Disclaimer: This post is to inform my audience (who tends to be North American and who often are people wondering about moving to Italy) what some of the challenges are when house-hunting in Italy, vis a vis my experiences. This post is not coming from a clueless American who wants to be coddled. It is possible to adore Italy and not adore every single thing about it. My intention is to be helpful and realistic and not to only describe a La La Land under the Tuscan sun.
Are you a North American thinking about buying property in Italy? Or just want to know what the search has been like so far, for one?
I had hoped to buy property in Italy, and not throw tons of money down the drain in rent. I’ve seen about 20 apartments/houses in the Lucca area and about 20 in Florence, and I have, for now, ceased looking.
The problem with multiple realtors
So, you’re used to the American way? Where you choose a realtor who you like, who is sympathetic to your wish list, and who you know will go to bat for you?
In Italy you don’t have such a luxury. There is no MLS. Realtors have their territory. They represent only some properties. So you, the buyer, must spend a hundred hours online searching properties and clicking on the “more info” button when you like something. Then be prepared for an onslaught of calls in Italian.
The reason I’ve written so few blog posts lately is because I spent most of December and most of January, searching house-for-sale sites online—easily a hundred and fifty hours of looking in those two months, that’s just online, never mind the actual going to see the places, and trying to find someone to take care of my cat so I could make an over-night trip to Florence.
At first, over the summer and through the fall, I was looking in the Lucca area. By December I switched my focus to Florence.
Not only was I doing 95% of the work, but the system overwhelmed me. For example, after hours of searching online and requesting info (where I had to fill in a phone number) I would have to field a bunch of calls a day in Italian which my Italian can handle fine, but just to make you aware of the process, this is how the calls went:
Rapid speaking realtor (RSR): “I am calling from Bla Bla Agency, you requested info about the house in Bla Bla Street and bla bla bla…”
Chandi: “Uh, hang on, street names are never given on these sites so I don’t know which the one is in Bla Bla Street.”
RSR: “It’s the apartment with the bla bla bla.”
Chandi: “The thing is, I sent at least ten requests today. I don’t know which one you are. If you could reply by email, then I’d see the link and I’d know which one we’re talking about.”
RSR: “No, I prefer to call. I can’t get to my emails.”
This same conversation happened many times a day. Each one resulted in me begging them to email me so I could have clarity.
For many reasons it was more clear by email. In order to set up many appointments for my 24 hours in Florence, I wanted to refer to emails to see what times I’d set up with each agency and I wanted to receive the street names by email, and use google maps to see where to go. I also had time by email to look up words I did not know, allowing me to have clearer communication than on the phone.
Each time it was like pulling teeth to get them to use email instead of the phone. I had sort through all the phone calls and make eight different appointments with eight different realtors.
Then, at each appointment I’d meet random man or random women in front of a door on a street and they’d show me the apartment and then disappear.
Be aware, if you are coming from the US, and used to going around with one realtor of your choice, who spends her time (not yours) finding a slew of properties to show you, who spends her time (not yours) setting up the appointments, and who picks you up and drives you to all of them—it is not like that in Italy. And realtors in Italy work for both the seller and the buyer, which can make them feel less committed to you. In my recent experience, even if the house I wanted to view was miles out side of the city of Florence, or Lucca, the realtors told me to meet them there. I have even been told to take a taxi when I’ve explained that I don’t have a car.
The problem with kitchens
When you’re on a budget they’re awful. And even if you have $600,000 to spend on an apartment in Florence, the kitchen will be enclosed by walls with no window and the washing machine will be outside.
The world in which we’re raised shapes us and in my case, when it comes to houses, I am shaped by the concept that a kitchen is an open inviting place, and by the concept of a room dedicated to laundry. I know well that this is not the norm in Italy. And while I love hundreds of things about Italy, I will never love a windowless kitchen in a closet.
“Italians do a heck of a lot of things better than we do,” I say to the owner of the house, “but we do kitchens better.” I’m in an apartment for sale in Florence chatting with the owner. She shows me how she made an opening in the kitchen wall, creating a pass-through window to the dining area. I tell her it’s almost like an American kitchen and she surprises me by saying with enthusiasm that she loves the American style of open-plan kitchens. It’s the first time I’ve encountered this sentiment during my search.
“They’re always in an a closet,” I say. I’m at a point where I want to run from a house I’m viewing if it has a kitchen in a closet but I refrain from saying this.
“Italians think kitchens must be hidden,” she says.
“Yes, I know,” I say. “And we think kitchens are the heart of the house, a place that is inviting, and festive, with an island where guests can sit with their wine while the host prepares food.”
This is something I’ve always wanted. The one house I owned once upon time, did not have a kitchen like that. It was a small “fixer-upper” and I made do with the kitchen but I always craved having a larger one, with an island, where I had space to host dinner parties. A kitchen that would be an inspiring and welcoming place.
I understand that my dream kitchen, and my dream of living in Italy may not “marry well” (to take a phrase from Italian) and I have to find a balance.
I view some new apartments in Florence at a high-end complex being constructed from an ex-cinema. I can’t afford it but the realtor tells me I can get a mortgage so I figure I’ll take a look, and the apartments have radiant floor heating and gardens, so I can’t resist. (After going through the winter months in a rustic countryside place with no heat except for a pellet stove, the thought of radiant floor heat, and new, air-tight construction sounds like Heaven.)
I walk into the main room, a nice big space, with large windows and a glass door and at the end of it, opening to the garden. But at the back of this room where there are no windows; is the kitchen with walls around it. All closed in.
The problem with not thinking creatively
I notice, in this modern apartment, that there’s enough space to figure into the plan at least a closet for the washing machine; (I’ve never seen a room dedicated to laundry in Italy and do not expect to,) and so I’m surprised to see that the washing machine is outside. I ask the realtor about it.
“We think that’s where washing machines go. If they’re not under the kitchen counter, they are outside.”
But lets think out the box. I want to say. Why stick the washing machine outside by default when with a bit of creativity and thoughtfulness, a space inside for it could have been planned?
This place got big points in my book for radiant floor heating. Other “new build” places I have seen still stick radiators on the walls like they’ve done for a hundred years, even though radiant floor heat lowers the heating bills and frees up space so that furniture is not competing for wall space with radiators.
But this apartment comes to $600,000 in dollars and for that much, my kitchen would be windowless and hidden, and my washing machine would be outside.
I look at another apartment with a different realtor. It’s in the historic center of Florence so of course the building is ancient. He walks me into a construction zone of a dark ground floor apartment which has been gutted. The floors are damp dirt, and in the tiny rooms the ancient stone walls are oozing wet grout. He shows me the room where the kitchen will be. The edge of this area has a nice opening onto a tiny garden. Some sun would come in here and it’s where I would create the kitchen, with a window that would get the only possible light in the whole place, and with a view of the garden.
But the kitchen is being created in a windowless room at the back. Yet again, by default, the kitchen goes into a closet without considering that it might be nicer to put it near the light. My heart sinks.
In the muddy trench of the floor are some workers. I ask if them, and the realtor, if they’ve considered radiant floor heating.
“Oh no,” they reply. “We’re putting in radiators.”
“It is something worth considering when you’re at this stage,” I say. “It lowers the heating bills.”
“Oh, we’re very behind you Americans,” one of them says.
“Well the Swedes all do it. They’ve been doing it for ages. So it is here in Europe.”
“Oh but we’re afraid of it,” the realtor says.
“Honestly, if you tried it, you’d love it. It’s fantastic,” I say.
My problem is that my California culture is all about thinking outside of the box. Apple computer, the epitome of thinking creatively, was taking off in a town near mine, as I was entering adulthood. My higher eduction in California was innovative and inductive and focused on critical thinking. Whereas in Italy and the Middle East the education style (that I have been exposed to) uses the rote memorization—a mechanical style of instruction that kills critical thinking and encourage bulimic learning.
Thinking differently was as integral a part of my California culture as fish tacos. I think that’s why I struggle when an Italian realtor tells me he’s afraid of radiant floor heating and why I cringe when things are done a certain way simply because it’s always been that way.
I accept the cultural difference, that Italians feel that the “mess” in a kitchen should be “hidden”. But I also think with these workers and developers who remodel places, that there’s some rote repetition going on, instead of creative thinking.
I am a highly creative person. And I love Italy because of the art and the food. Italians have been highly creative with these two things. With kitchen and laundry rooms, not so much.
You may tell me to simply remodel the kitchen. If there is space and budget, for a kitchen remodel, yes. But, apartments in historic centers where I am looking, are tiny. And at the prices I’m seeing (along with how crappy the dollar is) it will take all my savings and then some, to afford the apartment, leaving nothing for remolding.
The problem with space
I tried to paint an image in words the other day for my sister, of an apartment for sale I’d viewed in Florence. I told her about the extremely steep narrow stairs going up to it.
How anyone gets furniture up there is beyond me. But even if hired movers carry the furniture up, what happens when I go away, and come back with a heavy suitcase, by myself, at 1:00am? How do I get a heavy suitcase up those stairs?
Then I tell her about the weird little mezzanine thing in the bedroom.
The narrow stairs led right into this big beam in the ceiling that you are supposed to duck under and then stay bent in half in order to somehow use this space. The space had a width of only about three feet.
The realtor crawled in and said, “this could be a child’s bedroom!”
“It’s certainly useful for something!”
“It makes my back hurt just considering crawling in there,” I said, remaining on the stairs.
(The place where I herniated a disc in my back had been feeling sensitive lately. So I found this weird mezzanine extra unappealing.)
Then I told my sister how there was no cupboard/wardrobe space (which is exceedingly common) and she said as if she’d just realized it, “My God, it’s like looking for housing in New York, where people are willing to pay astronomical amounts to be in minuscule funky places!”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. And I realized that she’s never been inside an apartment in Florence. Which made me realize that some of my audience for this site may not have either, and maybe a blog post about all this is warranted.