Monday, April 15, 2013

Pros and cons of home ownership during our extended visits to Italy

Sunday, April 14, 2013
Lucy and I have already decided we won’t be buying a house in Italy. We probably will continue to come for two or three months a year, and in the back of our minds is still the grand romantic notion to have a place to call our own, but we’ve concluded it’s just not practical. That doesn’t keep us from walking around houses that are for sale and dreaming, but our good sense and low bank balance enable us to walk away afterwards.
This is the view from the other side of the valley, where the caves are.
Me cutting weeds on the hillside.
During my two-day visit with German friends Eberhard and Dorothea, I see lots of evidence that we have the right idea. They own a three-bedroom remodeled rustico in a steep valley above Pian di Mommio near Viareggio. I have come to help shore up a crumbling terrace and do some grass cutting, and when I finish, we sit on their deck and swap stories and solve some of the problems of Italy, Germany and the United States. It occurs to me that this might be a good time to prove to myself how smart I am to have abandoned any serious thoughts about buying a home of my own in Italy, so I ask how much they spend per year to keep up this house, which they bought in December of 1985. At that time, it was listed as a rustico in statu pessimo—an old farmhouse in the worst of conditions—and it required a complete overhaul. I’m sure that cost a bundle, but I am more interested in their on-going costs right now.

Prices are given in euros, so multiply by 1.3 to convert to today’s dollars. Property taxes are around 800 per year. The local government charges around 250 a year for garbage and miscellaneous services. Water is 120 a year and gas 800. Add a couple of hundred for insurance and 160 for the ragioniere who files their tax payments. They also pay a road fee of 200 for shared maintenance of the privately owned road that runs up the valley.

Eberhard cooks up a hearty German-Italian meal.
Before I total this up, though, bear with me for a brief digression. Eberhard has told me a story that is worth repeating, because it points out a difference between the inclinations of Germans and Italians. A few years after purchasing the house, Eberhard noticed he had not received any bills from the municipality for his water service. He went to the comune with cash in hand, ready to pay the appropriate amount to the appropriate person, but he was shuffled from one department to the next. Finally finding a man who had something to do with the connection of water service, he was told he could not pay because he was not listed as a recipient of water services. “You are not in the queue,” the man said. “Check back later.”

A few more years passed, and still no water bill came, so again he went back to the comune to try to pay. Come back next year, he was told, and so he did. This time, with great difficulty, he was able to pay. His house still did not have an address, though, and officials remained baffled about how to assign a payment to a house that had no address. They asked if he had a work address in Italy they could use, but he didn’t have one. They sent him to the bank to set up a payment deduction, but the bank refused because they didn’t have a proper bill giving his house address. Finally someone at the comune figured out a way to accept his money, and now he makes regular payments. It is only in the last few years that he has actually received a letterbox to accept mail.

Dorothea and Eberhard with some delicious antipasto.
The incident explains a lot about why the Italians have such a reputation for bureaucratic inefficiency. They are famous also for finding methods to avoid taxes and fees, and while they may openly denounce those who skirt the rules, they are known to admire the cleverness of the neighbor who is able to avoid the burdensome taxes and regulations.

Conversely, Germans are known not only to be efficient but also as strict followers of the law. Elena has told me she likes to give tours to Germans because they always follow directions and are always on time. Eberhard’s diligence to make his payment is a good example of typical German behavior. However, his actions confused and confounded the Italian bureaucrats, who could not fathom his intentions. A good Italian would not want to pay a fee he was not billed for. They suspected Eberhard must be seeking some additional services that they did not want to provide.

“You could see it in their eyes,” Eberhard says. “It was absolutely unbelievable that this person has come to pay a fee when no payment has been asked.”

Getting back to the current house costs, the total of the fixed fees for the house comes out to 2430 per year, not yet counting maintenance and repairs. This year they have discovered a leaky roof and have hired a muratore to fix the ceramic tiles. Then they will have to apply some sealer and repaint the damages that occurred inside. They haven’t calculated the amount for this yet. Some years the expenses are minimal and other times their stone terraces collapse during the winter and need heavy repairs. The most costly problem came a few years ago when a mudslide from their lower bank covered the community road. This required an excavator and the building of a stone wall at a cost of 8000 euro. If we put their average maintenance at a conservative 570, that brings us to at least 3000 per year for three or four months of Italian living, not counting their own time spent cleaning and painting. They point out, though, that if we bought a home on flat ground, we would not have collapsing terraces, and the community road fee is unusual because they live on a long private road.

By way of comparison, Lucy and I pay 40 euros a day, all utilities and fees included, to live in the Casolare dei Fiori. For the last three years, we have stayed an average of 72 days per year, with an annual cost of 2880 per year, about the same as our friends pay. Our place is much smaller—only one bedroom, a bathroom and another room that serves as a kitchen, dining room and living room. We do have a television and free laundromat, which our friends do not. Our yard is huge, but we do occasionally have to share it with other guests.

I conclude that the information they have so kindly shared confirms the financial wisdom of our decision to continue as we are. If we purchased a house, we’d also have to factor in the interest we’d be paying on the loan, or the interest we’d lose if we had that kind of money and invested it. One advantage of having a home, though, is that it would make us more a part of the community. Hiring contractors and asking for advice from neighbors has helped Eberhard and Dorothea integrate into local society, which can be a slow process for non-permanent apartment dwellers.

Eberhard tells me that at first they came to Italy for the blue skies and beautiful vista, but within the last five to seven years, the friends they have made is now the compelling reason for returning each year in the spring and fall.

“The people are so welcoming and generous,” Dorothea says in agreement. “The friends we have lure us back.”
Update: I guess we are not so clever after all! About two years after this was written, we bought a two-bedroom house in Montecarlo. And pretty much every year, we've made repairs and improvements, so we are spending more than we did at the agriturismo. But it is OUR HOUSE, and now we come twice a year and have room for many visitors. We have no regrets.


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