The True Story of Italy’s $1 Homes… read on!

Italy’s been famous for its $1 homes but, on that subject, we need to tread carefully because there is Jill, a new homeowner in the village of Sambuca, Sicily.

This ancient village in Italy’s countryside was dying until the local government decided in 2019 to sell abandoned homes for next-to-nothing.

People from across the world came rushing in, hoping to catch a bargain. While the pandemic may have delayed some of these intrepid travellers, determined buyers still came, even if the actual cost of these houses would turn out to be a lot more than $1. In fact, more than 20 towns across Italy started selling abandoned homes for a single Euro or about $0.97, hence the title of this post, $1 Homes.

Villages selling these $1 homes are small, mostly way out in the countryside and suffering from rapid depopulation for decades. In 1968 a huge earthquake struck Sicily, causing so much devastation that for some homeowners it was cheaper to cash in on their home insurance and move elsewhere. And so the exodus grew.

Across the whole of Italy, younger people escaped to the cities. Many moved due to the poor jobs on offer in their rural towns. In Sambuca, since the 1950s, the population had decreased by 30 per cent.  The only work there now involves construction. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the last 15 years this village of 8,000 people now only has 5,000 residents.

Sambuca is just one example of many similar towns losing inhabitants, with more than a million Italians migrating to the urban cities in the last 20 years. Many went to northern Italy and other parts of the world to seek employment, leaving abandoned homes in beautiful old villages with ageing populations and town councils on the verge of collapse.

Ancient Greek colonists founded Sambuca and from 830BC until the 13th century, the town was under Muslim rule. For centuries it has experienced extremes of poverty and prosperity. In the 1800s Sambuca was a rich cultural centre, and the famed Italian writer and poet, Vincenzo Navarro died there in 1867.

The Italian government moved to revive towns like Sambuca by repopulating them and setting up websites enabling prospective buyers to view many homes for sale for only one Euro. In the mountainous town of Melise where they had lost 9,000 residents since 2014, officials made the deal even sweeter; they promised newcomers almost $800 a month to move there for three years and start a small business.

It did not take long for news publications to run with the story which went viral all over the world. The attention-grabbing headlines that in certain parts of Sicily you could buy your own home for just one Euro got many thousands of online clicks.  CNN plus most major media outlets got involved and next thing, everyone wanted to buy a house for a Euro.

Sambuca got the biggest media coverage after its town official, Giuseppe, put 16 homes up for sale in early 2019. Artists, actors, and singers, among them young men and women, flocked to stay in Sambuca. Never mind that the town was small and rural.

Foreigners came in droves, looking to find holiday homes, open up AirBnbs or move there as permanent residents. Sambuca has so much history, the stucco falling off the walls, the old bricks and stones peeking out from under this. The scenery is what one might imagine in an animated Disney movie. The locals have embraced the new faces and energy of their new neighbours and invited them to partake in dishes such as lasagna – genuine, delicious Italian lasagna!

Landing a $1 home in these idyllic spots may sound picture-perfect but there’s always a catch, or rather multiple catches, involved. You have to pay for the property contract, property and other taxes, about $400 to the real estate company, usually a total of about $3 000. In Sambuca, with only 16 homes on offer and more than 100,000 people who submitted offers online, the competition was steep.

Jill, mentioned at the beginning of this article, from Scotland, was one of the lucky auction winners who finally paid $1,100 for her home; but, most of them ended up going for a few thousand with the highest priced at $28,000.

Then, irrespective of the property purchase price, buyers had to pay a “security deposit” of between $2,300 and $5,600 depending on the town in question. Homeowners will get it back provided they start renovations within 12 months and agree to finish within 36 months of getting the designs approved. This is a safeguard against them giving away these properties which then sit vacant again.

Naturally, the town officials want people to be living in and using the houses. Since the majority of the homes were in pretty poor condition, some buyers were contractually required to spend at least $17,000 on renovations.

There is a lot of work involved, and the logistics of sourcing materials and tools can become a real challenge. Meanwhile, unless the buyers have somewhere local to stay, they will have flights back and forth from their home country, possibly for a period of years.

Adding this all up gets us to some $76,000, having started at only $1, but that is still low compared to the $124,000 reported in Forbes magazine that one Sambuca newcomer expects to spend on renovations – but although that seems a lot for a home that was cost $1 and may seem a rip-off, the same house in Belgium or elsewhere in Europe could cost a million.

Perhaps, in the end, it is not such an expensive holiday home for life at a fraction of the price elsewhere. There is hope the newcomers will bring about change in these small villages at the back of beyond. Engineers, architects, designers, builders, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and project managers all inject money into the local economy Along with new businesses, restaurants and AirBnbs, you will see postings for English classes and it has also helped tourism with more and more tour buses coming through the villages.

All the fuss and media spotlights put Sambuca on the map. Of course, people in small towns will create some friction: in hilly Mussomeli, a town of 11,000 people, one of the local newspapers launched a smear campaign against the new Belgian residents after one of them was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. There will always be an element of xenophobia and some cultural differences to be worked on, but in Sambuca visitors from out of town come to eat the food on offer, and love this.

Homes are still on offer in Mussomeli for one Euro: The town boasts of being one of the safest in Italy, thanks to sophisticated surveillance and community policing.

The newcomers are positive, and overall the locals agree, they bring a new breath of life, not to mention breakfast at Piazza Roma (in Sambuca), while old homes are being restored to new ones and bringing back the beauty of an Italian village to its heyday.

David Price July 2022