Obviously, the nature of the inspection will depend on whether it’s a ruin in need of complete restoration, a property that has been partly or totally modernised, or a modern home.
An old property may show signs of damage and decay, such as bulging or cracked walls, rising damp, missing roof tiles and rotten woodwork. Some areas are susceptible to flooding, storms and subsidence, and it’s wise to check an old property after a heavy rainfall, when any leaks should come to light.
In the case of a property that has been restored, it’s important to ascertain how well the job has been done, particularly if the owner did it himself. Although a vendor must certify that a property is free from ‘hidden defects’, this provides little assurance as he can usually just plead ignorance and it’s usually difficult or expensive to prove otherwise.
The most important thing is to ensure that a property is structurally sound. Although building standards in Italy are generally high, you should never assume that a building is sound, as even relatively new buildings can have serious faults (although rare). Since the collapse of several apartment blocks built in the 1960s, properties in Rome and other major cities have had to have a libretto testifying to their sound structure.
The cost of an inspection is a small price to pay for the peace of mind it affords. Some lenders insist on a ‘survey’ ( perizia) before approving a loan, although this usually consists of a perfunctory valuation ( stima) to confirm that a property is worth the purchase price. A master builder will be able to tell you whether the price is too high, given any work that needs to be done.
An Italian wouldn’t make an offer on a property before at least having it checked by a builder. If a property is pre-1945, a builder or engineer ( ingegnere) can be employed to check it for soundness; an architect ( architetto) is usually better qualified to check a modern house (unless he designed it himself!). Alternatively, you can employ a professional valuer or geometra.
You can also have a full structural survey carried out, although this is rare in Italy. However, if you would have a survey carried out if you were buying the same property in your home country, you should have one done in Italy. You will usually need to pay around €300 for a ‘rough’ appraisal ( valutazione) and around €1,000 (depending on the work involved) for a ‘full’ structural survey ( perizia strutturale).
You may be able to make a satisfactory survey a condition of the preliminary contract, allowing you to withdraw from the purchase and have your deposit returned if serious faults are revealed, although this isn’t usual in Italy and a vendor may refuse or insist that you carry out a survey before signing the contract. You may, however, be able to negotiate a satisfactory compromise with the vendor.
If a property needs work doing on it to make it habitable, don’t accept what you’re told regarding the likely cost of repairs or restoration unless you have a binding quotation in writing from a local builder. One of the most common mistakes foreigners make when buying old properties in Italy is to underestimate the cost of restoration and modernisation (it bears repeating over and over again!). You should obtain accurate estimates of renovation and modernisation costs before signing a contract.
You may prefer to employ a foreign (e.g. British) surveyor practising in Italy, who will write a report in English. However, an Italian surveyor (or other local expert) usually has an intimate knowledge of local properties and building methods. If you employ a foreign surveyor, you must ensure that he’s experienced in the idiosyncrasies of Italian properties and that he has professional indemnity insurance covering Italy, which means that you can happily sue him if he does a bad job!
This article is an extract from Buying a Home in Italy from Survival Books.