How a Sicilian town sparked its own renaissance with 1-euro homes
The Sicilian town of Sambuca, where another batch of 1-euro homes go on sale in Feb. 2020, is seen here. (Source: Marie Ohanesian Nardin)
TORONTO -- Over the past year, the Italian town of Sambuca has been inundated with more than 100,000 emails from foreigners interested in buying one of 16 homes listed for the price of a coffee.
All those homes are now sold, but a new batch of properties listed for €1, or CAD$1.47, will hit the market next month as the picturesque Sicilian community founded more than 1,100 years ago follows through on an ambitious plan to inject new life into its ancient streets.
Sambuca captured international attention last January when CNN reported that the town would join a growing list of underpopulated Italian communities that opened bidding on homes for €1. The idea was to attract newcomers who had the time (and the cash) to restore the centuries-old, often vacant homes to their original splendour.
In return, newcomers would get the chance to live in a quaint Mediterranean town surrounded by ancient ruins, vineyards and, about 20 minutes away, some of Sicily’s best beaches.
So far, the experiment is working.
“A renaissance has happened,” Deputy Mayor Giuseppe Cacioppo told CTVNews.ca.
Headlines advertised Italian villas for €1, but there was a catch. Newcomers had to spend at least €15,000 (or nearly CAD$22,000) in renovations and give the town a €5,000 (CAD$7,324) deposit until those renovations were complete.
That condition didn’t stop anyone. In the months following CNN’s initial report, 11,000 bargain-hungry investors from the U.S. to China to Lithuania flooded Sambuca in hopes of scoring a deal. Auctions were held, and by April, all 16 homes were sold.
None of the homes actually went for €1. Instead, they were listed at that rock-bottom price and bidding went up from there. Still, the homes were still a relative steal, with the most expensive home selling for roughly €25,000, or CAD $36,619. (For comparison, that’s about one-tenth of the cost of the average home in Winnipeg.)
For those who missed out on the bidding wars, dozens of private sellers listed their homes on the market. So far, 75 private homes have been sold to international buyers — a significant jump for a town of approximately 6,000 inhabitants.
“Sambuca has changed a lot in 11 months,” Cacioppo said. “Work has grown for construction companies, for commercial activities, but also for (bed and breakfasts.)”
These days, it’s not unusual to find newcomers mingling in Sambuca’s colourfully tiled grottos and testing their Italian on the locals. (In case you’re wondering, Sambuca’s name has no connection to the Italian liquor; the word is derived from the Latin word sambucus, which means elderberry.)
“They ask for typical recipes. And they invite (the locals) in the house they just bought,” Cacioppo said.
Among those newcomers is Marie Ohanesian Nardin, a writer from Los Angeles who moved to Italy 30 years ago, fell in love with a gondolier and decided to make Venice her home. Last year, she and her husband began mulling over the idea of buying a small investment home in the countryside where they could eventually retire.
Like everyone else, she learned about Sambuca from CNN.
“I had been to Sicily before but I had never been to Sambuca, and I thought, wow this is a really quaint town. This is really special,” she said.
So she and her husband took a long weekend trip to Sicily. They quickly fell in love with Sambuca’s winding streets and old-world charm.
“Sambuca sits about 350 metres above sea level, so further down it overlooks this beautiful valley and lake — it’s very picturesque,” she said.
Ohanesian Nardin visited both city-owned and private homes and noticed a clear difference between the two.
“None of the homes owned by the city were in the heart of the historical centre. But there is one area that I completely fell in love with … that’s in the heart of the antique-era settlement.”
That’s where she and her husband found their home: a two-bedroom, privately-owned home at the top of the city with multiple open-air terraces. They purchased the home in February 2019, but won’t be able to move in until the end of 2020 due to the extensive restoration work underway.
Their house wasn’t listed for €1, but it sold for around the same price as the city-owned homes.
“It was very affordable,” she said. “The only drawback is we’d like to get back down there as soon as possible.”
When she and her husband eventually move to Sambuca, their neighbours will be an eclectic mix of people from around the world — Norway, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the state of Arizona.
So far, no Canadians have moved to Sambuca, according to the deputy mayor.
But that could change. The deputy mayor said that another 15 city-owned homes listed for €1 will hit the market in February.
Nowadays, the town that once feared for its survival has found itself brokering some of the country’s most buzzed-about real estate sales.
“(We are) a city that looks to the future with hope,” Cacioppo said.
The €1 listings aren’t unique to Sambuca. A handful of small, often rural towns throughout Italy have listed homes for €1 in hopes of capturing similar attention. Italy’s state property agency even began listing dozens of lighthouses for ultra-cheap prices in hope of attracting foreign investors interested in renovations.