THE BIG READ | Mamma Mia! A house in Italy for less than R20 – what's the catch?

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There are around 14 000 empty homes in the Sicilian town of Mussomeli. Many of them are now being snapped up by foreigners. (PHOTO: Instagram)
There are around 14 000 empty homes in the Sicilian town of Mussomeli. Many of them are now being snapped up by foreigners. (PHOTO: Instagram)

"It seemed like a pretty good deal,” says Rafael Solorzano, leaning against an ancient whitewashed wall.

The 28-year-old American from Miami is referring to the house we’re standing in – all four floors of it, including a yawning basement – and the fact that this habitable, historic home in a comely old Sicilian hill town was his for €1 (about R18). That’s basically the same as what you’d pay in Italy for a slice of pizza.

It’s now 14 years since former MP and cultural commentator Vittorio Sgarbi suggested a radical solution to Italy’s ratcheting rural decline which over the past two decades has seen a million Italians abandoning their small-town homes and going in search of opportunities in cities.

To reverse this flow, Sgarbi proposed that the nation’s dwindling settlements offer their many vacant houses to newcomers for a pittance. It took a while to convince mayors and absentee owners, but 34 remote towns and villages are currently running €1 house schemes, scattered along the country’s full length.

For some, these initiatives are just part of the desperate solution to an existential crisis. Pledge to settle in Molise, a struggling region in the southern Apennines, and open up a business to boost the local economy and you’ll receive a grant of €800  (R14 000) a month for three years to help get you on your feet. For South Africans to do this, they’d need to apply for an Italian self-employment visa.

Further south, Calabria offers small-town newcomers who promise to establish a business or enrol their children in school a golden hello worth up to €33 000 (R557 000).

But more than half of the €1 house towns are in Sicily, where the socio-economic pressures that drive rural depopulation are redoubled: this is one of Italy’s poorest regions, where youth unemployment runs at 48%.

Most of the struggling settlements on the mainland are hoping to attract young Italians, but the mayors of the 20 little Sicilian towns currently hawking €1 houses can’t afford to be fussy. They don’t care how old you are, or how foreign.

Having shed a third of its population, in 2019 the village of Sambuca di Sicilia put 16 old houses up for auction, each at a starting price of €1, via a press release that instantly went viral across the world.

“The headline kind of wrote itself,” says Tom Murray, an editor at Business Insider, one of the countless media outlets to have published breathless stories about the houses. “I mean, it’s a beautiful home in rural Italy for a dollar. Who isn’t going to click on that?”

Who indeed? Within 48 hours, the mayor of Sambuca’s office had received 38 000 enquiries. More than 100 000 emails had overwhelmed the municipal inbox by the time the houses found new owners from all over the world – the UK, the US, Norway, Dubai, Jordan.

Around half sold for €1, while the rest went for a few thousand. Afterwards, almost 100 foreigners who missed out on the auction snapped up another 90 local homes for under €10 000 each (R175 000).

Inspired by this success, hill towns across the island got in on the act, none with more gusto than Mussomeli – a settlement of 11 000 right in the middle of Sicily that has to date sold a table-topping 50 €1 houses to foreigners, with a further 100 currently on its books.

Browsing the English-language website this municipality has set up in collaboration with a local estate agent (case1euro.it), I am dangerously tantalised by the listed properties. Beneath the dust and rust, beyond the full spectrum of structural decay, I spy marble staircases, encaustic tiles, panoramic terraces: Mediterranean dream-home potential in its very headiest form.

“Is it true or is it a joke?” reads the most arresting entry in the website’s FAQ section. There is of course only one way to find out . . .

The drive to Mussomeli lays bare the challenges and rewards of life in central Sicily. After the autostrada turn-off, I spend a long hour weaving about tentatively on ravaged asphalt, harried at close quarters by a succession of impatient farmers in rickety Fiat Pandas, meaty brown forearms dangling from their windows.

But the desolate majesty of the landscape is utterly captivating, ranks of suede hills pierced here and there by terrific rocky outcrops, most topped with a precarious monastery or castle.

Mussomeli’s old town boasts stunning views of citr
Mussomeli’s old town boasts stunning views of citrus groves and rolling hills. (PHOTO: Instagram)

At the end of another fierce summer, the last crop of fat red grapes hangs heavy under dusty white tarpaulins that ripple in a warm breeze.

Mussomeli, derived from a Latin mash-up meaning “hill of honey”, is guarded by the most splendid of those lofty castles, a full-on Game of Thrones number nicknamed the Enchanted Fortress.

But the streets beyond share nothing with my expectations: they are lined with nondescript mid-rise apartments, and dense with gregarious Mussomelians of all ages.

Only when I park up at my hotel in the Piazza Umberto 1, a most becoming triangle of slightly frayed palazzos and townhouses, do I note the tight mass of pantiled roofs that tumble down from the old town behind.

This is the frontline between postwar “new” Mussomeli, where almost everyone now lives, and the centro storico, a steepling compaction of churches, clock towers and several thousand extremely old houses, 60 per cent of which lie empty.

Covid has thrown a hefty spanner in the €1 house works: barely any of Mussomeli’s giveaway homes have yet been renovated, and just a handful of foreign owners are currently in town.

The next morning I try to procure their details at the town hall – a monolithic edifice whose corridors full of ambling administrators speak of triplicate paperwork, ruminative bureaucracy and a wage bill that isn’t going to be paid by selling houses for €1 a pop.

You may have seen this coming, but that €1 price tag is at heart a savvy PR ruse, inflated from the get-go by sundry extras.

An American buyer in Sambuca who triumphantly paid her €1 by bank transfer was charged €30 (R525) for the privilege.

Once you’ve settled up with the notary, the estate agent and paid the requisite local fees and taxes, you’re already in for at least €1 800 (R31 500) – still next to nothing in today’s property market, but, in the words of the American, “One euro, my ass.”

Toti Nigrelli, Mussomeli’s amiable, can-do deputy mayor, welcomes me into his cavernous third-floor office.

“In this town we have a lot of buildings without people inside,” is his winning introduction. “But only in the centro storico. The local people don’t like these small old houses, they like to have air condition, they like to have big rooms.”

Mainly, he says, they like to drive everywhere and park outside their front doors. (How? That afternoon, attempting to drive my hire car to an old-town rendezvous, I age a decade in half an hour.)

'Everyone thinks it must be too good to be true, but as long as you’re prepared to get stuck in with the locals, it absolutely isn’t'
Danny McCubbin

Nigrelli is deeply passionate about his home town, and its regeneration. He tells me the decline set in during the ’50s and ’60s, when half the young men in Mussomeli left Italy looking for work.

Every €1 house scheme comes with a few strings attached, but Mussomeli’s are looser than most. Nigrelli runs through them after we repair to a pasticceria over the road for tiny, syrup-thick espressos.

You can do pretty much what you like to the interior, but the outside of your new old house must retain its original aesthetic. A €5 000 (R87 500) deposit is handed to the municipality, redeemable in full if you complete the renovation works within three years. This is a safeguard against nothing-to-lose speculators buying up all the €1 houses and sitting on them (though on account of the pandemic, the time-frame stipulation isn’t currently being enforced).

Nigrelli sets about selling Mussomeli to me, but I’m already sold. Of all the €1 house Sicilian towns I’d clicked through photos of back home, this is the one I’d choose to live in.

Put bluntly, its rivals are just a bit too small and a bit too dead.

“We have here all services – the hospital, the schools, the bars, the restaurants.”

Even the centro storico has fibre-optic broadband and mains sewerage. On the flip side, the town’s water is piped in only three times a week and has to be stored in unsightly roof tanks that in the old town are often made from asbestos. Nobody drinks from the tap in Mussomeli – even the kettles get filled with mineral water.

And how do the locals feel about the prospect of the arrival of outsiders?

“Everybody is happy to have the foreigners,” says Nigrelli. “Why not? They bring new life to the centro storico, and of course they bring new business.”

Mark Kopun, an electrician from Australia, works o
Mark Kopun, an electrician from Australia, works on his €1 house. (PHOTO: Instagram)

Before the scheme started, agriculture was Mussomeli’s dominant employer. Now, despite the Covid hiatus, construction – or more precisely, reconstruction – has taken its place. In addition to all the builders and tradespeople, no fewer than five architects work full-time in town.

“For us, this is a small economic revolution.”

Armed with a few names and numbers, I head off to meet the most prominent of Mussomeli’s foreign arrivals: Danny McCubbin, a bright-eyed, 57-year-old Australian who pitched up here after almost two decades spent working for superchef Jamie Oliver in London.

I find him in the community kitchen he has set up on the Piazza Umberto 1, a wholly admirable venture that processes surplus food donated by local supermarkets and smallholders into meals for the lonesome and needy.

“I was Jamie’s PA for a while,” he tells me, “and did a lot of the marketing and social media. But everyone assumes I was a chef and I’ve given up trying to fight it.”

Danny had begun to dream of giving up his office job for a life in Italy, and was steered to Mussomeli after being selected for a reality TV show about Sicily’s €1 homes, which was cancelled due to Covid.

“But as soon as I came here, my heart felt at home. They’re such good souls, with this timeless sense of community,” he says, offering plums to one of the slightly laconic old guys who periodically wander in from the piazza. “I’m so proud of this town.”

For the irrepressible, gung-ho Danny, it’s all about integration.

“Everyone thinks it must be too good to be true, but as long as you’re prepared to get stuck in with the locals, it absolutely isn’t.”

He tends to turn down invitations to socialise with his fellow foreigners, and heroically endeavours to communicate with the townsfolk in the Italian he’s learning at night school (the town offers free classes). No mean feat given that Mussomeli’s seniors – the centro storico’s exclusive demographic – largely converse in “Sicilian”, which is rather more convoluted than a simple dialect.

But in the €1 house game, local integration isn’t really a choice. There are no DIY superstores in rural Sicily, and no one-stop-shop renovation service. Once the municipality has provided its list of recommended architects, tradesmen and material suppliers, the project management is down to you.

On-site attendance is similarly not optional. Any attempt to organise, liaise and chivvy things along in absentia is, by universal agreement, a waste of time.

By happy accident, the €1 initiative will only ever attract the sort of foreigner who is willing and able to throw themselves into local life.

“To be honest, it’s almost a bit dangerous not to get involved in this community,” Mark Kopun – Mussomeli’s second €1 Aussie – tells me later. “They’re so tight here. And they never forget anything. One of the women who lives in my street was apparently a bit of a goer in high school, and all the neighbours still b*tch about it. She’s 65!”

Danny is the antithesis of a holiday-homer: as well as his rented community kitchen, he owns a €1 house and another he bought for €8 000 (R140 000). The former is to be the base for a cookery school he plans to open, where young chefs from across Europe will come to live and learn, ideally inspired to create their own community kitchens back at home.

The latter, in rather more immediately habitable condition, is where Danny currently lives. Around half the foreigners who come to buy a €1 house eventually pay up extra – to the tune of about €10 000 (R175 000) for a structure that isn’t quite so derelict.

However, I’m not here to look at cheap houses, but the ones that at least nominally are free. Danny’s own €1 example sets the template, a three-storey townhouse of smutted, weathered stone, whose upper French windows open on to little tiled balconies girdled with rusty iron railings.

In a street rather wider and better populated than most, it is accessed by a pair of front doors, each regally topped with an iron fanlight inset with the initials of some distant owner. Most of the many thousand buildings in the centro storico, from churches downwards, are medieval constructions extended and refashioned over the centuries.

The left-hand door opens into what was once a stable. And effectively still is: there’s a manger along one dark wall, iron hoops to tie your donkeys up to and a hefty, gnarled wooden hoop that looks like some sort of ox yoke. Also, half the ceiling has caved in.

Behind the other door is a dim, narrow marble staircase that leads by stages to a very old lady’s bedroom, sitting room and kitchen-diner.

Fellow Australian Danny McCubbin also thinks he’s
Fellow Australian Danny McCubbin also thinks he’s lucked out with his three-storey townhouse. (PHOTO: Instagram)

“It had been empty for 15 years, but everything was still here,” Danny says. “Clothes in the wardrobe, her identity cards, family photos, religious knick-knacks, the TV, coffee pot still on the stove.”

It’s a deeply poignant and rather shocking surprise to see a grandmother’s home left like this. I can only assume that, as is generally the case in the centro storico, this old lady’s descendants have long since moved far, far away.

But at the same time, I am struggling to repress unseemly excitements and possibilities: a kitchen island here, an en suite there, seeing myself out on that balcony with a negroni and a bowl of olives.

The rest of my time in Mussomeli is spent getting down and dusty in the centro storico and its bargain properties. By some estimates there are 14 000 empty homes along those twisting alleys, but the vibe is magical rather than depressing, as if a fairy-tale enchantment has passed across those terracotta roofs, casting the town into suspended animation.

The complete absence of graffiti and litter – a wonder in itself to any Mediterranean habitué – probably helps. Stray cats dart into cracks in old wood; pigeons flap out through glassless windows. Loveliness lies round every tight corner: a wonky piazza lined with enamelled heraldic shields, a monumental Baroque church with prickly pears sprouting from its lofty gutters, a sliver of view between high, ancient walls.

Mussomeli sits at 600 metres above sea-level, and these panoramas – big brown hills and citrus groves receding to a horizon fuzzed with autumnal stubble smoke – are a perennial jaw-dropper.

Estate agent Valeria Sorce, principal interface between foreigners and the municipality, accompanies me for an afternoon. Jangling through medieval-dungeon keys from her hefty €1 collection, she opens door after heavy old door, releasing a soon familiar waft of cat pee and damp church.

“Please, stay at the edge of the room,” she urges, wary of the structural decay that lies under those beautiful old patterned tiles. It doesn’t take me too long to work out the year a house fell empty – there is always a final calendar hung up in the kitchen, invariably with the Pope on it.

Sorce has sold €1 houses to Brits, Americans, Australians, Brazilians, Belgians, Russians and even a couple of Chinese, and reckons about a third of those who come here to look go home with a set of keys.

Her typical customer is in their 30s or 40s, younger than you might expect, and the whole adventure seems made for social media, as any number of online videos attest.

Sorce is astounded by the number of fantasists who make the trek here on the strength of those alluring headlines alone.

“They expect a home for €1 you can walk into and live in, and when they see these houses they are very, very, very disappointed.”

Sure enough, half the places we see are frankly too far gone for all but the wealthiest dreamers, with floor-to-ceiling cracks you could put your head into. But the other half, give or take the odd mummified pigeon, are steeped in promise.

'I love what this place has done for me, and this project, and now I want to put something back in'
Mark Kopun

On my final afternoon I meet Mark Kopun in his discount dwelling. Mark, a 35-year-old electrician from Adelaide, was a year into a European road trip when a cousin emailed him a story about the houses.

He flew to Sicily immediately and after looking at about 25 of the €1 houses, he settled on the impressively solid old home he now shows me around. We step on to a large terrace that looks over the water-tanked roofs opposite, and out to that grand vista.

Mark, handily blessed with an Italian passport courtesy of his father, has been in Mussomeli for the past seven months, mixing local electrical employment with heavy-duty DIY.

He’s swept out the pigeon nests, stripped out the 1980s tiles and fittings that had sadly replaced the old stuff, and is now waiting for contractors to lay steel mesh across those undulating floors.

“A lot more could have been done by now,” he breezily admits. “But after this long in Sicily, my patience is rock solid.”

Mark wonders if his epic road trip was sparked by “some sort of early midlife crisis, a sense that I was just kind of lost” – he sold all his possessions before heading off – but in Mussomeli and his €1 house, he seems to have found himself.

“I love what this place has done for me, and this project, and now I want to put something back in.”

His plan for the ubiquitous stable beneath us is pleasingly esoteric: after removing the manger and the old cheese-curing cabinets, he intends to instal a €28 000 (R490 000) isolation flotation tank.

“A wellness centre with a yoga studio and a sauna upstairs – that’s my dream.”

For the locals? I picture Mark easing the tank lid shut on a wide-eyed, walnut-skinned farmer. “For anyone.”

On the short, sharp walk up steep cobbles to Rafael Solorzano’s place, I realise a large part of the €1 house appeal is that it allows young people to indulge in the sort of low-risk, bargain-bin fixer-upping that their parents enjoyed on their merry way up the property ladder – back before house prices in every city on earth went berserk, and home ownership evolved into a lifelong, wage-draining millstone.

Mark’s Damascene moment came when he took out an $A800 000 (R9,6 million) mortgage in Australia.

“I just thought – there goes the rest of my life.”

There’s a lot of work to be done to get it habitab
There’s a lot of work to be done to get it habitable but Mark isn’t daunted. He already feels at home in the town. (PHOTO: Instagram)

Rafael knows just what he means. As we stoop in through his gothic-arched front door, the young American’s extended sigh of amused disbelief suggests he still can’t get his head round it.

“It just seemed incredible that in all the real-estate craziness that’s been going on pretty much everywhere, you can buy a house for a dollar. In Miami there’s literally nothing under $250 000 (R3,7 million).”

If the €1 Sicilian House was a game, which it sort of is, then Rafael has won. When I admire his renovations, he tells me he hasn’t done a thing.

“Just cleared a few things out and swept the place.”

The top-floor kitchen has a view of the castle, a tiled wood-burner and even a fully functioning washing machine left in situ.

The Solorzano family flew out to Sicily in February 2020 after seeing a CNN report on the houses. Rafael and his sister promptly bought this place and a €9 000 (R157 000) one up the road that they now run as an Airbnb, but it’s been quite a journey.

After they returned to Miami, their father, who had been booked on to a later return flight, found himself stranded when lockdown hit, and spent many nights becoming fully acquainted with Mussomeli’s severe winter in an unheated, unfurnished, long-empty house, sleeping with his coat on.

“But when the neighbours found out, they were so wonderful: they brought blankets and heaters and so much food at Easter it took me three days to eat it.”

Solorzano Senior ultimately spent four months marooned in Mussomeli, but was so enamoured by the locals’ generosity that he now wants to buy a third family house in the town.

By Rafael’s estimate, three months and €7 000 (R122 000) will see his €1 place Airbnb-ready if needed. He has been in Mussomeli since June, and tips his head at the laptop that has allowed him to continue his work in medical-billing data-entry.

“As a US citizen, the visa situation is a pain,” he says. “These €1 towns really need to offer some kind of invitation scheme for foreign remote workers like me. I would relocate here tomorrow if I could.”

He firmly believes that Mussomeli could be transformed if it takes advantage of the sea-change in working practices wrought by the pandemic.

I mention this to Toti Nigrelli when I bump into him that evening.

“Sure, why not?” he says, cheery as ever. “My dream is to have 40 000 population in Mussomeli. We can support this number. But for that we will need to get local people back into the centro storico.”

He looks around at the piazza’s grand sandstone edifices.

“The old town is such a beautiful place, but the people who live here maybe forget it. It’s so good for us to see these buildings with the eyes of the foreigners, to appreciate it like they do, to see how lucky we are.”

I follow his gaze to the old roofs beyond the square, and feel a small gold-and-silver €1 coin burning a hole in my pocket.

© THE TELEGRAPH

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