Part 1 Under the Tuscan Sun
This is the first of a series of posts dealing with the purchase by North Americans of property in Italy.
Italy has always been a very popular vacation destination for North Americans. Today, as the result of popular books and movies such as the 2003 romantic comedy Under the Tuscan Sun, many people dream of someday settling down in a farmhouse just outside a sunny Italian village populated by warm, generous and caring people.
Many of these dreamers are the descendants if Italian immigrants who long to establish contact with a culture to which they feel strongly attached but know relatively little. Nearly 6 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 2004, most between 1880 and 1920. The grandparents of many Americans now in their 50s and 60s arrived during this later wave of immigration. [Note: Many other Italians immigrated to Canada. There are nearly 16 million Italian-Americans living on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Fully 16% of residents of RI, CT, MA, PA, NJ and NY have Italian roots according to the National Italian American Foundation.]
I urge dreamers to not let movie renditions of life in Italy become their road map to happiness and fulfillment. The movie Under the Tuscan Sun is loosely based on the memoirs of the poet, travel writer and essayist Frances Mayes. Mayes is a Georgia native who became a professor of creative writing in San Francisco after earning an MA from San Francisco State University. Under the Tuscan Sun, At Home in Italy (Harpers 1996) recounts the four years Mayes and her husband spent living in and renovating a casale (farmhouse) near Cortona in Italy. The book was immensely popular, residing on the New York Times best seller list for over two years.
Mayes’ delightful book was not readily filmable, however. The story line and plot devices in the film are the work of Audrey Wells, whose film grossed $59 million internationally. Important aspects of Mayes’ book do find their way into the film, however. I credit Mayes for providing a theme of interest to many, for inspiring the film’s color and tone with her lush prose, and for the film’s emphasis on food. What does not emerge in the movie, however, is a realistic view of everyday life in Italy nor how one goes about buying and renovating property here.
The movie’s heroine, Frances, decides on impulse to buy a dilapidated farm house (casale). She finds herself competing with a German couple who also want to buy the place. When a pigeon shits on Frances, the owner decides to sell to her rather than to the Germans because, she says, being shit on is a sign of good luck.
Negotiation on the delicate question of price consisted of Frances deciding how much money she had to spend. The movie Frances needs to use a calculator to figure this out, but only because she needs to convert dollars into lire.
I have no real idea how much money Mayes and her husband Ed Kleinschmidt actually spent on their restoration project in Cortona. I do know, however, that real estate in this part of the world is pricey. A house that appears to be generally similar to the one purchased by Mayes and Klienschmidt is now on the market in Cortona for $2.7 million. (If you are a big time dreamer, click here.) I’d estimate that it will cost another $2 million to renovate this abandoned casale over a two-year period.
Don’t be fooled by the pigeon shit. People in Tuscany are not simple minded when it comes to real estate transactions. Just the opposite! The old Italian lady in the movie knew she’d get more money from the pretty, clueless American than from the tight-fisted Germans. Be aware, too, that if you don’t speak Italian (or, worse, speak it with a strong foreign accent) you will likely pay a premium unless you can find a local person with no interest in the transaction to negotiate on your behalf.
The success of a romantic comedy depends on viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief. Be aware, however, that the final price Frances paid in the movie for Bramasole surely exceeded the proceeds of half a house in San Francisco. If you are rich this may not be a problem. You can arrange to get pooped on and then pay whatever is being asked. The seller will be very happy, as will the various construction companies you’ll subsequently engage. But if you, like me, don’t habitually fly to Europe in Business Class you will need to come up with a strategy for determining the fair market value of the property you hope to buy.
Even if you do find a property in Italy that you absolutely love at price you can afford, the next question to ask your self is whether you want to afford it. Far be it for me to rain on your parade, but let’s be honest. You don’t need to buy real estate to establish or re-create roots in Italy. So ask yourself the “Why” question. Not “Why come to Italy?” but “Why buy property?”
I’d like to draw a distinction here between second homes and vacation homes before exploring this question further. I’ll illustrate the distinction I have in mind with reference to people I knew Birmingham, Alabama before I emigrated to Italy.
Several people I knew owned a second home on nearby Lake Logan Martin, a 30-minute drive from Birmingham. They willingly spent two or three weekends per month at their lake house year round. Lake front properties afforded a welcome change of scenery and a painless way get away from busy professional lives. People with second homes on Lake Logan Martin generally performed their own maintenance, but only that which was strictly necessary because they didn’t feel compelled to make their second homes perfect. In most cases, a second home on the lake proved to be fun and relaxing and provided a great place to entertain friends and to host family gatherings.
Other people I knew in Birmingham opted for a vacation home, usually a condo, on the Gulf coast, a five hour drive to the south. Because of the distance, these people generally waited for a three-day weekend in order to enjoy their property on the Redneck Riviera, and generally spent most of their vacations at the beach as well. It often happened, however, that vacations at the beach began to feel like an obligation rather than a joy.
Most people who bought properties on the Gulf Coast believed it would ultimately provide a way to have free vacations there. They reasoned that the value of beach front condos would continue to rise over time and that it would always be easy to rent by the week via an agency. Alas, they failed to reckon on the massive overbuilding of high rises on the coast, the housing crisis, and hurricanes. [Homeowner’s insurance policies have increased by as much as 500% over the past 15 years. These policies cover damage due to wind but, alas, not water.] Many people who bought a condo with a fabulous view of sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico later wished they had decided to rent at regular intervals in the same place rather than buying.
Before you sign on the dotted line in Italy I recommend you ask yourself the following question: “How much time will I be spending in Italy?” My own experience tells me that long international flights become increasingly more tedious over time. Also ask yourself “Will I be content to spend all of my time in Europe in my Italian property, or will I want to visit other places as well?” Italy is an incredibly varied and interesting country that offers countless fascinating destinations to explore over time. Do you want to deprive yourself of that?
Vacation rentals are abundant in every region of Italy. If you rent an apartment in a small provincial town you won’t need to rent a car (click here for an example from the Slotrav.com website). If you are part of a larger group, you can share a car while renting a villa in the countryside (click here for an example.) Generally speaking, rental prices decreases as the length of the rental period increases, and you can get real bargains at times during shoulder seasons and winter months.
If your aim is to establish meaningful connections in Italy, consider renting once or twice a year in the same place, perhaps a grandparent’s place of birth. You don’t need to need to be a property owner to connect. If you do decide to buy, be aware that buying a property in Italy does not fit either the second home or vacation home models I outlined earlier.
One model that might be applied to the purchase of a property in Italy, however, is that of home for your retirement years. Such an approach would involve spending substantial amounts of time in Italy, but always a bit less than six months per year in Italy (examples: two periods of about 3 month, or three periods of about 2 months). Why 5-6 months per year? To ensure that you get a reasonable use from your property without feeling obligated to seek renters. Why no more than six months? If you reside for more than six months per year in Italy you will automatically become tax resident in Italy. This is surely something that even dreamers will want to avoid!
I’ll have more to say on the topic of retiring in Italy in a later post.