From My Tuscan Window

So You Want to Buy a House?
The sport of house hunting in the vicinity of Gioviano can be fun, even exciting-- and maddeningly frustrating--at the same time. There seems to be a zillion web sites devoted to “immobiliare” (real estate agencies), and I have spent many an hour trying to negotiate several that have led to nowhere.

There are three web sites that I have found that are relatively easy to negotiate. These have listings in and around the key towns of Borgo a Mozzano, of which Gioviano is a frazione (district), as well as one associated with Bagni di Lucca and another with Barga.

Nicocasa is located at Piazza Garibaldi 20 in Borgo a Mozzano. Web address:

Immobiliare Bagni di Lucca is located at Via Umberto, 183 in Bagni di Lucca. Web address:

Barga Estate Agents are located at Piazza Angelio 15 in Barga . Web address:
In addition to listing numerous houses in the area that are for sale, the Barga Estate Agents site has a section on “General procedure for buying or selling a property,” that gives important information that you should be aware of before starting your quest.

Houses in Tuscany is located at via G. Marconi, 14, in Barga. Web address:

We have never used an immobiliare (real estate agency) to purchase any of our five houses in Gioviano or the house we bought for my sister in Vetriano, so don’t necessarily limit your search to just the listings of real estate agencies. The way we have found our houses and the method we would probably use today is this: In addition to visiting agencies, go into a village and ask around. “Ci sono case en vendita qui in paese?” (“Are there houses for sale in this town?”) Chances are the person will ask some of his pals at the local bar in the event he (or she) isn’t aware of anything being for sale. I’d bet ten Euro ($13.00) that within 15 minutes you will learn of at least one property for sale in the village.

Another way to find a house for sale is to look for Vendesi (For Sale) signs posted on the doors of houses. These signs usually indicate that the particular place is “for sale by owner” and is probably not listed with an agency. There is almost always a phone number on the sign. If you don’t speak Italian, calling the seller could present a problem. As mentioned in the chapter on emigration, there are many English-speaking Italians in the area, and most would be delighted to help you make a phone call and find out information about the house you are interested in. Don’t get too excited and buy something just because the price is cheap. I remember going into a village on our initial house hunts in the early 1970s where we learned that a huge villa was for sale for around $100.00. The problem was that there was no road to the villa and getting there meant about an hour of hard hiking. Now suppose we had fallen for that offer and ended up with a house in the middle of nowhere. It might never have a road to it, or even electric power unless we paid to have a whole power line built. Then imagine that in the future you were 90 years-old and could barely walk -- much less hike -- a couple of miles up a steep mountain trail to get to your $100.00 dollar house. This is no different than passing up an opportunity to purchase a troop of elephants for a dollar. You’d be bankrupt in a week trying to feed them.

Some other things to think about buying a house before rushing in, signing papers, and pulling out your pocketbook:

1. How far is the house to the nearest grocery store, post office, bank, restaurant or to Lucca and the Autostrada, should you like to travel beyond your remote mountain village? Some really amazingly beautiful bargains mean a 30-minute drive down one-lane mountain roads just to buy a flashlight battery.

2. Is there parking at the house or close to it so that carrying cartons of mineral water, furniture, building materials, or even bags of groceries will not be a terrible chore when you get to be my age, or have broken a toe? I know of both an English family and an American family here in Gioviano whose age and infirmities make it both difficult and painful to get from their houses to the parcheggio and back. They may have never considered this possibility a few decades ago.

3. How many steps are there up or down to your house or how steep is the path to it? Remember, you may be fleet of foot at age 50, but at age 90 those 120 steps up to the house from the parcheggio might be more than you can handle. If my parents did not have their little electric carrozzina, they would have had to stay in Texas back when they were in their 80s. With the cart, my father reached 92 before his last trip to Italy. Sue has a health condition at age 60 that makes walking and climbing stairs difficult, and we, too, would probably have to stay in Texas unless access to our houses was relatively easy.

4. What is the condition of the house? Will it require major work before it becomes your dream home? If so, have you factored in the cost? Do you have the time to spend overseeing the project of restoration or are you going to be a “corporate slave” for the next 20 years and thus have only two weeks a year to enjoy your Tuscan villa? Had my father not been 65 years of age and retired from college teaching in 1976, he would have never have been able to stay in Italy six months a year to plan and oversee the restoration of five houses—those which Sue and I are enjoying now.

5. Think about taking advantage of someone who may have put years of blood, sweat and tears into restoring a place, but then because of age or infirmity needs to move permanently back to England or the States. It is great to be able to move into a place that is furnished and in perfect condition. If you want to make changes over time, then at least you won’t have to half freeze to death and use a porta-potty and a camp stove for several years, although neither we nor my parents regret the inconveniences or the adventure. It’s not good to be too soft and lazy while still young.

6. So you want a big garden with grapevines, olive trees, and all the other trappings of a Tuscan farm? Have you considered the maintenance of a big yard, orchard, grove or gardens? Who will take care of them while you are away toiling at your desk for 11 months out of the year? My brother-in-law wanted the terraces and the gardens, so that is what he got. Since he can’t get to Italy very often, the maintenance of the olive grove and gardens is quite a nightmare. The last time I saw them they were an overgrown jungle.

7. Wow! That swimming pool sure is inviting. Forget it, unless you want to rent the place during the very season that you are most likely to be able to come to Italy and enjoy the best weather.

8. Stop, look, listen, and think before plunging in, unless you have done your homework, and know just when to “open the door when opportunity knocks.”

9. I’m not trying to rain on your parade. In fact Gioviano and vicinity desperately need Americans and others to come into the dying villages, purchase the vacant and decaying houses, and invigorate this most wonderful part of Italy. I wouldn’t have said that twenty years ago, but quite frankly, the only way that Gioviano and the Garfagnana can survive is from an influx of persons dedicated to preserving the history and beauty of this part of Tuscany. Good luck house hunting!

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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