How We Bought a House in Sicily Part One - Small Moments and Big Changes
A Little Back Story about Small Moments
Back in January 2011, during the depths of the housing crash, I suggested to Marco that we use an open house in Brooklyn as a "walking destination." We love taking walks, but that winter had some of the most brutal weather I've experienced in my 20 years in NYC. There were feet of dirty snow piled on the sidewalks. It was freezing cold, and had been for weeks. Almost nothing would have convinced us to go outside...
Except an open house.
I grew up in a family with some odd pastimes. In my fishing family, one of our traditional activities was catching live crabs out in the bay. Sounds normal enough, right? But no, before cooking them, we'd let them scamper on the kitchen floor and probe their claws with pencils until they snapped the claw shut on the wood. And then we'd say, "Aren't you glad that's not your finger."
Another classic hobby for my family was going to open houses. Maybe it started when my parents were looking to buy a home in Bellingham, Washington. I was in grade school then, and we lived in a small apartment. My parents would drive around the neighborhood where they dreamed of living, find the most run-down houses, and write earnest letters to the owners asking if they would consider selling.
Later, after my parents bought the house that became our family home, we still kept up the habit of going to open houses. We loved stepping into someone else's home and imagining ourselves there, like a split screen movie. What would our lives be like here? Usually, the answer would be: "Eh, I like our house better."
So, back in Brooklyn during the housing crash and Great Recession, Marco and I traipsed through the snow to check out an open house just for fun.
The apartment wasn't anything fancy. A 600 square foot, one bedroom duplex in an old but well cared for coop building. Modest but well laid out. Plus, it had a spiral staircase and rights to a roof deck. It had been on the market for several months, with multiple price cuts.
This time when we asked the question—What would our lives be like in this house?—the answer was unexpected.
We could live here. And then, even more unexpected for NYC real estate: We could afford this.
In an instant, the vision for our life together changed. An hour before, we couldn't see ourselves as homeowners. And then, suddenly, we could. All because I wanted to find a reason to get out and take a walk.
Our experience buying a house in Sicily was a string of these little moments that, with time, persistence, and a lot of help, came together into a story with a happy ending (or rather, a happy ongoing).
The Moment We Connected with Angelo and Ayan
When trying to purchase a house online during a pandemic, internet search engines are your best friend. I googled every possible iteration of "help buying a house in Sicily." I combed through expat forums, blogs, websites, and articles to come up with a starting list. Then, in August and September 2020, I sent everyone on the list a simple email:
My husband and I are interested in purchasing a property in Melilli, Sicily. We have a property we like and are interested in finding someone to help us navigate the purchase process. We live in New York City, but my husband has dual US/Italian citizenship. We are comfortable making the property purchase without needing to visit, as long as we can secure a survey of the property.
Is helping us navigate the purchase something your company could assist with?
The responses varied. Some people said they could assist, others said they couldn't, and many never replied.
Among those who did reply was Angelo Campagna, of Sicilian Homes. I'd read about Angelo in a New York Times article—one of many I read to satisfy my desire to know that what we were contemplating might actually be possible.
There was something about the way that Angelo replied that struck me. He asked specific and direct questions, all designed to understand what our goal was and, just as important, why. In one of our early exchanges, after explaining his services and fees, he wrote:
I would like to suggest a zoom call to meet online; after all the service we offer is based on trust. It will be you trusting us to act on your behalf to best negotiate and acquire a property, and meeting, although online, would be a start.
No one else we contacted wanted to know why we were after this dream. And no one else explained the element of trust required so clearly. Marco and I immediately agreed to set up a Zoom call.
That was the first moment Marco and I looked at each other and asked, with excitement and a bit of terror: "Are we really doing this?"
Little did we know, we'd experience this giddy yet anxious feeling many more times to come. Buying property in Italy is like a gripping romance/thriller novel: full of hopes, dreams, and more unexpected twists and turns than you can count.
Can You Really Build Trust Over the Internet?
A few days later, we met Angelo and his wife Ayan over Zoom. The two, who split their time between the UK and Sicily, were warm, kind, and honest about the challenges and unexpected costs we might face. They also asked us many questions: Why did we want to buy a house in Sicily? What was our budget? Would we consider other regions? Why were our hearts set on this little village of Melilli?
When we told them about Marco's novel, which is partially set in Melilli and inspired by his father's stories of life in the village during the Second World War, Angelo and Ayan nodded in understanding.
Though Melilli was outside the Taormina area, where they usually help people acquire and manage property, Angelo and Ayan agreed to work with us.
During the video call, Angelo and Ayan spoke again about trust. For this to work, we would need to get to know each other and build a relationship. When I contacted one of Angelo's other clients for a reference, she shared not just how Angelo had helped her, but how he had become a friend.
Trust is something that people talk about a lot—most often, about its absence. But here we were, complete strangers separated by an ocean, discussing how to intentionally build a trusting relationship over the internet, in the middle of a global pandemic no less. I admit, it was a bit surreal.
Think about it, Angelo and Ayan said without an ounce of pressure, and let us know if you'd like to proceed with working together.
Of course, we said yes.
And so began the other important, yet seldom-discussed, part of buying a property in Italy: waiting. Between the pandemic, the paperwork, and our inability to travel, we got used to a lot of waiting (doing puzzles can help with that).
Luckily, this time we didn't need to wait too long. Angelo was able to head over to Sicily from the UK within a few weeks. His aim was to inspect and provide an assessment of two properties we had sent him.
In line with my family's traditions, Marco and I had already begun to imagine our lives in either of the two properties. And we liked what we imagined. But would the properties live up to our expectations? That's a story for another day.