A Sicilian village has been auctioning one-euro houses for four years. As first buyers complete their renovations, they make the village more interesting for Germans.
When the American Meredith Tabbone bought a house in Sambuca, Sicily, in April 2019, she never dreamed of the changes the decisions would bring for her and the village of 5,500 people. The 43-year-old financial advisor from Chicago had never visited Sicily and found out about the auction by chance. Because her great-grandfather was from Sambuca and five is her favorite number, she offered 5,555 euros for the house number five near the church. “Real estate in churches is always in a good area in Italy,” she explains on Instagram. “So I tried. It wasn’t a well-thought-out decision.”
Tabbone won the auction. Like many new Sambucans, she also bought the adjoining house and combined the two. Since then she has been renovating the three floors with 250 square meters, wants to set up an art gallery and café there and have them run by people from Sambuca. She tells the Chicago Times: “I feel more at home there than I have ever felt anywhere else in my life.” She has since obtained Italian citizenship.
Tabbone’s story is interesting for German Italy fans because Sambuca newcomers like the American are reviving the village and thus eradicating an important point of criticism from many interested parties.
Sambuca, voted the most beautiful village in Italy in 2016, offers all the prerequisites for Sicilian joie de vivre: Located on a hill overlooking the lake, 50 minutes from Palermo Airport and 20 minutes from the nearest beach, the place combines hiking and swimming opportunities with year-round warmth. Actually ideal for Germans who are freezing in their home office.
Actually, because many feared the leap into the Sicilian nowhere for fear of loneliness and ailing infrastructure. Sambuca used to lack jobs, young people moved away, houses fell into disrepair. Who would want to move to a dying village?
But Sambuca doesn’t die anymore. More and more people are reporting on their renovations on social media. Immigrants from Germany, Britain, the US and around the world are opening cafes, shops and other facilities that the place lacked. At the same time, they form a community that supports each other and explores Sicily together. German newcomers make friends without language barriers. Tabbone regularly shares pictures from visiting the winery together or having lunch in the sun.
Anyone who wants to join Tabbone and Co. will find more opportunities: there are currently 18 properties up for auction on Sambuca’s website. Minimum bid: two euros. After that, interested parties bid as much as they want in a silent auction without knowing about other offers. According to the municipal administration, buyers recently paid between 500 and 7,300 euros for their houses. They undertake to renovate their houses within three years and then to live in them for several months a year.
If you don’t want to move immediately, you will probably still find cheap real estate in the future: Because of the high Italian tax on second homes and houses, owners prefer to sell unused real estate for small amounts than to waste money on them every year. Since 2019, Sambuca has been using the auctions to find interested parties who are not there. Because everyone involved will benefit from this, more properties are likely to come onto the market.
Anyone who loses at an auction can search other channels: Tabbone has now bought a third house in Sambuca. She found the offer on Instagram. Local realtors are offering more and more cheap real estate for foreigners there and on other websites.
Tabbone intends to complete its conversion in January 2023, or in February at the latest. She then invested around 165,000 euros in her renovation; more than half of them want to get them back with funding. Removed walls, renovated ceilings, renewed stairs. New bathtub, solar panels on the roof, sauna in the basement. Almost everything about the former one-euro house is new.
As the reports of other buyers show, it is also cheaper. Including the purchase price and renovation, the dream of a Sicilian house usually costs around 100,000 euros, almost always less than 150,000 euros. But all two-euro houses need to be renovated urgently. Only for two euros in the sun, that’s not possible.
Tabbone brings good news to those who fear that Sambuca is losing its charm with the many newcomers. The village is by no means completely sold to the lowest bidder. Italian residents continue to predominate and keep the Sicilian way of life alive: Brief conversations with neighbors are almost impossible, says Tabbone: “You have to come in. Then there is probably wine, bread, nuts and fruits. And an espresso.”
From Tabbone’s point of view, there is a lot to be said for the leap to Sicily: “It’s like everything difficult in life,” she says. “If you wait for perfect conditions, you’ll wait forever. Once you start, the rest follows.”
Anyone moving from Germany to Sicily should consider not only the weather and construction costs, but also health care and the judiciary. Even many Sicilians often prefer to travel to Milan and Rome for surgeries because of the mostly outdated and sometimes corrupt medical facilities on the island. Important to know for people who want to spend their old age on the Mediterranean.
A case reported by Der Spiegel shows how hard corruption and processes that have often been stuck in endless loops for decades hit house builders: In 1993, a small building contractor sued a corrupt city employee who only issued building permits in exchange for bribes. The entrepreneur was right in two instances; However, the Supreme Court dismissed the case: The second instance had written its verdict with a ballpoint pen, some of the words were illegible. In the repeat trial, the court acquitted the accused. Ruined by court and attorney fees, the contractor took his own life with no prospect of compensation.
Very few resettlers will suffer similarly severe blows. If you want to renovate a house in Sicily, you should not rely on the same legal certainty as in Germany in the event of a dispute with construction companies. Bidders should be able to handle this.
Tabbone was able to do it: she hired an architect who knew trustworthy companies and took over the renovation. Other buyers, who are less likely to be on site than they are, talk to their builders on video calls and send each other floor plans. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, she says.