Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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How I Bought a House off the Internet

One morning several years ago, I took a break from typing notes for my book. I sank into a chair at a deserted Thai resort, turned on the flickering satellite internet, and pulled up my bank account.

I stared at the screen for a minute.

In another window I clicked to enlarge the photo of a three-room house in Sicily that had been haunting me for half a year. A house that by most definitions wasn't one at all. 

Then I made one of those life-changing decisions, a collision of circumstance with impulse, that leaves your loved ones reeling: I decided to buy a house I'd seen only in photos, in a town I'd never visited before, from people I'd never met. 

The U.S. dollar had just shot up against the Euro. Now was the time to grasp a dream I'd been chasing for years: an art studio of my own.

studio sicilia MyHouse photo

Original photo of Studio Sicilia in 2008 from the agency's website

Small House Obsession

For years I'd scrolled through hundreds of websites in a half-dozen langauges, examining small one- or two-bedroom homes in southern Europe, searching for a location for an art studio. They ranged from cave houses in Spain to ruins on Greek islands, French farmhouses to Portuguese shacks. But they all had several things in common:

* They were in a place I spoke (or would like to speak) the language

* They wouldn't require a mortgage

* The local cuisine was spectacular

* Their winters were short and mild

Vicchio, Italy - making a Plaster Mold

Mags (L) and me in 2000, sculpture apprentices to Jerome F. Cox

Italy offered the most choice at my budget (as little as possible!), and Sicily was the most affordable. But while I'd once apprenticed to a sculptor in Tuscany, I'd never made it to Sicily. So a year before I bought my studio, I flew out for a visit to get a taste of the island. In Rome I saw my dad for the first time in years, then took a night train down to Sicily's east coast. It's the most developed part of Sicily, and the most Greek.

It was the off season. Cool air coasted through uncrowded streets. I wandered through the historic town of Siracusa by the sea, took the Circumaetna train up and down the notorious volcano, and scandalized hotel staff by chatting with old men whose wives waited for them at home. (Never mind that my husband was waiting in mine, far away in Hong Kong at the time.)  The island's checkered history has left traces of civilizations past: Islamic, Spanish, Bourbon. The food is exquisite, and the urban accents are easy to understand — Italian's a second language for everyone here, too. 

I wanted to come back. And knew that I would, some day soon.

Months later, I spotted a little "house" on an agency's website. It wasn't what most would think of as a house: three separate rooms, next to but not connected with one another, each with its own entrance, an old-fashioned pair of wooden doors. It was about the price of a decent secondhand car. Straight away, I fell hard for its unusual diagonal lines: an exterior staircase and sharply angled rooftops that carved up space in unexpected directions. Such a contrast to modern apartments: all rectangular boxes with standard windows. Vernacular architecture like this was just what I'd been looking for.

But I'd never visited the town of Cianciana, and couldn't find out much about it online. The agency listing it had received 100% positive ratings from expat buyers in online forums, and I contacted several to get more details.

A search turned up someone blogging about Cianciana, an American named Hilary. "Is there something wrong with the water?" I wrote. "Why are there so many properties on the market in such a small town?"

The water in Cianciana comes directly from a reservoir where well-known companies bottle their water, she said. For generations, many young people have moved to northern Italy and Europe, where there are more jobs. Cianciana's connections with England were the reason behind the English website. 

Hilary volunteered to look at the house with the agents. 

 

cell MyHouse photo

Studio downstairs from agency photo, 2008

Her report was grim.

"Don't get it," she said. "We couldn't tell what condition the floors were in, because the place was filled floor to ceiling with junk. It'll cost you at least double the purchase price to make it habitable. There are plenty of houses in town that'll cost you less to renovate, with more space." And she emailed them to me.

But I loved the building's quirky exterior. And the reason for its low price – its impossible interior – held possibilities. Its vaulted ceiling and wooden roof won me over, and its small size would control renovation costs. As I traveled through Southeast Asia, talking to papermakers for the last leg of my book, I couldn't stop thinking about it. 

So that morning when the U.S. dollar spiked and the house price dipped under $10,000, I decided to gamble with my savings. "How much is required for a deposit?" I wrote the agency, which was called, appropriately enough, My House. They fired back an email to say that for about 40% down they could hold the house for me, and the game – the gamble – was on.

I did paperwork at Italian embassies, and more international transfers. Had headaches that were a precursor for more later, once renovations began. Some documents had a crucial word mis-translated, or were incorrectly stamped. There were extra fees and forms because I wanted to buy it under my own name (Italian law automatically puts property in a couple's name, but my husband naturally thought I was mad to buy the place and at the time wasn't interested in shouldering half the renovation costs). None of it was simple, but the agency was straightforward throughout, particularly Joe Guida, their British-Sicilian agent who deals with stranieri like me in fluent English. They were honest and wonderful to deal with, from beginning to end. (Actually there's not been an end to our relationship; they've been helpful with everything from electricians to documenting my first artist's stay at the studio.)

And nearly two years later, when for the first time I walked down the small street where my house stood locked in the dark, it was like greeting an old friend. Like me, she was showing her age, and her exterior looked a bit rougher in real life than in photos. She'd had an interesting past that I could only guess at by traces that remained: patterns rolled onto plaster walls, a bricked-up stove and blocked chimney. Soon I signed the papers and was handed a set of oversized antique keys, and she was mine.

And then the real work began. But that's another story. 

It's taken several years to make the studio habitable, and there's much more work to be done. But it's been worth it to do it in the time frame of my life and projects, rather than that of a mortgage. To have the freedom to say: "Let's do these renovations next year" instead of taking out a loan. This is how people once bought their houses, and how many in Italy still do.

This is living life on my own terms, not those of a bank.

A synopsis of the transformation in pictures. Links to renovations after the photos.

The studio/living area has metamorphasized from this:

 

1/F (L) Balcony, Stairs, B/Room, etc.

 

to this:

 studio dusk

 

The bedroom entranceway from this (Joe Guida pictured):

 1/F (R) Entrance

 

to this:

Vietnamese silk curtains by Van

 

the studio's entryway from this:

 

1/F (L) Terrazzo Stairway

 

to this:

 

entryway evening lights

 

the bedroom brightened from a dark room with florid patterns:

 

Studio Sicilia: Checking Measurements

 

to bright with new entranceways – all approved by a geometra (similar to an architect/head builder) – skylights, and white plaster and paint:

 

Bedroom from studio

 

the bathroom from this – just a toilet and sink, with no shower or hot water -

 

Studio Sicilia: too-big bathroom

 

to this:

 

bathroom shower curtain and copper taps

 

from no kitchen to this:

 

livingroom-kitchen-studio 2012

 

Some nuts and bolts: it's relatively straightforward for most foreigners to buy property in Italy–long-term visas there are another matter. There can be pitfalls with illegal builds, particularly in the countryside. It's important to choose a trustworthy agency, and while foreigners will pay more than local residents, it's important to have a clear idea of what prices really are in the region. 

Renovations &c:

From Dusty Warehouse to Art Studio, part 1

From Dusty Warehouse to Art Studio, part 2

Tetris with Tiles

With a lot of Help from my Friends

Renovation photos on Flickr

Studio Sicilia on Air BnB

 

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18 Responses to How I Bought a House off the Internet

  1. MaryAnne says:

    I’ve been looking at estate agent websites for the past decade or so– nearly impulsively bought in Turkey and Mexico. Still want something to call my own. Your little home is an inspiration. It turned out beautifully. Now I know where to spend my next $10k… (not sure I’ll find anything so cheap now, but you never know).

    • Elizabeth says:

      I think all of us wanderers need that – even though some think I’m crazy. “Sicily?! Why? There’s no (contemporary) art scene there! The Euro’s going down the toilet!” Etc. But I wouldn’t trade a mortgaged flat in Milan (where there IS a good contemprary art scene) with this place which allows me some freedom. I knew after years of searching that this was the right place to gamble, sight unseen.

      Looking forward to hearing your stories, when you find the right place.

  2. Mom says:

    So amazing to sit here and read about there – Cianciana – in your words. Seeing it in your photos is extraordinary. You really are amazing.

  3. You can tell it’s your house from the colours alone! :D
    What does the Japanese sign say? Something about a woman’s child?

  4. Pingback: Progress on the studio

  5. Pingback: ???????

  6. Mike says:

    It’s almost our story. :)) We also bought a three-storey townhouse in Cianciana last November. Nice place, magical…

    Will come in autumn to complete renovation. BTW, do you know how much costs delivery from Palermo’s Leroy Merlin to Cianciana? We don’t know what’s better: to rent a car for a day and bring all ourselves, or order delivery.

  7. Elizabeth,

    You are beyond cool. I already knew that, but reading this double confirmed it. SUCH a great story and I love the before and after photos.

    Someday I will visit! I am considering going to Sicily for a few days in September. I can’t wait.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Looking forward to hearing your impressions of Sicily, do shoot me an email with your writing! It’s such a wonderful, and still very weird, place. Ancient and buzzing with excitement at the same time.

  8. Carolyn Thompson says:

    Just saw House Hunters International when you bought your house in Sicily. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the wonders of television, but your stories don’t match. Love your house and enjoyed the true story.

    • Elizabeth says:

      HHI contacted me last year. I responded and said, “But we’ve already bought the house.”
      They replied, essentially: “Good!”

      That’s how they do the shows, to ensure this is actually the property chosen.
      But, personally, I felt the real story was a better one too, even if it doesn’t fit so neatly into their format. Then again, does real life ever fit into a show?

      The producer and crew were wonderful but filming was stressful: renovations were still in progress.
      Thanks for your comment.

  9. Holly Bommer says:

    I am so inspired by you Elizabeth (my middle name, by the way). Saw your HHI episode for the 2nd time and looked up Joe and found this. I’ve had an itch for a long time and need to act on it as I am really in the dumps. I need a change. I’ve messaged many people about moving overseas but no one answers. There’s so much info out there but just get more confused especially about how to get healthcare being a self sufficient person who would not get it through a job.
    I’m so happy that I found this and to see you are doing well!!
    Hope you are loving your life there!! :). I love your place!
    Holly

    • Elizabeth says:

      Glad you enjoyed the show – Sicily is an unexpected delight. I never thought it would be possible to afford a place in Italy, then along came the internet, which revealed how affordable inland properties can be. Nothing’s simple when buying a home in an unfamiliar place, but Joe and MyHouse have been a great help. We’ve enjoyed it so much, that we’re looking at other properties in Sicily for the future.

      Re. health insurance, it’s rarely a simple matter, is it? At the moment I’m covered by travel insurance, but it’s more for catastrophes than preventative healthcare. However in some places we’ve lived like Hong Kong, quality public healthcare is quite affordable for everyday people – provided you’ve got the visa and a job there.

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