(CNN) — Dozens of towns in Italy have been selling abandoned dwellings for a song, sparking a new kind of gold rush as enthusiastic buyers from all over the world try to secure a bargain in beautiful, remote villages.
The deal is seen as a win-win, with dying communities getting an influx of new life and investment as dilapidated properties spring back to life and, more importantly, start contributing revenue.
But there could still be losers.
Now families of the original owners of some of the abandoned homes are starting to come forward to stake their claim on these old stone structures, saying that they should’ve been contacted to be made aware of the sales.
Among those now disputing the potential sell-off of their family home is Josie Faccini of Niagara Falls, Canada.
Faccini’s grandmother, Consilia Scapillati, migrated to Canada in the 1950s, leaving behind a cute little stone house in the historical center of Castropignano in Italy’s southern Molise region that the family has visited regularly over intervening years.
After reading about Castropignano’s plan to offload its old housing stock, Faccini began worrying about a “property grab” and has spent months trying, from afar, to reassert her claim to the home her nonna left decades ago.
And she’s not the only one. Despite efforts by local authorities to contact the families of the original owners, others say they’ve also fear losing their ancestral homes as they struggle to assert their claim because of distance, time and legal complications.
‘Angry and frustrated’
“I’d heard of the plans of selling and reached out in August,” Faccini tells CNN Travel. “Then I saw the article saying the mayor had sent notifications abroad but no one in my family was notified of this.”
Faccini says she’s sent multiple emails and a registered letter to Nicola Scapillati, the mayor of Castropignano, who shares the same surname as her grandmother, but has received no reply.
“Nothing,” she says. “I am so angry and frustrated. I would like to see the town flourish and help be a part of this, but please do not steal our home from us.”
Faccini says she finally got a reply from the mayor after an agonizing eight month wait, but says Scapillati told her she needed to provide a deed of ownership and information to verify her claim.
This could prove tricky. Asked by CNN to comment on Faccini’s claim, Scapillati points out that over the years, the home could have passed to new owners outside the family or to other heirs or distant relatives. Faccini has cousins back in Italy who she has never met.
It’s also not unknown for sales or transfer of ownership to be made informally in Italy, especially in rural locations, to avoid taxes, Scapillati says.
Castropignano is doing things differently compared with other places selling €1 homes. The town has roughly 100 abandoned buildings, but the mayor says he wants to match interested parties with the right house for them.
He says he’s moving along two parallel paths, reaching out both to potential buyers and old owners at the same time, step by step, to ensure demand meets supply.
Once interested buyers get in touch with a detailed plan of what kind of house they’d like and why, the mayor says he attempts to reach the original owners based on the land registry data.
Fines and seizures
After receiving thousands of emails from interested buyers, Scapillati says he identified a first tranche of houses and sent out roughly 20 letters to original owners scattered across the world.
The mayor tells CNN he’ll seize the properties and sell them to new buyers if the original owners don’t reply within a reasonable timeframe detailing their intentions to restore the building or hand it over to authorities.
He says the properties are dangerous and dilapidated.
Legally, he’s on reasonably solid ground, according to one expert. Anyone owning property in Italy must maintain its upkeep so that its condition won’t cause harm to anyone. Failure to do so can result in fines and seizure, albeit in extreme circumstances.
“Under Italian law, the owner or heir has the obligation to guarantee at any time the due maintenance of the asset in order to prevent any damage to third parties,” says Emiliano Russo, property lawyer and adjunct professor in real estate at Rome’s Luiss Business School.
“In case of risk of damages, he may be subject to administrative sanctions from €154 up to €929 ($186 to $1,122) and, in case of real damages, he may be subject to the criminal sanction of the arrest.”
Since these rules are meant to guarantee public safety, mayors can issue an injunction requiring owners to carry out repairs, Russo says.
He adds local authorities can pursue owners or their heirs through courts or using their own powers to recover the cost of maintenance or even seize the property.
Castropignano’s mayor says he has sent notices about the project to Italian diplomatic missions abroad. Josie Faccini says neither she nor anyone in her family has seen received any information published by the embassy in Canada.
The two sides are now trading arguments over what constitutes proper notification.
“I have searched the Italian embassy in Canada but found no notifications,” she says. “Most people from Castropignano migrated to Canada, we even have a club here, the Niagara Club Castropignano, which was started by the hundreds of immigrants that live here.”
Confusion and Covid
Faccini says she wants to know what needs to be done to recover the house and is willing to pay all back taxes and renovation expenses. She says she’s sent her nonna’s full name to the town hall and mayor and says she has now identified the property address with the help of relatives in Italy.
Faccini believes taking over a property, even if abandoned, without properly notifying the family members on the steps to reclaim it and letting another family have it, is unacceptable.
“Up until 10 years ago, I used to stay in my nonna’s house in Castropignano, located up a hilly road after the archway at the entrance of the town,” says Faccini.
“One of my aunts in Italy used the house for a while, then she died but I have no idea what happened to the house, to who it belongs to now.
“It has been abandoned for five years. I would have personally flown over already to enquire but Covid made it impossible”
Scapillati adds that the heirs of two other emigre families in Canada and Argentina have also been in touch to find out about the fate of their ancestors’ home.
“They weren’t claiming anything, just asking information regarding a family property in Castropignano which they remembered owning decades ago but didn’t know the exact location,” he says.
“One key element is emerging — the chance that across time emigres abroad sold their house privately to other owners without notifying the local authorities. Therefore we have no concrete data, just unpaid taxes piling up which nobody will ever pay.”
Other €1 bonanza towns have faced similar problems.
The Sicilian town of Mussomeli set up an agency to liaise between old and new buyers and has so far successfully sold hundreds of cheap homes, according to Deputy Mayor Toti Nigrelli.
He says at least one family from Argentina, where many locals migrated to in past decades, got in touch enquiring about and claiming a potential old family home.
“We have a large community of people living in South America descending from Mussomeli natives whose interest in their roots sparked when news spread abroad of our alluring housing scheme,” says Nigrelli.
“A few of them remembered owning a house here and have asked what to do to claim back their ancestors’ dwelling.”
There have also been communication from home owners keen to offload their crumbling family properties to relieve themselves of the burden.
“We were so happy to dispose of our aunt’s house we just gifted it right over to the town authorities,” says Antonietta Lipani, an Italian-Swiss resident of Geneva whose family migrated from Mussomeli.
“My dad inherited it but we never go, it’s been empty for years. What’s the point of keeping it?”
A few towns, such as Carrega Ligure in Piedmont and Lecce nei Marsi in Abruzzo, have tried but failed to launch €1 schemes with old owners proving too elusive, perhaps fearing contact with local authorities seeking back taxes of roughly €400 a year, says Scapillati.
Bickering relatives can also be an obstacle. In Italy each single living heir has a share of the property and to sell, all must agree and sign off, otherwise the abandoned property remains frozen, even if it’s crumbling to the ground, according to Michele Giannini, the mayor of Fabbriche di Vergemoli, another town selling off houses.
However in nearly all towns that have successfully sold €1 properties to new owners the descendants of emigres have been in touch to recover lost ties and rediscover their roots.
Memory of mom
The mayors of Bivona and Troina in deep Sicily have received dozens of purchase requests from people whose ancestors migrated to France, Argentina and the United States, all looking for an empty house in the picturesque village of their ancestors.
“This project has awakened second and third generations of migrants abroad, sparking renewed interest for our community. In the past, many families fled in search of a better future. Now, their sons and grandsons want to return to their native town to relive the rural vibe”, says Bivona Mayor Milko Cinà.
Back in Castropignano, Mayor Scapillati says he’s happy to cooperate with Faccini to solve her problem if details can be verified. He doesn’t think it has been sold.
“We’re not grabbing any property, we don’t want to take any house away from any family, quite the contrary,” he says. “We’re thrilled that our project has created enthusiasm and thrown Castropignano in the spotlight, drawing people eager to join forces in recovering our lovely community.”
Faccini says if she can establish her claim over her family’s old house, she wants to move back to Castropiagno and would willingly help promote the town.
“It’s the only thing I have left of my mom, I’d like to keep it,” she says. “I want to go and live in the house, show it to my nephews and nieces who have never seen it. I’d like to work together with the mayor to help Castropignano flourish again.
“I’d be the greatest advocate for people wanting to buy a house there.”