“We bought a cheap Italian house and added an elevator”

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(CNN) — Buyers around the world have bought dilapidated Italian homes at rock-bottom prices in recent years, as many depopulated towns and villages try to revive their declining communities with real estate bargains.

Although the prospect of substantial structural improvements, as well as the red tape often associated with buying a home in a foreign country, may be off-putting to some, others have jumped at the chance.

Of course, each buyer will have a different vision of their new renovation project. Some choose to keep things as simple as possible, focusing on making the house livable again, while keeping costs down.

And there are also those who decide to go all out.

Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, the first to renovate an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, belong to the latter category.

italian shelter

Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer bought an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia in 2019.

Silvia Marchetti

The couple, from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland, were among those who bought a historic home in Sambuca, located in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities auctioned off 16 abandoned homes with prices starting at a symbolic. euros – about $1.

Ahmadi and Spencer were already interested in buying property in Italy and had considered looking in the Sicilian region when they heard about the program on CNN in 2019.

“It was love at first sight,” Spencer told CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with beautiful old stone sidewalks reminiscent of (the Washington, DC neighborhood) in Georgetown, and the streetlights 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 palace had been accepted, and quickly got to work giving the property a dramatic facelift.

Two years later, and well before the three-year deadline put in place by the local authorities, their Italian refuge is over.

Ahmadi and Spencer, who work in global development projects, spent around $250,000 to transform the dilapidated property into a lavish home, which they say resembles “a Renaissance house”.

They plan to split their time between the United States and Italy, spending about half the year in their two-bedroom home, with their daughter and grandchildren.

The remodeled home has beautiful marble bathrooms, but its main feature is undoubtedly an indoor elevator that the couple uses to go up and down its three levels.

So what prompted them to install an elevator, with a security camera and a telephone, in the property?

Addition of elevator

The couple had an indoor elevator installed inside their 100 square meter palace.

The couple had an indoor elevator installed inside their 100 square meter palace.

Massoud Ahmadi

“We want to grow old here, do yoga every day, and sip coffee on the patio overlooking the misty lake,” says Spencer.

“So we thought it would be great to feel as comfortable as possible bypassing all those narrow steps and not having to go up and down four windy stairs multiple times a day.”

While a quarter of a million dollars might seem like a lot of money to spend on a project like this, they think it’s actually less than what they would have paid for something similar in the United States.

However, an interior elevator is certainly not a typical amenity for homes in this small town, and its glamorous interior design has caused a stir among locals.

The couple say they have been visited by various residents eager to see the transformation of the once dilapidated house up close.

“Locals welcome us with cakes and come to my house curious to see what we’ve done with the ruin,” says Spencer, before revealing that they recently received a “nice bottle of wine” at the local bar.

Besides the elevator, the house has a relaxation area, a guest suite, a master bedroom and a living area with a modern open kitchen.

There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace that overlooks the hills and Lake Arancio, located near the ruins of the Arab fort Fortino di Mazzallakkar.

Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already recovered the €5,000 (about $5,100) deposit they originally gave as part of the purchase agreement, which stipulated that the renovations had to be completed within three years.

Idyllic lifestyle

They spent $250,000 to renovate the house, which includes a living room with an open-plan kitchen.

They spent $250,000 to renovate the house, which includes a living room with an open-plan kitchen.

Massoud Ahmadi

The couple are currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the morning, they take their elevator down to the ground floor to enjoy a morning cappuccino and a pastry at the local bar. Then they go for a walk, before returning home for a day of teleworking.

“It’s a smarter home than we have in the United States, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras,” adds Spencer, explaining that they are able to manage alarms and appliances on their property. American from Sambuca.

After buying their new home, they bought an unused 100 square meter part of their neighbour’s house for €5,000, which they have since renovated and attached to their property.

“We love the tranquility in Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we appreciate the city’s slow-paced philosophy of life, symbolized by a snail sculpture in the main square.”

While some travelers choose to use Sicily as a base to further explore Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, the couple are focused on exploring the region.

They have already visited the town of Marsala in the province of Trapani, and the salt marshes of Trapani, and love to take long drives along narrow rural roads to visit local food markets and try different delicacies, including snails.

new adventures

“In the United States, highways are everywhere. But here, there is no rush,” Massoud says. “Slow travel allows us to indulge in beautiful views.

“To ride just nine kilometers, and cross the hills, it takes us almost two hours, but that’s what makes the adventure so special.”

Although they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short period of time, which is particularly impressive considering the various problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a few minor issues along the way.

Getting their furniture through the narrow doors and windows of their 300-year-old palace proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa went up in the elevator) and finding suitable furniture also took a lot of work. time.

“As Americans, we have access to many stores in the United States, where we can buy things at all prices,” says Spencer.

“But finding good quality fine furniture here in Sicily that you really like can be a hassle. You need to know where the right place is to find top notch traditional wooden pieces, antiques and thrift stores. In addition, some parts are in catalogs but unavailable.”

Although the structure of the building has been renovated, they have decided to keep the original windows, as well as the gold-colored jagged stone walls, tiled floors and vaulted ceilings in order to preserve some of the historic elements of the house. .

Massoud and Spencer also chose to keep some of the items left behind by the previous owners, which they discovered during their first visit, including a 1967 calendar still hanging on the walls.

Their home is one of many in the Saracen quarter that were abandoned after a catastrophic earthquake rocked Sicily’s Belice Valley in 1968 and devastated the area.

The town hall was inundated with interest from hundreds of foreign buyers after offering 16 of the houses in 2019, and then auctioning another 10 buildings in 2021, this time for a symbolic €2 each.

While some of those who participated in the second auction ended up buying their homes unseen due to Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy with his brother in 2019 to view the property and check out the Sicilian city before their application.

“Accompanied by my husband, I sent my brother-in-law on a mission of exploration to see what the city was like,” says Spencer.

“He is an engineer and he said that the foundations of the village and the houses of Sambuca are very solid, despite the earthquake.”

Spectacular transformation

It took just two years for the couple to turn the dilapidated property into a lavish abode.

It took just two years for the couple to turn the dilapidated property into a lavish abode.

Silvia Marchetti

Massoud says he is extremely grateful that the sale and renovation went so well, explaining that the town hall helped with the paperwork and legal issues, helping them overcome the language barrier.

Although he points out that they had to apply for an Italian tax code or social security number and open a bank account in the country before buying the house, meaning the process was not entirely “painless “He is happy with the way things went overall.

“In the United States, I have to manage the subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” explains Massoud, who supervised all the work with the architect.

“I was lucky enough to find a good architect and helped with the electrical work, designing the location of the light fixtures.”

The couple were impressed with the quality of the work of the local craftsmen and builders, saying they found it far superior to anything they encountered in the United States.

“Italian craftsmen are amazing,” says Spencer. “The way they have transformed this space into something new is amazing. It used to be a shell, now it looks like a Renaissance house.”

However, the final bill came as a shock to them, as they had not realized that 10% VAT would be added to the construction costs.

Before embarking on the renovation of their Italian home, Massoud and Spencer were often warned of the risks of buying and improving a large home abroad.

But they say they have full confidence in Sambuca’s housing program, which aims to support local economic development, and are delighted with the end result.

“I could pinch myself,” Spencer said. “We were very lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares but that’s not the case, because everything went pretty well. Much better than in a small town in the United States.”

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