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‘A life’s task’: The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home

Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years. They tell Silvia Marchetti exactly what they learned.

'A life's task': The lessons learned from turning a crumbling Italian church into a home
Taking on a renovation project in Italy is not an easy task. Photo: Silvia Marchetti
An old crumbling Italian property dating back to medieval times with all its historic appeal and fascination lures anyone with a penchant for bringing back ancient buildings from the grave.
 
But it can be tough work with many obstacles requiring energy, time, lots of money and above all, patience.
 
Back in 2000 Marilisa and Riccardo Parisi, a Neapolitan couple in their 60s, snatched up a dilapidated little church in Umbria which had been abandoned for 50 years and upgraded it to their lavish rural house, with a cool cocktail lounge under the former altar and master bedroom in what used to be the bishop’s private lodgings.
 
The church, with the original bell tower still hanging and well-preserved frescoed walls, is actually the center of a tiny hamlet isolated in the countryside near Gubbio featuring stables, a barn and storage room which were also renovated and a wide patch of land with olive groves. 
 
“It was all a heap of ruins but I fell in love with the place at first sight,” says Marilisa.
 
“I could feel it had a soul and the stones were ‘talking’ but I knew straight away it was going to be a long, hard work to fix it up”, she said.
 
It took the couple 7 years to complete the restyle and faced with the many challenges encountered along the way, they admit they often thought of giving up. 

Riccardo and Marilisa Parisi at their Umbrian home. Photo Marilisa Parisi
 
Old properties, which are rendered more impressive by the passage of time, naturally come with downsides.
 
Dilapidated homes have a strong allure but breathing new life into them isn’t always as easy as first imagined, warns the couple.
 
Their church-house, which the Parisi bought off the local curia (diocese), is classified as a monument of historical and artistic value by Italy’s state.
 
The first obstacle was dealing with Umbria’s art authorities (sovrintendenza) to make sure the restyle plan respected the structure and architecture of the place. 
 
They warned that the older a property is, the higher the risk that it could potentially be of artistic and historic interest, which entails a significant amount of restrictions (vincoli) and rules imposed by the sovrintendenza in restyling it, and more paperwork than an ordinary property. 
 
The Parisi’s advice to people interested in following in their footsteps is to check beforehand whether the local art authorities may have jurisdiction over an old property, which could complicate and delay the renovation. 
 
“You can’t just sketch any kind of super-cool restyle that pops into your mind,” says Riccardo.
 
“When the art authorities are involved, even if the property is yours, you must draw up detailed plans and maps of how it will look like, what the restyle will entail, what building materials will be used, and share these with the authorities.
 
“So you need to employ architects specialised in preservation. It must be a minimal, sustainable renovation that doesn’t radically change the original structure with excessive fixes,” he adds.
 
So tearing down walls, adding extra rooms or pulling down a roof won’t be possible.
 
Marilisa says: “We tried to recycle the original furniture and materials, we kept the ancient stone steps outside in the courtyard, the old wooden tables of the church which we turned into thick doors, the original terra-cotta pavements and the church altar hall where we have evening drinks.”
 
She admits that having to deal with the construction team on a regular basis was a major hassle, particularly since they had to drive from Naples each time to check on the progress of the work.
 
The couple felt the stress that comes with renovating a property at a distance, by phone or internet without physically visiting and overseeing the builders and architect. It can be risky as key instructions can easily go missing.
 
They suggest it is very important to hire construction teams that can do the entire work rather than splitting it among different building companies so to assure continuity and a homogenous makeover style and techniques. 
 
“If you take on such a challenge of renovating a large property you must make it your life’s task and invest a lot of passion, energy and be ready to spend more than expected”, says Riccardo, who prefers not to disclose how much money has been invested. 
 
The specific location of the property can also be an issue. Bureaucracy was head-splitting, the couple had to not only reactivate utility supplies but rebuild all basic infrastructure because their home is in an isolated spot in the middle of a dense Umbrian forest.
 
“The place is wonderful, surrounded by pristine nature, there’s nothing around us and that’s a major plus point. But having been abandoned for so many years there was no running water, electricity, gas, so to make our home liveable again we had to rebuild the water pumps and electricity grid, activate a landline and internet,” says Riccardo.
 
“These are all things you need to consider when you embark on such a mission.”
 
Roads are another problem to be taken into account. It’s difficult to find the place, one needs to follow the directions given by the Parisi as it’s not mapped.
 
There’s just a tiny unpaved country path leading to their Umbrian retreat from the main road which they had to clear through the thick vegetation that had grown over the property’s estate across decades. The path is wide enough for one big car and needs constant maintenance particularly when it rains. 
 
“If you buy and renovate a lovely crumbly property in an offbeat, isolated rural spot you have to know that you’re starting from scratch”, says Riccardo. 

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Where in Italy are house prices rising fastest?

Property values are expected to continue rising overall in Italy in 2023, but the situation looks much better in some cities than others. Here's how average prices compare.

Where in Italy are house prices rising fastest?

Until 2020 Italy’s real estate market had long suffered stagnation, weighed down by a large number of old, neglected properties which were proving difficult to sell.

But the pandemic turned Italy’s property market on its head, leading to the first increase in house prices for years at the end of the first quarter of 2020.

This trend has held up since, and industry experts cautiously predict further price growth in 2023 – albeit more modest than previously hoped.

Factors putting the brakes on growth include the soaring cost of living eroding households’ purchasing power, rising mortgage interest rates, the soaring cost of building materials, and a shrinking economy.

REVEALED: Where in Europe have house prices and rent costs increased the most?

Mortgages are also expected to become more difficult to obtain in 2023, meaning fewer people able to make a purchase.

But despite the gloomy picture overall, the outlook varies significantly around the country and some cities are expected to see a significant rise in prices this year.

Milan remains by far the most expensive major Italian city for a property purchase, but prices are rising faster elsewhere. Photo by Ron Dylewski on Unsplash

A recent report from Idealista Insights, the property search portal’s research team, looked at changes in the average prices per square metre in property listings in Italy’s biggest cities.

In 2022, the price per square metre “generally increased throughout the country, with ‘exclusive’ neighbourhoods becoming even more inaccessible to the average buyer,” the report found.

But, while bigger northern cities saw rising prices across the board, most southern cities were struggling with “stagnation”, it said.

Based on Idealista’s data, here are the ten most expensive cities to buy property in Italy, in order of the rate at which prices are rising.

  1. Genoa: the Ligurian capital is Italy’s tenth-most expensive city to live in – but prices here are rising faster than anywhere else on average, according to Idealista. An increase of 4.5 percent is forecast for Genoa in 2023, meaning the price per square metre will go from 1,602 to 1,674 euros.
  2. Bologna: Bologna records the second-highest price increase in Italy compared to 2022. The citywide average price per square metre will rise by an estimated 3.9 percent, reaching 3,419 euros.
  3. Verona: in seventh place we find the city of Romeo and Juliet, where the increase in prices is substantial, equal to 3.2 percent. The average cost will rise by around 80 euros per square metre, going from 2,483 to 2,563 euros per square metre.
  4. Milan: Italy’s economic capital will easily remain the most expensive city for property purchases, with prices set to rise by 2.9 percent compared to 2022. The average price per square metre is expected to exceed 5,300 euros, 150 more than now, with significant price variation between city districts.
  5. Bari: The capital of Puglia in the south-east is set to record an price increase of 2.8 percent, with the citywide average price per square metre going from 1,909 euros to 1,962 – making it the ninth most expensive Italian city in which to buy property and the only southern city to record a significant increase. 
  6. Turin: The northwestern city can expect an overall price increase of 1.5 percent, equal to around 30 euros more per square metre for a final price of 1,979 euros on average. 
  7. Florence: The Tuscan capital still has the second-highest prices, and can expect an average price increase of 1.4 percent, with the cost per square metre to rise from 4,128 to 4,184 euros .
  8. Rome: The capital may have some highly sought-after and expensive districts, but overall average prices will remain at around 3,336 euros, up slightly from 3,360 in 2022. This is equal to an increase of just 0.76 percent.
  9. Venice: La Serenissima remains the fifth-most expensive city to buy property again this year as the average price will remain almost unchanged with a reduction of -0.3 percent, meaning the cost per square metre will be around 3,090 euros.
  10. Naples: The southern capital is set to go against the trend, with a -1.5 percent drop in house prices expected. This means the average price per square metre will go from 2,737 to 2,696 euros, a difference of 41 euros.
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