(CNN) – Buyers from around the world have been snapping up dilapidated Italian homes at the lowest prices for the past few years as numerous depopulated towns and villages try to revive their dwindling communities with real estate deals.
While the prospect of significant structural upgrades, as well as the bureaucratic red tape often associated with buying a home in another country, may put some off, others have jumped at the chance.
Of course, each buyer will have their own vision of their new renovation project. Some choose to keep things as simple as possible, focusing on making the home livable again while keeping costs low.
And there are those who decided to give it their all.
Masoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, who were the first to complete the renovation of an abandoned house in the Italian city of Sambuca di Sicilia, belong to the second category.
Masood Ahmadi and Shelly Spencer bought an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia back in 2019.
A couple from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland were among those who bought up a historic home in Sambuca, located in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities put up 16 abandoned houses up for auction at a price of symbolic. euro is about 1 dollar.
“It was love at first sight,” Spencer tells CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with beautiful old stone pavements reminiscent of those in [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lights at night are very romantic.”
They were delighted when they learned that their offer of €10,150 (about $10,372) for a 100-square-meter palazzo had been accepted, and they quickly set about radically renovating the building.
Two years later, and well before the three-year deadline set by the local authorities, their Italian hideout is complete.
Ahmadi and Spencer, who both work in global development projects, have spent about $250,000 transforming a dilapidated home into a luxury home that they say looks “like a renaissance house.”
They plan to split their time between the US and Italy, spending about six months in their two-bedroom home with their daughter and grandchildren.
The restored home has beautiful marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly the internal elevator that the couple uses to move up and down the three levels.
So what made them decide to install an elevator with a camera and a telephone in the house?
Adding an elevator
The couple had an internal elevator installed inside their 100 square meter palazzo.
“We want to get older here, do yoga every day and drink coffee on the terrace overlooking the misty lake,” explains Spencer.
“So we thought it would be great to be as comfortable as possible, bypassing all those narrow steps, and not having to go up and down four windy stairs several times a day.”
While a quarter of a million dollars may seem like a huge amount for a project of this nature, they believe it’s actually less than the amount they’d shell out for something similar in the US.
However, the indoor elevator is definitely not a typical fixture for homes in this tiny town, and its glamorous interior design has created quite a buzz among the locals.
The couple say that they have been visited by various residents who want to see the transformation of this once dilapidated house up close.
“The locals greet us with cakes and come to my house curious to see what we did with the ruins,” Spencer says, before revealing that they were recently given “a bottle of good wine” at a local bar.
In addition to the elevator, the house has a sitting area, a guest bedroom, a master bedroom and a living room with a modern open kitchen.
There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace overlooking the hills and Lake Arancio, located near the ruined Arab fort of Fortino di Mazzalaccar.
Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already received back the €5,000 (about $5,100) deposit they originally paid as part of a sales contract that stipulated the renovations would be completed within three years.
They spent $250,000 renovating the house, which includes a living room with an open-plan kitchen.
The couple are currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the mornings, they take the elevator down to the first floor to enjoy their morning cappuccino and pastries at the local bar. They then go for a walk before returning home for a day of remote work.
“This is a smarter home than the one we have in the US, with an alarm system and security cameras,” Spencer adds, explaining that they can control the alarms and devices on their US property from Sambuca.
After purchasing their new home, they purchased a 100 square meter unused part of their neighbor’s house for €5,000, which they have since renovated and connected to their property.
“We love the serenity in Sambuca,” Ahmadi says. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the city’s slow lifestyle philosophy, symbolized by the snail sculpture in the main square.”
While some travelers prefer to use Sicily as a base from which to explore Italy as well as the rest of Europe, the couple is focused on exploring the region.
They have already visited the city of Marsala in the province of Trapani and the salt flats of Trapani, they like to make long trips along the narrow rural roads to visit local food markets and try different delicacies, including snails.
“In the US, roads are everywhere. But there is no rush here,” Massoud says. “Slow travel allows us to enjoy great views.
“It takes us almost two hours to drive only nine kilometers and go through the hills, but that’s what makes the adventure so special.”
While they were able to complete the renovations in a relatively short amount of time, which is particularly impressive given the various issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were some minor issues along the way.
Squeezing their furniture through the tight doors and windows of their 300-year-old palazzo proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa was taken up by an elevator), and finding the right furniture was also time consuming.
“As Americans, we have access to many stores in the States where we can buy things at all sorts of prices,” Spencer says.
“But finding good quality furniture here in Sicily that you really like can be a challenge. You need to know where is the right place for first class traditional wooden items, antiques and second hand shops. In addition, some items are in the catalogs. but not available.”
Although the structure of the building has been renovated, they have chosen to retain the original windows, as well as the gilded ragged stone walls, majolica floors and vaulted ceilings, to retain some of the home’s historic elements.
Massoud and Spencer also decided to keep some of the items left by the previous owners that they discovered during their first visit, including a 1967 calendar still hanging on the walls.
Their house is one of several in the Saracen region that were abandoned after the catastrophic earthquake in the Belice Valley in Sicily in 1968 that devastated the area.
The town hall has attracted interest from hundreds of foreign buyers after offering 16 houses in 2019, and in 2021 it put up for auction 10 more buildings, this time for a symbolic 2 euros each.
While some of those who participated in the second auction ended up buying their home undetected due to Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy with his brother in 2019. to inspect the property and check. the Sicilian city is ahead of their bet.
“Accompanied by my husband, I sent my son-in-law ahead on an exploratory mission to see what the city was like,” Spencer says.
“He is an engineer and said that the foundation of the village and houses in Sambuca is very strong despite the earthquake.”
It took the couple just two years to turn the dilapidated property into a luxurious home.
Massoud is extremely grateful that both the sale and renovation went so smoothly, explaining that the mayor’s office helped with paperwork and legal issues, helping them overcome the language barrier.
While he points out that they had to apply for an Italian fiscal code or social security number and open a bank account in the country before buying a house, which meant the process wasn’t completely “painless,” he’s pleased with the way things are going. won overall.
“In the US, I had to deal with subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” says Massoud, who supervised all the work along with the architect.
“I was lucky to find a good architect and was involved in the electrical work, designing the layout of the lighting fixtures.”
The couple were impressed with the quality of the work of the local merchants and builders, saying they found them to be far superior to anything they encountered in the US.
“Italian craftsmen are just incredible,” says Spencer. “It’s amazing how they turned this space into something new. It was a shell, and now it looks like a renaissance house.”
However, the final bill came as something of a shock to them, as they did not realize that 10% VAT would be added to the construction cost.
Before embarking on the renovation of their Italian home, Masoud and Spencer were often warned of the risks involved in buying and upgrading a large home abroad.
But they say they have full confidence in the Sambuca housing scheme, which aims to support local economic development, and are delighted with the end result.
“I could pinch myself,” Spencer says. “We are really lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares, but I don’t, because everything turned out pretty well. Much better than in a small town in the States.”