US couple transforms abandoned Italian house into dream home with an elevator (2022)

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(CNN) — Buyers from all around the world have been snapping up dilapidated Italian homes at rock bottom prices over the past few years as numerous depopulated towns and villages attempt to revive their dwindling communities by offering property bargains.

While the prospect of substantial structural upgrades, along with the red tape often involved in purchasing a home in a foreign country, might be off-putting to some, others have jumped at the chance.

Of course, each buyer will have a different vision for their new renovation project. Some opt to keep things as simple as possible, focusing on making the house livable again, while keeping costs down.

And there are also those who decide to go all out.

Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer, the first to complete renovations on an abandoned home in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, fall into the latter category.

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Italian hideaway

US couple transforms abandoned Italian house into dream home with an elevator (1)

Massoud Ahmadi and Shelley Spencer bought an abandoned home in Italian town Sambuca di Sicilia back in 2019.

Silvia Marchetti

The couple, from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland, were among those who snapped up a historical dwelling in Sambuca, situated deep in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities put 16 abandoned homes up for auction with prices starting at a symbolic one euro -- roughly $1.


Ahmadi and Spencer were already interested in buying a property in Italy, and had been considering looking in the Sicilian region when they read about the scheme on CNN back in 2019.

"It was love at first sight," Spencer tells CNN. "Sambuca is very clean, with nice old stone pavements reminiscent of those in (the Washington, DC neighborhood) Georgetown and the street lights at night are very romantic."

They were thrilled when they learned that their €10,150 (around $10,372) bid for a 100-square-meter palazzo had been accepted, and quickly got to work on giving the property a dramatic face-lift.

Two years later, and well ahead of the three-year deadline implemented by local authorities, their Italian hideaway is complete.

Ahmadi and Spencer, who work in global development projects, spent around $250,000 transforming the dilapidated property into a lavish home, which they say looks "like a Renaissance house."

They plan to split their time between the US and Italy, spending around half of the year in their two-bedroom home, along with their daughter and grandchildren.

The renovated house features beautiful marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly an indoor elevator that the couple use to whiz up and down its three levels.

So what made them decide to have an elevator, complete with a security camera and phone, installed in the property?

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Elevator addition

US couple transforms abandoned Italian house into dream home with an elevator (2)

The couple had an indoor elevator fitted inside their 100-square meter palazzo.

Massoud Ahmadi

"We want to get older here, do yoga each day and sip coffee out on the terrace with a view of the misty lake," explains Spencer.

"So we thought it would be great to feel as comfortable as possible by bypassing all those narrow steps, and not having to go up and down four windy staircases several times per day."

(Video) AMAZING!!! SEE HOW USA Couple TRANSFORMS ABANDONED HOUSE Into Dream Home #abandoned #dreamhome #usa

While a quarter of a million dollars might seem like a hefty sum to spend on a project of this sort, they believe it's actually less than the amount they would've shelled out on something similar back in the US.

However, an indoor elevator is definitely not a typical fixture for homes in this tiny town, and its glamorous interior design has caused quite a stir with locals.

The couple say they've received visits from various residents keen to see the transformation of this once dilapidated house up close.

"Locals welcome us with cakes, and come to my house curious to see what we have done with the ruin," says Spencer, before revealing that they were recently gifted a "nice bottle of wine" at the local bar.

Aside from the elevator, the house features a relaxation area, a guest suite, a master bedroom and a living area with a modern open kitchen.

There are also several balconies, as well as a panoramic terrace that overlooks the hills and Arancio Lake, located near to the ruined Arab fort Fortino di Mazzallakkar.

Ahmadi and Spencer say they've already been given back the €5,000 (around $5,100) deposit they initially handed over as part of the purchase agreement, which stipulated that the renovation work be complete within three years.

Idyllic lifestyle

US couple transforms abandoned Italian house into dream home with an elevator (3)

They spent $250,000 on renovating the house, which features a living area with an open-plan kitchen.

Massoud Ahmadi

The pair are currently enjoying a rather idyllic summer in Sambuca. In the mornings, they take their elevator down to the ground floor to enjoy a morning cappuccino and pastry at the local bar. Then they go for a walk, before returning to the house for a day of remote working.

"It's a smarter home than the one we have in the US, with an alarm system and surveillance cameras," adds Spencer, explaining that they're able to manage the alarms and devices in their US property from Sambuca.

After buying their new home, they went on to purchase a 100-square-meter unused section of their neighbor's home for €5,000, which they've since renovated and connected to their property.

"We love the peacefulness in Sambuca," says Ahmadi. "Our street is very silent and we enjoy the town's slow pace lifestyle philosophy, symbolized by a snail sculpture in the main piazza."

While some travelers opt to use Sicily as a base to explore more of Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, the couple are focused on exploring the region.

They've already visited the town of Marsala in the Province of Trapani, and the salt pans of Trapani, and love taking long drives along the narrow rural roads in order to visit local food markets and try out different delicacies, including snails.

(Video) These people bought a 1 euro home and remodeled them in Sambuca of Sicily Italy

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New adventures

"In the US, highways are everywhere. But here there's no rush," says Massoud. "Slow travel allows us to indulge in the gorgeous views.

"To drive just nine kilometers, and go through the hills, it takes us almost two hours, but that's what makes the adventure so special."

Although they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short space of time, which is particularly impressive considering the various issues brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were some minor issues along the way.

Squeezing their furniture through the tight doors and windows of their 300-year-old palazzo proved to be one of the biggest challenges (the sofa went up in the elevator) and finding suitable furniture was also time-consuming.

"As Americans we have access to many stores in the States, where we can buy things of all kinds of prices," says Spencer.

"But finding fine furniture of good quality here in Sicily that you actually like might be a problem. You need to know where the right place is for top-notch traditional wooden pieces, antiques and secondhand stores. Also, some pieces are in catalogs but not available."

Although the structure of the building has been renovated, they decided to keep the original windows, along with the gold-colored ragged stone walls, majolica tiled floors and vaulted ceilings in order to preserve some of the historic elements of the home.

Massoud and Spencer also chose to keep some objects left behind by previous owners, which they discovered during their first visit, including a 1967 calendar that was still hanging on the walls.

Their home is one of several in the Saracen neighborhood that were abandoned after a catastrophic earthquake rocked Sicily's Belice Valley in 1968 and devastated the area.

The town hall was flooded with interest from hundreds of overseas buyers after offering up 16 of the homes in 2019, and went on to auction 10 more buildings in 2021, this time for a symbolic €2 each.

While some of those who participated in the second auction ended up buying their home unseen due to the Covid-19 related restrictions in place at the time, Massoud was able to fly to Italy with his brother in 2019 to view the property and check out the Sicilian town ahead of their bid.

"Accompanied by my husband I sent my brother-in-law ahead on an exploratory mission to see what the town was like," says Spencer.

"He's an engineer and said the foundations of the village and houses in Sambuca are very solid, despite the quake."

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Dramatic transformation

US couple transforms abandoned Italian house into dream home with an elevator (4)

It took the couple just two years to transform the dilapidated property into a lavish home.

Silvia Marchetti

Massoud says he is extremely grateful that both the sale and the renovation went so smoothly, explaining that the town hall assisted with the paperwork and legal issues, helping them overcome the language barrier.

While he points out that they had to apply for an Italian fiscal code, or social security number, and open a bank account in the country before buying the house, which meant the process wasn't entirely "painless," he's happy with how things went overall.

"In the US, I have to deal with the sub-contractors myself, but in Sambuca it was a lot easier," says Massoud, who oversaw all of the work, along with the architect.

"I was lucky to find a good architect and I contributed to the electric work, designing the location of the lighting fixtures."

The couple were impressed by the quality of the work by local tradesmen and builders, saying they found it to be far superior than anything they've encountered in the US.

"Italian artisans are incredible," says Spencer. "How they transformed this space into something new is amazing. It was a shell, now it looks like a Renaissance house."

However, the final bill came as something of a shock to them, as they hadn't realized that a 10% VAT would be added to the building costs.

Before embarking on their Italian home renovation, Massoud and Spencer were often cautioned about the risks involved with buying and improving a large house overseas.

But they say they had every confidence in the Sambuca housing scheme, which is aimed at supporting local economic development, and are thrilled with the end result.

"I could pinch myself," says Spencer. "We were really lucky. I could be telling you a lot of nightmares but I'm not, because it all worked out rather well. Way better than it would have in a small town in the States."


What style is Italian house? ›

The Italian Villa style is typically asymmetrical while the Italianate style emphasizes symmetry. Italian Villa have towers and are free-standing. Italianate buildings lack towers, and while they are often free-standing, the style was popular for urban row houses in cities such as San Francisco and New York.

Is buying property in Italy a good idea? ›

Purchasing property in Italy is a good investment for a number of reasons. Firstly, Italy's transaction costs are lower compared to other European countries such as Spain or Portugal. Currently, the interest rate on properties is still at historic lows, which makes purchasing a property a very good investment.

How can an American buy a house in Italy? ›

To purchase a holiday home in Italy American citizens only need two documents: their passport and an Italian tax code (Codice fiscale, which is usually provided by the real estate agency who completes the purchase). Purchasing a holiday home means that American citizens may spend 90 days in Italy with a visitor visa.

What is a small Italian home called? ›

Trulli were farmers' residences, small, humble, yet entirely functional. Today, they are often rented during the summer or weekends.

What are old Italian houses called? ›

Houses fall into three basic categories: the Villas, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate. Villas were meant to evoke the farmhouses and manors of the Italian countryside. Most often used for public buildings and in urban settings, the more formal Renaissance Revival style is restrained and symmetrical.

Why do Italian homes have 2 kitchens? ›

Why do Italians have two kitchens? - YouTube

How long can you stay in Italy if you own a property? ›

The residency permit allows you to stay in Italy for a period of time which ranges from 2 to 5 years, and which generally allows you to travel to other Schengen countries for up to 3 months every 6 months.

Can you buy a house in Italy without being a citizen? ›

There are no restrictions for foreigners who want to buy properties in Italy. However, the Italian authorities have the power of making some verifications of criminal records and other aspects.

How long can US citizens live in Italy? ›

Americans who intend to stay in Italy for less than 90 days don't need to worry about visas. However, if you plan to go for an extended period, you'll have to apply for a long-stay visa. This is a crucial step because you can't apply for an Italian residence permit without this long-stay visa.

Is it expensive to live in Italy for an American? ›

Is it expensive to live in Italy? Italy is one of the cheapest countries to live in. In fact, Italy is the 4th cheapest country in Western Europe.

Can a US citizen by property in Italy? ›

Yes. It is possible for American citizens to purchase real estate and buy property in Italy but with some conditions. Although not all non-EU residents can acquire property in Italy, it is perfectly legal for Americans to do it on the ground of a reciprocity treaty that Italy has with the United States.

Why are Italian houses so close together? ›

Italian houses are often built tall and close together with trees and breezeways. Doing so keeps the village cooler during summer months.

What does trullo mean in Italian? ›

The Italian term trullo (from the Greek word τρούλος, cupola) refers to a house whose internal space is covered by a dry stone corbelled or keystone vault.

What is an Italian patio called? ›

A loggia is the Italian word for a typical American porch. It's a sheltered outdoor space that's attached to the main residence. It can be enclosed on some or all of its sides, too.

What makes a house a Queen Anne? ›

Queen Anne buildings almost always have a steep roof with cross gables or large dormers, an asymmetrical front façade, and an expansive porch with decorative wood trim. A round or polygonal front corner tower with a conical roof is a distinctive Queen Anne feature on many buildings of this style.

Why is it called Italianate? ›

Though the Italianate style originated in Great Britain, the style gets its name from its references to Italian renaissance designs. During the Industrial Revolution, British architects mass-produced cast-iron ornamentation to pay homage to the quaint, opulent homes of the Italian countryside.

What are large Italian houses called? ›

A villa is a type of house that was originally an ancient Roman upper class country house. Since its origins in the Roman villa, the idea and function of a villa have evolved considerably.

Do Italians cook in the basement? ›

Many Italian North Americans have two kitchens in their homes: one on the first floor, and a second in the basement. While this set-up is pervasive in cities across North America, homes with two kitchens are uncommon in Italy.

Why do old houses have kitchens in the basement? ›

Old houses often had a less-than-spacious kitchen and an overwhelmingly large pantry to accommodate the household's staff. Called the butler's pantry, it was a place to store food, dishes, silverware and more. The kitchen is the heart of the home.

Why do people have basement kitchens? ›

A basement kitchen can be used for entertaining a large number of people especially during special occasions. You can cook in the space as you entertain without the need of having to run up and down the stairs to get something from the main kitchen.

How much money do I need to retire in Italy? ›

You will also have to provide proof of sufficient retirement funds with which you can support yourself. More specifically, these annual income requirements are €31,160 (about $32,000 as of the time of writing) for individuals and €38,000 (about $39,000 as of the time of writing) for married couples.

Are property prices falling in Italy? ›

According to the EU's statistical service Eurostat, since 2010 prices of houses for sale in Italy have decreased by 12%, in contrast with the rest of the European Union where on the average they increased by 39% compared to the third quarter of 2021.

How much money do you need to move to Italy? ›

Of course, there is everything in between, and desirable medium-sized towns often offer comfortable apartments from about $65,000 to $125,000.
Here's a sample of regular monthly expenses for two people and some prices on staple items:
ExpenseU.S. $
Rent (two bedroom apartment)$650
8 more rows

How much is property tax in Italy? ›

Property tax ranges from 0.4% to 0.7% of fiscal value, depending on location and property type. There is no wealth tax in Italy. Individuals are exempt of capital gains tax five years after the purchase. If the property is sold within five years capital gains are taxed at 20%.

Can an American get a mortgage in Italy? ›

The answer is YES! Non-Italian residents are legally entitled to obtain mortgages to buy a property in Italy.

How can an American retire in Italy? ›

Those who want to retire to Italy can obtain long-term residence visas which enable them to live there for more than 90 days, however, just like an ordinary residence permit, this visa has a validity of 5 years. If the visa holders decide to remain here, the permit can be renewed.

What is an Italian house called? ›

A trullo (plural, trulli) is a traditional Apulian dry stone hut with a conical roof. Their style of construction is specific to the Itria Valley, in the Murge area of the Italian region of Apulia.

What are Italian houses like? ›

Italian Homes Are Built of Stone, Brick & Concrete

Older Italian homes have stone or brick walls. More modern homes have concrete walls. It's part of the reason centralized AC and heating aren't common in Italy. Thicker walls regulate temperature fluctuations better.

What type of homes are in Italy? ›

Homes in Italy : Common Italian Property Types
  • Appartamento – apartment.
  • Monolocale - studio flat.
  • Bilocale - two roomed flat.
  • Trilocale – three roomed flat.
  • Casa – house/home. ...
  • Casa Canonica - an old house attached to a church, rectory.
  • Casa Gemella - semi-detached property.
  • Casa Padronale – country house.

What type of architecture does Italy have? ›

Italy's architecture spans almost 3,500 years, from Etruscan and Ancient Roman architecture to Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Fascist, and Italian modern and contemporary architecture.

What does rip mean in Italian real estate? ›

Residential Investment Property. RIP. Read in Peace. RIP. Riposi in Pace (Italian: Rest in Peace)

Why are Italian houses yellow? ›

Ever wonder about those colors? Where they came from? And how is it that today, even the newer buildings are painted in the same or similar colors? The answer is pretty simple – mineral oxides and plant pigments.

Why are Italian houses so close together? ›

Italian houses are often built tall and close together with trees and breezeways. Doing so keeps the village cooler during summer months.

Why do Italian homes have 2 kitchens? ›

Why do Italians have two kitchens? - YouTube

How much money do you need to retire in Italy? ›

In order to retire to Italy, a foreign citizen must comply with a few requirements. Among these, the foreign citizen must be retired and have a minimum annual income of EUR 31,000. For married couples seeking to retire in Italy, the minimum amount necessary is EUR 38,000.

Is it expensive to live in Italy for an American? ›

Is it expensive to live in Italy? Italy is one of the cheapest countries to live in. In fact, Italy is the 4th cheapest country in Western Europe.

How do Italians heat their homes? ›

Choose the right heating system: In modern times, many Italian apartments have either modern gas boilers or heat pumps, which is often the same device that you use to keep the place cool in summer.

Do Italian homes have air conditioning? ›

In Italy, 7 percent of homes are air-conditioned, and in Spain 11 percent, compared with 71 percent in the United States and more than 90 percent in Japan. Hotels, post offices, police stations, even hospitals, except for operating rooms, generally do not have air-conditioning.

What are large Italian houses called? ›

A villa is a type of house that was originally an ancient Roman upper class country house. Since its origins in the Roman villa, the idea and function of a villa have evolved considerably.

What is Italy most known for? ›

Italy is famous for the Renaissance and the incredible artists it produced. Italy is famous for its tourism, its art cities and unique scenery. Italy is also known for its language, its opera, its fashion and its luxury brands. It is also known for its football team!

Is school mandatory in Italy? ›

Education in Italy is free and is compulsory for children aged between 6 and 16 years. The Italian education system is divided into nursery, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and high school. University is usually undertaken at the age of 19. Primary education is the first stage of compulsory education.

What is Tuscan style architecture? ›

Tuscan architecture calls for high, vaulted, ceilings. These are either richly textured or paneled with wood and feature a stenciled decorative border. Exposed wooden beams are a key element in the look of Tuscan ceilings. Floors are stone, often marble or travertine, terracotta tile, or terrazzo.


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