- Italy’s rural towns are in the midst of a revolution as they trial selling homes for as little as 1 euro, or $US1.12.
- The radical plans are aimed at combating the effects of urbanisation, which is leaving some of Italy’s most picturesque towns and villages deserted and derelict.
- Thanks to widespread media coverage, many of the towns have been inundated with interest from foreign buyers in search of a bargain.
- I recently visited several such towns in Sicily and spoke with numerous foreigners who had decided to invest, as well as town mayors, deputy mayors, and councillors.
- Some conversations were translated by Insider’s associate translation editor Ruqayyah Moynihan.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“It was an invasion – but a positive one!”
That’s how Giuseppe Cacioppo, the deputy mayor of Sambuca, Sicily, described the sale of his town’s abandoned homes to foreign buyers, the auctions of which started at just 1 euro, or $US1.12.
Sambuca succeeded in selling off 16 historical but derelict stone homes to buyers from the US, China, France, Britain, Russia, and Argentina.
It is one of many towns in rural Italy to trial selling homes for just $US1 in a last-ditch bid to save rural settlements that have been slowly decimated by urbanisation while cities and their suburbs thrive and become overpopulated.
It perhaps sounds too good to be true, and there is, of course, always a catch. The properties for sale are almost always in a dilapidated condition, and towns stipulate that buyers must commit to spending thousands of dollars in restoration and renovation to make them habitable again. Some towns even stipulate that you must work there or bring your family in order to purchase a home.
In Sambuca’s case, for example, buyers must agree to spend at least 15,000 euros, or $US16,700, on renovations, and hand over a security deposit of 5,000 euros, or $US5,600, which is refunded as long as the conditions of the purchase are met.
Despite all of that, foreigners have flocked to Italy’s ghost towns in search of a bargain – particularly those that have received widespread media coverage.
But who exactly are these people willing to throw caution to the wind and invest in properties they may not have even seen, in areas they know nothing about, with no idea of the town’s prospects?
I travelled to Sicily, where several towns were testing the 1-euro scheme, to see them for myself and speak with the people buying the houses as well as the town mayors and councillors behind them.
‘We agreed in the end that yes, it was crazy and yes, we wanted to do it’
I spent most of my time in Sambuca di Sicilia, a small town in the centre of Sicily that – it’s fair to say – has received the widest media coverage of any towns experimenting with 1-euro homes.
After CNN Travel wrote about the town in January, the mayor’s office was flooded with emails from prospective buyers.
“I’d never dreamed the story of Sambuca would have become this big,” Sambuca’s mayor, Leonardo Ciaccio, told me.
“But thanks to this news coverage about what was happening in Sambuca and the region, everyone took notice of it and it just exploded.”
None of the homes actually sold for a euro. In May, the homes were sold in a blind auction in which bids started at 1 euro, and the 16 houses owned by the municipality ended up selling for prices between 1,000 euros and 25,000 euros, or $US1,100 to $US27,600.
But that was just the beginning. What about the people who fell in love with Sambuca but lost out at auction? What of those for whom a major renovation project was not on their agenda?
I guess we can blame the Facebook algorithm.
On top of the 16 owned by local government, a further 50 properties were sold on the private market, raking in more than a million euros in investments – and that figure has undoubtedly continued to rise in the months since.
“We’re in our late 60s and we didn’t want to take on a project of undefined dimensions,” Deborah Cavin of Austin, Texas, told me.
Deborah and her husband, Guyle, bought a house from a private buyer for 50,000 euros after tacking a visit to Sicily onto the end of a trip to London.
They, like many others, heard about Sambuca via CNN’s coverage, and once they started looking, Sambuca became inescapable.
“I guess we can blame the Facebook algorithm,” Cavin said.
The Cavins were shown around several homes that were part of the 1-euro plan, but none were quite right for the couple who wanted enough space for their family to come visit but also wanted to remain in the town’s historic Arab quarter.
Then, on the morning of their flight, their guide asked whether they wanted to see one last home before they left.
“We thought, ‘Well OK, one more,’ and of course that was the perfect house for us,” Cavin said.
“We agreed in the end that yes, it was crazy and yes, we wanted to do it.”
Gary and Tamara Holm from California were also happy to have ultimately missed out on the houses at auction, though not by choice.
“We picked one and we bid 5,050 euros on it,” Gary Holm told me. The house ended up going for 10,000 euros – a price he thought was “way too much.”
“When it was a euro – absolutely,” Tamara Holm said. “But when it became kind of a blind auction, it made it a little more challenging to get what the investment should be.”
The Holms eventually paid 19,000 euros for their home, which they bought from a private seller with help from the deputy mayor, Cacioppo.
“We like spending a little more upfront to have it a little less unknown,” Gary Holm said.
Nevertheless, the pair acknowledged that the case uno euro had been a great introduction to the small town. “If I hadn’t heard about it through that, I would have never found Sambuca and then flown out there and then realised that there was so much opportunity there,” Tamara Holm said.
“As an advertisement for the city: brilliant.”
Not all the buyers had flown in from halfway across the world. For Marie Ohanesian Nardin, Sambuca was a little closer to home.
Nardin is originally from Los Angeles but has been living in Italy for more than 30 years since marrying a third-generation gondolier from Venice.
Nardin told me that when she began expressing interest in Sambuca, none of her Italian friends had even heard of it because CNN had taken a much larger interest in the project than the local press.
But word didn’t take long to spread – when Nardin’s husband was at the bank picking up a cashier’s check for the deposit on their new home, the bank teller asked for the number of their architect.
“I think Sambuca stands out because it got such international attention,” Nardin said.
Nardin, too, opted to buy property in Sambuca from a private seller, saying only that she paid “a little more than what the highest bids were” on the auctioned homes.
$US1 won’t get you a house that’s ready to move into
Now for the reality of the situation – if a home for $US1 sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Most of the properties involved in these offers have been abandoned for decades. After an earthquake in 1968 killed more than 200 people, many residents in southern Sicily simply cashed in on their insurance and built new, modern homes just down the road.
This means the homes are derelict and, in some cases, full of junk and graffiti.
“I mean there were a couple of them that weren’t even structured,” Tamara Holm, who had looked around Sambuca’s 1-euro properties herself, told me.
Likewise, Nardin said: “What I was most impressed with was how much work would have been involved in cleaning them out.
I mean, it’s not the greatest place, obviously, but it’s 1,000 euros.
“And who knows what is in there. I don’t know if there are toxic materials in there. You have to deal with that kind of thing.”
Frankly, they’re $US1 for a reason – but that doesn’t mean they’re not a good investment.
Gillian Payne from Scotland and her husband, Danny, were among the few people who actually managed to get a house in Sambuca’s auction – and they ended up paying a mere 1,000 euros for their property.
“I mean it’s not the greatest place, obviously, but it’s 1,000 euros,” Payne told me. “I came to the conclusion that it was a bargain.”
Payne – who buys, renovates, and resells properties for a living back in the UK – said her reaction was probably quite different from those of the other foreigners who had been led around the 1-euro homes.
“I’m looking at it going, ‘Oh my goodness, this isn’t so bad,'” she said.
“I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest, with the size of the rooms, and the amount of rooms as well.
“I think we really have got a complete bargain – we’re really lucky.”
It comes down to whether you, like the Paynes, are willing to take a risk. The people I spoke with primarily purchased through private owners not because they missed out on the 1-euro properties but because they wanted more control over their purchase. They wanted more space, less work, or a place in the old quarter next to the nice restaurant.
If you’re willing to accept that the perfect home doesn’t exist, then the 1-euro homes still seem like the best investment.
‘Now I’m a little bit Sicilian, a little bit Mussomelian’
In Mussomeli, which is also offering homes for a euro, Bert Vanbellingen is one of the many Belgians populating the Sicilian town.
Mussomeli, a town of Sicilian foundation, Arabic heritage, and, now, Belgian émigrés.
The place was flooded with interest from Belgians after the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws began covering it.
Shortly after, the low-cost carrier Ryanair recently announced a new route from Brussels to Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city.
Vanbellingen was so entranced by Mussomeli that he bought more homes than he knew what to do with.
“One house for me and my wife,” he said.
“And after we have an apartment I built for the children. And a third house … We don’t know what to do with it yet.”
Vanbellingen acknowledged paying more than 1 euro for the properties, but he hastened to add that “if you compare it with England or Belgium, very cheap. Very cheap.”
It’s not all plain sailing for Mussomeli’s new demographic, though – I was told certain local papers had launched something of a campaign against them after one exceedingly drunk Belgian had been arrested.
That’s why Vanbellingen took extra measures meant to ensure he and his family were perceived as a blessing and not a nuisance to Mussomelian society.
Shortly before I’d arrived, the Belgian had put on a party for the town’s youngsters, complete with a bouncy castle and fun-filled activities. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t have a good word to say about him.
“You have to integrate. The town belongs to them,” Vanbellingen told me.
“And yeah, now I’m a little bit Sicilian, a little bit Mussomelian.”
Italy’s rural towns are stunning to behold – there’s just no one there to enjoy them
It’s not just Vanbellingen who’s settling into local life. Many of the people I spoke with cited their town’s rustic charm as one of the most significant factors in their decision to invest.
“It is lovely. There’s a peace about the town,” Nardin said.
“It looks like a Disney movie,” Tamara said. “Like ‘Pinocchio.'”
Indeed, Sambuca was nominated in a 2016 contest for Italy’s most beautiful towns, and it’s hard to argue with the new residents when taking in the views from the Terrazzo Belvedere, which you’ll most likely have entirely to yourself.
While the town may be stunning, it is unassailably quiet. I ate at one of the town’s few restaurants upon my arrival, and despite the stunning sunset view and incredibly good value of the menu, the place was practically empty.
When I visited, many of the few restaurants and cafés Sambuca had to offer simply weren’t open, and the nearest supermarket was a short drive away.
Another day I visited the town’s museum, which had to be opened up especially for me.
Take all this into account and you can forget about a gym, a spa, a golf course, or any of the other leisure facilities one might expect on vacation.
“I think the city has a lot of potential and I hope that the younger people stay or come back and open up more and more vegetable shops and restaurants and that kind of thing,” Nardin said.
“Because if you’ve spent a few nights here, you’ll know there’s not a whole lot of choices for restaurants.”
Cavin agreed: “I would say that in terms of bars and cafés and stuff there’s not a huge selection.”
That’s one of the reasons Vanbellingen decided on Mussomeli for his investment: “Sambuca, like Aquaviva, is very quiet. We like to be at rest, but Mussomeli is a town. It lives.”
“There are supermarkets, there is everything,” he added. “There are people here on the streets.
“That’s the difference between Mussomeli and Sambuca.”
The new Sambucans are hopeful, though. “I met a young woman who’s already starting to work on her English because she wants to be able to do walking tours and that kind of thing,” Nardin said.
“There is a sense of competition that I got in getting involved in who is and who isn’t selling.”
Indeed, the mayor confirmed to me that Sambucans had been learning English in preparation for their new visitors: “They had to adapt a little because English isn’t spoken well here – so there was a need to train people to be able to successfully communicate with this group of people,” he said.
I was shown around my bed-and-breakfast by the owner and his teenage daughter, who translated for him since she was learning English in school. For young Sambucans, do these newcomers finally provide a reason to stay in their homeland?
Bargain or not – it’s the people who make the investment worth it
Of all the people I spoke with, one factor in their decision to invest in a home came up time and time again.
“I worked with the local people. Great people with big hearts,” Vanbellingen told me.
“We laugh, we make pleasure, we fiesta, we eat together, we drink together. That’s Mussomeli.”
“The people were I think more than any other single element … the difference to us getting serious about buying a place there,” Cavin similarly said of Sambuca.
“Everybody to whom we’ve been introduced … has been so seemingly pleased that someone from America has taken an interest in their town,” she added. “And of course, that’s just so, so friendly and so charming.”
Tamara too said it was the people who made her “turn around and come back.”
“I don’t speak great Italian and I didn’t know anyone and I showed up and I made friends,” she said, “Day one. It was crazy.”
Cacioppo is confident that this is a turning point in Sambuca’s history.
“It’s a revolution for us,” he said.
“In the six months, maybe 60 families have arrived from different countries to buy houses in Sambuca.
“Around 2,000 tourists have come too … They stay in Sambuca, eat in the restaurants, buy the wine, stay in the B&Bs. For the economy, it’s the future of Sambuca.”
Based on the way its new residents talk about the potential of the town and its charming people, it’s hard not to agree with him.