Window-shopping for Italian homes has become much easier with the Internet. No longer do you need to rely on a real estate agent’s description of a place to find out whether it is simply a pile of rocks. Several sites have downloadable photos of all of their properties, sometimes accompanied by an asking price, which means you can start the first stage of your research from the comfort of your living room.

Once you have an idea of what sort of property costs how much, you can turn to a real estate agent to show you the houses firsthand. You have your choice between an Italian agent and a foreign agency. The advantage to dealing with the Italians is their in-depth knowledge of the area and ability to answer any question you may have. And there is an endless list of questions, for example: Do the owners owe any money in taxes or loan payments on the property? What other liabilities, such as condominium fees, does it have? Is the building structurally sound, and if not, how much will you need to spend to get it into livable condition? Is the water from a private well, and if so, are the pressure and quality acceptable? Is the property owned by a company or an individual? Do local zoning laws allow you to turn the residence into a business, such as a bed-and-breakfast or a workshop? Will you be allowed to do all the renovations and improvements you have planned, such as adding a swimming pool? If these renovations have already been done, have they been done legally, or will you have a liability on your hands? The trouble for foreign buyers is that many of the local agents don’t speak fluent English, which is why many prospective homeowners turn to another foreigner.

There are two other professionals who will be able to answer these questions for you more thoroughly, and both play essential roles in every real estate transaction: the geometra, a sort of deputy architect and surveyor; and the notaio, a cross between a lawyer and a notary public. It is difficult to translate their titles into plain English because the professions simply don’t exist in the English-speaking world. The geometra will survey the property, handle any subdivision issues, and, although not a professional architect, can give you a good idea of whether there are any structural faults, and how much the house will cost to renovate. In rural areas especially, the geometra often works in tandem with the local real estate agent, which of course raises red flags about the person’s objectivity. There is always the option of finding someone from outside, though this will add to the cost, and an outsider will not know the local market and considerations as well as the agentappointed person does.

Depending on the job, the survey will cost in the vicinity of ‚1,000. The report will be in Italian, so unless you have a very good command of the language, you should budget in some translation costs. The major function of the notaio is to register the sale of the property with the state. The state land register is the basis for all tax calculations, and the notaio, as a public servant, is charged with assuring that you will be taxed on the property’s full value. Because the fees of the notaio can be expensive (see Purchase Fees), because they double as a sort of tax collector, and because their services are essential for any legal maneuver, theirs is not the best-loved profession in Italy. It ranks down there with politicians. Still, they provide all the necessary documents about the property, and any contract must be signed in their presence.

The first thing to remember about real estate contracts in Italy is that they are divided into two stages”the compromesso (intent-to-buy document), which is not always binding, and the rogito (deed of sale), which is. The intent-to-buy is something used by real estate agents and developers to initiate the sale, and they’re not always bulletproof. For example, if you’re buying a preexisting building, the compromesso may come in the form of an offer to buy, which can be reworded to make it a nonbinding contract. Otherwise, it may be a full-fledged compromesso, which will outline all of the terms of the agreement, such as whether the property contains elements that are part of a cooperative (i.e., condominio), the price, the eventual date of sale, etc.

If, on the other hand, you are buying a property that is not yet completed, the agreements will either stipulate that you buy the property as is, or else after a specified time or a certain amount of work has been done to it. The latter, based on work completed, is always preferable to an agreement that is based on time, since Italian contractors and repair persons are not known for their punctuality. There are obviously myriad questions to be asked before signing a contract, and only a good, English-speaking attorney will be able to make sure that all of your demands are met. A few basics are often overlooked. For example, you should be aware of exactly what comes with the house. It is amazing what some homeowners think is valuable when they move out, and you may find your newly purchased home void of such assumed assets as light fixtures and toilets.

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