An Italian house for less than €1… what’s the catch?

‘It seemed like a pretty good deal,’ says Rafael Solorzano, leaning against an ancient whitewashed wall. A half smile settles across his young, bearded face, a look of understated satisfaction that might most convincingly relate to a discount secured on the acoustic guitar propped up by his bedside table. But the 28-year-old from Miami is referring to the house we’re standing in – all four floors of it, if you include a yawning basement – and the fact that this habitable, historic home in a comely old Sicilian hill town was his for the price of 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. Young Italians have been moving away from the countryside – to native cities or the wider world – for over a century, a trend that accelerated in the 1950s and has barely slowed since. Over the last two decades, a million small-town Italians have left their homes.

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 the local authorities will give you €800 a month for three years. Further south, Calabria offers small-town newcomers who promise to establish a business or enrol their children in school a golden hello worth up to €33,000.


Covid has thrown a hefty spanner in the works: barely any of Mussomeli’s giveaway homes have been renovated yet

But more than half of the €1 house towns are in Sicily, where the socio-economic pressures that drive rural depopulation are redoubled: this is one of Italy’s poorest regions, where youth unemployment runs at a barely credible 48.3 per cent. 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?’

Who indeed? 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, with the rest bid up to a few thousand; almost 100 foreigners who missed out on the auction snapped up another 90 local homes for under €10,000.

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 mash-up 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. Only when I park up at my hotel in the Piazza Umberto 1, a most becoming triangle of slightly frayed palazzos and townhouses, do I note the tight mass of pantiled roofs that tumble down from the old town behind. This is the front line between postwar ‘new’ Mussomeli, where almost everyone now lives, and the centro storico, a steepling compaction of churches, clock towers and several thousand extremely old houses, 60 per cent of which lie empty.

Covid has thrown a hefty spanner in the €1 house works: barely any of Mussomeli’s giveaway homes have yet been renovated, and just a handful of foreign owners are currently in town. The next morning I try to procure their details at the town hall – a monolithic edifice whose corridors full of ambling administrators speak of triplicate paperwork, ruminative bureaucracy and a wage bill that isn’t going to be paid by selling houses for €1 a pop. (You may have seen this coming, but that €1 price tag is at heart a savvy PR ruse, inflated from the off by sundry extras. An American buyer in Sambuca who triumphantly paid her €1 by bank transfer was charged €30 for the privilege. Once you’ve settled up with the notary, the estate agent and paid the requisite local fees and taxes, you’re already in for at least €1,800 – still next to nothing in today’s property market, but, in the words of the American, ‘One euro, my ass.’)

Toti Nigrelli, Mussomeli’s amiable, can-do deputy mayor, welcomes me into his cavernous third-floor office. ‘In this town we have a lot of buildings without people inside,’ is his winning introduction. ‘But only in the centro storico. The local people don’t like these small old houses, they like to have air condition, they like to have big rooms.’ Mainly, he says, they like to drive everywhere and park outside their front doors. (How? That afternoon, attempting to pilot my hire car to an old-town rendezvous, I age a decade in half an hour.)

Tim Moore in Danny McCubbin’s €8,000 house


Tim Moore in Danny McCubbin’s €8,000 house

Nigrelli is deeply passionate about his home town, and its regeneration. He tells me the decline set in during the ’50s and ’60s, when half the young men in Mussomeli left Italy looking for work. (This was also an era when the town was effectively run by the old-school, semi-paternalistic mafia: of the 10 eminent Mussomelians listed in Wikipedia, two have their occupations cited as ‘mafioso’.) The bulk of the émigrés obscurely wound up in Woking, which is now the heart of a Surrey-based community that numbers 15,000 sons and daughters of Mussomeli – 4,000 more than the town’s own current population. One of them, an underwriter called Antonio Bellanca, told me how his father brought the family back to Mussomeli on holiday almost every year. ‘The town was full of expat families like us all through summer in the ’80s and ’90s. Then the next generation kind of lost that connection and it became so much quieter.’

Every €1 house scheme comes with a few strings attached, but Mussomeli’s are looser than most. Nigrelli runs through them after we repair to a pasticceria over the road for tiny, syrup-thick espressos. You can do pretty much what you like to the interior, but the outside of your new old house must retain its original aesthetic. A €5,000 deposit is handed to the municipality, redeemable in full if you complete the renovation works within three years. This is a safeguard against nothing-to-lose speculators buying up all the €1 houses and sitting on them (though on account of the pandemic, the time-frame stipulation isn’t currently being enforced).

Nigrelli sets about selling Mussomeli to me, but I’m already sold. Of all the €1 house Sicilian towns I’d clicked through photos of back home, this is the one I’d choose to live in. Put bluntly, its rivals are just a bit too small and a bit too dead. ‘We have here all services – the hospital, the schools, the bars, the restaurants.’ Even the centro storico has fibre-optic broadband and mains sewerage (on the flip side, the town’s water is piped in only three times a week and has to be stored in unsightly roof tanks that in the old town are often made from asbestos. Nobody drinks from the tap in Mussomeli – even the kettles get filled with mineral water). He doesn’t mention Lidl, but I was guiltily thrilled to spot it on the drive in. As Nigrelli has just indirectly explained, any foreigners buying a house in Mussomeli’s old town won’t find themselves incurring the wrath of locals, in the manner of villagers in Cornwall or Devon who discover that holiday-homers have pushed prices out of their reach. Conveniently, everything that lures Instagram-happy foreigners to the crumbly, meandering centro storico has driven the natives away.

The requisite paperwork

Including notary fees and a compulsory draughtsman’s plan of the house, plus estate agent’s commission,
ranges from €1,800-2,500.

The cost of renovation:

This is obviously dependent on the condition of the house and the extent and ambition of refurbishment
plans. Sicilian construction costs are significantly lower than in the UK. If no structural work is
required, a rough minimum of €5,000 might cover the cost of rewiring and replumbing, as
well as some basic remedial work in the kitchen and bathroom. More typically, making allowance for some roof
repairs, full redecoration and a more extensive overhaul of kitchen and bathroom, the costs will range from
€10-20,000.

If structural work is necessary – particularly to the foundations – you would be looking at up to
€50,000 as a total refurbishment cost. But even what might seem like major works can be
remedied at reasonable cost.

Architect fee for renovation works:

€1,200-2,000.

Annual fixed costs

Including local tax, water, electricity range from €350-500, depending on the size of the
house.

‘Everybody is happy to have the foreigners,’ says Nigrelli. ‘Why not? They bring new life to the centro storico, and of course they bring new business.’ Before the scheme started, agriculture was Mussomeli’s dominant employer. Now, despite the Covid hiatus, construction – or more precisely, reconstruction – has taken its place. In addition to all the builders and tradespeople, no fewer than five architects work full-time in town. ‘For us, this is a small economic revolution.’

Armed with a few names and numbers, I head off to meet the most prominent of Mussomeli’s foreign arrivals: Danny McCubbin, a bright-eyed, 57-year-old Australian who pitched up here after almost two decades spent working for Jamie Oliver in London. I find him in the community kitchen he has set up on the Piazza Umberto 1, a wholly admirable venture that processes surplus food donated by local supermarkets and smallholders into meals for the lonesome and needy. ‘I was Jamie’s PA for a while,’ he tells me, ‘and did a lot of the marketing and social media. But everyone assumes I was a chef and I’ve given up trying to fight it.’

The kitchen in Danny McCubbin’s €1 house


The kitchen in Danny McCubbin’s €1 house

McCubbin had begun to dream of giving up his office job for a life in Italy, and was steered to Mussomeli after being selected for a reality TV show about Sicily’s €1 homes, which was cancelled due to Covid. ‘But as soon as I came here, my heart felt at home. They’re such good souls, with this timeless sense of community,’ he says, offering plums to one of the slightly laconic old guys who periodically wander in from the piazza. ‘I’m so proud of this town.’  

For the irrepressible, gung-ho McCubbin, it’s all about integration. ‘Everyone thinks it must be too good to be true, but as long as you’re prepared to get stuck in with the locals, it absolutely isn’t.’ He tends to turn down invitations to socialise with his fellow foreigners, and heroically endeavours to communicate with the townsfolk in the Italian he’s learning at night school (the town  offers free classes). No mean feat given that Mussomeli’s seniors – the centro storico’s exclusive demographic – largely converse in ‘Sicilian’, which is rather more convoluted than a simple dialect.

But in the €1 house game, local integration isn’t really a choice. There are no DIY superstores in rural Sicily, and no one-stop-shop renovation service. Once the municipality has provided its list of recommended architects, tradesmen and material suppliers, the project management is down to you. On-site attendance is similarly not optional. Any attempt to organise, liaise and chivvy things along in absentia is, by universal agreement, a waste of time. By happy accident, the €1 initiative will only ever attract the sort of foreigner who is willing and able to throw themselves into local life. ‘To be honest, it’s almost a bit dangerous not to get involved in this community,’ Mark Kopun – Mussomeli’s second €1 Aussie – tells me later. ‘They’re so tight here. And they never forget anything. One of the women who lives in my street was apparently a bit of a goer in high school, and all the neighbours still bitch about it. She’s 65!’


Australian Danny McCubbin at the community kitchen he has set up in town

McCubbin is the antithesis of a holiday- homer: as well as his rented community kitchen, he owns a €1 house and another he bought for €8,000. The former is to be the base for a cookery school he plans to open, where young chefs from across Europe will come to live and learn, ideally inspired to create their own community kitchens back at home. The latter, in rather more immediately habitable condition, is where McCubbin currently lives (around half the foreigners who come to buy a €1 house eventually plump for an ‘upgrade’ in the sub-€10,000 bracket).

However, I’m not here to look at cheap houses, but the ones that at least nominally are free. McCubbin’s own €1 example sets the template, a three-storey townhouse of smutted, weathered stone, whose upper French windows open on to little tiled balconies girdled with rusty iron railings. In a street rather wider and better populated than most, it is accessed by a pair of front doors, each regally topped with an iron fanlight inset with the initials of some distant owner (most of the many thousand buildings in the centro storico, from churches downwards, are medieval constructions extended and refashioned over the centuries).

The left-hand door opens into what was once a stable. And effectively still is: there’s a manger along one dark wall, iron hoops to tie your donkeys up to and a hefty, gnarled wooden hoop that looks like some sort of ox yoke. Also, half the ceiling has caved in. Behind the other door is a dim, narrow marble staircase that leads by stages to a very old lady’s bedroom, sitting room and kitchen- diner. ‘It had been empty for 15 years, but everything was still here,’ says McCubbin. ‘Clothes in the wardrobe, her identity cards, family photos, religious knick-knacks, the TV, coffee pot still on the stove.’ I take a seat in the kitchen, a much-patched cushion beneath me, and leaf through some of the historic correspondence left on the table, all copperplate script and colourful old stamps. Italians are such familial, generationally bonded people by repute, so it’s a deeply poignant and rather shocking surprise to see a grandmother’s home left like this. I can only assume that, as is generally the case in the centro storico, this old lady’s descendants have long since moved far, far away. At the same time, I am struggling to repress unseemly excitements and possibilities: a kitchen island here, an en suite there, seeing myself out on that balcony with a negroni and a bowl of olives.

The rest of my time in Mussomeli is spent getting down and dusty in the centro storico and its pound-shop properties. By some estimates there are 14,000 empty homes along those twisting alleys, but the vibe is magical rather than depressing, as if a fairy-tale enchantment has passed across those terracotta roofs, casting the town into suspended animation. The complete absence of graffiti and litter – a wonder in itself to any Mediterranean habitué – probably helps. Stray cats dart into cracks in old wood; pigeons flap out through glassless windows. Loveliness lies round every tight corner: a wonky piazza lined with enamelled heraldic shields, a monumental Baroque church with prickly pears sprouting from its lofty gutters, a sliver of view between high, ancient walls. Mussomeli sits at 2,000 feet, and these panoramas – big brown hills and citrus groves receding to a horizon fuzzed with autumnal stubble smoke – are a perennial jaw-dropper. ‘I always urge people not to buy a house with a view,’ McCubbin had told me. ‘They’ll just want to sit and look at it all day.’ I’d nodded sombrely, thinking: is that so wrong?


A house with panoramic views for sale in Mussomeli

Estate agent Valeria Sorce, principal interface between foreigners and the municipality, accompanies me for an afternoon. Jangling through medieval-dungeon keys from her hefty €1 collection, she opens door after heavy old door, releasing a soon familiar waft of cat pee and damp church. ‘Please, stay at the edge of the room,’ she urges, wary of the structural decay that lies under those beautiful old patterned tiles. It doesn’t take me to long to work out the year a house fell empty – there is always a final calendar hung up in the kitchen, invariably with the Pope on it.

Sorce has sold €1 houses to Brits, Americans, Australians, Brazilians, Belgians, Russians and even a couple of Chinese, and reckons about a third of those who come here to look go home with a set of keys. Her typical customer is in their 30s or 40s, younger than you might expect, and the whole adventure seems made for social media, as any number of online videos attest. Sorce is astounded by the number of fantasists who make the trek here on the strength of those alluring headlines alone. ‘They expect a home for €1 you can walk into and live in, and when they see these houses they are very, very, very disappointed.’

Estate agent Valeria Sorce in one of the many €1 houses on her books


Estate agent Valeria Sorce in one of the many €1 houses on her books

Sure enough, half the places we see are frankly too far gone for all but the wealthiest dreamers, with floor-to-ceiling cracks you could put your head into. But the other half, give or take the odd mummified pigeon, are steeped in promise. I find myself putting together a wish list to satisfy my informed and very particular aesthetic: that view, this balcony, those terrazzo tiles. With many of these ancient houses living cheek by jowl in each other’s shadows, natural light goes down as a must-have. What, I ask Sorce, do her foreign buyers get most excited about? ‘A nice view with a balcony, and having the light,’ she replies. ‘Also the tiles.’

On my final afternoon I meet Mark Kopun in his discount dwelling. Kopun, a 35-year-old electrician from Adelaide, was a year into a European road trip when a cousin emailed him a story about the houses. He flew immediately to Sicily, and arrived in Mussomeli on a bracingly fundamentalist mission. ‘Valeria kept trying to interest me in some slightly more expensive places, but I said stop: I want a €1 house!’ He looked round 25 of them before finding the impressively solid old home he now shows me around. We step on to a large terrace that looks over the water-tanked roofs opposite, and out to that grand vista.

A group of friends gather outside a café on the Piazza Roma in Mussomeli”s picturesque old town


A group of friends gather outside a café on the Piazza Roma in Mussomeli”s picturesque old town

Kopun, handily blessed with an Italian passport courtesy of his father, has been in Mussomeli for the past seven months, mixing local electrical employment with heavy-duty DIY. He’s swept out the pigeon nests, stripped out the 1980s tiles and fittings that had sadly replaced the old stuff, and is now waiting for contractors to lay steel mesh across those undulating floors. ‘A lot more could have been done by now,’ he breezily admits. ‘But after this long in Sicily, my patience is rock solid.’

Kopun wonders if his epic road trip was sparked by ‘some sort of early midlife crisis, a sense that I was just kind of lost’ – he sold all his possessions before heading off – but in Mussomeli and his €1 house, he seems to have found himself. ‘I love what this place has done for me, and this project, and now I want to put something back in.’ His plan for the ubiquitous stable beneath us is pleasingly esoteric: after removing the manger and the old cheese-curing cabinets, he intends to instal a €28,000 isolation flotation tank. ‘A wellness centre with a yoga studio and a sauna upstairs – that’s my dream.’ For the locals? I picture Kopun easing the tank lid shut on a wide-eyed, walnut-skinned farmer. ‘For anyone.’

On the short, sharp walk up steep cobbles to Rafael Solorzano’s place, I realise a large part of the €1 house appeal is that it allows young people to indulge in the sort of low-risk, bargain-bin fixer-upping that their parents enjoyed on their merry way up the property ladder – back before house prices in every city on earth went berserk, and home ownership evolved into a lifelong, wage-draining millstone. Kopun’s Damascene moment came when he took out an $A800,000 (£430,000) mortgage in Australia: ‘I just thought – there goes the rest of my life.’

Solorzano knows just what he means. As we stoop in through his gothic-arched front door, the young Floridian’s extended sigh of amused disbelief suggests he still can’t get his head round it. ‘It just seemed incredible that in all the real-estate craziness that’s been going on pretty much everywhere, you can buy a house for a dollar. In Miami there’s literally nothing under $250,000.’


The church of Sanctuario Madonna di Miracoli in the old town

If ‘€1 Sicilian House’ was a game, which it sort of is, then Solorzano has won. When I admire his renovations, he tells me he hasn’t done a thing: ‘Just cleared a few things out and swept the place.’ The top-floor kitchen has a view of the castle, a tiled wood-burner and even a fully functioning washing machine left in situ. (It does also have a ceiling-mounted water tank that my now practised eye recognises as an asbestos one.)

The Solorzano family flew out to Sicily in February 2020 after seeing a CNN report on the houses. Rafael and his sister promptly bought this place and a €9,000 one up the road that they now run as an Airbnb, but it’s been quite a journey. After they returned to Miami, their father, who had been booked on to a later return flight, found himself stranded when lockdown hit, and spent many nights becoming fully acquainted with Mussomeli’s severe winter in an unheated, unfurnished, long-empty house, sleeping with his coat on. ‘But when the neighbours found out, they were so wonderful: they brought blankets and heaters and so much food at Easter it took me three days to eat it.’ Solorzano Senior ultimately spent four months marooned in Mussomeli, but was so enamoured by the locals’ generosity that he now wants to buy a third family house in the town.

Rafael Solorzano: ‘It just seemed incredible that in all the real-estate craziness, you can buy a house for a dollar’


Rafael Solorzano: ‘It just seemed incredible that in all the real-estate craziness, you can buy a house for a dollar’

By Rafael’s estimate, three months and €7,000 will see his €1 place Airbnb-ready if needed. He has been in Mussomeli since June, and tips his head at the laptop that has allowed him to continue his work in medical-billing data-entry. ‘As a US citizen, the visa situation is a pain,’ he says. ‘These €1 towns really need to offer some kind of invitation scheme for foreign remote workers like me. I would relocate here tomorrow if I could.’ He firmly believes that Mussomeli could be transformed if it takes advantage of the sea-change in working practices wrought by the pandemic.

I mention this to Toti Nigrelli when I bump into him that evening. ‘Sure, why not?’ he says, cheery as ever. ‘My dream is to have 40,000 population in Mussomeli. We can support this number. But for that we will need to get local people back into the centro storico.’ He looks around at the piazza’s grand sandstone edifices. ‘The old town is such a beautiful place, but the people who live here maybe forget it. It’s so good for us to see these buildings with the eyes of the foreigners, to appreciate it like they do, to see how lucky we are.’

I follow his gaze to the old roofs beyond the square, and feel a small gold-and-silver coin burning a hole in my pocket.

Calatafimi-Segesta, Trapani, Sicily

Borgomezzavalle, Verbania, Piemonte

With a population of just over 6,700, this charming village has a medieval old town. Fifty-eight €1 properties
are now available (until 30 October).

Close to the Swiss border, this village has around 300 inhabitants. Surrounded by peaceful lakes, it has many
uninhabited properties for €1.

This secluded town, set in the high Apennines, is close to ski slopes. There are a number of properties for
sale and 630 empty buildings in need of reconstruction.

Calatafimi-Segesta, Trapani, Sicily

With a population of just over 6,700, this charming village has a medieval old town. Fifty-eight €1 properties
are now available (until 30 October).

Borgomezzavalle, Verbania, Piemonte

Close to the Swiss border, this village has around 300 inhabitants. Surrounded by peaceful lakes, it has many
uninhabited properties for €1.

Pratola Peligna, Abruzzo

This secluded town, set in the high Apennines, is close to ski slopes. There are a number of properties for
sale and 630 empty buildings in need of reconstruction.

Photography by Roberto Boccaccino

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