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Aosta Valley

I bought a farmhouse...

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Originally published on www.welove2ski.com

Buying an old farmhouse on the side of an Alp is a cheap way to get your hands on ski property. But it's also a stressful and time-consuming one, as Jay Nagley discovered when he went house-hunting in Italy's Aosta Valley.

December 2005
We're driving from England to my Greek partner's home in Athens and we break the journey with a few days' skiing in Verbier.

As always on our skiing holidays, a few idle minutes is spent speculating about buying a place in the Alps, but Switzerland is too expensive, we don't like the idea of investing in France, while the current darling of British property investors - Bulgaria - doesn't appeal ("if we are going to buy in Bulgaria, we might as well buy in Greece," says Maria, my partner).

However, another idea forms. "What about Italy?" we wonder. Not too expensive, decent skiing and inhabitants who, however illogically, we expect to like.

So, we decide to spend half a day in Aosta (only one hour south of Verbier) and take a look around both the town and the estate agents. It is beautiful and, being the capital of the Val d'Aosta region, is a proper, working town. Having always been on the main trade route between France and Italy, it also has more picture-postcard castles than you could shake a stick at.

May 2006
We've had a closer look at prices on the web and, although much cheaper than France, they are still a bit steep for us, with a large two bed flat near Aosta costing around £200,000.

However, two friends of ours are interested in coming in with us, which opens a whole new world of possibilities. We draw up a list of interesting-looking properties and send emails of to the relevant estate agents.

That is the easy bit - a franchising operation called tecnocasa (www.tecnocasa.it) has as many estate agents on one website as you will ever need. The harder bit is getting anyone to reply to emails - to put it politely, Italy does not seem to be as web-focussed as the UK. Eventually, with a bit of prodding, we have eight appointments over two days with estate agents who have at least one English speaker (tip: Val d'Aosta is officially bilingual - with Italian and French the languages, so you can get by as a French speaker).

One of the buildings that intrigues us the most is an absolute monster of 350 square metres (or in English parlance, a six-bed farmhouse). It looks big and ugly, but is in a superb location a few hundred metres above the road to the St Bernard pass and has about half an acre of land.

Unfortunately it has been sold by the time we arrived. However, on the last morning, the estate agent tells us that the deal has fallen through. He can show it to us, but no longer has the keys, so we can only see the outside. We drive up the little road from the valley floor and walk down the 300 metre track that leads to the house. It is built on a very steep hillside with one storey at the back and four storeys at the front. The picture on the web is of the front, which has been rendered with concrete, but the other three walls are beautiful stone. One lap of the house and we agree to put in an offer. It is for sale at 218,000 euros - or rather both halves of it are for sale at that price. One part of the house, and most of the land, is owned by a second person and we will only buy both halves together.

Well, that was easy - we have agreed to buy a place. What could possibly go wrong now?

July 2006
Buying a house in England is not exactly straightforward, so we can hardly expect it to be any easier in Italy. It is a three-stage process: we have to put down a deposit, then make a down-payment and then pay the final instalment on completion. All the assurances that this is normal practice only go so far - paying for a house before you own it really goes against the grain.

Of course, being Italy, there are mountains of paperwork. We have to obtain Italian tax codes before we can buy a house and our Italian lawyer assures us that this can be done at any time - any time except now, of course. "Don't worry, we can do it a week before completion if we need to." Needless to say, he ends up getting the final tax code two days before completion - and ten weeks after he was asked to do it.

August 2006
A call from our Italian estate agent. Now estate agents the world over are the same - except Fabio. Quite simply, he is the most helpful man in Italy. He never fails to return a phone call and always digs up the bit of information you want (even down to how a foreigner deals with utility companies in Italy).

However, this is not a good phone call, "We have a slight problem," begins Fabio. Yes, you could put it like that - it appears that there are not two owners of the property, but three. A woman, of whom no-one seems to have previously heard, owns a strip of land next to one of the walls. That means we cannot rebuild the property as we cannot put scaffolding on land we don't own.

"How much does she want?" is our typically English response, but that misses the point. The land is worthless - perhaps 10 square metres of overgrown scrub and hardly worth valuing. No, what rural Italians seem to like is owning land. She already has plenty of land outside our property and we have to come up with a deal that makes it worth her while. So we end up offering her a parcel of land at the edge of her property. Due to the ways the land is registered, we can only offer her a single complete field - so she swaps 10 square metres of useless scrub for 100 square metres of prime grazing land right next to one of her other fields.

It seems to be our duty to spread wealth and happiness amongst the local population.

September 2006
Completion day! We fly to Turin first thing, and head for the house to check that everything is OK, before we drive to the notario (lawyer), for a 45 minute signing ceremony.

We arrive at the house at 1 pm, an hour before the lawyer's appointment. Just one problem: the part of the house that was inhabited (about one-third of the total) is still very much inhabited. Indeed, not one solitary cup, saucer or item of linen has been packed. We decide to defer an explosion until we reach the lawyer. While driving to the notario at 1.30 pm, we get a call from the lawyer's office to say half of the money has not arrived, despite being sent by 24-hour transfer a week ago. We are certainly going to have lots to discuss.

On arrival, the lawyer says that if we can't find the money, completion will have to be cancelled (only he says it with considerable less grace than that). We ask whose half is missing and he says he does not know.