Meet the Americans, Brits, and Europeans flocking to Italy's rural ghost towns to buy abandoned, dilapidated homes for $1

Sambuca €1 homes

  • Italy’s rural towns are in the midst of a revolution as they
    trial selling
    homes for as little as one euro ($1.12).
  • The radical schemes are aimed at combating the effects of
    urbanization, 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 a number of such towns in Sicily, and spoke
    to 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, deputy mayor of Sambuca, Sicily,

described the sale of his town’s abandoned homes
to foreign
buyers, the auctions of which started at just one euro ($1.12).

Sambuca succeeded in selling off 16 historic but derelict stone
homes to buyers from the United States, China, France, Britain,
Russia, and Argentina.

It is one of many towns in rural Italy to trial selling homes
for just $1 in a last-ditch bid to save rural settlements that have
been slowly decimated by urbanization while cities and their
suburbs thrive and become overpopulated.

Mussomeli €1 homes

Read more:
Italy’s $1 homes might be dirt cheap, but they need a lot of work
— take a look inside

It 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 ($16,700) on renovations, and hand over a 5,000
euro ($5,600) security deposit, 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.

Cammarata €1 homes

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 traveled to Sicily, where a number of the towns trialling the
one euro scheme are concentrated, to see them for myself, speak to
the people buying the houses, and 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 the majority of my time in Sambuca di Sicilia, a small
town in the center of Sicily that — it’s fair to say — has
received
the widest media coverage
of any towns trialling a one euro
home scheme.

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.”

Sambuca €1 homes

None of the homes actually sold for a euro. In May, the homes
were sold in a blind auction where bids started at one euro, and
the 16 houses owned by the municipality ended up selling for prices
between €1,000 ($1,100) and €25,000 ($27,600).

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 ($1.1 million) in investments — and that figure has
undoubtedly continued to rise in the months since.

“We’re in our late sixties and we didn’t want to take on a
project of undefined dimensions,” Deborah Cavin from Austin, Texas
told me.

Deborah and her husband Guyle bought a house from a private
buyer for €50,000 ($55,000) 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,” Deborah said.

Guyle and Deborah Cavin from Texas.

The Cavins were shown around several homes that were part of the
one euro scheme, 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 if they
wanted to see one last home before they left.

“We thought, ‘Well okay, one more,’ and of course that was the
perfect house for us,” Deborah said.

“We agreed in the end that yes, it was crazy and yes, we wanted
to do it.”

Sambuca €1 homes

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 [$5,580] on it,” Gary told
me. The house ended up going for 1€0,000 [$11,040] — a price
that Gary thought was ‘way too much.’

“When it was a euro — absolutely. But when it became kind of a
blind auction, it made it a little more challenging to get what the
investment should be,” Tamara explained.

Gary Holm on the roof of his Sambuca property

Gary and Tamara eventually paid €19,000 ($21,000) 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 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’ve never found Sambuca and then
flown out there and then realized that there was so much
opportunity there,” Tamara said.

“As an advertisement for the city: brilliant.”

Gary and Tamara Holm in Sambuca

Not all the buyers had flown in from halfway across the world.
For Marie Ohanesian Nardin, Sambuca was a little closer to
home.

Nardin was originally from Los Angeles, but has been living in
Italy for more than 30 years since marrying a third generation
gondolier from Venice.

Roberto Nardin Marie Ohanesian Nardin

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 local
press.

However, 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.

$1 won’t get you a house that’s ready to move into

Now for the reality of the situation — if a home for $1 sounds
too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Mussomeli €1 homes

Most of the properties involved in these schemes 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 that 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, who had looked around Sambuca’s one 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 $1 for a reason — but that doesn’t mean
they’re not a good investment.

Gillian Payne from Scotland and her husband Danny were one of
the few people who actually managed to get a house in Sambuca’s
auction — and they ended up paying a mere a €1,000 euros for
their property.

Gillian and Danny Payne

“I mean it’s not the greatest place, obviously, but it’s
€1,000,” 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 that her reaction was probably quite
different to the other foreigners who had been led around the one
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.”

Sambuca €1 homes

It comes down to whether you, like the Paynes, are willing to
take a risk. The people I spoke to primarily purchased through
private owners not because they missed out on the one 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 one euro homes still seem like the best investment.

‘Now I’m a little bit Sicilian, a little bit Mussomelian’

Bert Vanbellingen and Nina Smets Sicily one euro homes

In Mussomeli, which is also offering homes for a euro, Bert
Vanbellingen is one of the many Belgians repopulating 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, low-cost carrier Ryanair
recently announced
a new route from Brussels to Catania,
Sicily’s second city.

Vanbellingen was so entranced by Mussomeli, that he bought more
homes than he knew what to do with.

“[We bought] 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 admitted that he’d also paid more than one euro for
the properties, but hastened to add that “if you compare it with
England or Belgium, very cheap. Very cheap.”

Bert Vanbellingen house Mussomeli

It’s not all plain sailing for Mussomeli’s new demographic,
though — I was told that 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 to make sure he and
his family were perceived as a blessing, not a nuisance to
Mussomelian society.

Bert Vanbellingen house Mussomeli

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 to 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 the 2016 Italy’s Most Beautiful
Towns contest, 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.

Columns in Sambuca, Sicily

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.

Sunset restaurant Sambuca

When I visited, many of what few restaurants and cafes 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 they had to open
up especially for me.

Sambuca museum

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 cafes and
stuff there’s not a huge selection.”

Cafe in Sambuca Sicily

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. There are people
here on the streets,” he added.

“That’s the difference between Mussomeli and Sambuca.”

Though admittedly still very quiet, Mussomeli did have a lot more going on than 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 himself that Sambucans had
been learning English in preparation for their new visitors: “They
[Sambucans] 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 B&B 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 that make the investment worth
it

The author, bottom-left, sunburnt, with some of Cammarata's town administrators.

Of all the people I spoke to, 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. And of course, that’s just so, so friendly and so
charming,” she added.

Tamara too said it was the people that 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.”

Man in Sambuca

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.


Read more of Tom Murray’s dispatches from Italy
here.


Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH:
This is the shortest route for a road trip across the US to see 50
national landmarks

Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News
Meet the Americans, Brits, and Europeans flocking to Italy's rural ghost towns to buy abandoned, dilapidated homes for