“It was an invasion — but a positive one!”
That’s how Giuseppe Cacioppo, deputy mayor of Sambuca, Sicily, described the sale of his town’s abandoned homes to foreign buyers, the auctions of which started at just one euro ($1.12).
Sambuca succeeded in selling off 16 historic but derelict stone homes to buyers from the United States, China, France, Britain, Russia, and Argentina.
It is one of many towns in rural Italy to trial selling homes for just $1 in a last-ditch bid to save rural settlements that have been slowly decimated by urbanization while cities and their suburbs thrive and become overpopulated.
It sounds too good to be true, and there is, of course, always a catch. The properties for sale are almost always in a dilapidated condition, and towns stipulate that buyers must commit to spending thousands of dollars in restoration and renovation to make them habitable again. Some towns even stipulate that you must work there or bring your family in order to purchase a home.
In Sambuca’s case, for example, buyers must agree to spend at least 15,000 euros ($16,700) on renovations, and hand over a 5,000 euro ($5,600) security deposit, which is refunded as long as the conditions of the purchase are met.
Despite all of that, foreigners have flocked to Italy’s ghost towns in search of a bargain — particularly those that have received widespread media coverage.
But who exactly are these people willing to throw caution to the wind and invest in properties they may not have even seen, in areas they know nothing about, with no idea of the town’s prospects?
I traveled to Sicily, where a number of the towns trialling the one euro scheme are concentrated, to see them for myself, speak to the people buying the houses, and the town mayors and councillors behind them.
‘We agreed in the end that yes, it was crazy and yes, we wanted to do it’
I spent the majority of my time in Sambuca di Sicilia, a small town in the center of Sicily that — it’s fair to say — has received the widest media coverage of any towns trialling a one euro home scheme.
After CNN Travel wrote about the town in January, the mayor’s office was flooded with emails from prospective buyers.
“I’d never dreamed the story of Sambuca would have become this big,” Sambuca’s mayor Leonardo Ciaccio told me.
“But thanks to this news coverage about what was happening in Sambuca and the region, everyone took notice of it and it just exploded.”
None of the homes actually sold for a euro. In May, the homes were sold in a blind auction where bids started at one euro, and the 16 houses owned by the municipality ended up selling for prices between €1,000 ($1,100) and €25,000 ($27,600).
But that was just the beginning. What about the people who fell in love with Sambuca, but lost out at auction? What of those for whom a major renovation project was not on their agenda?
I guess we can blame the Facebook algorithm.
On top of the 16 owned by local government, a further 50 properties were sold on the private market, raking in more than a million euros ($1.1 million) in investments — and that figure has undoubtedly continued to rise in the months since.
“We’re in our late sixties and we didn’t want to take on a project of undefined dimensions,” Deborah Cavin from Austin, Texas told me.
Deborah and her husband Guyle bought a house from a private buyer for €50,000 ($55,000) after tacking a visit to Sicily onto the end of a trip to London.
They, like many others, heard about Sambuca via CNN’s coverage, and once they started looking, Sambuca became inescapable.
“I guess we can blame the Facebook algorithm,” Deborah said.
The Cavins were shown around several homes that were part of the one euro scheme, but none were quite right for the couple who wanted enough space for their family to come visit but also wanted to remain in the town’s historic Arab quarter.
Then, on the morning of their flight, their guide asked if they wanted to see one last home before they left.
“We thought, ‘Well okay, one more,’ and of course that was the perfect house for us,” Deborah said.
“We agreed in the end that yes, it was crazy and yes, we wanted to do it.”
Gary and Tamara Holm from California were also happy to have ultimately missed out on the houses at auction, though not by choice.
“We picked one and we bid 5,050 euros [$5,580] on it,” Gary told me. The house ended up going for 10,000 euros [$11,040] — a price that Gary thought was ‘way too much.’
“When it was a euro — absolutely. But when it became kind of a blind auction, it made it a little more challenging to get what the investment should be,” Tamara explained.
Gary and Tamara eventually paid 19,000 euros ($21,000) for their home, which they bought from a private seller with help from the deputy mayor, Cacioppo.
“We like spending a little more upfront to have it a little less unknown,” Gary said.
Nevertheless, the pair acknowledged that the case uno euro had been a great introduction to the small town: “If I hadn’t heard about it through that, I would’ve never found Sambuca and then flown out there and then realized that there was so much opportunity there,” Tamara said.
“As an advertisement for the city: brilliant.”
Not all the buyers had flown in from halfway across the world. For Marie Ohanesian Nardin, Sambuca was a little closer to home.
Nardin was originally from Los Angeles, but has been living in Italy for more than 30 years since marrying a third generation gondolier from Venice.
Nardin told me that when she began expressing interest in Sambuca, none of her Italian friends had even heard of it because CNN had taken a much larger interest in the project than local press.
However, word didn’t take long to spread — when Nardin’s husband was at the bank picking up a cashier’s check for the deposit on their new home, the bank teller asked for the number of their architect.
“I think Sambuca stands out because it got such international attention,” Nardin said.
Nardin, too, opted to buy property in Sambuca from a private seller, saying only that she paid “a little more than what the highest bids were” on the auctioned homes.
$1 won’t get you a house that’s ready to move into
Now for the reality of the situation — if a home for $1 sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Most of the properties involved in these schemes have been abandoned for decades. After an earthquake in 1968 killed more than 200 people, many residents in southern Sicily simply cashed in on their insurance and built new, modern homes just down the road.
This means that the homes are derelict and, in some cases, full of junk and graffiti.
“I mean there were a couple of them that weren’t even structured,” Tamara, who had looked around Sambuca’s one euro properties herself, told me.
Likewise, Nardin said: “What I was most impressed with was how much work would have been involved in cleaning them out.
I mean, it’s not the greatest place, obviously, but it’s 1,000 euros.
“And who knows what is in there. I don’t know if there are toxic materials in there. You have to deal with that kind of thing.”
Frankly, they’re $1 for a reason — but that doesn’t mean they’re not a good investment.
Gillian Payne from Scotland and her husband Danny were one of the few people who actually managed to get a house in Sambuca’s auction — and they ended up paying a mere 1,000 euros for their property.
“I mean it’s not the greatest place, obviously, but it’s €1,000,” Payne told me. “I came to the conclusion that it was a bargain.”
Payne — who buys, renovates, and resells properties for a living back in the UK — said that her reaction was probably quite different to the other foreigners who had been led around the one euro homes.
“I’m looking at it going, ‘oh my goodness, this isn’t so bad,'” she said.
“I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest, with the size of the rooms, and the amount of rooms as well.
“I think we really have got a complete bargain, we’re really lucky.”
It comes down to whether you, like the Paynes, are willing to take a risk. The people I spoke to primarily purchased through private owners not because they missed out on the one euro properties, but because they wanted more control over their purchase. They wanted more space, less work, or a place in the old quarter next to the nice restaurant.
If you’re willing to accept that the perfect home doesn’t exist, then the one euro homes still seem like the best investment.
‘Now I’m a little bit Sicilian, a little bit Mussomelian’
In Mussomeli, which is also offering homes for a euro, Bert Vanbellingen is one of the many Belgians repopulating the Sicilian town.
Mussomeli, a town of Sicilian foundation, Arabic heritage, and, now, Belgian émigrés.
The place was flooded with interest from Belgians after the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws began covering it.
Shortly after, low-cost carrier Ryanair recently announced a new route from Brussels to Catania, Sicily’s second city.
Vanbellingen was so entranced by Mussomeli, that he bought more homes than he knew what to do with.
“[We bought] one house for me and my wife,” he said.
“And after we have an apartment I built for the children. And a third house … We don’t know what to do with it yet.”
Vanbellingen admitted that he’d also paid more than one euro for the properties, but hastened to add that “if you compare it with England or Belgium, very cheap. Very cheap.”
It’s not all plain sailing for Mussomeli’s new demographic, though — I was told that certain local papers had launched something of a campaign against them after one exceedingly drunk Belgian had been arrested.
That’s why Vanbellingen took extra measures to make sure he and his family were perceived as a blessing, not a nuisance to Mussomelian society.
Shortly before I’d arrived, the Belgian had put on a party for the town’s youngsters, complete with a bouncy castle and fun-filled activities. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t have a good word to say about him.
“You have to integrate. The town belongs to them,” Vanbellingen told me.
“And yeah, now I’m a little bit Sicilian, a little bit Mussomelian.”
Italy’s rural towns are stunning to behold — there’s just no one there to enjoy them
It’s not just Vanbellingen who’s settling into local life. Many of the people I spoke to cited their town’s rustic charm as one of the most significant factors in their decision to invest.
“It is lovely. There’s a peace about the town,” Nardin said.
“It looks like a Disney movie,” Tamara said; “like ‘Pinocchio.'”
Indeed, Sambuca was nominated in the 2016 Italy’s Most Beautiful Towns contest, and it’s hard to argue with the new residents when taking in the views from the Terrazzo Belvedere, which you’ll most likely have entirely to yourself.
While the town may be stunning, it is unassailably quiet. I ate at one of the town’s few restaurants upon my arrival, and despite the stunning sunset view and incredibly good value of the menu, the place was practically empty.
When I visited, many of what few restaurants and cafes Sambuca had to offer simply weren’t open, and the nearest supermarket was a short drive away.
Another day I visited the town’s museum, which they had to open up especially for me.
Take all this into account and you can forget about a gym, a spa, a golf course, or any of the other leisure facilities one might expect on vacation.
“I think the city has a lot of potential and I hope that the younger people stay or come back and open up more and more vegetable shops and restaurants and that kind of thing,” Nardin said.
“Because if you’ve spent a few nights here, you’ll know there’s not a whole lot of choices for restaurants.”
Cavin agreed: “I would say that in terms of bars and cafes and stuff there’s not a huge selection.”
That’s one of the reasons Vanbellingen decided on Mussomeli for his investment: “Sambuca, like Aquaviva, is very quiet. We like to be at rest, but Mussomeli is a town. It lives.
“There are supermarkets, there is everything. There are people here on the streets,” he added.
“That’s the difference between Mussomeli and Sambuca.”
The new Sambucans are hopeful, though. “I met a young woman who’s already starting to work on her English because she wants to be able to do walking tours and that kind of thing,” Nardin said.
“There is a sense of competition that I got in getting involved in who is and who isn’t selling.”
Indeed, the mayor confirmed to me himself that Sambucans had been learning English in preparation for their new visitors: “They [Sambucans] had to adapt a little because English isn’t spoken well here — so there was a need to train people to be able to successfully communicate with this group of people,” he said.
I was shown around my B&B by the owner and his teenage daughter who translated for him since she was learning English in school. For young Sambucans, do these newcomers finally provide a reason to stay in their homeland?
Bargain or not — it’s the people that make the investment worth it
Of all the people I spoke to, one factor in their decision to invest in a home came up time and time again.
“I worked with the local people. Great people with big hearts,” Vanbellingen told me.
“We laugh, we make pleasure, we fiesta, we eat together, we drink together. That’s Mussomeli.”
“The people were I think more than any other single element […] the difference to us getting serious about buying a place there,” Cavin similarly said of Sambuca.
“Everybody to whom we’ve been introduced […] has been so seemingly pleased that someone from America has taken an interest in their town. And of course, that’s just so, so friendly and so charming,” she added.
Tamara too said it was the people that made her “turn around and come back.”
“I don’t speak great Italian and I didn’t know anyone and I showed up and I made friends,” she said, “Day one. It was crazy.”
Cacioppo is confident that this is a turning point in Sambuca’s history.
“It’s a revolution for us,” he said.
“In the six months, maybe 60 families have arrived from different countries to buy houses in Sambuca.
“Around 2,000 tourists have come too […] They stay in Sambuca, eat in the restaurants, buy the wine, stay in the B&Bs. For the economy, it’s the future of Sambuca.”
Based on the way its new residents talk about the potential of the town and its charming people, it’s hard not to agree with him.