If the Tango is the lover’s dance then a house in Italy is the lover’s dream.

I fell in love with Italy nearly 50 years ago as a precocious baby boom young child. As an adult (or as close as men get), I have tried to replicate that nostalgia by renting a villa with my partner and friends in Orvieto in Umbria. Like a lot of readers, one of my hobbies wherever I go on holiday is to wander around the local village or town, stroll into the estate agents and fairly aimlessly start looking at properties and even more aimlessly start visiting those properties.

A hidden circumstance

The agent I randomly stumbled across was called Nick and as luck would have it was Italian but born in England and therefore able to speak English and, better still, understand the English mentality, if that isn’t an oxymoron.

After a while of looking we had it down to three potential properties. The two were ally liked were on the right- and left-hand side of the road between Orvieto and Lake Bolseno.
For those of you familiar with that area, it is that beautiful plain with the wonderful cypress trees standing tall and erect at the very top of the hill. I’d also liked a more mature house which was a working farm and vineyard.

This left us with a choice of the two houses.The house on the left-hand side of the road was complicated.
It was owned by an Italian farming family who seemed to be at war with each other and also involved, I think, 16 other members of the farming community having first refusal. Even an Englishman suffering from summer heat wouldn’t walk into that mess.

So we went for the house on the right-hand side of the road, which was much simpler. This was owned by an English couple who had bought it together and since separated. Of course it had no planning permission!

Problems and solutions

The house is an old farm house in fairly poor repair and at the end of a long and winding road. The site on the top of the hill was idyllic with no neighbours within earshot and within 15 minutes of the centre of Orvieto and 10 minutes to the lake.

A big plus, and my word what a big plus, the house had its own Well, was linked to the water supply and the electricity. We’ve only since discovered the horror stories people have in getting utilities to remote farmhouses. Now two small problems faced us.

The first was that we wanted to completely re-design the house from scratch, with all the doors and windows where we wanted them. Second was that we weren’t prepared to buy the house unless we were certain of getting planning permission.

On the other hand the current owner wasn’t prepared to sell it with planning permission. A classic Catch-22. After some protracted negotiation he agreed that we could put in for planning permission in his name and then if we got it, we could conclude the deal.You don’t have to be an ace lawyer to work out that this put us at some risk, because obviously once the planning permission was approved then the value of the house went up and we wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed to purchase it.

Building the team

Amazingly, we were able to design the house exactly as we wanted it; put in for planning permission; got the planning permission within three weeks and then concluded the purchase. In the interim of course we had to decide on the builder, an architect and a project manager.
My partner and I have fairly demanding daytime jobs – she’s busy running the world and in her spare time MD of a leading talent agency while I run a small investment business – so thankfully our friendly Anglo-Italian estate agent has been extremely helpful.

First he introduced us to a local builder, the geometra, which is somewhere between an architect and a builder. We liked him instantly and during the last year have visited some of the buildings that he has worked on and seen their development and the quality of his work. In order to get the extra creativity we wanted, we not only spoke to friends who have experience of doing this overseas but used an architect who has got some international experience as well.

Above all, as we do not live in Italy and cannot visit all that often, we needed a site manager. We were very lucky to be introduced to Lois and David. They are an English couple who live in Orvieto and similarly converted a house themselves.
Lois speaks fluent Italian and as David said, he now knows at least three words for angle-grinder in Italian. Quite useful when you are on a building site. We therefore appointed them as the Site and Project Managers. We also appointed a lawyer and demanded a detailed valuation and estimate from the builder together with a penalty clause in the event that he misses the 18-month deadline.

The builders then, unbeknown to us, instructed a local landscape firm, another small family business in Orvieto and when we went to visit them, they had already visited the site and drawn up some general plans for the landscaping, including the Italian equivalent of hedgerows. Leyl and ii, we were told, are out. Anyway, there’s a little time as we don’t have any neighbours to annoy just yet! italy