There can be no better reward for a life well lived than a stone-walled farmhouse in the Italian countryside. Something with vines crawling up the sides, a wicker-covered jug of wine by the doorstep, and a garden full of cherry tomatoes and white asparagus. To complete the scene, you will need a wise old neighbor to remind you to keep your garden’s mint from taking over the vegetables, and to show you how to prune your century-old olive tree correctly. With some money, some wisdom, and a lot of legal help, it can happen.
When buying their first place abroad, North Americans sometimes worry about a nation’s political stability. They fear that their real estate may somehow be taken away from them in the future. This is not a concern in Italy, nor anywhere else in Western Europe, for that matter. But there is another fear that is well grounded”namely, that unfamiliarity with local laws might spell disaster. The first thing to remember when settling on a home is that buyers and sellers will very often declare a price much lower than the one actually paid, to the tune of 50 percent or more. Sellers like this arrangement because it means declaring less income. Buyers, on the other hand, may be able to negotiate a lower price if they agree to do business this way (although housing prices in Italy, just as in the United States, are always negotiable). It is no different than getting a little discount in Italian restaurants for paying in cash, but on a much grander scale. This practice of recording a false sale price, known as sottodichiarazione, is illegal, and can present real problems for the buyer.
Most property experts advise foreigners to get to know the neighborhood where they think they might want to purchase a home by renting first. For example, if you buy property from a company that has recently gone belly up, creditors can reclaim the property when the company is liquidated. You will be reimbursed for the property, but at the lower declared value. Sottodichiarazione also creates a dilemma if you sell the property later and pay capital gains taxes. You will be taxed on an inflated figure, assuming you file the same declared value to the IRS. The most common pitfall for Italian homeowners, and one that may be unavoidable, is the risk that the construction company goes bust after you have paid them a deposit, but before the home is finished (or even started!). You will be in court for a long time, and may never recuperate your down payment. In some cases, the deposit equals about half of the selling price.
Beware of wills. If you buy a home that is contested in a will, you could face angry cobeneficiaries who have five years to try to get the property back. Finally, for reasons described under Renting, never buy an occupied apartment or home in the hope that the tenants will move out. They won’t, and will overcome even the most devious maneuvers, such as your shutting off the water or electricity. I have seen more than one apartment with a garden hose running through the bathroom window, and it wasn’t there to water the geraniums.