If you’re thinking of buying a dream home overseas, it can often help to hear from people who have already done what you’re thinking of doing. Whether you want to live overseas full time, just want to spend part of the year away from home, or you’re buying as an investment property, you can always learn something from those who have gone before you.
Below is a story from Debra Kolkka. She built her dream Italian home in the hills of Tuscany and spends six months a year there.
When she’s not using it herself, she rents it out, covering all her costs. And she says that even during Covid, business has been good.
A Part-Time Home of Our Own in The Italian Countryside
By Debra Kolkka
The first thing people ask when I tell them we have a house in Italy is why we chose Italy. The answer is simple, once Italy gets under your skin there is no escape. I think Italy has more beauty per square inch than anywhere else in the world.
My introduction to Italy came 47 years ago when I set off by ship, traveling via South America and docking in Genoa five weeks later.
Along the way I met a fellow traveler who took me to his family home in the tiny village of S’Agata sui Due Golfi, between Sorrento and Positano on the Amalfi Coast. After many years of traveling to almost every region of Italy, I still think this is the most exquisite place I have ever been. Sorrento, where my son was born, also holds a special place in my heart.
In time, I returned home, but the love of Italy never left. Many years later when my husband and I decided we would like a base in Europe, there was no doubt where it would be.
As much as I love the Amalfi Coast it was too expensive and too crowded for most of the year. So, we chose to buy farther north. We bought our apartment in Bagni di Lucca in northern Tuscany 18 years ago because the price—$61,000—was right and the location is central to many of the things that interest us.
We are surrounded by the gorgeous mountains of the Apuan Alps. Lucca, one of the loveliest towns in Italy is nearby, the Tuscan and Ligurian coasts are about an hour away, and Florence is an easy day trip. Pisa airport is nearby and gives us easy access to other European countries and the Italian fast trains can whisk us off to all areas of Italy.
We originally bought an apartment that needed no renovation because we knew nothing about how things worked in Italy. Later, when we were more familiar with doing business we bought a ruin, pulled it down and built Casa Debbio, our beautiful, three-level, stone house in a national park outside Vergemoli, an ancient village in the Garfagnana, a rugged, mountainous area near Lucca.
We were lucky with the tradespeople we chose to build the house. The builder was young and happy to include us in decisions along the way and always ready to do his best for us. Our geometra (a cross between architect, draftsman, and go-between with the area’s administrative division, the commune) was an ex-mayor of the village, so he knew which buttons to press.
It can’t have been easy to build the house but the workmen loved our site. It faces south so they had sunshine all day. We had no electricity until 18 months into the build. It had to be brought across a valley. All of the construction was done with the help of a Bobcat that became a cement mixer or a forklift and much more. I wish I had been there when the huge chestnut beams were lifted into place on the roof.
Eight years on, the house covers its yearly costs with summer rentals. Each year is getting better and all of our guests have loved the house. They are delighted by the glorious setting and the magnificent views over the surrounding mountains and villages and thrilled by our garden.
The solitude, the views, the ancient walking tracks in the area, and the dozens of authentic Italian mountain villages to explore add to the allure.
Last year, despite Covid, was an excellent year for us. We had a long-term guest who stayed for four months over three visits, as well as multiple Italian families on staycation.
The garden, started from scratch, is flourishing with the help of our fabulous gardener, Filippo. When we asked friends for help to find someone to work with us in the garden everyone suggested Filippo. He lives in the village and has become an indispensable part of our lives here. I love to walk along the lavender lined paths with him to see how everything has progressed under his watch.
We have extended the garden each year. Recently, we have cleared some acacia and brambles and have planted another 50 fruit trees. The lavender is thriving and our peonies grow more flowers each spring—we now have almost 100 of them. The garden is maturing very well.
During quarantine last year, I was able to get lots of work done in the garden. We have put in a water storage tank and upgraded the irrigation system, with more work to be done in autumn or next spring.
We have been incredibly lucky with the people we have met on our Italian adventure. We have been welcomed warmly and included in all local festivities. It is wonderful to feel part of a community.
Of course, there are difficulties involved with owning property in Italy. Official business can be a bureaucratic nightmare. If you don’t learn to deal with this calmly and quietly you might as well just go home. My suggestion would be to learn as much Italian as possible, make friends with as many locals as you possibly can—and try to stay away from post offices!
Buying property in Italy is still the best thing we have ever done. A whole other world has opened up for us. We spend six months in Italy and six months back home each year and love our life in both places.