British estate agents in Lunigiana jailed for embezzlement

italytutto Image
12/01/2010 - 05:03

  Anyone who came across the estate agent, Focus in Aulla, Lunigiana, may be interested in this newspaper report from Il Terreno. The British owners, Wendy and Martin Smith have been sentenced to six months in jail for embezzlement and the geometra to one year and nine months.   Looks like they are also facing another trial on similar charges in Pontremoli later this week.   http://iltirreno.gelocal.it/massa/cronaca/2010/11/30/news/la-truffa-dei-rustici-sulla-carta-2860069

Topic

Comment

In reply to by italytutto

http://ciaolunigiana.com/2010/12/focus/ When we bought our property in Lunigiana a while ago, the Italian estate agent told us not to be apprehensive of the way Italian agents work; she said it is some of the English agents in the area we need to be wary of.  At the time we didn't know who she might be referring to although we had heard odd rumours ..... now we know!

Now I have absolutely no wish to condone the sort of 'fraud' which these agents were (it seems to me from the publicity) clearly perpetrating, but the aspect which engaged me (in the Italian article) was the restricted amount of damages awarded to the English ripped off plaintiffs. So, reading between the lines (and I might be quite wrong here), the estate agents took money on the basis that the land was edificabile (it appears that the court decided that they had lied). Nothing actually got built (as far as I can understand) - so it isn't as if any of the purchasers have got landed with having paid for a building which they have been ordered to demolish. Okay: "so what" I hear you saying - the purchasers  were ripped off, that's enough. I agree, and I have respect for the English buyers who brought the case, and I'm pleased that the Italian court found in their favour. But, in the greater scheme of property frauds to which a foreign buyer might fall prey, this is peanuts.

"in the greater scheme of property frauds to which a foreign buyer might fall prey, this is peanuts." Not if it had happened to you Hopefully the prison sentence will deter others agents from doing such a 'peanuts' fraud

It is lucky that they did not build on the land. Many people posting here have had various 'rip-offs' with property related 'professionals' including psuedo agents. They usually receive advice warning them that trying to fight it out in court will be costly and lenghy. So they have to put up with their loss. This makes me mad. Glad that at long last some of  these people and a geometra go their comeuppence.

How frustrating Italy can be.  The overwhelming weight of Italian beureaucracy just helps these people who can only be described as thieves.  Not only are they stealing money, they are stealing the dream that many people have for their hard earned years ahead.   There will always be thieves of course but what has to be considered is the way in which Italian system makes it easier for these thieves.  Because the code is complicated and the communes are underfunded, many things can be done on a nod and a wink.  The system where people can build illegally and then apply for retention, appeal and appeal again just makes for trouble.   The whole way of buying a house is unneccessarily obscure and complex, making it difficult for us to understand what we are buying and how things work.  Clients then need to rely on finding someone that they feel they can trust and then abdicating responsibility to them.  Its a con-mans delight. So, what we need is a root and branch overhaul of the whole system and a rebuild that is credible and simple.  No more notaries mumbling for an hour, fifty signature contracts and cash deals.  I sold my home in the UK without even being there, over the phone and email and using DHL for documents.  This would be impossible in Italy and would cost I think 4 or 5 times as much. Thank heavens the country has so much going for it that people are prepared to wade through this unneccesary nonsense and vulnerability.  All of this can be changed if the government was prepared to take on the civil service and knock out the archaic, obscure and expensive inherited "system" If I sound cross, it's because I am.  All of this could have been avoided for these buyers had the system been transparent and simple.  At least these cruel and greedy people are in jail where they belong and lets hope they don't appeal

the Italian system is not that complicated its just an unknown and i think the story above shows how non Italians work with the worst of Italians to cheat people.. i agree about the notary system.. its a fraud against the whole of the italian property system... but its a fact of life here that these useless individuals rubber stamp contracts that have no real value..  however many governments have tried to simplify and change things here, only recently has it changed so that you can purchase a vehicle without a notary.. and there are appeals via the main estate agent associations for them to be removed from the process..   however i would say that a lot of the problems are that many people that attempt to purchase here are looking for under the table bargains without being aware that these days they are not available.. people think they can cut corners and save money and that is why its so easy to often sell  property with problems because people want to believe they are cheating the system..   the truth is that they are heading down a road that will not only lead to questions about how they got the property and how much they paid.. but high risks of being prosecuted themselves for tax avoidance...this then leads to so called house sellers here being able to operate without much risk as their clients have broken the law themselves... maybe by signing a final act where they declared they paid no fee to an agent or under declared the amount.. by doing this because they have either been persuaded its the way.. (and it isnt) or to save themselves a minute percentage of the whole they leave themselves open to all sorts of risk.. from prison to losing their property..   i agree and i have published this story elsewhere that it is a good sign that someone has been prosecuted.. so maybe distilling the myth that they are untouchable..    hopefully more people will read this and take lessons from the experiences.. the reality is that for most people buying a property in Italy is a relatively easy and safe experience yet this only applies because the people in the majority that buy property here understand the law.. ie they are native italians... dealing with native italian agencies.. not ex pats dealing with unqualified ex pats ... or even worse those so called estate agents here whose only qualification is the fact they speak english and are neither registered to run a business here or qualified... 

It is not always that easy. For example, you have to trust that the civil servants, ie Notary has done all the searches. I have had the experience of just before the final sale finding out that others who were not on the old 'deeds' ( that's another laugh, the so called equivilant of deeds) were actually unregistered inheritors and at the last minute decied that they did not want the house to be sold or wanted to up the price. This cost me an awful lot of time and money as well as the expense of trips back and fore. And using up my precious work leave for nothing in the end. A money maker for many but not for me. I was just the donnor. I was also told the 'untangling' was a simple matter. It was not and went to court several times over a period of a year and I gave up. Also folk have had the experience of not being made aware of the law, eg.  others have first refusal in certain rural situations. This after paying through the nose for legal professional advice. Out of pocket and nobody caring and nobody taken to task. Also an archaic system where the unpaid tax and debts belong to the property and not the debt holder. If you are lucky, this will out, again making you have to pull out after a number of trips, hopes and dreams broken. An overhaul, you can say that again.

This i sa really interesting thread.  Thanks fo rraising the issue to the OP. The fact is that this needs to change and, whilst it is relatively safe for locals it is unnecesarily obscure and arcane for incoming people.  The system should protect everyone, not just locals:  it appears to me that the system appears to be built to protect only the system itself.  And the costs in man hours, time and fees are all beyond reasonable. I really don't think it's good enough for a country claiming to be a modern economy.  If we could bring to bear the creativity and sheer smarts of Italians on redoing the system, we could have a world leading system, rather than a mockery.  Come to think of it, maybe we should leave this to the Germans and get the Italians working on all the stuff that they are great at: beauty, design, arts, passion and of course food & wine

Moruzo has undoubtedly had a bad experience, but - 'people not being made aware of the law', cash under the table' and so on - it amazes me that people think they can buy a property in a country where they dont know the law and dont speak the language without doing any groundwork.  There are a huge number of books and web sites that are there to help you - also I might add - some conscientious and professional agents.  It takes 10 seconds on the net to find out that underdeclaration is illegal.  You cannot be forced to underdeclare.  If you use an agent and dont declare him in the act it's illegal, your act can be nulllified and you face a swingeing fine.  A notaio is not there to act as your lawyer - unless you are lucky.  Prelation is not difficult to understand.  But arriving in a strange country and thinking you can buy a property in a week without using someone who knows the ropes - and is registered and legal and preferably a member of FIAIP or FIMAA is madness.   Personally, I think the Italian system provides many more checks and balances than the Uk system, and almost all in favour of the buyer.  It's not simple, but very little in Italy is - however, any process is a 'con mans delight' if you abdicate all responsibility at the outset to someone you dont know.   DO the research, make informed choices and don't think that you should happily break the law, 'because everyone else does'.  if you do, you only have yourselves to blame. 

In reply to by Ram

I completely agree with Ram's post above, but I'd like to take issue with other opinions that transacting a real estate deal in Italy is "much more expensive" - I presume the comparison is being made with the UK. It isn't common for either the buyer or the seller in Italy to engage a "solicitor", which is a saving (for the buyer) which well exceeds the notary's fees. Yes, there is the Estate Agent to pay, but even paying him 4% the total 'legal' costs involved in buying are unikely to exceed 6.5% of the purchase price. Then there is the 'stamp duty' - in Italy there is no 'stamp-duty' free threshhold (there is unfortunately, on land, a minimum duty threshhold - this should IMO be revised). But for existing houses the amount of duty payable can (following reforms in 2005 2006) be surprisingly low, based on a value akin to the rateable value. This was a measure designed to encourage the correct declaration of the selling price, and together with changes in inheritance and cgt taxes, recently reinforced by moneylaundering checks, it is not only very silly to underdeclare - it is rarely advantageous to anybody! So, it's going to cost 'about the same' to buy a second hand house in Italy as in the UK, and a lot less to sell one. There is very little wrong with the Italian system, it is just different. 

On new homes IVA is another 4% and if this is second home with no Italian residenza (as it is for many of us) IVA is a whopping 10%, but I am more interested in the actual conveyancing cost as tax is not the issue here IMHO, The notary adds little value to the transaction as he doesn't advise.  The UK system provides that the lawyers carry out due diligence.  A house buyer can manage without a solicitor in the UK and Italy but the Notary is obligatory in Italy Coming back to the original question, why is it so easy for ex-pats to fall into the clutches of charlatans?  I think that this is because they don't understand the system.  Yes you can research and reduce risk but my view is that if the system were simpler the buyer could better understand it and so reduce the occasions where they feel that they need to trust someone to say "it's OK, just sign it"

Whilst not understanding the system may be a part of it, I do feel that an inability to speak the language is a far larger part. How can you possibly expect to understand what is going on around you if you can't speak Italian? Therefore these non Italian speakers often 'seek sanctuary' with an English or English speaking agent and make the, sometimes, erroneous assumption that just because someone speaks the same language and you can communicate then that 'agent' is 100% honest and above board. In addition, some of these agents advertise in reputable magazines and newspapers - there is another assumption that this again means that the agency is reputable. Word of mouth is the best and I'm sure that whilst not fool proof, any reputable agent would not mind providing evidence of satisfied clients. There is alot of information out there, perhaps too much, therefore many skim rather than absorb it making it easy for them to be misled and to come unstuck. As ever, buyer beware!

4% of the price on a new house, but 10% of the rateable value of a second house which is often negligible.  The notaio makes the act legal - for any transfer of ownership of immoveable goods and some moveable goods (until recently also cars) - and they do do the due diligence that it required of them by law, but they are also impartial - they work for the state not for you.   If the system were the same as the UK, you assume that an Italian lawyer would charge the same for conveyancing as a UK lawyer. Not a chance - it would cost you twice as much.  At least notaios fees are set by the state within bands.  And then if you wanted to do the conveyancing yourself - as you can in the UK - it would take a good knowledge of Italian language and law - or you would be paying someone to do it all for you.  The notaio does advise - he advises of all the laws applicable to the transfer of property that are relevant to your purchase or sale.  What he cannot do is advise you personally, as he is by law, impartial.  But, a good notaio will advise his clients as to what is advisable or not down to advising you not to sign the documents if you arent happy with the state of affairs.  I know it seems that the notaio is expensive, but just running off the visure ipotecarie for a property - which the notaio must to at least once and usually twice or more, can cost hundreds of euros, and that is just one element of a house sale.  For those of you who turn up at the notaios office and listen to him read the act at breakneck speed it must seem money for old rope, but for a successful, legal and complete transfer of property the work is more than you would think.  Of course there are good and bad notaios.  A notaio who rattles through 30+ acts a day, is in my opinion a bad notaio, as the due diligence must be less than duly diligent.  But there are lots of notaios out there who protect and coddle their foreign clients as they dont want them to get a bad impression of Italy.  THe choice of notaio is the buyers, so use it to find a good notaio.  Your agent will usually advise one - but if you dont particularly trust your agent, you arent bound to follow his advice.  There are some notaios in my area I wouldnt use if you paid me. 

We did not all turn up in Italy without doing research re the buying process. Also We did not all underdeclare the value. Some of us have tried to do everything we could not to be caught out. We did not all grab any old person who happens to speak English. But when you have done all you can and everything is at the finale Act stage, and as by law is being translated, and you find that furballs which you could not have predicted even if you lived in the country, and which were missed by those you are paying to search  appear out of the blue that is just not defendable. When you pay all around you then fly home empty-handed. Non Prima casa houses  fees and property taxes, turning on of utilities etc, all above board, can reach 17%.People should be taken to task if it is a bad as posted on these forums. I have bought a number of homes in UK, like most folk and their families, and the one time it had to fall through many years ago, I was compensated for my expenses.It is obvious that a right 'routing' is needed. There should be more prosecutions. Folk cannot just have it that they lose money hand over fist with no great chance of natural justice. Naivety may be a con man's delight, but it is not a crime and causes distrust in the professions. Folk have no choice but to use certain people to get through the sytem and they should not have to feel bullied into silence by any of the professionals including Geometras.

Clearly (as Ram spotted earlier) you have had a bad experience. If you are willing to do so, why don't you go into a bit more detail? I ask because it is always helpful to other forum members who are potential purchasers, but it is also helpful to people like Ram and Adriatica and myself who do our best to assist foreign purchasers. It could be that we will all say 'you were trying to rush it' - (which is a recurring snaglet with people who feel that the 'piano piano' Italian approach doesn't fit with the 'gotta do the deal this minute ' notion which comes from the UK ability to 'gazump') - or maybe you just got one of those notaios who Ram or I wouldn't touch with a bargepole. Patience is not only a virtue in Italy, it is essential, but it seems you did the right thing by backing out of a deal that you, personally, were not happy with. Could you be so sure that by having trusted a UK solicitor (handing over to him much more authority than an Italian delega) you would not have signed up to stuff you were not happy with?

Fillide, It is not about rushing and not about knowing the details. It is not about also leaving things and walking away. It is about being taken for a ride and losing money. Not just about the purchase, the utilities; the planning; the building; having no recourse when things go wrong and you cannot take folk to task without getting into a serious dispute, outside of the legal process and in the community. Being told not to go there or you will rue the day. Being told not to go there in case you cause the perpertator to lose their Bella Figura. Being told by good people that you absolutely cannot win against a system or the 'professionals' ( at all levels). You don't have to know what happened other than I was very patient, did everything I could by the book  etc. It is not just me, these things keep happening to friends on this, previous and other forums. No hard-earned money is neglegible. We have had folk on this forum who cannot move into their home as they have a dispute with the Geometra and he will not sign off the house - gates closed and padlocked! It is not all about Estate Agents though many are the complaints and wasted trips by all accounts because of them. It is a disgrace. Yes it is all fine and dandy having done you piano piano and it finally works out. But too many folk have been frightened by experiences and lost money. I have never been frightened to pursue justice here in UK regarding house purchase or work. Many of us are discerning, hard-working, honest, not necessarily trusting, but you have no choice at various levels to progress with systems. None of it comes free, we pay for people to look after our interests and we pay for services. We all deserve value for money not fear and loss. Over and over again we read about the most awful experiences. I resent the implication that everybody it happens to is naive ot trying to get a bargain or trying to 'rush'. It is a rotten system most of the time when so many get away with it.  It should just not be like this in an EU country of long-standing. Purchasers of homes and related  services should have more protection. I am also a professional and would have no hesitation in shopping anyone who brought shame on my profession or related services to it. Too scary to do that here for most foreigners. It goes on so much because not enough folk do anything about it . That is why this case is so talked about - because it is unusual. Let's have more such justice.   More prosecutions have to happen at all levels so that folk get justice and their money back.

Thank you for your courtesy in replying. I know that reading a thread (especially when people like me are being too analytical) it is easy to miss points - but in my first post I did compliment the people who had had the 'balls' to bring this case, and I also complimented the Italian court for having found in their favour. You are completely right when you emphasise the negative 'advice' that 'there is no point' in attempting to seek justice under Italian law; as you say, this case is important beacuse the foreign plaintiffs won. (It would be interesting to know whether this success came at a financial cost to the plaintiffs - but even if they ended up out of pocket I still agree it has established a good precedent.) I think the aspect which has somewhat aggravated me is that this case (at least on this forum) has become a sort of beacon for people who have simply had an 'unexpected' (inefficient, misunderstood, delayed, perceived as disrespectful etc etc) outcome. That this disappointing outcome has occured does not always imply that the deal was entered into with bad faith (which clearly the contested case had been).

We are all in agreement that the Italian legal system is labyrinthine, slow and inconclusive.  For those of us brought up with the UK system the Italian version is tortuous, with the guilty going unpunished.  The latest BErlusconi reforms dont touch at all on the workings of the system - which is what needs reform.  There is no equivalent of a small claims court, three levels of judgement and appeal and a system of prescription that leaves foreigners with mouths agape.  When the legal system allows you to break the law in the almost certain knowledge that you will go unpunished, what hope is there?   However, the entire legal system cannot be equated to individuals.  Most people do their job legally, whether it be notaios, agents or architects.  Unfortunately there will always be those who do what they like, and they are aided and abetted by the system.  For example, an architect or geometra is legally responsible for the quality of their work, BUT the commissioning client is always legally responsible for work entrusted to third parties.  So if your house is built illegally, it is ultimately the clients fault.  This is abhorrent to most right thinking people - and it impinges on the 'living the dream' experience in a myriad of ways.  However, if it is something that you are not prepared to accept, because frankly, you can't change it, then you shouldnt be thinking of buying in Italy.  Fillide advises a piano piano approach, not because you cant rush things, but it allows people to learn and understand the system, know the trustworthy people, and get things done properly with as little pain as possible.  The chance of getting a Europe wide justice system that does away with the interminable layers of successive legislation and the unworkable Napoleonic system here in ITaly is remote.  It has taken me 5 years to get a team of professionals who I can happily recommend to clients, not without some mistakes along the way.   Even then, there is no guarantee that there won't be nasty surprises.  I agree with Moruzzo, it would change everything if you could denounce someone and know they would receive justice.  I have spent three years in court with an illegal agent and we have had one audience, which was rescheduled.  He continues to work.  To contest a parking fine of 36 euros now costs you 34 euros in tax stamps.  It is the achilles heel of ITaly.  

In reply to by Ram

I recall a few years ago when I was in the process of buying a property here in Italy, I asked (in my worst Italian) views of the locals, and eventually went to speak to a 'sharply' dressed solicitor in a local village near to where we now live was quoted EIGHTEEN thousand euros to have the conveyancing done !!!! He said ' I'm very good '.......... We nearly gave up there and then, as we thought that we would not pay that amount on principle. As it happens we went ahead WITHOUT the said solicitor and thankfully, we have had no major problems Proceed with caution! S