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Aosta Valley

I bought a farmhouse continued

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At this point, I am having a major sense of humour failure. He has received nearly 100,000 euros from either my friend Tim or from me, but he doesn't know which one! Eventually, he decides it is my money that is missing. I ring up Nat West and ask for an urgent trace to be put on the money. I am told that it will take 24 hours and I reply that they have 15 minutes before completion collapses. To my astonishment (and relief), my branch pulls out all the stops, and tracks down the money in 15 minutes, ringing me back with an Italian receipt code. I'll never by cynical about British banks again (well not about that particular bank, anyway).

As soon as I quote the code, the whole problem melts away: the lawyer's body language suggests that he had just remembered about my money (allocated it to the wrong account, perhaps?) and we start completion without him even checking with his own bank.

Without going into the full horror of the afternoon, suffice it to say that 45 minutes stretches to four and a half hours. Just a few highlights: the official translator (required by Italian law) suddenly decides she has not been paid. We tell her it is not our problem and Fabio the estate agent agrees to pay her costs from his fee. The seller refuses to hand over the keys as he has not removed his stuff and poor old Fabio (again) is appointed as holder of the keys so the seller can spend the next two days moving out (of course, he leaves a ton of junk and takes some things we had specifically paid for). Finally, the lawyer says he needs more money, but by that point, our signatures are already on the documents. He is lucky not be thrown through his own office window.

At 7pm we stagger to the closest restaurant (we have not eaten since we left Gatwick, 13 hours earlier). We don't know whether to laugh or cry - we own a house in Italy, yet we don't even have all the keys. On a brighter note, Tim reckons we have added thousands to its value already - "house with English seller" must be worth a fair bit, if our experience with Italian vendors is anything to go by.

November 2006
Now we own it, we have to decide what to do with it. So we visit Aosta again to meet three architects that are pitching for the rebuilding job.

All three restore our faith in the project: they go to incredible lengths to impress us, driving us around their other projects in the region and introducing us to satisfied clients. There is no doubt about the quality of workmanship here: every restoration is done by local craftsmen to the most incredible standards. Indeed, we think our problem will be reining them in - they are used to some pretty fancy restorations for wealthy clients. We want quality, but value as well. Eventually, we plump for the architect whose own house overlooks ours - we reckon he will want to open his shutters every morning with pride as he sees his latest project.

There is one amusing thing that comes out of our three meetings. We had been told by the seller that the house was "historico", so could not be changed (a bit like Grade II listed in the UK), but all three architects say it just old - "Things have to be more than just old to be historic here" is their attitude. So, the seller actually diddled himself - with fewer planning restrictions, his selling price could have been higher. It could not have happened to a nicer man.

February 2007
After quite a few discussions with Christian, the architect, we have a set of plans to extend the farmhouse and turn it into six apartments of around 50-60 square metres each. There are limits on what we are allowed to do - the authorities seem fixated on roofs which must keep their original profile but, on the plus side, we can turn the south-facing wall into a giant two-storey conservatory. Our plans for a swimming pool require some fancy footwork - apparently a big rectangular pool is never going to get approval, but, "if you start with a pond, maybe eez possible". So our plans have a nice little pond which over the course of a couple of years, might just evolve...

Permission is a matter of negotiation, but Christian knows the committee well. Oh, and his uncle is a member.

April 2007
Permission has been agreed verbally, and now just needs to be rubber-stamped.

June 2007
Still no "permezzo" - the woman who signs off the paperwork has gone on maternity leave. This is reported in such a tone of amazement that we get the impression no working woman in Aosta has ever had the temerity to get pregnant before. We might be tempted to start work ahead of the paperwork if we had not seen an episode of "Grand Designs Abroad" in which an English couple were forced to knock down six months worth of building work after doing just that - even though their design had already been passed by a planning committee.

July 2007
"Permezzo" is given - three months wait for one scrappy little note emailed to us by Christian. We could start work, if it was now approaching the holiday season when all right-minded Italians head off to the coast for a month. And, of course, when they get back it will be only a couple of months ahead of the first winter snows. Will we get any work done this year?

Here are Jay Nagley's top tips for buying in Italy - the product of 18 months' expensively-aquired experience...

  • The Italians are determined to live up (or is that down?) to their reputation for bureaucracy. It will be months of hassle. If you can accept that upfront, go for it.
  • Choose your enemies carefully. We fell out with the notario (lawyer), but we never have to see him again. Keep the architect and builders on side if at all possible.
  • Italy is clannish - if you bring in your own people for a job, the locals will remember (especially when you need them most).
  • Get as much in writing as you can. What you are told varies alarmingly from day to day.
  • Regulations are so complex and so contradictory that you need a more flexible approach than in the UK. Asking "what is the law on this?" is not much use, as there are probably three laws that all say different things. "What is acceptable to the authorities?" is more to the point.