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The Italian Paper Chase – Part I

Back in Pittsburgh after the whirlwind tour of Puglia that saw us visiting thirty-three properties in four days, Jessica and I dived into the process of buying our Villa Tutto, and quite a process it was.  On the last day of our trip, Colleen and Francesco were kind enough to spend most of it walking us through the steps required in order to buy property in Italy.  Interestingly, except for getting codice fiscale (fiscal codes) which all Italians are required to have before engaging in any commerce, foreigners go through the same process as Italians to buy property.

Our goal was to return to Puglia over the Thanksgiving holiday, less than twelve weeks later, to close on the property.  There was clearly much to do in little time.  First, we had to make a formal proposal to Pietro, which we did through Francesco.  Our offer established the price we were willing to pay and listed the work that we wanted Pietro to perform at his expense.  That included removal of the tile on the kitchen wall, repairing of sun damage to the finish on the wood window frames and getting rid of debris scattered about the property.  Three days later, we were informed by Colleen that Pietro had accepted our offer.  The next day, we were informed by Colleen that Pietro had changed his mind.

Francesco and Colleen were terribly embarrassed by Pietro’s turnabout but, of course, it was not at all their fault, and we were able to resolve the difference with Pietro within a couple of days.  He agreed to do additional work and we agreed to pay another 5,000 euro.  No harm, no foul.

The next step was the “Proposta d’Acquisto Immobiliare,” the formal proposal.  This is a document that specifies all of the deal terms and is accompanied by a good faith deposit from the buyer.  Once the proposta is signed by buyer and seller, the process moves to the compromesso or the “Contratto Preliminare di Compravendita,” the preliminary contract.  This is a document, recorded with the relevant municipality, that defines with precision the property to be sold and the terms of the sale.  It also requires a deposit from the buyer to the seller and a fiscal code for each individual involved in the purchase/sale.  Without the fiscal codes, we could not sign the compromesso or give Pietro the deposit.

Where a hand money deposit is typical in the States, it is generally a nominal amount, it is held by an agent and it is refundable if certain contingencies are not met.  It is also the case that, once a seller accepts a buyer’s offer, he cannot thereafter sell the property to someone else.  In Italy, the hand money is 20% of the purchase price, it goes directly to the seller and it is only refundable under extraordinary circumstances.  Also, the seller continues to be free to sell the property to another buyer until title actually transfers.  In that event, the seller must pay the buyer twice the amount of the hand money, but it is not uncommon that a second buyer comes along with a high enough offer that it pays the seller to walk from the first deal.

Our attempt to get the codice fiscale, the fiscal codes, was our first opportunity to experience “up close and personal” the (in)famous Italian bureaucracy.  It was only a taste of things to come.

Understand that the Italian government wants people to have this fiscal code since it, like our Social Security number, is the basis upon which one’s economic behavior is tracked for tax purposes.  And, in writing, at least, it is relatively easy to get a fiscal code.  All you do is fax a copy of your birth certificate and driver’s license to the Italian Consulate and they will determine your code and send you the card that carries it.  It sounded that simple to me when I spoke to the woman at the consulate in Philadelphia who handles such things.  I asked her how long it would take to receive the codes once I faxed her the required documents.

“No more than five days,” she said definitively.

Within an hour, I had sent the fax that included copies of birth certificates and driver’s licenses for both Jessica and me.  Then we waited.  Meanwhile, Colleen and Francesco are working to keep Pietro on board despite the fact that we have not yet signed the contract or paid the deposit.  Three days, four days and, when nothing arrived on the fifth day, I called the consulate office and spoke with the woman of earlier that week.  I asked her when we can get the codes.

“Oh, I am waiting to get your wife’s driver’s license copy,” she said.

“I sent you that along with the other documents,” I said, probably a bit too curtly considering she had the leverage here.

“Yes, well, our fax machine broke before the last page of your fax came through, so I still need your wife’s driver’s license,” she said with not a hint of contrition.

“Is your fax machine working now?” I asked, trying to keep sarcasm from entering the conversation.

“Oh, yes, it started working right away.”

“Right,” I said, working on keeping the volume down.  “So, if I fax you my wife’s driver’s license right now, how long will it take for me to get the codice fiscale?”

“If you would like, I can fax them to you right away,” she said so matter-of-factly that I started to believe that the previous conversation with her had never happened.

“That would be wonderful.  You will have the fax of the driver’s license within ten minutes.”

Fifteen minutes later, I received a fax from the Italian Consulate with our fiscal codes.

Next:  The Italian Paper Chase – Part II

Let’s Make a Deal

The day after being introduced to Villa Marinelli, we returned to the search for a property that could be our home, but we now had the standard against which everything else would be measured.  None of the eight we saw the next day came remotely close.  Late that afternoon, we called Colleen and asked if we could visit the Marinelli property again that evening.  I think that Jessica and I wanted to both confirm our affinity for the place and, on a very practical level, to see what work definitely had to be done and what it might cost to do it.

We arrived at the office of Real Estate Cisternino and, for the first time met Francesco, Colleen’s partner in life and in the business.  Physically, he stands in sharp contrast to the blonde, tall and willowy Colleen.  Francesco wears the dark swarthiness of the southern Italian and he cuts the figure of an athlete with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.  His English was excellent so we sat a bit in the office and I asked the two of them what we should anticipate the costs to be were we to buy the villa in Marinelli, install a new kitchen, add a bathroom and update the existing one.

“I say, ” Francesco began, “maybe 12,000 euro for the kitchen and perhaps 5,000 euro for a second bathroom and maybe 3,000 to fix the one there.”

“So, for 20,000 euro we can do the work we would need to do,” I summarized, having done all the math in my head.  I did so less to confirm  what Francesco had said than to establish for Jessica that the difference between the house as it sat today and the one that we could enthusiastically call home was only 20,000 euro.  She got it and I could see a bit of relief in her.

Francesco said something to Colleen in rapid-fire Italian to which she responded affirmatively and she picked up the phone and began to dial.

“Ciao, Vincenzo,” she said and then went off in Italian at a level exceeding my understanding.  She hung up and turned to us.  “Okay, we’re going to go now to the property and, on the way, we’ll pick up a man who can help us with the costs of what you want to do.”  And, that’s exactly what we did.  Just short of the turn off from the main road up to the village of Marinelli, we saw three men who appeared to be clearing large stones from a field.  Colleen directed me to pull over just where they were and, when the car had stopped, she rolled down her window and called out to the oldest of the group.  He issued some instructions to the other two and jumped into our car.  Colleen introduced Vincenzo as a contractor with whom she and Francesco had worked on other projects and who had agreed to come with us to give us a better sense of the costs we might encounter to do the renovations we were considering.

“And how often do you stop along the road and pick up men?” Jessica asked Colleen.   Only Vincenzo didn’t laugh.

Pietro was there to greet us once again and, since this was our second meeting, we had earned a kiss on each cheek from him.  Again, as we had done the day before, we walked through the house, but this time there was Colleen telling Vincenzo what she understood us to want in the way of changes to the house.   When she was finished, Vincenzo confirmed that the 20,000 euro number to do the kitchen, the new bathroom and fixing up the existing one was sufficient.

Francesco arrived just as we were finishing our talks with Vincenzo and it allowed me to ask another series of questions.  One of the things I had noticed on this second visit was that the mechanical systems were very different from those we were used to.  For example, where our water heaters are mostly cylindrical “silos,” the Italian version is one small tank in each room where hot water is required. Also, I’ve never lived in a place that did not have municipal water and sewage.  This property had neither.  I just wanted to understand how everything worked.  By the time we left, I understood to a reasonable degree, how the systems functioned.  One of the most discomfiting concepts was the idea that the only source of water to the house was rain that was collected in two large cisterns buried in the ground.  One was for domestic use and the other for irrigation.  This would take some getting used to.

As Francesco, Pietro and I were looking at the irrigation lines, I noticed a funnel made of sheet metal mounted on a tripod with the large opening at the top, perhaps ten inches across, and the small end, maybe two inches, at the bottom.  There was a small, but very sharp knife in a slot on the side of the contraption.  I asked Pietro, through, Francesco, what it was.  I needed no more Italian than I had to understand his answer.

“You take the chicken,” he explained, “put it head-down into the funnel, take the knife and…”  He simply made the motion.

Don’t Be a Chicken!

I noticed another object propped up against one of the out-buildings.  It appeared to be an old broom handle that was fitted at one end with a piece of metal in the shape of a hook.  Pietro explained that he made it to help harvest the olives from the higher branches.  He would use the hook to pull the branches down until he could reach them and take the olives off.  Francesco commented, “So you waste nothing, eh?”

Pietro replied, “Tutto, tutto, tutto.”  Everything, everything, everything.  That night at dinner, Jessica and I named our new home and it has been, for us, Villa Tutto ever since.

The next day, our third of touring Pugliese properties, ended with a last visit to Marinelli.  We had no real agenda for that stop and just ended up wandering among the olive trees.  We had arranged to spend the next two days seeing properties but we decided then and there to cancel all of our appointments for the last day and concentrate on what we had to do to make Villa Tutto ours.

I called Colleen and told her that we had made the decision to move forward on the Marinelli villa.  I also told her that we didn’t have a clue what came next.  Fortunately, she did.

I hung up with Colleen and turned to Jessica.  “Oh, crap,” I said.  “I think this might happen.”

Next Up:  The Italian Paper Chase

Chickens and Rabbits and Dogs, Oh My!

While I felt an immediate affinity to the villa in Marinelli, Jessica was less than unconvinced that this place could ever be our home.  Her reaction struck me hard, as rarely before had we not instantly been in tune on such an important matter.  Our tastes, priorities, goals and dreams had always been so in synch that, when later that evening she told me that she was not impressed with the property, I began to question my own take on it.  But, as we talked further, it became clear that her concerns were negative reactions to things that could be remedied.  All that would be required were (1) a willingness to violate the rule that we would not take on a renovation project; (2) a great deal more money than we had any intention of spending; and (3) such trust in people we hardly knew that it bordered on foolhardiness.  Sounded fine to me.

We were accompanied on the tour of the property by Pietro, the proud owner of the villa.  He had built it himself, and he and his wife had raised their three children in it.  By all indications, the villa was his fourth child.  Though he and his wife had moved out of the home nearly ten years ago and into another place just up the road, he continued to tend the land as he had done for a generation.  Now in his late-sixties, Pietro had a bum hip and could not get around the way he’d have liked to, but he is quick to smile and he loves this place.

I think that what took Jessica’s breath away as we entered the villa, was the kitchen.  The floor was covered by old-style Italian tiles laid-out in a square pattern of almost a fleur-de-lis motif.  They were a medium brown color and, to my mind, very appropriate for an Italian kitchen. The problem was more that the walls were also covered by tiles that, neither by their colors nor their patterns, were remotely consonant with the floor.  In fact, they two clashed quite violently.  For Jessica, that set the tone.

We visited the large living room next and found it to be full of natural light and high-ceilinged, quite to the contrary of many of the places we had seen earlier in the day.  We walked down the hallway with its beautifully-crafted chestnut arch and walked into each of the three generous bedrooms and a fourth room between the master bedroom and the kitchen that might have been a pantry.  Strike two for Jessica was thrown when we saw the one bathroom in the house.  Once again, tiles covered the floor and the walls, but this time, the tiles were the same giving us a sense that the room was small, round and featureless.  The bathroom fixtures were of a similar color to the background of the tiles which almost made them disappear.  The shower, such as it was, was an Italian version and something that we might think of as half of a bathtub with a shower head.  Too small to bathe in, but taking up too much room to simply be a shower.  I could see what Jessica was thinking from the look on her face.  “I don’t think so.”

We left the living quarters and toured the other parts of the villa: the cantina, where the canning was done and wine was stored; the forno, the wood-fired pizza and bread oven; the external bathroom for use after working in the fields; three large storage areas where equipment was kept.  Finally, there were three small buildings that were attached to each other but separate from the main house.  I asked Pietro what they were for.

He pointed to the first enclosure, part stone, part wire fence, mostly stench.  “Per i polli,” he said.  For the chickens.  Referring to the second building, he said, “Per i conigli.”  For the rabbits.  The last shack, “Per i cani.”  For the dogs.  At this point, Jessica was ready to leave.

Fortunately for our story, we walked out of the compound to an area that overlooked the olive grove.  There were about eighty trees in all, though it didn’t occur to us to count them that day.  We were much too busy looking at the beauty of them and dreaming of the time that we might tend to them and actually see olives hanging on their branches.  I looked at Jessica and saw that we were back on the same frequency.  The tiles on the kitchen walls could be removed; the bathroom could be re-done; the animal enclosures could be removed.  All that we found objectionable could go away and we would be left with, well, our dream.

Next Up:  Let’s Make a Deal

A Trulli Wonderful Experience

I suppose we did have things turned around a bit.  I’m told that most people visit a place before deciding to move there, but we’ve never been conventional in our approach to life-changing decisions.  We concluded that we should move to Puglia and THEN we visited, not so much to confirm that we had made the right decision,  but even WE were not going to buy a house without seeing it in person.

Our on-line real estate research exposed a large selection of homes available for purchase in Puglia, so many that we had to limit our search to the area between the Adriatic coast cities of Bari to the north and Brindisi to the south, an area generally referred to as the Valle d’Itria.  In all, we arranged to meet with ten real estate agents over a four-day period and see thirty-three properties.

I’m not sure what we expected to find when we began our tour of homes in Puglia on a sunny September morning but, after the sixth property, Jessica and I wore discouragement and disappointment on our long faces.  The photos on the websites were so enticing and the homes we picked to visit seemed to be so right for us but the realities were quite different.  We learned what “70 square meters” looks like.  Cramped.  We discovered that “in the countryside” means that the property is impossible to get to without a GPS.  We found that many of the places on the market were the holiday homes of Brits set up to accommodate two or three families on vacation, but not to serve as a permanent residence.  Most were worn and fit-out “rustically.”  Bathrooms were of colors unknown to us and the kitchen cupboards, instead of having cabinet doors, had thin drapes that slid open and closed on a wooden dowel.  We saw trulli, the ubiquitous, conical-rooved buildings unique to the Valle d’Itria and, while Europeans were hot to buy them to holiday in, we found them to be uninhabitable, dark and claustrophobic.  “I think Yoda lives in a trullo,” Jessica whispered to me.  We were beginning to question our plan, but our patience was to be rewarded with the last property we were to see on our first day of touring.

It is not an overstatement to say that our lives changed when we met Colleen.  To her and her partner in business and in life, Francesco, we owe more than we can ever repay.  We had arranged to meet Francesco at 4:00 pm on our first day but, when I called to confirm, the British-accented woman with whom I spoke said that Francesco had been called out and that, instead, we would be seeing two properties with her.  As instructed, we met her at the offices of Real Estate Cisternino.  As we entered the establishment, Colleen arose from the desk and greeted us warmly.  Tall, blonde and with a figure suitable for the runway, Colleen reprised the lilted tones of England that I heard on the phone a bit earlier. We got into our rented car and I drove as Colleen navigated.

The first place she took us to was, at least, a single-family, permanent (more-or-less) residence.  It was owned by an elderly British couple, the gentleman of which had, unfortunately, fallen ill and they had gone back to England for his treatment.  The relatively large three-bedroom home was in decent condition and had some attributes (such as central heating and a second bathroom) that some of our candidates did not.  On seeing it, Jessica and I began to feel a bit more encouraged about finding a place that would suit us, though we both knew that this was not it.  First of all, we weren’t sure that we would ever be able to find it again.  We knew from the website description that the property was near a town called Ceglie Messapica but, after turning off of the main road between Ceglie and Cisternino, we took such a series of one-lane, dirt tracks that even Colleen seemed, at times, confused.  A single bottle of wine at dinner in town would certainly have rendered us utterly incapable of finding our way home, regardless of how long we might have lived there.  Second, the house clearly needed a good deal of work and we had, early on, decided that we absolutely would not take on a renovation project in a foreign country from 5,000 miles away.

Which takes us to the second, and last property presented to us by Colleen.  Called “Villa Marinelli” on the website, it was described as follows:

“Located in the hilltop village of Contrada Marinelli which borders the towns of Locorotondo and Cisternino; an unusually large villa of 150 square meters, in reasonably good structural condition with the added benefit of numerous additional outside storage areas.  The surrounding land is approximately 4,500 square meters.  The property requires some upgrading as the style dates back to the 1980s.”

We arrived at the villa in Marinelli late that afternoon.  Ten minutes later, I knew that I was home.

Our Home in Puglia

 

Why Puglia?

Jessica and I met nine years ago.  She was 28 years old at the time.  I was a mere 51.  Somehow she saw past my immaturity and we married on the US Virgin Island of St. John nearly five years later.  Two years after that, as I approached my 58th birthday, we began to discuss, in earnest, how we would spend our post-work years.  Two elements of that decision persisted during those conversations: first, we wanted a lifestyle that did not include Pittsburgh winters.  Both of us were born and raised in Pennsylvania and I had endured fifty-six of them and had no interest in increasing my experience.  Second, having lost over half of my wealth in a divorce less than ten years ago, our retirement would be either done on the cheap, or postponed.

As for putting retirement off until our finances were such that we could count on a more comfortable life, our analysis was simple: to count on a life at all is tempting the fates.  We both knew too many people, my father included, who finally got to the leisure years only to find that health issues intervened and the life that many had worked so hard for and dreamed so much of was never offered to them.  We would not gamble that way.  Better to have a longer, more frugal experience than become another example of why one should opt for it.

So, having determined that warm and cheap were the guiding principles behind our search, we took the risk of adding some luxury criteria to the list.  Jessica and I both love food and wine and, though we could certainly live on beans and rice and suck down the occasional locally-brewed beer, such a culinary existence would not provide us with the most acceptable retirement.  Next, we added history and culture to the list.  Our life together thus far had been surrounded by art and we were very much a part of the Pittsburgh art scene.  We could not imagine a life that had no access to the intellectual stimulation to which art and culture had addicted us.

Only after those matters came such considerations as safety and security, healthcare, political stability, access and all of the other concerns that normal people have when contemplating a place to live.

Obviously, staying in the US occurred to us.  We both have family there, the language is familiar to us (in most parts of the country) but, try as we might, neither of us could come up with a single place in the country that met our objectives.  And, when we got into the literature on the best places to retire beyond the borders of the States, the emphasis seemed to be on the least expensive options, not necessarily the best ones.  Topping most lists were Ecuador, Panama, Mexico (Really?), Nicaragua, Colombia, etc.  Certainly, by all accounts, one could live there very cheaply and it sounds like the weather would be acceptable to us, but after that, there was no appeal.

But a few other regions popped up on the lists that were much more intriguing.  Among them: southern Italy.  We had been to Italy twice, once before we were married and the second time, on our honeymoon.  So, being experts in the country and I having done some internet research on the south, we decided to move to Puglia.  The fact that our “Italian experience” was limited to a coach tour of Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan and an extra week in Tuscany after our wedding and, that we had never been south of Rome, was not going to stand in the way of our packing up everything we owned, leaving our families and friends, and moving to somewhere we had never visited nor even heard of until a few weeks before.  Jessica and I sat at an outdoor cafe in Las Vegas over the Fourth of July weekend and made the decision over a bottle of wine.

The internet is a very handy thing, I found.  Someone should have thought of it much sooner.  The web made it possible for me to make appointments with ten real estate agents who would show us thirty-three properties in four days.  So, on September 4, two months after the decision in Vegas, we boarded the plane that would start us on our journey to find a home in Puglia.

 

Next up: A Trulli Wonderful Experience