So our house hunting started once again in earnest ……..
It is clear that Italian builders have a
“passionate love affair with all things concrete“.
The Romans are said to have invented cement over 2000 years ago, when they combined slaked lime (derived from limestone rock) volcanic ash known as “pozzolana”, with sand and water. The great architectural masterpieces of the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome were built using this type of mixture.
Nowadays, in Italy, it is nigh on impossible to find any modern buildings not constructed of concrete, indeed Italian building techniques vary greatly from the typical wood and brick constructions commonly seen in the UK. In Italy there is also legislation that all new edifices must be built to anti-seismic specifications, using a reinforced concrete framework to provide strength to the structure.
As building was now strictly controlled near to the coast, Itri being situated slightly inland was becoming an up and coming area. A few years before the local council had announced that they would permit some limited new development in the Itri area. Immediately many of the “Itrani” folk realised they could be on to an excellent thing here, and readily jumped on the bandwagon, selling off portions of agricultural land for handsome profits, especially those who had successfully procured building licences. Small property speculators keenly moved in with bulldozers to level off building sites, some required excavators to pound and chisel through stubborn limestone bedrock. The local roads were reverberating with huge, lumbering cement mixing lorries, and new villas, both large and small began springing up, like mushrooms, overnight.
We calculated that during our various trips to Italy over the last eight months we had viewed over fifty properties dotted around the country outskirts of Itri. Numerous estate agents had taken us to view an array of newly constructed properties that were generally approached by rough dirt tracks and exceptionally steep inclines. However it was still not proving easy to find just what we were looking for: an affordably priced property to suit all our family’s various requirements. Eventually we short-listed two possibilities and contacted the relevant estate agents to re-book appointments to view them again.
The first property was a deserted “casale” or farmhouse, which had not been inhabited for over 10 years, even before this it had not been a true family home. The facilities were very basic and left much to be desired, as it had only served as a place to camp at busy times of the Italian farming year, particularly during the autumn grape or olive harvest. It was situated in a secluded little backwater in an unspoiled valley, with mountain views and a glimpse of the sea.
The building itself seemed to be structurally sound, however was in need of a great deal of work and renovation. This would involve the installation of a new electrical system, plumbing, heating, windows, doors, bathrooms, kitchens, and so forth. However the property came with a large piece of land measure 33,000 square metres, which equated to between 8 and 9 acres. Of that 23,000 square metres was olive grove comprising around 600 trees, and the remainder was a sizeable piece of wood and scrubland. However, this property did have a great deal of potential, as with the size of the land came the possibility of building another house or some small bungalows, and the possibility of setting up a small farm holiday business or “agriturismo” .
On the other hand the second property was new a a basic concrete shell of ample size, with a most scenic outlook of the mountains and valley.
It came with an olive grove of 4,500 square metres and a sizeable agricultural store, which would have been ideal for our son to convert into a little bachelor pad. The “grezzo” lent itself to be converted into three or four holiday apartments. The slick, designer clothed estate agent was more than eager to inform us that there was the possibility of purchasing two adjacent plots of land, both of about 5,000 square metres. On one section there was a tiny ramshackle cottage, a perfect place for an artist’s studio I thought. The other had a small rustic structure comprising two rooms.
The three separate pieces of land were individually owned by various members of the same family. It was here that the fun and games commenced. As soon as the family realised we were showing some interest in their property, they began to start raising the prices. They felt that they had hooked a potential buyer, who was a foreigner into the bargain, no doubt with copious amounts of ready cash to spend. We decided that we would only be interested in purchasing this property if we could procure all three plots of land, and vowed that there would have to be some serious bartering on our part to knock the asking prices back down to an affordable level. It seemed doubtful that we would succeed in getting all three relatives to agree.
In any case, further investigations revealed that the local council had in fact only granted consent to build an agricultural store house or barn, all on one level, measuring 150 square metres. The reality was that the proprietors had built something twice the size on two floors, therefore it was “abusivo”. You may ask “How did they get away with it?” “Where were the building inspectors at each stage of the build?” “Why wasn’t it stopped or demolished, as would no doubt be the case in the UK?” Well, the answer is simple. This is Italy !!!
Here illegal building is commonplace, sometimes, literally, houses spring up overnight. In fact, a few years back when Berlusconi’s government was a bit strapped for cash it brought in a new law offering an planning amnesty, known as a “Condono Edilizo”, to encourage offending parties to come clean about any building irregularities in exchange for a reasonably small fine, that could be paid over a couple of years in easy instalments. You could compare it to how things are done in the Catholic faith. You commit a sin, you go to confessionand your repent and say you won’t re-offend and are sent off to say an “Our Father and 10 Hail Mary’s” and then the slate is wiped clean. Thus all is well (especially with regard for government’s coffers), all parties are happy and nobody cares a fig. The only possible hazard with illegal building work is if a nosey or vindictive neighbour tells on you and notifies the local authority of your illegal work with a “denuncio”, before you get a chance to own up to the local council.
So we found ourselves to be in something of a dilemma. We generally preferred the “casale”, recognising the potential of the size of the land. However, I must say I had some reservations about the amount of work that would be involved with the renovation and the upkeep of the grounds.
The “grezzo” had less land, but was still quite sizeable. However, we did not know if our resources would stretch to purchasing all three pieces of land, and leave sufficient funds to finish the building and convert it into apartments. Both properties required connection to basic utilities such as water, electricity, and telephone. With each of these properties there was the need to find some temporary accommodation for us all to live in while the building work was getting underway.
We decided we needed some good, sound advice so we organised a long session with Guido’s “geometra” friend Rocco. We sat anxiously as he did several complex calculations. Finally he told us that the “grezzo” was not going to be so much of a “bargain” as the estate agent had led us to believe. Indeed there were several grave problems. As we had already ascertained the construction had been built “abusivo”, being twice the size detailed on the architect’s plans. In addition, only a small portion of the top floor had been granted a permit for “civile abitazione“ – i.e. living accommodation. To get the property fully licensed would cost us significantly more. In order to obtain this permission, it would mean knocking down both the small farmhouse and little cottage. As the law currently stood, it was no longer possible to get planning permission to construct any additional structures on any of land. After doing more calculations it soon became clear that this property was turning into something of a liability, so we decided to exclude it from further thought.