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

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

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(CNN) – Buyers from around the world have bought dilapidated Italian homes at rock bottom prices in recent years as numerous depopulated towns and villages attempt to revive their declining communities by offering real estate deals.

While the prospect of substantial structural improvements, coupled with the bureaucracy often involved in buying a home in a foreign country, may be daunting to some, others have jumped at the opportunity.

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

And there are also those who decide to do everything.

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

Italian refuge

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

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 grabbed a historic home in Sambuca, located in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities auctioned off 16 abandoned homes with low prices. starting from a symbolic euro – about $ 1.

Ahmadi and Spencer were already interested in buying a property in Italy and had considered searching 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 beautiful old stone floors reminiscent of those in [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lamps at night are very romantic. “

They were thrilled when they learned that their € 10,150 (about $ 10,372) offer for a 100-square-foot mansion had been accepted and quickly got to work giving the property a dramatic makeover.

Two years later, and well in advance of the three-year deadline adopted by the local authorities, their Italian refuge is complete.

Ahmadi and Spencer, both of whom work on global development projects, spent about $ 250,000 to transform the dilapidated property into a palatial home, which they say looks like “a Renaissance home.”

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

The remodeled home features gorgeous marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly an internal elevator that the couple use to whiz up and down its three levels.

So what prompted them to decide to have an elevator, complete with security camera and telephone, installed on the property?

Added lift

The couple had an internal elevator installed inside their 100-square-meter building.

The couple had an internal elevator installed inside their 100-square-meter building.

Massud Ahmadi

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

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

While a quarter of a million dollars might seem like a large sum to spend on such a project, they believe it is actually less than the amount they would have shelled out for something similar in the United States.

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

The couple say they have received visits from various residents eager to see the transformation of this once dilapidated house up close.

“The locals welcome us with cakes and come to my house curious to see what we have done with the ruins,” says Spencer, before revealing that he was recently given a “nice bottle of wine” at the local bar.

In addition to the elevator, the house has a relaxation area, a guest suite, a double bedroom and a living area with a modern open kitchen.

There are also several balconies, as well as a rooftop terrace overlooking the hills and Orange Lake, located near the ruins of the Moorish Fort of Mazzallakkar.

Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already received back the € 5,000 (approximately $ 5,100) deposit initially handed over as part of the purchase agreement, which required the renovations to be completed within three years.

Idyllic lifestyle

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

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

Massud Ahmadi

The couple are currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the morning, they take the elevator to the ground floor to enjoy a morning cappuccino and pastries at the local café. Then they go for a walk, before returning home for a remote working day.

“It’s a smarter home than we have in the US, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras,” adds Spencer, explaining that they are capable of handling alarms and devices on their US property from Sambuca.

After purchasing their new home, they purchased an unused 100 square meter portion of the neighbor’s house for € 5,000, which they have since renovated and connected to their property.

“We love the tranquility of Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the slow-paced philosophy of life of the city, symbolized by a 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 are focused on exploring the region.

They have already visited the city of Marsala, in the province of Trapani, and the salt pans of Trapani, and love to take long car trips along the narrow country roads to visit the local food markets and try different delicacies, including snails.

New adventures

“In the United States, highways are everywhere. But there is no rush here,” says Massoud. “The slow journey allows us to enjoy wonderful views.

“To drive only nine kilometers, and cross the hills, it takes almost two hours, 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 particularly impressive considering the various problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been some minor problems along the way.

Squeezing their furniture through the narrow doors and windows of their 300-year-old mansion 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 a lot of stores in the US where we can buy things of all kinds of prices,” says Spencer.

“But finding fine, good quality furniture here in Sicily that you really like could be a problem. You need to know where the right place is for traditional wood, antiques and second-hand first-rate shops. Also, some pieces they are in the catalogs but not available. “

Although the structure of the building has been renovated, it was decided to keep the original fixtures, along with the jagged gold-colored stone walls, majolica floors and vaulted ceilings to preserve some of the historic elements of the house.

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

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

The city hall was flooded with interest from hundreds of overseas buyers after offering 16 homes in 2019, and went on to auction 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 home undetected due to the Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy with his brother in 2019 to see the property and take a look at the Sicilian city before their bid.

“Accompanied by my husband, I sent my brother-in-law on an exploratory mission 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.”

Dramatic transformation

It took the couple only two years to transform the dilapidated property into a sumptuous home.

It took the couple only two years to transform the dilapidated property into a sumptuous home.

Silvia Marchetti

Massoud is extremely grateful that both the sale and the renovation went so well, explaining that the city hall assisted with the paperwork and legal, helping them overcome the language barrier.

While he notes that before buying the house they had to apply for an Italian tax number, or social security number, and open a bank account in the country, which meant the process wasn’t entirely “painless”, he’s happy with how they are doing. things went overall.

“In the United States I have to personally take care of the subcontractors, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” says Massoud, who supervised all the work, together with the architect.

“I was lucky enough to find a good architect and I contributed to the electrical work, designing the position of the lighting bodies”.

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

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

However, the final bill came as a shock to them, as they didn’t realize that a 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 involved in buying and improving a large home abroad.

But they say they have full confidence in the Sambuca housing project, which aims to support local economic development, and are thrilled with the final result.

“I could pinch myself,” Spencer says. “We were really lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares, but I’m not, because everything went pretty well. Much better than it would have been in a small US town.”

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