Rural Italy is full of abandoned properties in need of renovation.
Each morning for the past month, Brian has been waking to the deep peace of the Italian countryside and a view through the olive trees of a hilltop village in the distance.
It is a very different start to his day than his previous routine when he lived in Oregon. Along with his wife Beth, Brian is realising a dream that has been a long time coming.
The retired couple have bought a property in rural Sicily and have set to work transforming it into their future home.
They’re only two months into their renovation project but it has already been eventful.
If you’ve daydreamed about snapping up one of Italy’s one-euro houses or even buying a whole abandoned village, here’s a little glimpse into what’s involved.
Falling in love with rural Italy
Brian and Beth Wilbur, who were born in New Hampshire, are unabashedly in love with their new home in Sicily. “Everything about it was just perfect when we saw it,” says Beth.
But this is not the first time they’ve attempted a restoration project and a relocation to Europe. “Our story isn’t as romantic as you might be hoping,” says Brian.
Five years ago, the couple bought a 12-bedroom hotel in rural France, but after just a few years they were forced to abandon what they thought would be a dream.
Despite speaking French and attempting to integrate with the community, the couple never felt at home there.
“People would just not let us in,” says Brian, “and we ended up feeling really lonely.”
Undeterred, a couple of years ago they began looking for an alternative destination. Despite having never visited Sicily before, the couple spent six weeks on the island and fell in love.
“The people are great, the island is beautiful, everything is perfect,” says Beth. “There’s a zest for life that doesn’t exist in other places.”
Language was also much less of an issue than in France. “In Italy, if you don’t communicate well in Italian they’ll just pull out their phones and translate,” she says.
How to buy property in Sicily
The property Beth and Brian settled on also seemed like love at first sight. “We looked around a little bit, but for us this was perfect,” says Brian.
As with many properties in rural Italy, it was also affordable. The couple got a 60 square metre house, 30,000 square metres of land and an olive grove for €65,000.
It is ten minutes from Palazzolo Acreide, a city with all necessary amenities, less than an hour from Catania airport and half an hour to the beach. It is also half an hour from Noto, a city of Baroque architectural splendour which recently featured in the second season of HBO hit show The White Lotus.
“I just know I like waking up in the morning there,” Brian says, speaking from the US where they are back for a few weeks helping their son and daughter-in-law with their new baby.
He’s already made firm friends with the neighbour, Massimo, too. “I’ve been invited more to his house in two months than we had been over five years in France,” he says. “He comes by once or twice a day just to see how I’m going. Things don’t work like that in the US.”
Renovating a property in rural Sicily
Beth and Brian have ambitious plans for their new home. They’re considering turning the current building into an ‘agriturismo’ or rental property and constructing another house to live in with an outdoor kitchen.
They’re doing nearly all the work themselves. Brian has experience fixing up houses in the US but Beth adds that YouTube has been invaluable.
Accompanied by Massimo, Brian has been visiting the hardware store in the nearby town and using photos and translator apps to communicate what he needs.
“You just need time, and we have plenty of that,” he says.
Outside, they want to plant more trees and some vines. “We want to grow our own food and be more self-sufficient,” says Beth. “You get so much more growing power in southern Italy.”
Is it difficult to renovate a house in Italy?
The project is not always as idyllic as the under-the-Tuscan-sun effect might make out. Brian has had to tackle a rat infestation and plenty of resident bugs.
The house also had a lot of water damage and had been abandoned for around six or seven years.
The purchase of the house took six months but was not a difficult process. However, residency is proving a problem.
“We’re already running into roadblocks with income requirements for example,” says Brian. The couple want to move permanently to the island so they’re applying for a long-term retirement permit. “It’s wasting my time and energy on things I don’t want to spend them on.”
The couple have come to accept that ‘piano piano’ – slowly slowly – is the way things work in Italy, “As US citizens we expect things to happen quickly and efficiently, but it’s not the case here,” Beth says, “it will happen when it happens.”
But it is clear the positives firmly outweigh any negatives for the couple. “There are problems everywhere from the non-existent mail service to poor roads, but somehow it doesn’t matter,” says Brian. “It’s a special place.”
“Everything in the US is go-go-go,” adds Beth. “There you work, but here in Sicily you learn to really live.”
You can follow Beth and Brian’s restoration journey on their YouTube channel.
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