(CNN) — Buyers from around the world have bought dilapidated Italian homes at rock bottom prices in recent years, while countless depopulated towns and villages are reviving their dwindling communities by offering bargains.
While the prospect of substantial structural upgrades, along with the red tape often associated with buying a home abroad may deter some, others have jumped at the chance.
Of course, every buyer will have a different vision for his new renovation project. Some choose to keep it as simple as possible, focused on making the home livable again, while keeping costs low.
And there are also those who decide to pull out all the stops.
Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, the first to complete the renovation of an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, fall into the latter category.
Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer bought an abandoned house in the Italian city of Sambuca di Sicilia in 2019.
The couple, from Montgomery County, Maryland, were among those to pick up a historic home in Sambuca, deep in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities auctioned off 16 abandoned homes with prices starting at a token amount. euros — about $1.
“It was love at first sight,” Spencer told CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with lovely old stone pavements reminiscent of those in [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lights at night are very romantic.”
They were delighted to learn that their €10,150 (about $10,372) offer for a 100-square-foot palazzo had been accepted, and quickly got to work giving the property a dramatic facelift.
Two years later, and well before the three-year deadline set by the local authorities, their Italian hideout is complete.
Ahmadi and Spencer, who both work in global development projects, spent about $250,000 to convert the dilapidated property into a lavish home, which they say “looks like a Renaissance house.”
They plan to split their time between the US and Italy and spend about half of the year in their two-bedroom house with their daughter and grandchildren.
The renovated home features beautiful marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly an interior elevator that the couple uses to whiz up and down the three levels.
So what made them decide to have an elevator, complete with a security camera and phone, installed in the property?
The couple had an indoor elevator installed in their 100 square meter palazzo.
“We want to grow older here, do yoga every day and have coffee on the patio overlooking the misty lake,” explains Spencer.
“So we thought it would be great to feel as comfortable as possible by bypassing all those narrow stairs and not having to go up and down four windy stairs several times a day.”
While a quarter of a million dollars may seem like a hefty amount to spend on such a project, they think it’s actually less than what they would have spent in the US on something similar.
However, an indoor elevator is certainly not a typical decor for homes in this small town, and the glamorous interior design has caused quite a stir among the locals.
The couple says they have been visited by several residents who want to see the transformation of this once dilapidated house up close.
“The locals welcome us with pastries and curiously come to my house to see what we’ve done with the ruin,” Spencer says, before revealing that they recently got a “nice bottle of wine” at the local bar.
Next to the elevator, the house has a relaxation area, a guest suite, a master bedroom and a living room with a modern open kitchen.
There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace that overlooks the hills and Lake Arancio, located near the ruined Arab fortress of Fortino di Mazzallakkar.
Ahmadi and Spencer say they have already returned the €5,000 (about $5,100) deposit they initially handed over as part of the purchase agreement, which stipulated that the renovation work was to be completed within three years.
They spent $250,000 renovating the house, which has a living room with an open kitchen.
The couple is currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the morning they take the elevator to the ground floor to enjoy a cappuccino and pastries in the morning at the local bar. Then they go for a walk, before returning home for a day of remote work.
“It’s a smarter home than the one we have in the US, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras,” Spencer added, explaining that they can manage their US-owned alarms and devices from Sambuca.
After buying their new home, they bought an unused portion of their neighbors’ 100-square-foot home for $5,000, which they’ve since renovated and connected to their property.
“We like the peace and quiet in Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the slow lifestyle philosophy of the city, symbolized by a snail sculpture in the main square.”
While some travelers choose to use Sicily as a base to explore more of Italy and the rest of Europe, the couple is focused on exploring the region.
Having already visited the town of Marsala in the province of Trapani and the salt pans of Trapani, they enjoy taking long drives along the narrow rural roads to visit local food markets and try various delicacies, including snails
“In the US there are highways everywhere. But there is no rush here,” says Massoud. “Slow travel allows us to enjoy the beautiful views.
“It takes us almost two hours to drive nine kilometers and go through the hills, but that’s what makes the adventure so special.”
Although they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short time, which is especially impressive given the various problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were some minor issues along the way.
Pressing their furniture through the sleek doors and windows of their 300-year-old palazzo proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa went into the elevator) and finding suitable furniture was also time-consuming.
“As Americans, we have access to a lot of stores in the United States where we can buy things at all kinds of prices,” Spencer says.
“But it can be a problem to find nice, good quality furniture here in Sicily that you really like. You have to know where to find the right place for first-class traditional wooden pieces, antiques and second-hand shops. Some pieces are also in catalogs but not available.”
Although the structure of the building has been renovated, they decided to keep the original windows, along with the gold-colored frayed stone walls, majolica tile floors, and vaulted ceilings to preserve some of the house’s historic features.
Massoud and Spencer also chose to keep some artifacts left behind by previous owners that they discovered on their first visit, including a 1967 calendar that still hung on the walls.
Their home is one of several in the Saracen Quarter that were abandoned after a catastrophic earthquake rocked Sicily’s Belice Valley in 1968 and devastated the area.
The town hall was flooded with interest from hundreds of foreign buyers after they listed 16 of the houses in 2019, and went on to auction a further 10 buildings in 2021, this time for a token €2 each.
While some of those who took part in the second auction ended up buying their homes undetected due to the Covid-19-related restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy in 2019 with his brother to view the property and check out the Sicilian city ahead. on their offer.
“Accompanied by my husband, I sent my brother-in-law ahead on a reconnaissance mission to see what the city looked like,” Spencer says.
“He is an engineer and said that despite the earthquake, the foundations of the village and houses in Sambuca are very solid.”
It took the couple just two years to convert the dilapidated property into a lavish home.
Massoud is extremely grateful that both the sale and renovation went so smoothly, explaining that the town hall helped with the paperwork and legal issues, helping them overcome the language barrier.
While he points out that they had to apply for an Italian tax code or social security number and open a bank account in the country before buying the house, meaning the process wasn’t completely “painless,” he’s happy with how things went about it. general.
“In the US I have to deal with the subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was a lot easier,” says Massoud, who oversaw all the work together with the architect.
“I was lucky enough to find a good architect and I contributed to the electrical work by designing the location of the lighting fixtures.”
The couple was impressed with the quality of the work done by local merchants and builders, and said they found it far superior to anything they’d encountered in the US.
“Italian artisans are incredible,” Spencer says. “How they transformed this space into something new is amazing. It was a shell, now it looks like a renaissance house.”
However, the final bill came as a shock to them, as they hadn’t realized that 10% VAT would be charged on the construction costs.
Before starting to renovate their Italian home, Massoud and Spencer were often warned about the risks associated with buying and improving a large home abroad.
But they say they were confident in the Sambuca housing plan, which aims to support local economic development, and are excited about the end result.
“I could pinch myself,” Spencer says. ‘We’ve been really lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares, but I won’t because it all worked out pretty well. Much better than in a small town in the United States.”