How to Buy a House in a Ghost Town
If you’re looking for a second home in Italy, bless your heart. And take this advice.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can buy property in Italy for one euro.
Crumbling ruins? Yuck! Italians like me hate rotted buildings and villages that are falling to the ground, but foreigners positively eat them up. The greatest lure of all: ghost towns. Foreigners find abandoned, dusty and rusty places so sexy they’ve gone wild on scavenger hunts across Italy looking for the perfect forgotten village to call their second home.
Lucky for them, there are lots: Italy has more than 6,000 ghost hamlets where only shepherds, sheep and dogs are likely to cross your path. Buying a house in such spots is not easy, though. It can be trickier and more convoluted than an Indiana Jones–style adventure. Here’s our guide to house hunting in a place where all the neighbors have either ditched town or are dead:
“Relatives are serpents,” goes a popular Italian proverb.
1. First, you need patience — lots of it. Most lost hamlets aren’t even on a map, so forget about using TomTom. Ask locals on the road or just keep driving — sooner or later you’ll come across a ghost town. Be prepared to walk, as the abandoned towns usually don’t have roads. When I stopped at Frattura di Scanno, a tiny ghost village in Abruzzo that farmers fled in the 1950s, I had to park my car at the “new” town and make my way uphill through a dense forest to the old part, asking every peasant I encountered if I was headed in the right direction — healthy exercise to keep fit.
2. Find the owner. Well, try to find the owner. Once you’ve chosen the most appealing stone cottage with unhinged doors, broken windows and, possibly, one or two spirits, you need to find the owner. Good luck! More than 60 years have passed since these spots were abandoned, so how do you track the owners down? If you’re lucky, the local city council has records of family descendants who live nearby. Knock on their doors with a nice bag of money. Note: If you plan to buy more than one building, that means you’ll be knocking on more than one door, so …
3. Make the same offer to everyone. News spreads like wildfire in tiny places and if one family hears of 2,000 euros being offered for a heap of broken stones, they’ll ask at least double. But it’s mission impossible if no relatives are around. “Many former villagers ran off to the U.S. or Australia decades ago, and their descendants are scattered across the world. You need to find each one and ask them. They could be on Mars for all we know. Good luck,” says Guido Gozzano, the mayor of alpine ghost town Carrega Ligure who is desperate to get rid of the old houses. In which case, Facebook or LinkedIn might come in handy. And when the heirs, who live next door, hate each other so much they refuse to reach an agreement to sell their ancestors’ smelly stables, pigsties and barns? “Relatives are serpents,” goes a popular Italian proverb. Luckily, there are innovators around, even when it comes to bringing dead spots back from the grave by marketing a ghost-buster business.
4. Talk to the government. In towns where abandoned properties belong to local authorities, scoring yourself a home, sweet (haunted) home is a piece of cake. Take Gangi in deep Sicily, famous for its exotic gardens and Arabic-style dwellings. The proactive mayor has set up a special real estate agency that places decrepit houses on the market for just 1 euro each. The catch? You need to renovate the house within three years, a makeover that won’t cost more than 20,000 euros. “It’s been such as a success that we’ve almost run out of houses,” says local real estate agent Alessandro Cilibrasi. “Foreigners come here in herds, but each day we find more low-cost dwellings to place on the market.” The mayor has launched a website to showcase the buildings and hired a PR team to take clients on tours and send email alerts when houses become available. “Our new residents, who are most welcome, have helped revive Gangi’s city life,” says Gangi mayor Giuseppe Ferrarello, with a bit of pride. “Too many locals had fled and this place had turned into a ghost town. I consider these buyers as honorary citizens.”
The best part of such an adrenaline adventure, though, comes at the very end, and not just because a thorough restoration makes your former ghost abode shine like a prince’s castle in a superb location. When you’re away, you can rent it at a very good price, up to 1,000 euros a week during summer high-season peak when globe-trotters crowd Italy’s beaches and historical piazzas.
So what are you waiting for?