No, they're not scams, but yes, you need to play it carefully.

By Julia Buckley
May 02, 2021
Advertisement
Rubia Daniels home restoration in Italy
Credit: Rubia Daniels

Do you read all those stories of homes being sold for just €1 ($1.20) in Italy and figure they must be too good to be true?

According to one woman who bought one, they're the real deal.

Rubia Daniels, a California resident, was one of the first people to buy a house in Mussomeli, Sicily, in spring 2019. The whole experience went so smoothly that the she ended up purchasing three houses: one for her, and the others for her kids.

When she returned in the summer to start renovations, she traveled with her husband and brother-in-law, and on her third trip in December, she brought along a group of family and friends, some of whom promptly snapped up houses for themselves. Travel restrictions allowing, she'll be taking another group to buy houses this June.

Daniels knows Europe — pre-COVID, she traveled there two or three times a year, but she'd never been to Sicily before. Now, she's planning to retire there. So, how did things turn out so well for her? Here's what to do — and what to avoid — if you're interested in buying one of Italy's €1 homes.

Pick your project.

First things first: Does that €1 home really cost just €1? There are taxes and fees to pay, of course, along with the building work, but not all schemes are equal when it comes to the price of the house itself.

"I know some people who went to another town, and it turned out to be an auction," says Daniels.

Each town has different rules, whether that's the pricing structure, deposit system, number of architects or lawyers you must involve (and pay), or time in which you have to complete your renovations to avoid penalties. Make sure to pick the one that works for you.

You should also be aware of the criteria for renovations. In Mussomeli, for example, you can do what you like with the interior, as long as you keep the façade as it originally would have been. Daniels is already planning an art gallery on the ground floor of one of her homes.

Rubia Daniels home restoration in Italy
Credit: Rubia Daniels

Don't buy remotely.

"Definitely don't try to do it online — you need to be there to see it and experience the process to make sure you're making a mindful decision," says Daniels. "I wouldn't do anything through the internet."

In Daniels' case, an article about the Mussomeli plan prompted her to email for details. The officials running the project replied that she had to come in person, so she quickly booked a flight. She traveled there thinking she might buy one house if things went well, but she loved the experience and hospitality so much that she ended up buying three.

Don't go on a whim.

There's a lot to do once you arrive, so you'll need to hit the ground running. "Do your research before you go," says Daniels, who scoured the internet for information about Mussomeli, as well as the houses for sale, before booking her flight.

"Look at the available properties, use Google Maps to get a sense of what the town looks like, and choose at least three houses you're interested in. That way, if one doesn't have the paperwork ready, you have other choices."

Don't skimp on time.

"You'll need at least a week," says Daniels. "You'll tour the properties for two days, then decide on yours, and you'll need to verify that the house has the right documents. Once you get there, there are so many opportunities that if you're only there a week, you'll run out of time, come home, and be frustrated." Equally important: Don't get distracted. Sicily is beautiful, the beach is an hour away, and hilltop Mussomeli "is almost like sitting above the clouds," says Daniels. But this isn't a vacation. Time is ticking, so keep your eye on that €1 prize.

Don't fall for one property.

When Daniels first visited Mussomeli in spring 2019, she toured the properties with just one other person. When she returned a few months later, she was in a group of about eight — and she herself had brought some people with her. This year, she plans to return with six families, all on the lookout for their own €1 homes.

In other words, that house you have your eye on might also be the favorite for someone else. "Be prepared. If you find the location you want, let them know you want to sign up for the house. There are lots of people searching for these homes, and you need to be ready," says Daniels.

But it's not just the other buyers who might gazump you; once you put in an offer, it might turn out that the sale can't be completed because the paperwork isn't all there. "One person I took to Mussomeli became obsessed with one house, and when it didn't work out, he became very frustrated," says Daniels. "Make sure you have options. Do your research, make your offer, embrace it, and move forward."

Don't go by first impressions.

See that house with the roof caved in? Don't discount it. "I wasn't paying attention to the roof — you can easily repair that," says Daniels, who works with roofing in her day job. Instead, she was looking for signs that the foundations were decent. "You don't want to get anything where the walls are buckled because that indicates a foundation issue," she advises. Even a collapsed wall is better than a buckled one.

Then again, if you're planning to start from scratch, it doesn't matter so much. One of the people she toured the properties with was an architect. "He bought three houses side by side and will convert them into one — he wasn't paying attention to the foundations," she says.

Rubia Daniels home restoration in Italy
Credit: Rubia Daniels

Pace yourself, and budget well.

Renovating a €1 home is a major project, so make sure you know what you're getting into. In Daniels' case, the estate agents offered rough estimates of renovation costs. (In Mussomeli, it starts at around €20,000.) She also recommends working with local architects and builders to know upfront how much money you'll end up sinking into it. "There are plenty of construction companies there that make things very easy, and the person who works in the city department is helpful. If you bring plans, he'll give you the best guidance," she says.

But don't think that because you're not visiting for a year, all the work needs to be crammed into a couple of months. "You need to pace yourself," says Daniels, who is concentrating on the first house before tackling the others.

Check the rules in your town — Mussomeli requires you to fix up the façade within three years of purchase, and take it gradually. That goes for pricing the project, too. "You need to budget, pace yourself, and enjoy the process," says Daniels.

Don't be unrealistic.

"People need to have a level of reality," she says. "If you sell me a house for €1, I know I'm going to have to fix it. They're revitalizing the town and that's why the house is coming to you for €1. Then, you have to do the work." You're looking at potential, not your move-in-ready home.

But don't be nervous, either.

For her first visit, Daniels traveled alone to Mussomeli. Although it was her first time in Sicily, and she wasn't sure what to expect, she says she was made to feel welcome by every single person she met. "The estate agents spent an unlimited amount of time to make sure I was OK, got me food, and even took me to a pharmacy," she says. But it wasn't just the people selling her a house that treated her well; everyone she encountered was friendly.

"Mussomeli is all about socializing," she says. "It's a much slower place because it's not about the money. It was a very positive experience, and it felt empowering as a woman."

And finally, do integrate.

For Daniels, it was visiting Mussomeli and meeting the locals that made her want to buy. "It makes all the difference — if you get there and people are nasty, you're not going to want to be there, even if the house costs €1," she says. "It's an investment — most cost around €20,000 to remodel — and I made my decision based on how welcoming the town was."

When she went to buy building materials for her first house, the man in the shop insisted on going around and measuring things himself so she didn't overspend. Another day, her neighbor popped over with coffee after seeing her working.

"It's how the people make you feel that makes you say, 'OK, I'll buy three'," she says. But she warns that you need to play your part, too. As a Brazilian with a degree in Spanish, Daniels understands Italian, which helps, but she doesn't think fluency is necessary. "I think it's down to your energy — be friendly and engaging," she says. But start those Italian lessons before you go: "You need to show some effort."