“We bought a cheap house in Italy and added an elevator”

“We bought a cheap house in Italy and added an elevator”

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(CNN) — Buyers from all over the world have been snapping up dilapidated Italian homes at rock-bottom prices in recent years as many depopulated towns and villages try to revive their shrinking communities by offering bargain properties.

While the prospect of major structural improvements, along with the red tape often associated with buying a home abroad, may seem off-putting to some, others have jumped at the chance.

Of course, every buyer will have a different vision for 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 those who decide to go all out.

Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, the first to complete the renovation of an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, fall into the latter category.

Italian hideout

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

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

Silvia Marchetti

A couple from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland were among those who bought a historic home in Sambuca, deep in the heart of Sicily, after the local authority auctioned off 16 derelict houses at prices starting at a nominal price. euro – about 1 USD.

Ahmadi and Spencer were already interested in buying property in Italy and were considering looking in the Sicilian region when they read about the scheme on CNN in 2019.

“It was love at first sight,” Spencer tells CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with lovely old stone pavements reminiscent of the existing ones [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lights at night are very romantic.

They were thrilled to learn that their €10,150 (about $10,372) bid for the 100 square meter palatial building had been accepted and quickly set to work to give the property a dramatic makeover.

Two years later and well ahead of the three-year deadline set by the local authorities, their Italian hideout is complete.

Ahmadi and Spencer, who both work in global development projects, spent about $250,000 transforming the dilapidated property into a luxury home that they say looks “like a Renaissance house.”

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

The renovated home has beautiful marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly the indoor elevator that the couple use to move up and down the three levels.

What made them decide to install an elevator with a security camera and phone in the property?

Elevator addition

The couple had an indoor elevator installed in their 100 square meter mansion.

The couple had an indoor elevator installed in their 100 square meter mansion.

Masood Ahmadi

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

“So we thought it would be great to be as comfortable as possible around all those narrow steps and not have to go up and down four windy flights of stairs several times a day.”

While a quarter of a million dollars might seem like a lot to spend on this type of project, they believe it’s actually less than what they would have spent on something similar in the US.

However, an indoor elevator is definitely not a typical fixture for homes in this small town, and its gorgeous interior design has caused quite a stir among local residents.

The couple says that they have been visited by various residents who want to see the transformation of this once dilapidated house up close.

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

In addition to the elevator, the house has a lounge area, a guest room, a master bedroom and a living area with a modern open-plan kitchen.

There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace with views of the mountains and Lake Arancio, located near the ruined Arab fort of Fortino di Mazzallakkar.

Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already been refunded the 5,000-euro (about $5,100) deposit they originally handed over as part of the purchase agreement, which called for renovations to be completed within three years.

An idyllic lifestyle

They spent $250,000 to renovate the home, which features a living area with an open-plan kitchen.

They spent $250,000 to renovate the home, which features a living area with an open-plan kitchen.

Masood Ahmadi

The couple is currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the mornings, they take the elevator down to the first floor for morning cappuccinos and pastries at the local bar. They then go for a walk before returning to the house to work remotely.

“It’s a smarter house than what we have in the US, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras,” Spencer adds, explaining that they can manage the alarms and devices at their US property from Sambuca.

After buying their new home, they bought a 100 square meter unused part of a neighboring house for €5,000, which they have since renovated and added to their property.

“We like the peace in Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the city’s slow-paced lifestyle philosophy, symbolized by the snail sculpture in the main square.”

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

They have already visited the town of Marsala in the province of Trapani and the salt pans of Trapani, and they enjoy taking long drives along the narrow country roads to visit the local food markets and try various delicacies, including snails.

New adventures

“In the US, freeways are everywhere. But there’s no rush here,” says Masood. “Slow travel allows us to indulge in magnificent views.

“It takes us almost two hours to drive just nine kilometers and through the mountains, but that’s what makes the adventure so special.”

While they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short amount of time, which is especially impressive given the various challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a few minor hiccups along the way.

Squeezing the furniture through the narrow doors and windows of the 300-year-old palazzo proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa went up in the elevator), and finding suitable furniture was also time-consuming.

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

“But here in Sicily, finding fine, good quality furniture that you really like can be a problem. You have to know where to find high-end traditional woodwork, antiques and second-hand shops. Some furniture is also in catalogues. but not available .”

Although the structure of the building has been renovated, they decided to keep the original windows, gold-colored ragged stone walls, majolica tile floors and vaulted ceilings to preserve some of the historic elements of the house.

Massoud and Spencer also chose to keep some of the objects left by the previous owners that they discovered during their first visit, including the 1967 calendar that still hangs on the walls.

Their home is one of several in the Saracen neighborhood that was abandoned after the catastrophic earthquake that shook Sicily’s Belice Valley in 1968 and devastated the area.

The town hall was overwhelmed by the interest of hundreds of foreign buyers after 16 houses were offered in 2019, and 10 more buildings were auctioned in 2021, this time for a symbolic 2 euros each.

Although some of those who took part in the second auction bought their home unseen due to the restrictions related to Covid-19 in force at the time, Masood was able to fly over to Italy with his brother in 2019 to view the property and check it out. The city of Sicily before their offer.

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

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

A dramatic transformation

It took the couple just two years to transform the dilapidated property into a luxurious home.

It took the couple just two years to transform the dilapidated property into a luxurious home.

Silvia Marchetti

Massoud is extremely grateful that both the sale and the renovation went so smoothly, explaining that City Hall helped with paperwork and legal issues, helping them overcome the language barrier.

Although he says they had to apply for an Italian fiscal code or social security number and open a bank account in the country before buying the house, which meant the process wasn’t completely “painless”, he’s happy with how things are going. went in general.

“In the US I have to deal with the subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” says Masood, who oversaw the entire project with the architect.

“I was lucky to find a good architect and I participated in the electrical work, designing the placement of the lighting fixtures.”

The couple was impressed with the quality of work by local tradesmen and builders, saying it was far better for them than anything they had encountered in the US.

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

But the final bill came as a shock to them, as they had not realized that 10% VAT would be added to the cost of the building.

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

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

“I could pinch myself,” Spencer says. “We were really lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares, but I won’t, because it all worked out pretty well. Much better than it would have been in a small town in the States.”

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