The processes of buying and building on land in the United States and buying and building on land in Italy are different. In rural U.S. towns with lax zoning laws, you can usually find a cheap piece of land and build whatever you want. Owning land in Italy is a different story, as lots of moneyed Italians and foreigners dream of nothing more than a nice plot in the countryside, and demand is considerably higher. Remember that there are nearly 60 million Italians (a quarter of the U.S. population) living on a peninsula about the size of Arizona, and there’s not a vast amount of land left for construction.
That said, buying a cheap, run-down farmhouse is not much different than simply buying a plot of land. (That is, if you can find one of the remaining ruins. The secret, as always, is location.) In this case, you’re going to have to start from scratch. The first step is making sure, ahead of signing the contract, that you will be able to get the necessary building permits. You really have no idea how much you can build on a property until you see the records and look at the local master plan, Rome-based architect Domenico Minchilli pointed out, but a good real estate agent will be able to show you.
Permits are going to take a long time to nail down: no less than six months in even the most efficient parts of Italy. You should enlist the help of your architect or geometra for this. Keep in mind that if you buy property that is listed in the register of historic homes, it will be very difficult to make modifications to the exterior, and only minor ones to the interior, and sometimes difficult to put in a swimming pool. There are some parts of Italy where new pools are just not allowed.
Tuscan farmhouse Even after the initial permitting, there are a few more regulatory hoops to jump through. For new construction in seismic areas (and as the recent earthquakes in Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo illustrated, most of Italy does fall into seismic areas), two separate structural engineers will need to be hired by law (besides the architect), one to do the initial structural seismic plan and another to review and test the completed work. The engineer requires that a geologist do soil-testing and write a report. Then, for environmental reasons, there has to be a report on insulation and thermal losses prepared by a separate specialist. The last step is the riaccatastamento, that is, a review of the finished product for the land registry. A surveyor will draw a new map of the house after works are completed, a new pool, etc., and the property will be reassessed accordingly for the annual tax.