Many of us have aspirations of renovating an old rundown property in Italy and creating the property of our dreams while hopefully at the same time making a good investment decision.
You scan the magazines and the internet and find, particularly in Italy, many depleted buildings (for want a better word) reasonably priced in beautiful locations. Now the questions start to mount up. Why are there so many run down properties for sale? Why are they so cheap? What’s involved to restore them? How much will it cost to finish the project?
We have all seen those nightmare TV shows of people renovating their properties and running out of money and struggling to get any sense from the builders.
We at Piedmont Property have undertaken many renovation projects and as such have decided to write this article which hopefully will place you in a more informed position regarding the extent of work involved if considering such a project.
Why are there so many rundown farmhouses for sale in Piemonte?
One will come across many neglected farmhouse style properties in Italy especially in the Piedmont region. The major reason for this seems to be that the elderly owners can no longer maintain the farm or the property. The younger Italian generation in general do not want to persue this type of lifestyle or maintain the property and therefore put it up for sale. Once sold the owners will move into apartment type property near a town and their children which obviously is far more practical given their age.
These farmhouses often have a characteristic L-shape and include haylofts which subject to planning permission can be converted into further living accommodation. The properties are often situated in rural locations and offer the new owner the chance of renovating the property and creating the house of their dreams.
It is essential at this stage to establish one very important point, which is, although the property for sale may appear reasonably priced, restoration is not always the cheapest option, but for some nothing compares to a sympathetically restored Piemontese farmhouse.
Many of these farmhouses will require a new roof, walls to be rebuilt and connection to all the major services. It is essential not to become confused with the term modernising, which really includes such things as new bathrooms, new kitchens, new windows, new tiles, some electrical work etc, and a lot of which you could do yourself. Restoration really requires the skills of experienced local builders who fully understand and are sympathetic with the renovation process.
Location of your farmhouse is important – it’s the one thing you can’t change.
The location aspect also has another angle. You might find an ideal property in the middle of nowhere, isolated and without a neighbour in sight.
Here in Piemonte the weather in general is beautiful however we do have rain and snow during the winter and if your property is reached via a field or unmade track, access without a four wheel drive vehicle could become an issue for you and your builders during the winter months.
For some such a location is idyllic and romantic however it is of course important you give consideration to access if you intend to visit during the winter months.
The restoration process
Piemontese farmhouses or “cascine” were generally built 200 to 300 years ago and subject to rebuilds every 50 to 60 years. The 1950s and 1960s saw a move to plastering over the external stonework because at the time a house built of natural stone was associated with poverty which suffocated the area until the 1960s. Many of the properties currently for sale have such plastered walls and removal of this plaster will reveal beautiful Langhe stone.
Many of these old properties suffer from damp which occurs if a property was built directly into the earth bank behind it. Traditionally these properties were built on soil and with no space left between the rear wall of the property and the earth bank which inevitably leads to a damp problem. In such cases a gap must be excavated behind the property therefore allowing the building to breath. This can be a costly process. Some older properties already have this gap which therefore will reduce your restoration costs.
Ceiling and roofs
Ceiling heights in a cascina will generally be lower than modern standards and may have to be increased if you intend to augment your income by having apartments or a bed and breakfast business providing accommodation for paying guests. In this case the roof may need to be raised. The old roof will be dismantled sometimes with the option of reusing the original tiles which will allow you to retain the traditional roof style.
The raising of the roof is carried out by placing a band of re-enforced concrete upon the top of the stone walls and used to support the new wooden roof beams. In many cases the new roof insulation will be covered with tongued and grooved boarding which once varnished gives a very pleasant feature and removes the need for a new traditional ceiling. This is known as “tetto a vista” or roof with a view!
Normally the new roof will be modified to include an overhang from the walls of about 1 metre thus offering some protection to the walls and windows from the weather.
In many cases the original internal ceilings will be of the vaulted brick style. Many go to great lengths to preserve this charming feature.
External and Internal walls
As mentioned previously many of the external walls may have been plastered, in which case one has the option of removing the old plaster and revealing the original stone work. This operation is generally done by hand with the original stone being restored to its natural colour; some pointing may also be required at this stage. It is important to ensure your builder has an expert on hand to carry out this type of operation.
The internal walls will also be plastered and this plaster can be removed if so desired. Generally however the internal walls are re-plastered with some natural stone left visible as a feature.
Often while undertaking this internal work one will come across a pleasant surprise - maybe an original stone arched walkway revealed when an old door is removed - these can provide a breath taking feature.
Internal walls are of two types, supporting and partition. If a supporting wall is removed it will need to be replaced with an RSJ or steel beam which can have an adverse effect on the cosmetics of the operation. Partition walls can easily be removed or repositioned.
Windows will probably need replacing, however if in reasonable condition they may be restored. Increasing a window size by removing original stonework is usually possible. Your builder or Geometra will introduce you to a carpenter who makes and repairs doors, windows and shutters. The carpenter will also make dummy windows and door surrounds used during the rebuilding operation. It is advisable to choose double glazed windows as this will reduce heating costs during the winter.
Outside buildings and haylofts may be permitted to be converted into living accommodation. It is important to understand the facts about conversion and have an estimate for the conversion tax which will be payable and is calculated upon the cubic meters of the area to be converted. Your geometra will apply for permission for conversion of such areas to your local commune.
Winter in Piedmont can be cold and if you are visiting during the winter months some form of central heating is recommended. Modern high efficient energy boilers are advised due to the high energy costs in Italy. Heating can be supplied by old style type radiators which cosmetically speaking suit a farmhouse restoration project or an under floor heating system. Wood burners or “stuffa” can be utilised for additional warmth and are very popular in this area.
The installation of a central heating system will be carried out by the plumber, who will also install new bathrooms and make water and gas outlets at strategic points around the house. We recommend you visit a number of stores before making your choice and be prepared to ask for a discount and be sure the price quoted always includes VAT (IVA).
Most farmhouses in the countryside are not on mains drainage and a sceptic tank will have to be installed. These tanks do not need to be emptied as the waste is neutralised before filtering through the ground.
Kitchens, bathrooms and tiles
The builder will recommend suppliers for both floor and wall tiles and will quote from the geometra drawings of the project, and then confirm with an on site meeting. Do shop around, and do not be afraid to ask local people for advice. Similar advice goes for kitchens and bathrooms which generally speaking are cheaper here than in other parts of Europe and the US .The range of styles available is bewildering. Again the kitchen supplier will work from a drawing at first and then confirm with an on site meeting.
It is advisable to go for a complete electrical rewire with a contractor who can also handle the heating and boiler requirements. Be precise about the position and height of all electrical points. In Italy you pay for the size of the electrical connection you need in kilowatts and we recommend you go for 3 or 6Kw and not the standard 1.5Kw otherwise problems will be incurred if you have several appliances on simultaneously.
We recommend that any landscaping work to the gardens be done while the builders are on site and before they clear the site itself. Install any external electric points for lighting etc at this time. It’s important that your quotation from a builder includes the removal of all building rubble from the site.
If you decide to have a lawn or landscaped garden, consider the installation of an irrigation sprinkler system as the Italian sun is not good for a beautiful lawn and gardens.
The costs of restoration
We work with a number of Geometri in the area. Some charge hourly and others charge a flat percentage for drawing up the project and presenting it to the local Commune and a further flat percentage for overseeing the project itself and this will include such things as health and safety and employment issues. This fee can vary between 3 and 6% for each stage. The fees the Geometra charges are regulated by the Official Association of Geometri.
The costs for renovation will vary from property to property depending on the amount of work necessary.
When you find a property to restore we are pleased to arrange for a builder to assess the project and provide an estimate of cost.
Do I need to speak Italian?
Do I need to speak the language? The answer is yes; if your knowledge of the Italian language is not sufficient you will be unable to deal with the various bodies involved in the project however you can always employ the services of a translator or company like ourselves.
Once the project is complete you will be the proud owner of an Italian farmhouse that fully reflects your particular taste and in time will prove to be a sound investment.
Please view our slideshow which shows one of our renovation projects.
© Copyright 2006 Clive Wisbey, All Rights Reserved.