MAMMA MIA! - ITALY'S GREAT PROPERTY GIVEAWAY
YOU South Africa|2 December 2021
Surely it must be too good to be true: thousands of old Italian houses up for sale at less than R20 each. So what’s the catch?
TIM MOORE

IT SEEMED like a pretty good deal,” says Rafael Solorzano, leaning against an ancient whitewashed wall.

The 28-year-old American from Miami is referring to the house we’re standing in – all four floors of it, including a yawning basement – and the fact that this habitable, historic home in a comely old Sicilian hill town was his for €1 (about R17,50). That’s basically the same as what you’d pay in Italy for a slice of pizza.

It’s now 14 years since former MP and cultural commentator Vittorio Sgarbi suggested a radical solution to Italy’s ratcheting rural decline which over the past two decades has seen a million Italians abandoning their small-town homes and going in search of opportunities in cities.

To reverse this flow, Sgarbi proposed that the nation’s dwindling settlements offer their many vacant houses to newcomers for a pittance. It took a while to convince mayors and absentee owners, but 34 remote towns and villages are currently running €1 house schemes, scattered along the country’s full length.

For some, these initiatives are just part of the desperate solution to an existential crisis. Pledge to settle in Molise, a struggling region in the southern Apennines, and open up a business to boost the local economy and you’ll receive a grant of €800 (R14 000) a month for three years to help get you on your feet. For South Africans to do this, they’d need to apply for an Italian self-employment visa.

Further south, Calabria offers smalltown newcomers who promise to establish a business or enroll their children in school a golden hello worth up to €33 000 (R557 000).

But more than half of the €1 house towns are in Sicily, where the socioeconomic pressures that drive rural de-population are redoubled: this is one of Italy’s poorest regions, where youth unemployment runs at 48%.

Most of the struggling settlements on the mainland are hoping to attract young Italians, but the mayors of the 20 little Sicilian towns currently hawking €1 houses can’t afford to be fussy. They don’t care how old you are, or how foreign.

Having shed a third of its population, in 2019 the village of Sambuca di Sicilia put 16 old houses up for auction, each at a starting price of €1, via a press release that instantly went viral across the world.

“The headline kind of wrote itself,” says Tom Murray, an editor at Business Insider, one of the countless media outlets to have published breathless stories about the houses. “I mean, it’s a beautiful home in rural Italy for a dollar. Who isn’t going to click on that?”

Within 48 hours the mayor of Sambuca’s office had received 38 000 enquiries. More than 100 000 emails had overwhelmed the municipal inbox by the time the houses found new owners from all over the world – the UK, the US, Norway, Dubai, Jordan.

Around half sold for €1, while the rest went for a few thousand. Afterwards, almost 100 foreigners who missed out on the auction snapped up another 90 local homes for under €10 000 each (R175 000).

Inspired by this success, hill towns across the island got in on the act, none with more gusto than Mussomeli – a settlement of 11 000 right in the middle of Sicily that has to date sold a table-topping 50 €1 houses to foreigners, with a further 100 currently on its books.

Browsing the English-language website this municipality has set up in collaboration with a local estate agent (case1euro.it), I am dangerously tantalised by the listed properties.

Beneath the dust and rust, beyond the full spectrum of structural decay, I spy marble staircases, encaustic tiles, panoramic terraces: Mediterranean dream-home potential in its very headiest form.

“Is it true or is it a joke?” reads the most arresting entry in the website’s FAQ section. There is of course only one way to find out . . .

THE drive to Mussomeli lays bare the challenges and rewards of life in central Sicily. After the autostrada turn-off, I spend a long hour weaving about tentatively on ravaged asphalt, harried at close quarters by a succession of impatient farmers in rickety Fiat Pandas, meaty brown forearms dangling from their windows.

But the desolate majesty of the landscape is utterly captivating, ranks of suede hills pierced here and there by terrific rocky outcrops, most topped with a precarious monastery or castle.

At the end of another fierce summer, the last crop of fat red grapes hangs heavy under dusty white tarpaulins that ripple in a warm breeze.

Mussomeli, derived from a Latin mashup meaning “hill of honey”, is guarded by the most splendid of those lofty castles, a full-on Game of Thrones number nicknamed the Enchanted Fortress.

But the streets beyond share nothing with my expectations: they are lined with nondescript mid-rise apartments, and dense with gregarious Mussomelians of all ages.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM YOU SOUTH AFRICAView All

THE MAN BEHIND THE HEADLINES

YOU sits down with state capture judge Raymond Zondo and finds his home is much like him – no fuss or frills

7 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

SPRUCE IT UP

Try these quick, easy and inexpensive ways to give your home a mini-facelift

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

KATE THE GREAT

The Duchess of Cambridge is coming into her own as she celebrates her milestone 40th birthday

8 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

THE CAR WHISPERER

It started with a toy car when he was just a kid and his love for vehicles of all kinds has been a thread throughout his life

4 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

SISTERS WITH THE WRITE STUFF

Why do nurses need so many pens? To draw blood! This collection, however, is no joke

4 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

RISE OF THE KILLER ROBOTS

Artificially intelligent weapons are transforming armies around the world – should we be worried about this new arms race?

10 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

IN BIG TROUBLE

The allegations of sexual assault against actor Chris Noth may very well sink his career

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

Frya

We talk to the up-and-coming star whose music has featured on Netflix

4 mins read
YOU South Africa
20 January 2022

Craig David

Celebrates 22 years in music with a new single, Who You Are, and album

3 mins read
YOU South Africa
13 January 2022

I'VE SEEN A RHINO CRY

He became a wildlife vet by chance – now Johan is an expert in treating rhinos and it’s become his passion to save endangered species

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
13 January 2022
RELATED STORIES

Big Sky Thinking

Can skiing be eco-friendly? Perhaps, say the resorts upping their sustainability game and nurturing dreams of a carbon-neutral future

4 mins read
National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Winter Sports 2022

Best Autumn And Winter Escapes Across The World

Whether you’d rather take to the slopes or relax by the pool, Holly Kirkwood has the pick of autumn and winter escapes across the world

3 mins read
Country Life UK
October 13, 2021

How to Be a Work Rebel

Got a contrarian streak in you? Harvard’s Francesca Gino shares the right way to be an unconventional leader

3 mins read
Newsweek
September 10, 2021

SHOCK & AWE

COMPANY OF HEROES 3 is coming to wake up the RTS genre.

10+ mins read
PC Gamer US Edition
October 2021

CITIZEN OF THE World

Congolese native Yannick Nzosa played for professional teams in Italy and Spain before he turned 17. Now that his name is moving up the 2022 pre-draft boards, the former soccer player has one thing front and center in his mind—succeeding for his family back home.

8 mins read
Slam
June - July 2021

Erin Gleeson Woodside, CA

After a cross-country move from New York to California, the now-bestselling cookbook author went from photographing lavish dishes in the city to simple recipes in the woods—an artistic pivot inspired by her new home, a charming cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Nearly a decade and four cookbooks later, The Forest Feast series is as fresh as ever.

1 min read
Taste of Home
August - September 2021

THE ITALIAN JOB

After 107 years, Di Pasquale’s finds a new home in Brewers Hill.

10+ mins read
Baltimore magazine
April 2021

AirVPN: Excellent service that power users will love

An excellent service with a known history, a solid network, and very good speeds.

7 mins read
Macworld
April 2021

A SMALL PEARL ON LAKE COMO | MONTE SAN PRIMO

In 2019 I was working on an art project in Bellagio, Italy. This small pearl on Lake Como is dominated by a mountain called Monte San Primo.

2 mins read
Lens Magazine
February 2021

Let's Get Physical

Having long marveled at the technology of the high-end workout equipment on the high seas, Porthole goes all in on putting together a home fitness center.

3 mins read
Porthole Cruise Magazine
March/April 2021