Italy’s cheap homes bonanza continues to lure hundreds of interested buyers, despite the pandemic. But what happens once someone takes the plunge and invests their (small) chunk of change in a crumbling corner of a remote town?
For Roy Patrick, a 67-year-old British car and motorbike fanatic who bought an old school house in the northern mountain village of Carrega Ligure for about $16,500, it’s been an adventure – not without mishaps such as a falling chimney and a jammed door – and also a joy.
Patrick, from Oxford, bought the property after finding himself in the village, in the mountains on the border of Italy’s Piedmont and Ligure regions, almost by accident.
He arrived after disembarking from a post-divorce Mediterranean cruise in the port of Genoa, where he met people who told him about the wonders of the village. He decided to visit and take a look and was fascinated by the place.
After touring several old properties he fell in love with the 1930s school building and bought it in 2017.
“The other houses were nice but had nothing special, they could have been in any little Italian village tucked away in alleys,” says Patrick. “But this one was particular, the view is unique: the way the sun goes down over the mountains when it sets, you’d say ‘wow.’ It’s my personal Arcadia, my Nirvana, therapeutic place.”
The property, which was offloaded by the local town hall as part of an initiative to boost the populations of communities in decline (similar to many being operated across Italy), is located in the quiet neighborhood of Connio, where just 12 people live.
Since the purchase, he’s been visiting every two weeks – even during the pandemic. He does business in Italy buying and reselling old three-wheeled vehicles. He says he’s found a new family in the town and a bucolic haven for detoxing and unplugging amid fresh air.
Carrega, he adds, has many charms.
“Top of the list is the friendliness of the local people, followed by the stunning views I get as I gaze out of the windows looking across the valley. Mine is the best panorama in the village.
“Also, I am extremely lucky to have, a few short meters away, a fountain which is fed by the invigorating cool water coming down from the mountain peaks.”
Patrick says his initial encounter with his new home was less than promising.
He recalls that the mayor had to climb up a ladder to enter a window in order to open the building up. It had been shut for decades and the door was jammed, with the keys nowhere to be found.
A later structural disaster turned into a positive story. When one Christmas Eve an unstable chimney collapsed due to heavy snow, one of Patrick’s neighbors volunteered to climb onto his roof to make it safe. Patrick says he was astonished when the man refused to be paid.
People are welcoming, he says, they want to help newcomers and don’t want anything in return. At the most, a glass of heady red wine to sip together.
Patrick says he’s made plenty of friends in the village and enjoys his Italian dinners with them.
During the minimal renovations needed to make the old school habitable, Patrick says he’s unearthed a treasure trove of historical finds.
In the attic, he discovered relics from the building’s former life: dusty piles of old text books, inkwells, glass bottles, pupil registers and other quirky items harking to the bygone days when 20 pupils were taught in what is now Patrick’s living room.
On the doorstep there’s a mosaic with Roman numerals indicating the year the school was built. Patrick has decided to keep the original tile floors and wood-covered walls.
Carrega, where many people are selling their empty family homes for as low as $12,000, also feels frozen in time in many ways.
Located in the Apennine mountains, it’s scattered across 15 inhabited districts and two ghost hamlets. In one neighborhood there are just two residents. People wave at each other and chat from their window balconies.
While Carrega has been offloading cheap properties for a few years, officials are still occasionally putting up abandoned buildings for auction. A few crumbling houses were recently sold for between $6,000 and $7,000. Another lot of two properties has just been placed on the market.
Patrick has some advice for those tempted by the thought of buying a house up here: don’t expect any social buzz and be prepared for bumpy, tricky roads.
There’s absolutely nothing, he says, just great views, silence, pure air and pristine surroundings. No bars, supermarkets, shops or restaurants. A vehicle is essential to move around.
However, Carrega does spring to life in the summer, when day-trippers and vacationers arrive to relax.
“There’s this one night when all the young people get together and throw a huge rave party with loud music till the next morning,” says Patrick. “Otherwise it’s just chirping birds and utter silence. I feel guilty if I am using a chainsaw.”
The two-floor school has thick stone walls and tall ceilings. It does, says Patrick, get very cold in winter when unoccupied for a few weeks and takes a while to warm up. When snow piles up, it’s a tough job clearing a path to the door.
Patrick handled the entire renovation of the schoolhouse himself – plumbing and heating upgrades included. He repainted the outside walls white, and livened up old yellow shutters with a coat of green paint.
Rewiring was tricky, he says.
“The wiring was typical of a small old Italian village – scary-thin and not suitable for modern tech equipment. I could turn on only the lights, nothing else, not even the microwave. It had few kilowatts of power and kept tripping.”
The house had some fixtures when Patrick bought it, but he disposed of the “shockingly dreadful” kitchenette that had been used by the family who lived there after the school shut. For furniture, he toured local flea markets, keeping an eye out for unusual items.
“The interior decor is eclectic, there’s a bit of modern and retro: a typical Italian marble table, old wooden kitchen furniture, bucolic paintings, the head of a mummified wild boar, a comfy sofa chair. Red is the predominant color. There’s a red stove, a red microwave, red kettle, red chairs. I have a lovely, electric blanket to keep me warm which is my luxury.”
Patrick says he has a love-hate feeling for the pine paneling that covers the interior walls. His first impulse was to tear it out, but since it was in a good condition and creates a warm ambiance, he decided to leave it in place.
“I still pinch myself, can’t believe my luck,” he says. “The school was in great shape, the ceilings were beautiful. The big restyle is done but it’s still a work-in-progress, each time I visit there’s something to do. I never relax, always working on small fixes. I like spending time thinking about how to improve things.”
When not mending, Patrick passes the time cooking and listening to music – when locals hear the melodies playing from his window they know he’s back in town and it’s party time.
Even though the renovation hasn’t cost him a fortune given that the property was far from dilapidated, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Patrick says he needed to bring scaffolding to fix and paint the outside – which he recalls as quite “a dangerous task” – and had to fit a new shower in the bathroom as there was just a toilet.
“I had to battle through a series of problems,” he says. “In the UK I know exactly where to go to buy the tools and materials I need. But in Carrega I had no idea. So first, you need to find out where to drive to and which store or person to look for before you start the work, you need to plan it.”
Another catch was that he struggled to insure the house given that it is located, like many beautiful parts of Italy, in an earthquake-prone area.
The best advice Patrick wants to share with people thinking of buying a home in Carrega is to think carefully beforehand.
“Apart from a weekly delivery of cheese with people knocking at doors, there’s absolutely nothing at all in the village.”
Provisions must be bought from the nearby village of Cabella, which though less than 10 miles away, takes more than 30 minutes to reach along a road littered with hairpin curves.
“Believe me, it’s not a nice drive along those narrow mountain roads, particularly when they’re covered with brand new virgin snow. It can be scary.”