The pluses (and minuses) of buying a historic house in Italy

April 28, 2024

Buying a historic house in Italy offers the chance to own a piece of the richest, grandest culture in the western world. But if you’re tempted by the beauty and splendour of a Renaissance, Baroque or even a Roman home, what should you consider?

In our 2023 reader survey, 42% said they were looking for something “old and beautiful”, and only 10% for something “cool and modern”. Well, in Italy you’re spoiled for choice.
Historic houses have been preserved by wealthy, prestigious families for centuries. From rural castles and farmhouses to villas and city apartments. Even better, many don’t feel ancient when you’re in them, so you can be staying in a 14th century Venice apartment and barely notice it.
Noble Italian families built palaces (palazzo) and towers across the country, and most towns and villages have an attractive historic centre (Centro Storico) with some elegant buildings. But now, many need renovation.
Like the fresh flavours of Neapolitan pizza, made with tomatoes and basil from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, to enjoy the real taste of Italy you have to spend time in a real Italian home.
Throughout history, foreign visitors have been fascinated by the architecture and historic sites in Italy. Some have tried to copy the designs in their own homes, while others decided to buy the real thing in Italy. Like the fresh flavours of Neapolitan pizza, made with tomatoes and basil from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, to enjoy the real taste of Italy, you have to spend time in a real Italian home.

Historic houses and apartments in town

Historic houses in the Renaissance and Baroque styles can be purchased today in the towns and cities of Italy. Some even have vaulted ceilings and frescos. You may even find a house in the Italian Art Nouveau style or a medieval village house nestling by a castle wall.
They have good holiday rental potential. Tourists love accommodation that looks Italian and is conveniently located in the historic part of town.
The interest in purchasing city apartments within historic houses has grown immensely in recent years. Mostly because they have good holiday rental potential. Tourists love accommodation that looks Italian and is conveniently located in the historic part of town.

Historic Country Houses

In the countryside, you will find historic houses, castles, villas, farmhouses, ski chalets and towers. If you have watched the TV show Help, We Bought a Village on Channel 4, you may even be tempted to buy a whole medieval village to renovate.
Farm buildings can be bought that have been tastefully renovated while respecting their rustic charm. They often come with an olive grove or fruit orchard. Plus, if you dream of producing your own wine, Italy is certainly the place to come to buy a property with a vineyard.
There are various styles of historic farmhouses, depending on the region. The Tuscan farmhouse with its stone walls and tiled roof continues to be popular. While in Puglia there has been growing interest in buying 17th-century Masseria farmhouses, to convert into holiday accommodation. These have high courtyard walls and stone vaulted ceilings and are very similar to the Baglio in Sicily. Estate agents also report more enquiries for historic castles.

Before buying a historic house

So, how do you go about buying a historic house in Italy, and what should you consider?

Due diligence

It is recommended to consult with a lawyer and a Geometra at the start, before making an offer. Historic houses have often been owned by many generations of the same family, which can sometimes make the deeds and titles difficult to assess. It is important that “due diligence” investigations are done thoroughly before the purchase.

Building restrictions

If it is a building of particular historical interest, check if there are any restrictions on the work that can be done to it. It might be that you are obliged to employ a master in a particular trade. You may also be restricted in what structural changes you can make.

Renovation costs

When taking on a very large property the cost of maintenance should be considered. Both urgent and long-term. If extensive structural work and renovation are needed, make certain that permission will be granted for the work you want to do. Most importantly get detailed quotes for renovation work needed before putting in an offer.

Detailed contracts

Get quotes and contracts checked by a lawyer, ensuring every detail is included. The quality of materials, a timescale and payment plan should be listed. The most common problems are contractors using inferior materials and not turning up after receiving some of the money.

Running costs

You may consider turning the property into a hotel or holiday apartment. This should help finance the building’s ongoing upkeep. But, also think about utility bills. A lot of thought needs to go into how you are going to heat and cool the property, without it costing a fortune.

Rustic Italian Luxury

Historic homes can be both stylish and homely, rustic and luxurious. Only in Italy can modern furniture be placed in a room with flaking paint and exposed stone and be considered a beautiful interior design. But it is, and it works because real age is beautiful and tells a story, like wrinkles on a face. It is something you can’t fake.

The Romans

It is often the history that first attracts tourists to Italy. Men may, apparently, think of the Roman Empire more than their wives ever imagined, but in Italy you can buy a part of it. To think that has been over 2000 years since Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, with all its power and influence, yet we can view Roman buildings that are still standing today. Imagine the citizens and slaves of Rome walking along the same streets we walk. Roman ruins stand harmoniously alongside Renaissance houses.
People used to travel for weeks from all over the empire, to visit Rome. Among them are traders and merchants from around the world. It took three to four weeks to travel from London to Rome. Today you can fly there in just two and a half hours and buy your own piece of Rome.

The Grand Tour

It was the aristocrats, mostly British and French, in the 17th century that were first really considered tourists. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was popular to travel to the most famous Italian cities, to brush up on their classical knowledge on what became known as the “Grand Tour”.
The cities visited on the Grand Tour became famous and are still popular places to holiday and buy historic houses and apartments today. First, they might arrive at the port of Genoa and visit Turin. All around the city, there are exquisite palaces of the Royal House of Savoy, which you can visit today. A favourite stop was also Venice and the surrounding towns of Verona, Vicenza and Padua.

From Tuscany to Rome

The cities of Tuscany were another highlight, with Florence being the major attraction. Other Tuscan towns they might visit included Siena, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano. The most important stop in Central Italy, was of course Rome, for its rich offering of history and art.

From Naples to Sicily

The Bay of Naples, was another potential stop-off point, which is located near the largest historic house in Italy, The Palace of Caserta. Following the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, they too were added to the list.
Despite the extra distance to travel, Sicily was also considered a significant place to visit on the Grand Tour. The must-see places on Sicily were Messina, Taormina, Catania, Segesta, Agrigento and Mount Etna. Travelers were fascinated by Sicily’s landscape, ancient heritage, its wildlife, and geology, including the volcanoes.

Historic houses near Italy’s top attractions

Today, Italy attracts visitors and house buyers who want to experience Italian cuisine, fine wines, history, fashion, architecture, art, culture, religious sites, countryside, ski slopes and spas. The Alps and Apennines are enjoyed by hikers and winter sports enthusiasts. Coastal locations and lakes attract those who want to go boating, relax on a beach, or try their hand at water sports. Although the art cities are still a big attraction, house buyers also opt for large historic houses in the countryside, that are within driving distance of cities and attractions.

Historic Houses with an income

The Italian Registry of Historic Houses of Excellence has been working on a census, cataloguing and classifying Italian historical residences for tourism and events. The archives of the Italian Registry of Historic Houses of Excellence contain information about over 8,000 historical residences, castles, villas and historical residences that have been preserved and carry out activities in the hospitality sector or high-level events.

Preserving historic buildings

In these days when sustainability is so important, it is certainly greener to buy an old building and renovate it to a luxury standard, rather than build a new one. You can buy historic houses already restored. However, it can be very rewarding to buy an old property and renovate it to your tastes.
History is never far away in Italy. There are 6,000 archaeological sites, 4,000 museums, 85,000 historic churches and 40,000 historic palaces, all subject to protection by the Italian Ministry of Culture so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Advice to owners of historic houses

There is a strong desire to protect the Italian culture, landscape and old buildings. The historic houses of Italy are cultural assets of important historic and artistic interest, which are “listed”, and protected by the state. The Associazione Dimore Storiche Italiane (ADSI) brings together the owners of historic homes throughout Italy. They aim to help them defend, preserve and enhance this heritage, so that it may be maintained and passed on to future generations.

Preserving historic villages

Thanks to the association, Borghi più belli d’Italia (The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy), more people are now exploring the lesser-known villages. Often they will have a castle, old stone streets, cultural events and crafts. The increase in tourism and property buyers to these villages, in turn helps the local economy, revitalises the community and preserves its culture. Historic houses in the area that provide accommodation, etc. can also benefit.

World Heritage Sites

Italy has 59 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the highest number of any country in the world. Among them are the historic centres of Rome and Florence, the spa town of Montecatini Terme, the village of Pienza, the Porticoes of Bologna and the city of Vicenza in the Veneto region. All stunning places to own a historic house. It is also good to know that, if you buy property in a historic area, they are very unlikely to put a foreign fast food chain next door. City Mayors are very keen to preserve the decorum and Italian look of the historic centres. They also encourage restaurants to use produce sourced locally.

Historic Houses owned by the state

Have you ever seen an empty house and wondered who owns it? In some cases, they are owned by the Italian state. They may have been ex-workers homes, related to a state-owned company. However, the large historic properties are more likely to have been previously owned by someone with no heirs, and so have been passed to the state. Some councils will get funding to turn a castle or Palace into council offices or venues for meetings, weddings, museums etc. Although, occasionally the state will put buildings up for auction to raise funds for other projects.

Who will preserve the abandoned buildings?

Historic buildings that have not been maintained and are in danger of becoming derelict, may be saved by the Fondo per L’ambiente Italiano (FAI). Which is Italy’s equivalent of the National Trust. Over the past 30 years, FAI have rescued historic residences, castles, villas, historic parklands, gardens and landscapes and opened them to the public. It’s membership, donations, volunteers and visitors, that help support their work.
We all have the opportunity to buy and save these buildings. Any contribution we can make as a society to preserve historic houses for future generations is a positive step. If we renovate these beautiful properties before they go to ruin, we will not only save a piece of architectural history but also the cultural history of the people who lived there. Our time spent living and renovating our Italian home will also contribute to that history, and we can feel proud that it will stand strong long after we have gone.