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  • Writer's pictureCamellia Phillips

How We Bought a House in Sicily - Part 3

As I write this, it's August in Sicily, which means many things shut down. The pace of life slows even further. So it seems like the perfect moment to take a step back and continue the story of how we bought a house in Sicily—a house that is already changing our lives.

A warning: this is not the happiest part of the tale. But if you're looking for drama, and an inside view of Italian real estate, it's a fun ride.

The Story so Far: A Quick Recap

Our story started with the question of why buy a house in Sicily, instead of simply visiting? The answers:

  • A desire to find a way that I could travel even with chronic illness.

  • A need to find hope in the dark hours of grieving during the pandemic.

  • And my entirely unsubstantiated gut feeling that living in Sicily, and specifically in Melilli where Marco's father grew up, would be important for Marco's writing and my own.

So, we decided to not just go for it, but to buy a house without visiting in person. Yes, we intended to buy a house in Sicily over the internet.

In part one of our story, we described meeting (over email and Zoom) the two strangers we entrusted with finding our home: Angelo and Ayan.

In part two, Angelo visited Melilli to look at the two properties we'd fallen in love with online. The consensus: either would be a viable option if we could negotiate the price low enough.

Both properties came with small houses on land very near the village of Melilli. One property, let's call it "Orchard House" was more expensive but the land was flatter and very well maintained. The other property, let's call it "Hill House," was situated on a steep terraced hillside that was quite overgrown.

We decided to try for Orchard House first. Thus, in fall 2020, Angelo set out to make our very first offer on a property in Sicily...

The First Offer: A Tale of Anxiety and Waiting

We knew from the start that our offer on Orchard House was a long-shot. We were proposing a 30% discount from the asking price—and even that amount would stretch our budget.

Marco and I were also a bit nervous. The land was beautiful and well-maintained, but that was because the owner's father—who'd built the house himself—cared for the property. Who would tend the beautiful olive orchard if we only lived there three months per year?

And, yes, spending three months a year in Sicily was our plan at the time. Until we retired, of course. (Oh, how little we knew about the siren song of this magical island.)

Back then, we figured working remotely for three months was the most we could negotiate with our employers. Besides, three months a year in Sicily seemed like an incredible adventure. Due to my chronic illness and the cost of travel in the U.S., the only travel we did was to visit family and, in 2019 and early 2020, the super fun book tour for Marco's debut novel. Due to the pandemic, even those adventures had been eliminated.

Throughout October 2020, Angelo kept us updated on the status of our long-shot offer on Orchard House, but the updates were all the same: no news yet.

As we waited, Marco and I took many walks around Green-Wood Cemetery near our apartment and discussed the pending offer. The more we walked and talked, the more we got nervous about going over our budget while also caring for so much land.

What if there was a wildfire, a common and serious danger in Sicily? The house was small, would there be enough space for us to write and have guests? There was an outbuilding on the property that we imagined converting into a writing studio. How much more would that cost?

In the meantime, by late October, pandemic conditions continued to get worse. The UK went into lockdown again, which meant Angelo could no longer to travel to Italy. Plus, the U.S. presidential election was on the horizon. Our anxiety grew.

There was no way to tell if our anxiety was due to cold feet about the property itself, about the whole endeavor of buying a house in Sicily, or simply a side effect of being alive in 2020.

Finally, in early November, Angelo spoke to the owner of Orchard House directly to discuss our offer. The seller immediately turned us down.

One Offer Rejected, a New One Pondered

Marco and I felt disappointed yet also a bit relieved at the news that our offer for Orchard House had been rejected.

Those beautiful olive orchards would never be ours. We wouldn't sit outside for lunch and take in the majestic view of Mount Etna presiding over the Sicilian countryside. We wouldn't have our own natural cave for storing wine or cheese or ghost stories (yes, the cave was a major selling point for us). We wouldn't watch the sunset color the craggy landscape.

But we also wouldn't worry about those orchards being destroyed by fire. And we wouldn't tap further into our savings than we'd planned for.

Besides, we were perhaps even more enamored with the other property, Hill House. The steep hillside terraces held the potential for gardens and picnic spots. The view was just as lovely, and the price was lower.

Angelo sent us a giant file of pictures of Hill House for us to review and consider further before moving forward with an offer.

The photos revealed both challenges and opportunities:

  • The land was wildly overgrown, as if it hadn't been tended in decades. Bringing it under control to reduce the risk of fire would take a lot of work and an unknown amount of money.

  • Less urgently, some of the retaining walls on the steep hillside land were crumbling, which meant more work and more money.

  • The house itself was small and the kitchen was basically a hallway. It was habitable and functional, but making it comfortable would require work and additional funds.

  • Two gorgeous outdoor terraces were built around the house. This would make outdoor living, with beautiful views in every direction, part of our daily life when there.

  • The house also had two rooms downstairs that, with some work, could become guest rooms. However, reaching the future guest rooms required using an outside staircase. Would that cause issues for our guests?

We had a lot to think about. And Marco and I knew the perfect person to consult: my dad.

Decision-Making: Consulting the Plywood Guru

My pops is a handy guy. Whenever he visits us in Brooklyn, he gifts us a fresh roll of black electrical tape and a few tools from his multiple collections.

He's also got a history of building and repairing stuff. Besides building more sheds than I can count, he and a friend built our family's off-the-grid cabin in the woods. He also set up a composting toilet plus a couple DIY solar systems. He repaired our old trailer, the one my parents lived in while pregnant with me, after it was crushed by a tree. He also maintained our more traditional family home in Bellingham, Washington, an old house built into a hillside that always needed some sort of plumbing fix.

Family legend has it that my dad once furnished a whole house using only a few sheets of plywood.

After I was born my parents moved to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. They were broke hippies. So my dad pondered the cheapest way to get all the furniture they would need: bed, table, chairs, changing table for the infant, etc. He sketched out the designs and calculated exactly how many pieces of plywood it would take to build everything. And then he did.

That's the kind of ingenuity my dad, the plywood guru, brings to any project.

Marco and I pulled up the photos of Hill House hopped on the phone with my parents to review every image in detail.

  • That crumbling retaining wall? Not a hazard for now.

  • The crack in the floor of the covered terrace? Just the house settling. Heck, our family home was built on a hill and had plenty of those.

  • The outdoor stairs situation? Eh, the oldsters could make it up and down.

  • The view? Worth every cent.

We spent a couple hours going over and over the photos of Hill House, tallying the pluses and minuses. We all agreed, it was worth trying for.

We contacted Angelo, agreed on a starting offer price, and said it was a go.

The Second Offer: A Tale of Complications

In mid-November, Angelo got additional information. The owners of Hill House had just rejected an offer higher than our own.

As Marco and I consulted our finances, the sellers lowered the price of the property. We could afford to pay the full asking amount, but Angelo advised against it. The asking price was still too high. Still, if we wanted to increase our offer, he would put it forward.

Marco and I discussed. Hill House had lived in our imaginations for months at that point. We could see ourselves there, picture our daily lives. Besides, property in Sicily is so much more affordable than here in NYC, that increasing our offer meant paying a few thousand extra dollars. We could swing it if we needed to.

Angelo contacted Concetta Crucitti, from RE/MAX Platinum Siracusa, and put forward an offer a couple thousand below asking.

Paperwork followed and, within a few days, we got the news: the sellers had accepted our offer.

We celebrated: soon Hill House would be ours!

The Role of the Italian Notaio

Read any "buying property in Italy" or "expats in Italy" forum, and you'll promptly find multiple posts and comments telling people they must find a good notaio immediately.

There's no U.S. equivalent to the role of the notaio. Their role is part legal, part investigator, part property records expert—and every bit of it crucial.

To say that property ownership in Italy can be complicated is an understatement. It's not uncommon to find properties with a dozen owners, some unreachable.

Why is this? From what we've learned, inheritance laws automatically split ownership between all of an owner's children. With large families, that could mean a half dozen owners or more in one generation. Then, combine owners that have immigrated to other countries—the U.S., Australia, Canada, Argentina—and potential errors that owners themselves added to the records at some point.

If the property records are not put completely in order before a sale, you could end up purchasing a property and not actually owning the whole thing.

The notaio's job, then, is critical. She looks through every record related to property. She identifies issues and outlines the steps that need to be taken to correct those issues. Like any profession, there are good notaios and not-so-good notaios.

Of course, the notaio that Angelo brought into our purchase process was excellent. And, sadly, she identified at least two significant issues that had to be corrected before the house could be sold.

Luckily, though, both issues were fixable. But it would cost the sellers time and money. Angelo and Concetta handled the further negotiations and the sellers agreed to do the work to make the records right.

Complicating matters further, COVID was surging everywhere. Travel between regions in Italy was restricted. Angelo warned us things would take even more time than usual because of the pandemic.

Marco and I were fine with that. We could wait. It's not like we were going anywhere anytime soon. We didn't want to risk visiting family and infecting older relatives with COVID. So we stayed in Brooklyn. I stocked up on wool leggings and undershirts so we could stay warm and continue our walks in Green-Wood Cemetery.

As the temperatures dropped, Marco and I headed into the holiday season certain that it was just a matter of time until we'd finalize the paperwork to buy Hill House. Yes, we were excited, but the state of the world was increasingly worrying.

We didn't know when we'd even be able to visit Sicily. Which raised a new question: what if we bought a house abroad during a global pandemic and were never able to visit it?

Then, in late January 2021, Angelo wrote us with news. Despite much follow-up, the sellers had not fixed either of the ownership issues. Hill House was currently un-sellable. The deal was off.

Back to the Drawing Board

After two offers, we had no house in Sicily. Instead, we only had more questions and doubts. Maybe this was the wrong time to buy a house in Sicily. Maybe we needed to rethink things.

At this point, I'd also been living with severe hip pain for several months. It was painful to sit, to work, to sleep. I was exhausted. My migraines became more frequent. COVID continued to surge.

Angelo promised to stay in touch with Concetta at the real estate agency, keeping an eye out of any good properties that came to market.

All our elation had been replaced with defeat. So we put our wild dream on the back burner. What else could we do?

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