, called La Provincia, there in the classifieds I read something that sounded promising, It was a Saturday morning, we were having a cappuccino in the local bar, so we called the number, there was an answering machine, we left our number, something we didn’t normally do. Miracle of miracles the call was returned, the man agreed to meet us at the house which was just across the street, at 4pm. We were so excited, over a mere successful appointment, how our expectations had been lowered over the year!.
So we hung around at the door to the double story house, which was right opposite an ancient tower we had often admired, looking out for a tall man, the only description we had of him. Finally at 4.30 a tall man got out of a very small car and approached us.
We entered a darkened house, the shutters were pulled up by him and then we saw a large living room and a kitchen big enough to have a dining table in, the thick walls, the high beamed ceilings, the beams were whole trees, rough, dark and old, which we were told were cherry and had been there for hundreds of years. The stout walls were white washed, the window frames were chestnut and the wiring and heating system had been redone. We climbed the stone stairs leading to the landing on the second floor, and discovered, two huge, light filled bedrooms the main one with a small balcony, looking into the tower which was almost close enough to touch. Here too, the ceilings were high and beamed, the floors were wood and had been restored. There was also a bathroom, and a laundry which had a ladder leading to an attic which we could convert into a open space if we desired. On the landing opposite the bathroom was a French door which opened to the back of the house over an arch spanning our private road which ran into a small courtyard garden at the back. The house was bordered by another ‘ancient’, barn-like building needing restoration that wasn’t part of the property. The walled garden with a grapevine rambling over the wall, we were told was for our use and the back door opened out onto it.
We were enchanted and, asked the man if it was his, and the price. He told us it belonged to a friend and gave us the approximate price. Then he locked up and left, leaving us standing on the pavement contemplating if this was the house for us.
As we stood at the base of the old tower in front of the house, in the historic centre of the village. we both realised something rather serendipitous (which my dictionary defines as making happy discoveries by accident). Yet was it an accident? When we pieced it all together, we came up with what I like to call happy accidents and others call coincidence. In the weeks before, walking around this village searching out property, we had stopped at the archway over this little private road and I had said this is the kind of place we’d like. ‘Yes’, said Amante ‘I like this archway with its heavy old beams’. Once again we both admired the tower and said we’d like to live in it or near it. Walking near the tower another day I looked down and discovered some coins on the pavement which I took to be lucky and picked up, (I now realise) right outside the front door of the future house.
Call it what you will, it was a sign, and had become our fate.
We walked to the station, it was a mere four minute walk and would be a thirty minute journey to work by train. So we went home to put together our finance and decide what our offer would be.
Little did we know that the most stressful month was to follow, and so we entered the rarefied arena of the notaio, in Italy, a person only slightly lower than God.
We were also to discover that the man who showed us the house was not a friend but an agent in disguise. In Italy commission is paid to the agent by both the seller and the buyer. A fat 6% in total. for doing very little work. Certainly, he could answer few of our questions, as to the age of the property, since it had been in the same family for generations. The town planner of Castelnuovo was not any more helpful, as to existing plan of house, the deeds contained a tiny photocopied plan, very short on detail, despite talk of many architects who had helped in the renovations, what was clear, however, was that our house and the buildings next to it dated back to the origins of the village, a place the Romans built as a place to administer the region from.
When we met the seventy year old owner of the house, a yellowed barrel-shaped man who spoke in the mobs’ gravelly whisper, to sign an offer on the house he had inherited from his aunt, He too, not give us exact dates of renovations either. He always assured us that at the next meeting the architect would arrive with all the plans to answer our questions. He spoke to Amante mostly, but addressed me occasionally in the most servile simpering way. The English woman he called me, in a manner than seemed at odds with his mob image. Mr Brillo told us everything was ottimo and of the finest quality and workmanship. Documents, here had not replaced words, words still mattered, or the lack thereof as we would discover.


Kev Cruz said...

I've just got round to reading your very true it is!
I feel your pain..having bought a house in 'sunny' Milan 4 years ago! I'm still hurting...ouch ouch ouch!

Expat in Italy said...

Thankyou, the next post is now on continuing the theme of buying and renovating.

Como the beautiful

Como the beautiful
walk near the lake

Hidden Italy, the places we visit regularly from Tuscany to the lake district above Como.

When I became a resident in Italy in 2001, I already knew how visitors liked to praise her places, food and art.
I had visited many times as a visitor myself, and been enchanted.
This site is rather designed to show the hidden Italy, the real Italy experienced by it's residents.
The events of the year, from registering as a resident, to celebrating Christmas, Easter and many other festivals, buying a house, working, banking, and still enjoying its beauty, are to be found here.

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My favourite writings on Italy

  • Italian Education/Cara Massimina Tim Parks
  • Where angles fear to tread E.M. Forster ISBN0140180885
  • A small place in Italy ISBN0330338188
  • D.H.Lawrence and Italy ISBN 0140095209
  • The Italians by Luigi Barzini Touchstone books ISBN 068482500