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Voices of Experience: Italian Property Demolition Order

Many thanks to one of our clients for this contribution to our blog. Involved in an ongoing legal case to get a demolition order reversed, our client offers insights and advice on how to safely buy property in Italy. 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”.

The fact is that buying Italian property can be risky.

Italian Property Demolition Order

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 that the vendor and estate agent were using. Within weeks I was the proud owner of the villa.

In 2015, following a few health issues, I decided to downsize so I put the 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 been the owner of 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 rectify the situation so that I can at last sell up and move on with my life.

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.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons:

Illegal building has traditionally occurred in Italy, where properties have been constructed as starter homes or as summer homes.  Many of these properties, along with being built on land that has been zoned as non-building land, received no planning permission and were constructed without proper building controls. Building regulations have not been adhered to and therefore, many lack damp proof courses, insulation and, often, any logical room distribution, let alone solid foundations.

Traditionally, illegal buildings in Italy have not been demolished even when the construction of an illegal property is blatantly obvious to the local authorities.  There are many reasons for this including an erratic attitude to enforcing the law in Italy, local vested interests and even corruption.  Also, illegal properties can be likened to a cash cow. Penalties, fines and demolition orders can suddenly be handed out, as and when money is needed by a local authority.

Because of the illegal building of properties, many areas have grown up in the countryside over time and lack primary services such as mains electricity, mains water, land line telephone, mains sewage.  These areas are prime candidates for infrastructure projects with the, often substantial, cost of the works to be borne by householders as and when these areas are finally formalised by local authorities.

A cohesive approach to building controls and regulations were lacking during the Italian building-boom of the 1970s and 80s. Local authorities were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of construction and were unable to properly check buildings as they were erected.

Even in urban areas there are properties that should make you wary. Properties may have been built too close to a road or the beach or, in the case of apartment blocks, have common areas that breach building regulations. Some villas have been extended beyond their allowable habitable area.  Often such problems have yet to be revealed to the authorities and are the property equivalent to ticking time bombs.

Foreign nationals buying property in Italy can be incredibly naïve. Many people, myself included, do not use a lawyer to manage checks and conveyancing when buying Italian property. Or they use a lawyer who does not speak their language fluently or a lawyer that has been recommended by the vendor or their estate agent. Believe me, this will lay you open to abuse and lead to the possible loss of your property or a significant amount of money.

Owners and estate agents are sometimes economical with the truth when it comes to advising a buyer about the problems or liabilities in a property. After all, they have a financial interest in selling the property and don’t want a buyer to pull out of the purchase. When I purchased my property in Italy, I asked the estate agent if I should get a lawyer, but the estate agent told me I didn’t need one. Talk about innocents abroad!

What have I learnt from my experience and what advice would I give when buying property in Italy?

 Take care when dealing with agents in Italy. Start with the premise that the property that you are looking at has a problem. Force your agent and then your lawyer to prove beyond doubt that the property you intend to buy is fully legal and has no liabilities.  In other words, doubt everything  from the outset rather than be optimistic and driven by wishful thinking. Confidence is nice, but control is better.

Appoint a lawyer before you even start to look at property. And, use a lawyer who is not connected with your estate agent or the vendor. Make sure that your lawyer is an experienced property lawyer, speaks your language, is fully qualified, registered with the Italian Law Society and is properly insured.

Make sure your lawyer provides a written due diligence report.

This will include looking in to all the details of the property and surrounding area. The property details should be the same in the land registry as on the property deeds. If the details don’t match, then do not sign anything until you know exactly what you are buying.

Are the property boundaries shown in the land registry the same as those you can see in reality from existing walls and fences? A good lawyer will make a site visit with a qualified surveyor to confirm this as well as checking whether there have been any internal alterations to the property or new buildings erected on the land, not shown in the land registry.

Does the reality of the property match that of the description in the Land Registry? Your lawyer should confirm that the number and function of rooms match the plans. If the property has an outbuilding or an under build that has been converted into a habitable area, such as a studio apartment, your lawyer will check that this has been properly registered in the land registry and has habitability certification. If it hasn’t, then it may well be illegal.

Equally, if there is a swimming pool, your lawyer should check permits for it. Your lawyer should also obtain a copy of the local authority’s urban plan to ascertain if there are any proposals / plans that might affect your future enjoyment of the property.

If you decide to get a separate survey. Always use a fully qualified building surveyor, who is insured and properly registered in Italy. Get a full report on the property you are intending to buy. Don’t try to save money by not getting a report.

Always check 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.  This is vital as it is essential that the details match those in the land registry to ensure that no potentially illegal building work has been done.

Never be hurried and never sign anything without your lawyer’s approval.  Remember it is always better to lose a property rather than buy one that is illegal or that could be demolished or that may have significant financial liabilities.

Of course, the above does not include everything that you should ask nor do they cover everything that your Italian conveyancing lawyer should do. Your lawyer should also check other items such as whether there are any encumbrances, debts, outstanding bills or charges, etc on your intended property.  All of the information you gather will provide a backbone of knowledge and help you make an informed decision as to whether to buy your intended property or not.

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 your Italian dream, sadly, could turn into a nightmare some time down the line.