Voices of Experience: illegal property in Italy
Involved in an ongoing legal case to get a demolition order reversed, our client offers insights and advice on how to safely buy an Italian property.
If you are facing a similar situation and need help or if you have a story you would like to share, please get in touch with us. You might also be interested in reading our practical guides and checklists.
“They say hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I could turn back time and buy my Italian property all over again, I would do it completely differently. The following explains why. I hope that what I have learnt will help anyone thinking of buying a property in Italy”.
Take care when buying property in Italy
The fact is that buying Italian property can be risky. A 2017 report by the Office for Italian Statistics (ISTAT), estimates that nationally, some 20% of Italian properties are illegal builds – more in the south of the country. On top of this, many legally built properties in Italy harbour significant liabilities that are not compliant with the law.
All this lies ready to catch out unwary purchasers, whose lives can become a nightmare. In the worst case, you could, like me, find yourself facing a demolition order and then find yourself investing a significant amount of money to fix problems. So, when buying property in Italy, you need to be very careful.
Back in 2005, I purchased a villa with a pool on the outskirts of a beautiful small town in southern Italy. It was love at first sight, the Italian dream. Admittedly, something of an impulse purchase. At the time, I asked the estate agent if there were any issues with the property and whether I needed to get some independent legal advice or a survey. He said not, so I didn’t. The sale went through very quickly and smoothly. I used the same notary as the vendor and estate agent and within weeks I was the proud owner of the villa.
An unsellable property
In 2015, I developed a few health issues. I decided to downsize and put my villa on the market.
Enquiries slowly trickled in and occasionally the estate agent brought potential buyers to have a look at the place. One couple, who really liked the property, hired a lawyer to check all the details. To my horror, they discovered that the property had no planning permission whatsoever. I had no idea that for a decade, I’d owned an illegally built property. Obviously, the couple’s lawyer warned them off buying the property.
At the time, I thought it must be some sort of mistake; an oversight at the local authority or a problem with the land registry. After all, how could the previous owners sell a property without planning permission? However, when I went to my local town hall to investigate, it transpired this was the case. Worse was to come.
To cut a long story short, after a protracted and very complex process, the whole situation eventually led to the local authority issuing a demolition order on my villa in 2018. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights this has caused me.
I have a house that is unsellable and am having to spend thousands of Euros to get the demolition order reversed and remedy the situation so that I can at last sell up and move on with my life.
To buy property safely in Italy, exercise more caution than you would at home
Buying property in Italy can be safe. However, to buy a property that is both fully legally compliant and to make sure you aren’t taking on any legal liabilities, you need to exercise far greater care than you would at home.
Illegal buildings are not unusual in Italy
There was a lack of a cohesive approach to building controls and regulations during the Italian building-boom of the 1970s and 80s. Local authorities, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of construction, were unable to check buildings properly.
Often illegal properties in the countryside started out as summer homes. They may be on land that has no zoning permission for buildings. The owners may have failed to get planning permission for the property when they built, extended or renovated it. In addition, the property may not comply with building controls or building regulations. They may lack damp proofing, insulation and, often, any logical room distribution, let alone solid foundations.
Often an illegal Italian property doesn’t get demolished even though illegalities are blatantly obvious to local authorities. There are many reasons for this including an erratic attitude to enforcing the law in Italy, local vested interests and even corruption. Illegal properties can be likened to a cash cow. Penalties, fines and demolition orders can suddenly be handed out, as and when a local authority needs money.
Because of illegal construction, many areas in the countryside have sprung up. These areas usually lack primary services such as mains electricity, water, sewage and telephone lines. They are prime candidates for infrastructure projects when local authorities decide to formalise these areas. Naturally, householders will bear the costs.
However, even in urban areas there are properties that should make you wary. Properties too close to a road or a beach or, in the case of apartment blocks, common areas that breach building regulations. Some villas may extend beyond their allowable habitable area. These type of problems are ticking time bombs.
Seek professional help when buying in Italy
Foreign nationals buying property in Italy can be incredibly naïve. Like me, many people do not use a lawyer to manage checks and conveyancing when buying an Italian property. Believe me, this can expose you to abuse or lead to the possible loss of your property or at least a significant costs.
Make sure your estate agent has a licence. Estate agents offer great support when it comes to looking for properties. However, they may not know everything about a property when it comes to any problems or liabilities. Plus they have a vested interest in selling the property. Their fees are contingent on selling so they don’t want a buyer to pull out of the purchase. When I bought my property in Italy, I asked the estate agent if I needed a lawyer. The estate agent told me I didn’t. Talk about innocents abroad! Start with the premise that the property you are looking at has a problem.
Get a lawyer
Appoint a lawyer before you even start to look at any property. And, choose your own lawyer rather than one your estate agent or the vendor recommends. Make sure that your lawyer understands property law, speaks your language, is registered with the Italian Law Association and has insurance.
Make sure your lawyer provides a written due diligence report and checks who owns the property and that there aren’t any debts such as mortgages on the property.
The report should also include all the details of the property and surrounding area. Land registry details should match property deeds.
Have a survey done
Is the structure sound? Do property boundaries in the land registry match those you can see from walls and fences? A qualified surveyor can confirm all this as well as checking whether there are any alterations to the property including out buildings.
Always get a check on the exact description of the property (existing bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen(s), sitting rooms, conservatories, garages, out buildings, pool etc.) with your lawyer before signing any contract. To ensure there’s no illegal building work, it’s essential that all the details match the land registry.
If in doubt, don’t!
Don’t hurry and never sign anything without your lawyer’s approval. Remember it is always better to lose out on a property rather than buy something illegal that risks risks fines or demolition.
Of course, the above does not include everything that you should do. The more information you gather, the easier it will be to make an informed decision as to whether or not to buy a property.
If you follow the guidelines above, I hope you will avoid all the costly worries I am currently experiencing. Be careless or too credulous and sadly, your Italian dream could turn into a nightmare some time down the line.
De Tullio Law Firm specialises in cross-border property and inheritance matters throughout Italy. If you are buying an Italian property and need advice or support or, if you would like to discuss a matter with us, we are here to help. Get in touch.
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