Frances Mayes on Buying a House in Italy

Posted by Fodor's Guest Blogger on March 9, 2010 at 9:15:46 AM EST | Post a Comment

By Frances Mayes

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Buying a house in a foreign country is exhilarating and scary. When I plunked down my savings on Bramasole in Tuscany, I didn't know anyone who'd ever done something so crazy. This was 1990. There was no inspection and obviously the house needed major work. The real estate agent had simply introduced me to the owner then wandered off to pick some really delicious plums above the house. The owner expounded about the quality of the water, which later dried up. I knew about two hundred words of Italian and although I felt that I somehow understood what was being said, actually I understood only enough to get everything totally wrong.

I was wild about the place. Twenty (unbelievable!) years later, I still am. Here's where I discovered writing memoirs, where my cooking totally changed, where I made new lifelong friends and had the joy of welcoming many old friends. The ones who told me I was mad to buy the house became regular visitors and often remark that they always thought it was a fine idea. I have learned so much about art, history, and a way of life. Where you feel at home, really at home, seems to me a metabolic connection. Every time I arrive at Bramasole, I put down my bag and breathe, I'm home.

If you're considering purchasing a house in Italy—or anywhere—contemplate these hard-earned bits of advice:

1. Surrender to Italian Time

To own that "at home" feeling seems worth any risk. The parameters of my entire life—and those of my family—expanded exponentially. So did my patience. Waiting for workmen, understanding that no one works on holidays I'd never heard of, putting off projects because it's inauspicious to begin work on Wednesday—and by Thursday you might as well wait for a fresh start on Monday—all this teaches me to fold myself into Italian time. They've had so much of it! What's the rush? Maddening to can-do Americans. The flip side is that people have time. They're up for any eight-hour dinner, slow cappuccino in the piazza or a jaunt in the country to see a romanesque church. I love the ease of friendship there—spontaneous and always fun.

2. Immerse Yourself in the New Language and Local Customs

Since I acquired my house and Italian life, I've met many others who've done the same. They all speak of falling in love. Only one packed after two years and left. He really should have learned more than grazie and buon giorno. Everyone else feels as I do, that this is the best thing they've ever done. I feel that I've been charged with a twenty-year power surge.

Besides the beauty of life in rural Italy, there's the whole country to explore, a new language to learn. Language is key, of course. The sooner you learn, the deeper you go. Soon you'll be seated at one of those long tables and you want to express more than "Vino, per favore!" And stay tuned to local ways. For instance, in Italy, you do not telephone anyone between one and four. You do telephone workmen at noon. Gauche to call during the pause! Every place has its quirks to learn.

3. Find the House That Makes Your Heart Pound

When I first saw my house in Tuscany, I said, "This is it," before I even closed the car door. The price was high and I sadly went away. The following year it was still for sale, and against my American knowledge of real estate, the price had been raised. I bought it.

In the past couple of years, since the economy went into free fall, those with cash under the mattress have been lucky. The prices that had become astronomical, became much softer. I've never found the Italians willing to negotiate; they tend to ask the price they expect to get. But there are dream bargains—and what's the risk, really? They are definitely not making these old villas and farm houses anymore so the investment seems sound. If your portfolio tumbles and you have a plot of land, you can always plant a garden, make your own cheese, trade those delicious plums for your neighbor's melons, and buy sfuso (loose wine). And you will learn a mysterious new trade—tile roofing, well pump replacement, stone wall building, olive pruning.

4. Trust Your Instincts

My new memoir, Every Day in Tuscany, records further adventures in my adopted home. My books are a pleasure to write because Italy remains an endless country. My house perches on a hill, under an Etruscan wall, and looks out at a serene valley, as it has for two-and-a-half centuries. I imagine all the people who have lived there before me and how the house stakes a long claim in the landscape. Often I think of my grandfather who admonished me to get my head out of the clouds. He fulminated against those who acted "out of the fullness of their ignorance." If only I could invite him over to eat a few words, along with a sublime pasta. Sometimes, the irrational decision, coming from some deep instinct, will be the best one to make. Welcome to the feast, Daddy Jack. Such is the power of the place. Everyone I ever loved lives here with me.

About the Author

In addition to her Tuscany memoirs, Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, and the recently published Every Day in Tuscany, Frances Mayes is the author of the travel memoir A Year in the World; the illustrated books In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home; Swan, a novel; The Discovery of Poetry, a text for readers; and five books of poetry. She divides her time between homes in Italy and North Carolina. For more on her journeys, visit her blog at www.francesmayesbooks.com.

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