Frances Mayes on Buying a House in Italy

Posted by Fodor's Guest Blogger on March 09, 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.

Posted in Travel Tips Tagged: France

Member Comments (17)  Post a Comment

  • horrified on May 26, 13 at 04:25 PM

    "what's the risk, really?"....well how about I start with all the corruption. we bought what we thought was our dream house and have been terrorized by psychopathic neighbours ever since who stop at nothing in trying to extort money from us. They are supported by all of the local authorities in trying to completely destroy us, ruin us financially and mentally. and why? no idea, because our house is larger? Because we read books, speak several languages,love art and music and try to support the local businesses? I would not know...only that it is destroying my life and I could never tell you how much I regret having used the little money I had to buy a house in Italy where there is no freedom of speech, where foreigners have no rights, where the police harass and lie, where court trials are runs like something out of the Soviet Union, where the bank accidentally "looses" your money....the list is endless. Just go there for holidays if you must - but forget all that romantic talk about living in Italy with its "nice" people and their endless litigation.

  • Flora2 on Jun 12, 11 at 10:01 PM

    After 2 times watching "Under the Tuscan sun" movie i decided to follow her path to Cortona Tuscany in 2005, It was a mazing experience. I visit Bramasole and wrote a note for Francis Mayes on her note book at Little grotto by her villa, And since then i am going there every year renting Apt for a month and i know i will move there some day soon. I still watching the movie any time i miss Cortona. Thank you Francis for sharing your beautiful memory, Love you and looking forward to meet you in Cortona. Please remember my comment.

  • friuli_girl on Jun 9, 11 at 03:41 PM

    I lived in Italy for 3 years and it is a country that is hard to leave, despite all the frustrations of daily life. But Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat Pray Love is a rather romantic version of moving to Italy, remember these are well of Americans who have the luxury of living in Europe with freelance careers. Try to move to Italy and find a job, that's a whole other reality. A 3 bedroom home in Italy will cost you 500,000 euros. The average Italian makes 1200 euros a month and lives in an apartment. I don't know if I could ever live in Italy knowing what I know, but I will forever visit Italy and all it's charms and beauty.

  • rennman on Mar 12, 10 at 05:10 PM

    A dose of reality. Real estate in the warmer parts of Europe has been and continues to be very expensive. The prices have been bid up by the Brits and other Northern Europeans. Prices have not fallen as in the US. Further, while the dollar has gained a little right now you will need $1.37 to buy a Euro. This means roughly speaking that property will be about 40% higher than the US. A property selling for 500,000 Euros will cost you $685,000. Ditto for any construction costs. The economics are not good. Unless you are also being paid in euros.

  • Shanna on Mar 12, 10 at 01:27 PM

    As I approach retirement age, I recall the astounding kindness and consideration exhibited to my elderly mom in Paris and the respect I've seen for elders in Germany and Italy. The US has its good points, but after dealing with Medicare Part D, doing tax returns for the elderly, and working with a public guardianship program for indigent elderly, I awoke to the fact that old age is held in contempt in the US. It's not a place I want to be at that point in my life. Italy may not be the perfect answer but it sure beats the heck out of our money and amusement centered US society.

  • dave63 on Mar 12, 10 at 07:05 AM

    I, too, enjoyed the film. But I was under the impression that Italy, and other countries, had strict rules about foreigners buying real estate. If so, how did Ms. Mayes manage to deal with those laws? A friend of mine just received her dual citizenship based on her mother being an immigrant from Italy. It sounded as though she would NOW be eligible to buy a home there. Just wondering.

  • Zerlina on Mar 12, 10 at 04:28 AM

    (cont'd) of the readers of Under the Tuscan Sun, who made her rich beyond her wildest dreams, gawking at the place.

  • Zerlina on Mar 12, 10 at 04:26 AM

    I thought that Frances Mayes had moved out of Bramasole; Too many

  • floridagoldengirl on Mar 11, 10 at 07:54 PM

    Hi, I love reading what everybody has to say. I worked with Pan American World Airways for over 35 years and did my best to see the world. I even briefly lived in a few other countries, In my opinion, and most of the world also, the USA is unsurpassed in every way. I'd never consider living anywhere else, maybe long visits, maybe a couple of months, but to become an ex-pat ? Never. You all already know all the reasons why not. It is lovely and exciting to stay in a different, to us, exciting, country but that's not the real life. We only think it is because we weren't born and brought up there and don't have any real clue. Too, most x-pats have ample money to buy a nice life style for themselves that is better than the one they can afford in our own country. that far from makes that country better than ours in any way. I loved the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. It was charming or maybe it's just because I love the leading lady in it. Italy has charm and scenery and funny people but that's not all. The laws are really nutzo for us. For them also I'll bet but they don't know better, My own grandfather immigrated to the USA from Naples as a young man and I don't even know his Italian name. He changed it to John Jordan to be an American.

  • JStone on Mar 11, 10 at 03:23 PM

    Ask American Amanda Knox how she feels about her new home in Italy.

  • rennman on Mar 11, 10 at 02:48 PM

    A lot of rosy romantic views. Italy overall is remarkably corrupt - compared to the US. (Ever heard of the Mafia.) Lots of under the table dealings. Americans look like marks. Funny, Frances talks as if nothing in Italy is negotiable. Maybe most Americans aren't good at negotiating in another language - but lots of bargaining goes on. On the non-Rosy side Tuscany is packed with tourists of every type and excessively development. Frances is selling books and her "list" is a prequel to her latest book extolling the virtues of her Tuscan life.

    However, I do love Italy and there are wonderful corners to explore full of beauty and art. So don't think I'm not a fan. But Tuscany is oversold. We only go in the December!

  • msdon2 on Mar 11, 10 at 10:43 AM

    Having been to Tuscany several times in the past 5 years, it's an experience and place that beckons you back; over and over again. My fiance, who had never been to Italy, 5 years ago was so taken by it that he/we would chose to go back every year if we could. We relive our visits constantly; looking forward to the next. If you truly experience Italy, Italy gets under your skin and doesn't let you forget it. We plan constantly to see all that she has to offer, but are always drawn to dreaming of time in Tuscany. We will surely be back and hopefully our next visit will be an extended one. Bella Tuscany....Bella Italy.

  • Ruth_Gordon on Mar 11, 10 at 10:41 AM

    Frances Mayes, you are my idol.....You have done what so many of us would like to do, but do not have the nerve to make the jump. I have visited Tuscany many times and as you, I love the area. I signed your guestbook on a trip 5 years ago. A girlfriend and I had to make our Frances Mayes pilgrimage! Since then I have been back with other friends and my husband. He has become a fan as much as I and we just started a new company taking small private groups to the Tuscany we have grown to love. Keep writing your wonderful memoirs.....they are an inspiration! If I ever find myself leaving the grandchildren here in NC I would love for it to be in beautiful Tuscany!

  • DoloresX on Mar 11, 10 at 10:21 AM

    Look up Corruption in Tuscany to see corruption went up 229% in 2009. The National sport in Italy is Tax evasion. Tuscany has been corrupt for ages. The United States is still the best country in the world, we are always the one to help other countries in need. In Tuscany you would have to pay for a job. Gregntexas kiss the ground you walk on. Why would you even bring up politics and ruin the beauty of Ms. Mayes books and poetry? It is like blasphemy.

  • APB513 on Mar 11, 10 at 10:16 AM

    Under the Tuscan Sun is one of my favorite movies. It made me fall in love with Italy!! I had no idea it was based on a true story. I will have to go out and buy these books. I would LOVE to move to Italy!! That would be a dream come true!!

  • gregntexas on Mar 11, 10 at 09:29 AM

    I had the pleasure to travel to Italy two years ago, and it is a beautiful country. If I had the financial means to move to Italy and get away from the madness and corruption of the USA I'd do it in a heartbeat. I envy you Francis, enjoy the fruits of your madness!!

  • julzieluv1 on Mar 11, 10 at 08:40 AM

    I met one of her neighbors at an italian wine tasting in Florida just last night. Under the Tuscan Sun is full of foreshadowing events. Maybe it's a sign.

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