Buying a Property in Italy: What to Consider (With the Help of an Expert)

Fri, 11/29/2019 - 00:00

For our series on buying property in Italy, today we feature the professional advice of an Italy-based architect who assists clients with their renovation projects. We discuss the Italian property market, what resources are available to prospective buyers, where in Italy it may be a good idea to buy, what the challenges of renovating a property in Italy are, and more.

Conor Mulvenna is an architect from Belfast who moved to Milan after marrying his Italian wife, also an architect. Together they founded Rinova Projects, to assist buyers with refurbishment projects, both contemporary apartment refurbishments in the city and house refurbishments in the countryside.

“I find old buildings irresistible,” says Mr. Mulvenna, who, prior to opening his own business, worked on large scale commercial projects, one of which involved restoring an old castle and hilltop town in Tuscany, along with designing new buildings, using the local vernacular language. “I am fascinated by the stories that old buildings tell and love the rich diversity of typologies and vernacular dialects that have developed in the different regions of Italy.”

Mulvenna and his wife Debora work mainly in Milan, the Northern Lakes in Lombardy and Piedmont, and Monferrato, also in Piedmont. 

What’s the property market like in Italy right now? Is it a good time to buy?

The simple answer is yes, but it really depends where. As you know, Italy is a country of great diversity.

The 17th-century English who carried out Grand Tours of Italy viewed the country as one made of ‘Ice and Fire’ (from the Alps to Vesuvius). So, similarly, the property market currently is one of Ice and Fire. To do justice to the different nuances in the property market throughout Italy would require a long essay, but by way of short summary:

The ‘Credit Crisis’ of 2008 had a seismic effect with the majority of Italian Properties resulting in a sharp decline in value throughout, with the notable exceptions of some areas blessed to be ‘evergreen’ or ‘desirable’ to non–Italian buyers. In these blessed areas, such as parts of Lake Como or parts of the Liguria coast, the value continued to stay solid and even rise slightly throughout the crisis years.

Now in 2019 certain parts of Italy are coming out of the crisis, in big cities the markets are very bullish, whereas in remote areas the value is still depressed. The blessed areas are still performing well, and in the case of Lake Como its market is having a knock-on effect onto other lakes.

[A renovated apartment in Milan.]

Therefore in this context, and again in summarized form - where to invest?

Milan and Rome are currently very frantic markets - sales are very fast and frequent – and the right property can make a good investment in this dynamic market. It is not straightforward though to identify the right property and it requires good local knowledge; once the right property is identified, funds need to be accessed quickly to secure and develop the property for use, rental or resale.

Lake Como and the other lakes are still very valid investments, there is always great interest in certain parts of Lake Como; to buy a good property will cost more in comparison with other nearby areas, but a property with a good lake view and on-site parking will guarantee a rising value.  Finding a good and suitably priced property is increasingly more difficult – hence buyers and investors are exploring the “lower hanging fruit” opportunities in the Lakes Maggiore, Iseo and Orta.

A good lake view property not too distant from an airport and Milan will always appreciate in value and be a feasible rental asset.

The Monferrato and Langhe market is still much more depressed than the two aforementioned, thus it is very much a buyers’ market and you can usually negotiate the requested prices down considerably. The area is very beautiful with large parts of the wine growing areas under UNESCO protection; the wine, food and truffle traditions are second to none and attract a lot of gastro-tourism. There are a lot of properties on the market due to Italians selling their second homes and declining jobs in the area. Market is slow and effectively sustained by a two-tiered set of buyers.

The top tier buyer are typically non-Italians who possibly want to settle down in the pensionable years, and maybe also run a bed and breakfast. This buyer will want to buy a property with charm and with a good view and is characteristically willing to invest to upgrade the building fabric, electrical, plumbing and heating plants, and possibly also introduce a swimming pool and/or other important investments.

The lower tiered buyer is also non-Italian, typically from east Europe and living / working in Monferrato or Langhe supporting wine production or similar. This buyer is looking to acquire a low-cost living solution and is less concerned about the charm or the quality of the view and is capable of carrying out upgrading works to building fabric and plants to a reasonable standard themselves.

[A renovated house in Piedmont.]

Overall, prior to committing to any investment, it is very important to understand if the asking price is the real market price and not inflated; also, if refurbishment is involved, it is important to get well informed of all future costs involved in the project before being tied to it.

What resources do foreigners have when researching for a property to buy?

The Internet is a very useful researching tool, but Internet’s support should not be over-estimated. It is like have one eye – when you really need two eyes to see well, it is better to have two eyes in front and two eyes at the back of your head to be able to navigate safely in most territories.

Estate Agents can offer a useful service. A number of Estate Agents offer an above average service, and in some particular cases if  they speak English, they are extra keen to help non-Italian speakers, but it is worth noting that by Italian Law, the Estate Agents does not have to do any particularly useful service other than introducing the seller to the buyer, therefore many Agents do not offer much support and of course all Estate Agents in all parts of the world are sales-people, so they will instinctively hone in at all cost on making the sale of one of their listed properties.

It is always good to get independent advice when searching your property to give you an edge and insight into the dynamics of the market.

Also, if you want to carry out any refurbishment works to the property, it is definitely a good idea to reach out to and get qualified advice (independent of any estate agent) on the suitability of the property to your needs and the financial and bureaucratic requirements of the works.

[Before the renovation project.]


What should prospective buyers be especially attentive to when inspecting a property?

Try to understand the market in which the property is. As mentioned above, much of Monferrato is a buyer’s market and you may be able to get massive discounts off the asking price if you understand the context well; whereas the Lake Como market is a different market – more buoyant, but still the buyer has significant power, and still can negotiate a reasonable discount if they play their card right. So independent local advice is always going to strength your bargaining power.

What are the most challenging aspects of renovating a property in Italy?

There are many challenges – all technical challenges are fun and can always be successfully met, if you have the funds and the Planning / Building Permit – which points to the two biggest challenges in any renovating project:

(1) Having the suitable funds to renovate the project you want and

(2) Obtain the appropriate Permissions for what you want.

If you do not obtain the above requirements, it will be difficult if not impossible to complete the project the way you want.

I think of a project on Lake Como where we got Planning Permission, against all the odds, to radically convert a very ugly 1960s building to a quite slick and refined modern form. We were really excited about the project, but unfortunately the client did not have the necessary funds and we sadly had to advise the client not to start it until they have the full funds as it would be an assured disaster to start such a project and not be able to complete it. 

Another example is of a client who has an apartment in an old lakeside historical centre of a town on Lake Como, and he wanted a new balcony. He not only needed to ask permission from the Local Authority (Environmental Commission) and then from the Soprintendenza (Heritage Body), but before all of that he needs to get Permission from his neighbours – in the end his idea of having a big 3 meter by 1.5 meter balcony with a modern glass balustrade to maximize the beautiful lake view was severely compromised, as his neighbours also wanted to construct a balcony and thought that the two new balconies should be identical and as symmetrical as possible. However, the neighbours want a very traditional wrought iron balustrade balcony and with the much more traditional smaller dimension of 2 meters by 1 meter. So my client was faced with two options – (i) either no balcony at all, as the neighbours will object or (ii) a balcony but much smaller and more traditional than he would have liked – obviously he revised his ideas and went for the latter.  

A further example is of a client again on Lake Como who was completely hell bent on widening his living room lake view window – unfortunately his property was part of an apartment block, which was under the typical “regolamento condominiale” forbidding any change to the size of the window openings. This proposal also fell at the first hurdle before it could go on to the Planning Permission process.

What are your tips for someone interested in buying a house in Italy?

I think that it is soooo crucial for anyone who wants to buy in Italy, they must decide on WHERE in Italy they want to live and at the same time decide their realistic budget. Once their location and their budget have been decided, it will be easy to find their right property. 

Thank you, Mr. Mulvenna, for providing your insight.

Photos of refurbishment projects courtesy of Conor Mulvenna/Rinova Projects.