Becoming A Home Owner In Florence

by Maria Loscerbo

(FMs4Ms Newsletter Volume 4  Spring Issue 11, May 2007 Newsletter)

Searching for a home to buy is a daunting task, try adding in a foreign country with different terminology, customs and market demands. It is not only nerve racking but you quickly learn that it is quite a jungle out there! However, there is no need to be discouraged. I was once in your shoes and recently my husband and I bought a place. For years my husband and I would go through phases of looking for places, then get discouraged and think of excuses….good excuses mind you..but all the same excuses like – “we can’t afford it”, “now is not the right time”, “house prices will eventually go down” (something I hate to tell you – but in the 15 years that I’ve been here they have never gone done…stabilized yes..but actually decreased – no!) After 15 years
of sacrifice, perseverance and a good dose of luck we finally found a place. It isn’t our dream home but it is a good starter home where we can see ourselves living for the next few years. What really pushed us was my mother and the fact that we were paying
900.00 euros rent per month and getting nothing out of it. A furnished home that wasn’t to our taste, where we couldn’t touch anything because the owner didn’t want us to get rid of any of her “precious” furniture and decorated to a bare minimum because the owner didn’t want us to alter anything! We finally decided that we couldn’t afford NOT to buy a house.

We sort of did things backwards (which considering my husband’s and my history wasn’t anything new….but that’s a whole other article). We started looking for homes without even checking to see if we could get a mortgage….something that I don’t suggest. Pre-approved mortgages do exist here and I strongly suggest doing it. My mother came out for two months last summer with my dad and she started pushing us to actually go out and search for a place. She said that she was interested in looking at what you could get out here in terms of homes and for what prices. Premise: my mother loves looking at show homes and building new houses. She can spend entire weekends going to open houses getting building ideas, decorating ideas etc… so you can imagine the HUGE SHOCK she had when she found out the prices here and what you actually got. (I come from Winnipeg, Canada where a mansion that you might find in Fiesole for 1,000,000.00 euro costs 300,000.00 dollars Canadian!!!) However, once she got over the initial shock and started understanding the market out here she found it somewhat of a game and actually got me caught up in it. We were two women on the hunt and nothing was going to stop us!!

Believe me, it wasn’t all fun and games. There were times I just wanted to give up, tell-off every real estate agent I talked to and throw half the owners off their balconies for the bull they were telling me; but she was behind me pushing me to go with her to see stuff even when I was fed up. In two months we saw a total of 7 building plans and 48 homes. The second last place I saw was the one that we ended up buying.

During this whole experience I learnt a lot of things which I’d like to pass on to you in the hope that if you are interested in buying a place, it can help you understand things a little better and help you save time, stress, energy,  misunderstandings, “brutte figure” and most importantly your hard earned money.

Real Estate Agents
To sum them all up, they are a bunch of professional crooks….actually most of them aren’t even professional. They are the ruin of the real estate market here in Italy. Believe me, they will do anything and say anything to sell and unfortunately there are quite a few of them out there (especially the older agents) that think we are “stupide americane” with lots o f money and as long as we see half of a terrracotta tile from the roof of the duomo from one of the windows of our apartment we’ ll buy anything!! Well, I had a thing or two to say to more than one of them. I found that being curt and to the point at the risk of being rude was the only way that I was respected and oddly enough, it seemed the ruder I became the closer I got to what I was looking for.

There are so many “makeshift” type agents out there that were less informed than I was. For example, did you know that if an agent shows you a home, by law they must have you sign a sheet stating that they showed you the home and that you can’t go back with another agent to see the place or buy it privately? Out of the 48 homes that I saw, only one agency, “Professione Casa” gave me this form to sign …which brings me to the following conclusion. If you can do without an agent….DO IT!!! Save yourself the 3% commission they ask for which by the way, most people actually pay 2% – 2.5%…. so make sure that if you are dealing with an agent you also BARTER THEIR COMMISSION!! They don’t deserve half of what they get, compared to how much real estate agents bust their booties in Canada to get a sale. Don’t expect to be picked up and taken to see a home….I was even asked once to pick up one of the agents at the agency and bring him with MY CAR to see the house he was selling!!!!!! They never ceased to amaze me.

Did you know that they don’t have an actual real estate network out here? Basically, a home owner can go to as many agencies as he/she wants to sell his/her home and it’s not like each one gets a cut if it is sold. It’s total cut throat. So you might look in a magazine like La Pulce or Panorama Casa and see the same home listed four times with four different agencies and in many cases different prices!!!!! I saw the same home listed in the paper under three different agencies with a price difference between 5,000.00 and 10,000.00 euro. One of the agencies actually wrote down “exclusiva” meaning that they were the only agency that had this property and then to top it all off, the same property was listed in the paper by the actual owner as “vendita privata” at a different price than the agencies!!! So not only did the owner have three different agencies cut-throating each other to sell his property but he was even cut-throating the agents!!! …”alla faccia” … So much for exclusive real estate contracts between owners  and agencies …..that kind of stuff doesn’t exist here. Actually,that isn’t true, the laws all exist here as they do in America but in the true Italian style – no one follows them!

Believe it or not, a lot of agents have never even seen the homes they are selling. So don’t be surprised if they can’t give you very much information over the phone. Don’t let that stop you from asking as many questions as you can. I started by having a general idea of what I wanted a “quattro vani minimum 85 mq con posto auto e balcone o possibilmente giardino”. I began with a price range that I saw the average quattro vani went for which in the summertime 2006 was 280,000.00 euro to 320,000.00 (not that we could afford either price) just to see what you could get in that price range. One thing to remember is that EVERYTHING IS “TRATTABILE”. Don’t go by what the agents say as the owners lowest possible acceptance price. They are also working to get the highest commission possible. Go AT LEAST 20,000.00 euro less and don’t budge! If the owner is desperate enough to sell he’ll accept. Houses do not sell here as fast as they do in North America. Homes are known to be on the market here for years. Many, only because most of these home owners are just testing the market and if they get the price they want they will sell. (as I am sure you have noticed many Florentines own more than one home that has been carried over throughout the generations). But there are those that need to sell because of a divorce, moving for work, heredity taxes and if you keep on looking you will eventually find these cases. Ask the agent why they want to sell so you see how much bargaining power you have. We ended up getting our place 40,000.00 euro less than the asking price! She needed to sell and we offered in August which by the way, is the best time to make offers if you are serious about it. By that time, people psychologically just want to close a deal and you have more bargaining power. Call your price and don’t budge!

Areas in and around Florence
If you aren’t exactly clear about what you are looking for then I suggest to look at as many different apartments as you can to give you an idea of what you want and don’t want. It helps you eventually get more specific in your search. I’ve been living in Florence for about 15 years so I had a pretty good idea of the different areas and that saved me some time. Throughout the years of looking at homes with my husband during our “home searching spurts” I saw what you could get in the various areas of the city and outside the city (every zone in this city has a different price range) The Center, Bagno a Ripoli, Fiesole, Cure, Campo di Marte and
Bolognese are areas highly requested and very very expensive. You can get more affordable prices in Campi Bisenzio, Signa, Soffiano, Isolotto and Novoli (although this area is starting to go up because of the University and Tribunale being moved out there) If you are looking out of town (1/2 hour to 45 min.) check out Figline Valdarno, Reggello, San Giovanni Valdarno where you can get American type homes (villette) with garden and garage or (Terratetti) Town houses for very cheap compared to Florence. Also past San Donato in the area of Bagno a Ripoli and in and around the towns of Pontasseive and Ruffina. If you feel up to doing some major renovations, in the area of Empoli, Vinci and Montespertoli there are a lot of old run down and abandoned coloniche with a lot of potential with lots of acres of land and at very affordable prices. Prato and especially Pistoia are also quite reasonable.

As much as I was very tempted to move out of the city once I saw what you could get, my husband and I decided that moving outside the city was not an option for us. Two years ago we bought a business in the historical center of Florence so when we calculated gas, parking, autostrada and the stress of traffic getting in and out of the city, we figured we would be spending more than buying a more expensive home in the city. But that was for us. If being right in Florence isn’t so important for you, moving 45 min. out of town may be a very convenient option and much more suitable to the “american life-style” as far as home -living comforts.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Once you have looked at homes you like and dislike (probably mostly dislike than like) and have a general idea of the area you are interested in start getting VERY SPECIFIC about what you want. This will save you loads of time.  If the agents don’t have the answers, tell them to find out and call you back.

These were the 10 top questions that I asked that were important to me before looking at a place and in some cases I’ve noted the reasons why.

1) What is the setup of the house. How many square meters? In what setting (large or small apartment building, terratetto, villetta)

2) Does it have an actual kitchen (cucina abitabile) or cucinotto?

3) Does it have a cantina or soffitta or rispostiglo? There is never enough space in a house and I find that especially now with a child so much stuff just piles up and I have no place to put it.

4) Is it semi-interrato? These are homes that are basically basement homes or walkouts. They usually are a lot cheaper to buy – but for a reason. Most of these homes suffer terribly from humidity and you don’t want to be living in a mold infested home. They may look really cute but be sure you get it checked out by a geometra or architect before considering buying. They are cheap for a reason.

5) Are there any balconies? This may not be very important for some people but if you don’t have a laundry room or a dryer you’ll find that the balcony is the best place to ha ng your clothes otherwise you’re stuck with your house constantly looking like a gypsy camp. If the balcony has been closed off by a window ask if it has been “condonnato” which means that the city gave them the o.k. to close it and it follows building regulations. There are quite a few homes out there that have balconies with windows that were put up without the proper regulation and it can be a big problem when you come into possession of it.

6) Is there a parking spot or garage? It may not seem so important in the beginning but believe me it becomes a huge issue once you are dealing with groceries, stroller, children…

7) If it is past the second floor does it have an elevator and/or is the entrance big enough to leave a stroller. Once again, when your young and childless these sorts of things aren’t important but try it with a child and the daily trials and tribulations of living.

8) If the apartment is on the main floor be sure to check where the bedroom windows are facing (bedrooms should be in the back and not in the front where the sound of motorini and cars honking and the fumes coming from traffic can be a major issue) Also and most importantly if there is a garden – where is the pozzo nero? This is the sewer/septic tank of the entire building. Florence does not have a sewer system throughout the city so most buildings have an individual septic tank that gets drained once a year or once every two years depending on the size of the building and the amount of people living there. More often than not, the truck that comes to drain/clean the septic tank has to go through the main floor apartment with a hose to get to the garden where the septic tank is…..absolutely disgusting!! Not only that, back ups of the septic tank have been known to take place which means that it backs up into the garden where your children’s toys are and where you may have planted your veggies etc…..YUK!!! I mean I am all for organic but that is getting a little out of hand! I saw a lot of homes with gardens and over fifty percent of them had the septic tank right in the garden which just turned me off. Between possible back ups, the stench that comes out of it when it rains and the truck hose going through my house to drain my neighbours’ excrements and the lingering smell for the next two weeks I opted to get a place with a balcony and live close to a park! Another thing to keep in mind when getting a main floor apartment are possible mice and if you are in the center cockroaches!

9) What year was the building built and are the “impianti a norme”? This is super important. There are the pros and cons to having a building from the 1400-1800 and a building built in the 1960’s to now. Again this all depends on what you a re looking for and what is more important to you.

1400 – 1800 you’ll have larger apartments with a lot of nooks and crannies, high ceilings and often travi a vista and maybe even some frescoes, terra-cotta floors and a fireplace. If you are very lucky the apartment may be renovated and the “impianti sono a norme” which means that the electricity, gas, plumbing and water boiler follow the modern lawful standards. If not (which is most likely) you could spend from 40,000.00 – 80,000.00 euro at least to get them all up to standard, so add that on to your bill and if it is an historical building make the sign of the cross and hope to God they don’t find anything of artistic value in there (like a whitewashed fresco). If they do, you could be waiting up to a year before any work can even begin because it has to go through the “belle d’arte” to get their approval of what you can and cannot do. So not only have you spent your life earnings to buy this place but you are also told what you can and cannot do to it! Usually these buildings don’t have elevators and the stairwell is quite narrow (unless it is late 1800)

Buildings from the 1960’s to 1970’s range from small homes to larger homes, lower ceilings 2.70 to 3 meters high, most have an elevator and are large apartment buildings that were originally built as “case popolare”. If you are lucky enough to have them renovated and everything “a norme” t hey can be a comfortable option. The down side is you are living in the huge apartment building that doesn’t have much character and in most cases you can hear what your neighbors are saying and doing…but that you’ll find in just about any large apartment setting. The most important thing to ask here besides the “impianti” being “a norme” is the state of the “facciata” (the state of the outside of the building) and the tetto (the roof). If they are not in good condition (plaster chipping off etc…) find out if there has been a “delibera” to get the works done and if not when they think it might be done. When you live in these buildings everyone pays for these renovations and depending on the size and the condition of the building and it can be very expensive. If there has been a delibera which means that the people in the building have discussed the works and are in the process of having it done or plan to have it done in the near future the cost incurs on the actual owner and not on the future owner. This is written by law and must be followed but have everything in writing anyway.

Buildings built in the last few years are in general smaller in size but have the convenience of having all the “Impianti” up to standard. Because of the new building code these buildings should have parking. Many have air conditioning or at least the place has been set up with the proper tubing to put one in. The biggest problem that I found with these buildings is how they have been designed. I saw quite a few of the plans for these homes (many were in the process of being built) and they just were not thought out well. It’s like these architects went brain dead when they were designing the place! Many had nice large Terrazze but…. off the bedrooms which made absolutely no sense. If you wanted to use your Terrazza a lot in the summer for hosting parties or dinners everyone would have to go through your bedroom to get to it, not to mention the food having to go through. Many didn’t have closets (ripostigli) which are so important. Many had two bathrooms but they were ridiculously small and had those stupid hole in the floor type of showers where not only do you get wet but the entire bathroom! (What were they thinking?) And for the prices that they were asking for these new homes, you’d think some of these basic needs would be met!! It could be that I was unlucky when looking at the newer homes but this is what I personally encountered here in Florence. Of coarse the new villette and townhouses going up in Valdarno were a whole other story. Very well designed with all the amenities that one could desire.

10) How much is the condominio and what does it cover? Is there a termo singolo or condominiale? Another thing to ask for is the monthly cost of the condominio. This usually includes cleaning stairs and heating (if it is centralized) and in some cases the doorman and water. Some condomini are very very costly. You shouldn’t be paying more than 100,00 – 120,00 euro per month for the average building that covers cleaning stairs and heat.

Single heat or centralized heat….Which one is better? Hard to say. From my own experience the termosingolo is handy in that you are in charge of when you want to turn it on or off. Whereas, in the centralized heat you are at the mercy of when the law states that it must be turned on or off (there are set dates for this) and/or the set hours of the apartment building – meaning that if it gets colder before the set date that it is to be turned on you could be living in a very very cold apartment.

For the last 11 years we’ve been living in a termosingolo apartment. I am not miserly about using the heater. Once it is cold it is on 24/7 at a moderate heat. When we first moved in our rented apartment I would crank it up when we were home and turn it off when we weren’t but I found in the end I was actually spending more. Keeping it on at a moderate heat keeps the house constantly warm and is actually cheaper. This all said and done however means that we pay on an average about 2,200.00 euro a year for single heater and condomino fees (cleaning the stairs). In the place that we bought condominium fees are 113,00 euro a month including central heat and cleaning of the stairs. Comparing both, in the end it looks like the central heat is a lot cheaper. In our case we will be saving an average of 840,00 euro a year!! Again, this is our situation and it may be very different for others. We plan on putting in air conditioning in the house we just bought in which case we opted to have a “split”. This is a unit that is an air conditioner and it also has the option of blowing hot air. So that way, if it does get colder before the date that the condomio turns on the heat we have the option of using the hot air if we want.

I hope that this may help you in the search for your house. If there is anyone else who would like to share their experience
comment below.  If you have any questions about real estate (some terminology you might not fully understand) feel free to write me and I’ll see if I can answer.

4 responses to “Becoming A Home Owner In Florence”

  1. Thank you so much for this very helpful and insightful article. We have to start looking for a house soon and I am going to save this and reread it when we do. The time you took to write this is much appreciated!!

  2. Something I would like to add on condominio is: make sure with the amministratore that all previous bills have been paid, because once you’ve bought the house they become your responsibility.
    Other thing that many don’t know if you get a place from someone that owns a business. Within 10 years if he goes bankrupt you may loose your house to creditors that come before you in the credit queue.
    Specially true with cooperative that are selling houses in construction.
    And never trust deadlines from cooperative. The house could well be ready after 1 or 2 years of what they promise.

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