Sunday, July 09, 2006

Taking that deep breath - buying a house

For someone familiar with the structured and disciplined process of house buying and selling in the US, Italy is a foray into an unregulated, free-for-all world where anything can happen.

To start with, there’s no such thing as a listing agent. Stated a little differently, everyone’s a listing agent, and it seems they can each advertise the property for a different price. Shopping is therefore encouraged, and you can see the multiple properties through different agents, as we did. And even though it’s the honorable thing to do to buy through the agent that showed you the property, I get the sense that it’s not required.

Commissions are similar to the US, although they’re shared by buyer and seller, and not born solely by the seller as in the US (at least where I lived).

Once you enter into the offer-contract-closing stages, there’s a formal process that’s followed, which I won’t go into here – there are plenty of web sites that cover this aspect, and we left most of it to our realtor anyway.

Not long ago, Marche was relatively unknown for property investment, particularly when compared with its neighbors to the west, Umbria and Tuscany. That’s changed in the last 5 years or so, with prices increasing year-on-year by as much as 25%. And while it’s still cheaper than its more illustrious neighbors, it’s not the bargain that it used to be.

However, with a countryside that rivals those of Umbria and Tuscany, quaint hilltop towns and rolling rural farmland, there are plenty of real estate options available, from restoring a pile of stones, to moving in to a restored apartment in an old village castle. As a result, traffic has been brisk, particularly from the UK, and renovations are in progress wherever you go, bringing with them accents (verbal, not architectural, thank heavens) from all over England. Americans are also starting to come in growing numbers.

Over the course of two trips spaced 3 months apart in 2004, 3 realtors showed us around 25 properties that ranged in price from about €65,000 to around €250,000. Most were traditional brick-and-stone farmhouses in various states of repair (or disrepair, as the case may be), with a few town homes/apartments – one in a delightful village square – and a number of more “modern” (read: not brick-and-stone) homes.

While none were in the “pile of stones” category, the degree of renovation ranged from minor to substantial. In some cases renovations would have been necessary to atone for “quirks” of design (a kindly, optimistic view), such as common thoroughfares in the house going through bedrooms. In some cases, the extent of “design creativity” was irretrievable, and would have required wholesale organ transplantation in order to revive a semblance of taste. These unfortunates, needless to say, never made it past the 10-minute minimum visit to preserve a modicum of courtesy to the person showing the house to us.

Among the houses we saw, there were one or two that I would have been happy to pursue, not least because they were immediately livable, and the destination was more important to me than the house itself. However, none passed the German muster, and it wasn’t until the last day of our second visit when we were shown a last-gasp, just-on-the-market, slightly-over-our-budget house. It met our primary criteria – good view (of the Apennine mountains just a few miles to the west), character (which we firmly believed was there in liberal quantities under the bright pink walls), and location (out in the midst of rolling farmland, just 10 minutes from pleasant Tolentino, 25 from the university town/city of Macerata, and another 15 to the ocean).

On our return to the US (October 2004), we put in an offer some 10% lower than the asking price. The seller accepted it immediately. It was done.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Marche - Italy in one region ... and a few unusual destinations to boot

In his 1957 book Viaggio in Italia, Guido Piovene had this to say: “If one had to decide which Italian landscape was the most typical, you’d have to choose the Marche … Italy, with its range of landscapes, is a distillation of the world; the Marche is a distillation of Italy.”

My lack of knowledge of the nether lands (of Italy) prevents me from verifying the claim, but if I ever fill that void, I’ll be sure to proffer an opinion.

One thing’s for sure, Marche is diverse, and not just in landscape. For example, according to the wholly unbiased Marche Tourism Department, it has the largest number of museums and galleries in Italy, 200 Romanesque churches, and 71 historic theaters, amongst many other impressive and arbitrary statistics.

There's plenty to offer a variety of tastes, from the common place to the obscure. Here are a few examples:

In a little town just 5 miles from the Adriatic coast, is a plain stone building that draws thousands of religious pilgrims every year. That’s because it’s believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary and the childhood home of Jesus, transported here by angels towards the end of the crusades to spare it from the clutches of the Turks.

In a beautiful hilltop university town in the north, is an unassuming house on a steep cobbled street. This was where Renaissance artist Rafael grew up, developing the craft that was to garner him widespread and lasting acclaim. His house is just one of a clutch of veritable gems in this charming and popular town.

Nestled in a bowl deep in the Apennine mountains is an innocuous tarn, steel blue in its stark surroundings. The legend goes that Pontius Pilate is buried here. The legend also goes that the Sybil, priestess and guide to the underworld, lived here in a cave with a hundred mouths, and that her whispers would resound and echo here for all eternity.

Not far from this place is a canyon that splits the mountains, an awesome creation of the River Tenna. Within it runs a “road” (the term is used liberally) that at one time went all the way to Roma. Today it’s the home of a hermit monk living in a church that he built by hand, perhaps a fitting fixture in a chasm that goes by the name Gola de Infernaccio (Hell’s Gorge).

In a small town not far from the coast, is an industry that fuels a hundred folk music traditions around the world – the manufacture of accordions. It’s said that the world’s first piano accordion was manufactured here in 1863.

Promoting shoes from Italy isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but normally one associates it with Roma and Milano, the country’s fashion capitals. But tucked away on the Adriatic coast is a zone that features one shoe factory and outlet store after another. The Italians know about it, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

Marche enjoys a coastline on the Adriatic of 180 kilometers (just over 110 miles). Beaches alternate between stone and sand, and welcome thousands upon thousands of Italians and other Europeans during the busy summer months. Also scattered amongst the lido regiments and their orderly ranks of beach chairs, are a few grassy hills and tree-clad cliffs, creating coves and bays of deep blue and incredible beauty.

Of course, one advantage of central Italy is its proximity to so many other areas of not only Italy, but Europe. In Marche, your options are expanded significantly thanks to the busy ferry port of Ancona. A genuine, pleasant city in its own right, Ancona offers car ferry access to Venice, Croatia, Greece, and even Israel and North Africa if you’re looking to travel further afield.

I could go on, and if left to my own devices, I would. But I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate it, so I'll leave with a destination for those that want more: