British expat’s real estate journey down the Italian rabbit hole: stultifying bureaucracy and a Byzantine judicial system
By Nicholas Farrell
No, it is not the house of my dreams but it will do: a sturdy five-bedroom 20th-century farmhouse, plus spectacular barn and outbuildings with great potential, on two acres of land inside a nature reserve, one mile from a rare and precious five-mile stretch of unspoilt coastline. The house, on the Adriatic near Ravenna, last capital of the Roman Empire, needs a bit of work but nothing dramatic. Price: 275,000 euros.
There is, however, a big problem: the house is in Italy. It was in July 2014 that my Italian wife and I made an offer: 260,000 euros.
The house had already been on the market for several years, originally for 350,000 euros, but the Italian property market has been as dead as a doornail since the great crash of 2008 and, with no solution whatsoever in sight to the Euro crisis, prices have plummeted.
Not surprisingly, the three elderly owners of the house, who were in a hurry to sell, accepted our offer immediately. In any normal country that would have been the end of the matter. But Italy is not a normal country.
So here we are, 15 months and two grape harvests later – and the house is still theirs, not ours.
First, their geometra (surveyor) discovered that the barn was abusivo– i.e., it had been built without planning permission – and that therefore the house was impossible to sell as you cannot buy a house in Italy if it is abusivo.
The owners could not for the life of them understand why their barn was abusivo, especially as when they had bought the house 35 years ago the barn was part of the package. If abusivo now, why not abusivo then?
Ah, we now discovered, the law has changed. The previous owner had even got permission to build the barn apparently and received state subsidies to build it to boot, we heard, but he had not lodged some vital piece of paper with the council to make it 100 per cent valid – or something.
So we had a choice: either knock down the barn, however spectacular, or try to get retrospective planning permission for it from the regional council.
On the basis that the involvement of the Italian state in anything whatsoever in life is the kiss of death I was adamant: knock down the poor old barn now and lop at least 10,000 euros off the sale price. If we wait for the Italian state we will wait forever.
My wife disagreed. “Oh Nico, but the barn is so beautiful,” she gushed. It was difficult to disagree. So the “geometra” went off to see if he could get retrospective planning permission in a hurry. Some weeks later he reported back: probably, he could, but not in a hurry.
How long then would it take? No one knew. There was though a Third Way, he suggested: get a friendly notaio (property lawyer) to turn a blind eye, sign off the deal, and “buona notte”. “I know just the notaio,” he beamed, “He thinks the new law is anti-constitutional anyway.”
Here was a perfect example of why Italians, suffocated by a stultifying bureaucracy, a Byzantine judicial system and the heaviest total tax burden in the civilised world, break the law.
Who would not, if in their shoes?
Reluctantly, we decided against this option not out of any moral scruples but for a tedious practical reason: once the house was ours complete with amazing barn still standing we would not legally be able to do the required work on the house – except abusivamente.
My wife then got a bee in her bonnet: surely, the previous owner of the house who still lives in the nearest village must have some document somewhere to prove that the barn is not abusivo. So we got in touch with him. Naturally, he and his family felt insulted at being branded abusivi and swore to God they had the proof that they were not. Weeks and months passed. They produced no proof – not even when we offered to pay them to find it.
So we and the owners have now agreed that – barring an eleventh hour miracle – they will now knock down the abusive barn at their expense and lop off 10,000 euros from the agreed price of 260,000 euros.
As for their geometra he is still confident, even now, that he can somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat. So I said: “Fine, if he does so by October 15, otherwise basta, please just let’s pull the bloody barn down!”
There is another problem. My wife has had to sell her half of a house she jointly owns with her brother to him in order to provide some of the money to buy the new house. But yes, of course, how could it not be in Italy? That house too is abusivo: one of the two bathrooms does not, it has emerged, have planning permission. And here too, everyone is adamant: that bathroom was in regola (legal) when built and not abusivo. Either way, my wife’s brother has had to apply for retrospective planning permission which requires – get this – rebuilding the entire sewage system in the garden at vast expense. Otherwise, no sale is possible.
It does not end there. It now transpires that the front door of the house we have been trying to buy for over a year now is abusivo as well because it is too small. Apparently, this too is a complete and utter mystery to the owners. But unless rebuilt and the necessary council documents furnished, that abusive door – like the abusive barn – means that we cannot buy the house.
We signed the compromesso with the three elderly owners in June – stage one – and paid a 20 per cent deposit. This commits both parties to the deal and sets a deadline for the stipula – the sale proper with the burning candle in front of the notaio.
The deadline for the stipula October 31. If by then the owners have not sorted the barn out plus the front door, they will be legally required to give us back our deposit – times two.
My wife has also signed a compromesso with her brother to sell him her half of their jointly owned house by the same date. He has given her a 20 per cent deposit. He too risks a similar financial penalty if he fails to produce the relevant documents for the abusive second bathroom and new sewage system in time for the stipula.
I am tempted to say: sod it all, let’s just forget the new house and sue them both – in the case of the new house, for our deposit back plus the 100 per cent fine, and in the case of my wife’s brother the 100 per cent fine (she has been paid the deposit).
But then of course, to get hold of that money, would mean involving Italian lawyers and judges and that is where the real nightmare would begin.
Credit: The Guardian