These Italian villages will pay you to live there — here’s the catch

Nov 9, 2019

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Who among us hasn’t fantasized about ditching the rat race and moving to a charming village in Italy à la “Under the Tuscan Sun?”

If you’ve been dreaming about buying a crumbling stone house perched on a hillside, you might just get your chance.

CNN recently reported that the Italian town of Cammarata is offering free housing to bring in new residents. The mayor of the town, Vincenzo Giambrone, is putting in a last-ditch effort to save the town from financial collapse. Homeowners have been vacating in droves over the past few years, leaving behind empty, crumbling houses — and Giambrone’s trying to convince them to give the properties away to potential new owners.

He told CNN, “I can’t stand to see this gorgeous, old historical center empty and turn into a ruin. It hurts me. The owners are oblivious to the damage they cause when they ditch their homes and refuse to restyle their ancient dwellings. It leaves a deep scar on the townscape with the risk of dangerous collapses.”

The town has a rich history, and it’s filled with red brick houses, balconies with panoramic views, palazzos and lush, green hills. In fact, Olympic horses used to train there. The town is known for its hospitality, so potential newcomers can expect to feel at home in no time.

But you know what they say — there’s no such thing as a free lunch … or in this case, a house. Buyers must commit to renovating the house within the first three years of ownership. Additionally, they’ll need to put down a 5,000 euro ($4,300) security deposit that they’ll get back once the work on the house is completed. Lastly, they’ll need to come up with a refurbishment proposal. Priority will be given to couples with children, although anyone who can uphold the criteria can apply. Better yet, if you have a baby after you move there, you’ll receive a 1,000 euro ($1,100) bonus.

Locana, a village in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, is yet another town attempting to lure new blood with an offer that seems too good to be true.

As first reported by CNN Travel, Giovanni Bruno Mattiet, the mayor of Locana, offered up to 9,000 euros earlier this year (about $10,300 at the current exchange rate) spread out over three years to families willing to settle in the town. The catch: new residents must have a child and a minimum annual income of at least 6,000 euros (approximately $6,800).

“We’re looking to draw mostly young people and professionals who work remotely or are willing to start an activity here,” Mattiet told CNN Travel. “There are dozens of closed shops, bars, restaurants and boutiques just waiting for new people to run them.”

The town is located about an hour from Piedmont’s capital Turin and almost two hours from the famous vineyards of Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti, which have brought great wealth to the region — or parts of it, anyway. Locana, it seems, has been suffering from depopulation as young people move to cities in search of work. It’s a trend that’s playing out all over Italy, where a weak economy has made many young Italians pack up and move abroad.

“Our population has shrunk from 7,000 residents in the early 1900s to barely 1,500, as people left looking for a job at Turin’s big factories,” Mattiet said. “Our school each year faces the risk of shutting down due to too few pupils. I can’t allow this to happen.”

A vineyard in Asti, a Piedmont town known for its sparkling wines. Photo by Laura Itzkowitz
A vineyard in Asti, a Piedmont town known for its sparkling wines. Photo by Laura Itzkowitz/TPG

In January, the village of Sambuca, in Sicily, announced it was selling houses for just 1 euro. After CNN broke the story, it went viral and has apparently resulted in a flood of interest. The mayor’s office even set up a dedicated email address — case1euro@comune.sambucadisicilia.ag.it — which received tens of thousands of emails, he said.

TPG spoke with Leonardo Ciaccio, the mayor of Sambuca, who said “the official call for bids [kicked off] on Feb. 10, but … lots of visitors from all over the world [had] come to Sambuca and purchased houses available for prices other than one euro.”

According to Mayor Ciaccio, the town is home to around 5,800 residents and offers cultural attractions including museums and theaters as well as opportunities to go hiking and explore the region’s gastronomy. The closest beach is about a 15-minute drive away in the town of Fiori Menfi. The closest airport is in Palermo, about 70 minutes away by car. According to Italy Magazine, the town was founded around 830 by the Saracens and still has archeological sites, narrow, winding streets and underground caverns.

Think this all seems too good to be true? Of course it is.

The 37 homes for sale are crumbling and in dire need of repair. In order to get one, you have to commit to investing at least 15,000 euros (over $17,100) in renovations, which must be completed within three years. Add to that the property taxes, which in Italy are notoriously high. To prove you’re serious, you must put down a security deposit of 5,000 euros (about $5,700), which will be returned once the renovations are complete — that is, if you can get one at all. Bidding starts at one Euro, but the houses will be sold to whoever makes the highest offer.

Jonathon Spada, an American web designer living in Rome, heard about just such a deal being offered up by a town in Abruzzo a few years ago and went to the town hall to try to bid for a house.

“In that case, it was structured like a competition and there were dozens upon dozens of entrants for just the two small homes that I was interested in,” he told TPG. “Additionally, the competition required [that] a minimum amount of private funding (something like 50,000 euros) was secured before applying and an entire design project, including specs and budget.”

Sextantio Grotte della Civiltà hotel in Matera. Photo courtesy of Design Hotels
Sextantio Grotte della Cività hotel in Matera. Photo courtesy of Design Hotels

Spada says it seemed like a ruse to gain media coverage before just giving the opportunity to a local. He added, however, that in the case of these other towns, investing 10,000 to 20,000 euros into a property might still be a good deal, citing the examples of Basilicata’s ancient cave city of Matera — currently the European Capital of Culture — and Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo, where crumbling old homes have been transformed into sister locations of an albergo diffuso called Sextantio.

Translated literally, an albergo diffuso is a “scattered hotel” — in essence, a hotel that operates as a collection of suites in renovated houses or, in the case of Matera, cave dwellings spread out around the town. In fact, Sextantio Le Grotte della Cività in Matera and Sextantio Albergo Diffuso in Santo Stefano di Sessanio are chic members of Design Hotels.

“You can see that the road to success lies with foreigners buying up these properties, renovating them and spending vacation time there,” Spada said.

Who knows — if you’ve got the money to spare and want to play a part in a town’s revitalization, it just might be worth it.

Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen. 

Featured image of the Langhe Hills of Piedmont by Laura Itzkowitz.

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