ANDREW JACKNESS AND CANDICE DONNELLY
WE BOUGHT A HOUSE IN PUGLIA
This is a diary of our progress
April 2019 we traveled to Puglia to buy a house. I'm not sure that we really thought we would do it, but we did. Here's how it happened. And how a couple-married costume and film designers managed to agree that this was the right thing to do; and the right place to do it, while sharing our discoveries. Here's how it's going.
WE WERE LOOKING IN SOUTHERN LECCE
For months from New York Candy had tried to make appointments with realtors in various places; but aside from one, most respond when you're there and ready to look.
Just as common is the local rumor mill. When people find out that an outsider is in their neighborhood looking, everyone has a suggestion. The bar is the best place to start. Introducing yourself is the easiest way to become friends with the locals. It helps to speak Italian. We speak enough, but the three weeks in April that we spent in Puglia, were like an Italian immersion class.
Candice had gotten Italian citizenship in the late 90's, and through a convoluted and sometimes inexplicable process, I had finally become a citizen myself in 2018.
We had been to Puglia the year before staying outside of Otranto, and loved it. There was a consideration of going back; but when coincidently I heard from our friend Eve, who lives in Rome that she had bought, and was renovating a place in Marittima Del Diso, and that there was a small community of artists and filmmakers in the area, it helped us decide on where we were going to look.
April 6, 2019
PUGLIA IS NOT TUSCANY
The bay of Otranto
Alberobello, Oria, Francavilla, Monopoli, Putignano Al Mare, Polignano, Sava
Our real interest was farther south, down to Lecce the lower part of the heel of the Italian boot. The province is home to the beautiful city of Lecce, filled with baroque architecture and a large historic center, it's one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. The twisting streets follow no rule, and it's easy to get completely turned around and lost while gawking at the golden buildings constructed with "Leccese" stone, the most common of materials in Puglia.
Candy in May of 2018 with our elderly dog Pip being carted around in a carriage since his walking had been slowed down by an ACL tear, and he was feeling the effects of two bouts with Lyme disease. He would make it past the new year; but he thoroughly enjoyed this first trip to Puglia with us.
Our daughter Bronwen who had joined us in Otranto the first trip
Diso, Marittima, Spongano, Andrano, Castro, Poggiardo, and Maglie
We headed to Marittima Del Diso where Eve's architect was meeting us in a cafe he designed; which was the hippest place in town, but would also become a hot spot for most of the business we did. The Utopia.
Marcello Apa was supervising the crews working on Eve's house, and had arranged for our rental house in Marittima. His office is in this lovely tiny town. He knew everyone, and they all know each other.
Marcello would befriend and accompany us to each of the important houses and apartments we visited with a number of agents. He was invaluable in helping us to assess the viability of all the property we looked at. Most required extensive renovation, and although both of us are designers and have good imaginations, Marcello was able to help us visualize the possibilities each one had, and which walls we could remove and which might be structural.
April 10, 2019
MARITTIMA DEL DISO
Driving into Marittima we discovered a
small quiet town, after all it was April, and settled in to spend the next several weeks looking for a new home away from home.
For the second half of April we would drive between a large number of the towns in Lecce to try to define our goals and decide how we might want to live in this new and very different place. Each day a new experience helped teach us something about ourselves and what we were looking for.
Our trip was in April, so Easter featured prominently in every café and pasticceria.
Our search would take us to a variety of different kind of homes, and since we were looking for a place to fix up and renovate rather than one that was "move in" ready there were many commonalities. Most had two floors, the "volte a stella" we were looking for, gardens of differing sizes, and most needed lot's of work. Many looked as though they had been suspended in time the day that they became unoccupied.
As we looked, being near to the water became a clear choice
Moving around the countryside, it became obvious that the nearer to the sea, the better. Although the Adriatic coast is rocky and the sand beaches tiny, this was the side we liked the best and it was nearer to the communities where people that were in our orbit tended to be. The water is one of the many reasons we love this area.
The local bar in Marittima
Eve had found her house through a guy in a bar who knew of a place, so our first dinner in Marittima at La Vecchia: a bar/restaurant, we told Angela and Francesco, the owners that we were looking for a house. La Vecchia has a perpetual card game with a rotating group of local men, and an endless supply of rosé and beer. As our dinner was prepared, Angela adopted us and decided to help us find something.
Each town in Puglia has a Saint's Day for which thousands of lights are put up on wood structures redesigned every year for the special days. It takes weeks for them to be erected, and they are like wooden erector sets held by self support and wires. The frame goes up first, then all the interior pieces. We arrived to see the elaborate structures grow in each town, none in this area more complex and fantastical than Diso celebrating each year on May 1. We were shown several houses in Diso; but had no idea until later that they pay a special tax for the lights that are the pride of the town. Most are funded by contributions.
Marittima del Diso
as seen from a rooftop across from the main church. Marcello makes a phone call as we look out across the town. The terraced roofs provide a great system for rain water to seep through holes in the parapets and down pipes into cisterns, which hold the water for garden use.
Marittima only has a couple of restaurants; but one of the better ones is Aria Corte. It's the local go to place, consistently good solid local food.
Once we arrived in Marittima there was plenty being sold, and we made notes of everything that looked interesting.
Each day a new realtor would take us around. Some we met through phone numbers on doors, some through online listings; but there were also the guys from the bar.
Marcello met us most days. On the weekends we drove around ourselves looking at towns from Leuca to around Lecce. Some places were beautiful; but there was something special about where we had centered our search.
Many of the homes we visited, were a rabbit warren of rooms connected to each other; but impossible to have any privacy.
One morning, in addition to Marcello, a realtor named Valerio Arseni appeared with his associate: Barbara Zecca. He would take us to two houses with Marcello. Both in Spongano.
We still don't know who exactly put Valerio on the case; but he would prove instrumental in our main choices and how we ended up with our home.
Even Marcello had a family house that was for sale. It was a wonderful house on the main street of Marittima: Via Roma, almost on the main square. But it was what convinced us that a two story house would have us spending most of our time on one floor or the other, and we'd never get the full value.
Click below to see some others.
Angela the owner of La Vecchia had told us not to get involved with realtors. She had hooked us up with a couple of home owners who had family homes they wanted to sell; but the renovations weren't to our taste. We met Marcello at the bar and he seemed to be aware that Valerio was meeting us too. We followed him to Spongano where he showed us two houses. The first house had lemon trees filled with ripe fruit, which Valerio proceeded to pick while we looked at the house.
The second house in Spongano on Via Sant' Angelo we visited with Valerio, Barbara and Marcello was one level, six rooms. Three in front, three in back. There was one bathroom finished in pink and black tiles, a kitchen, and a full basement(cantina), fully vaulted, and relatively dry. Behind, there was a 5,000 Sq. Ft. garden. The house hadn't been occupied for at least 10 years. I loved it the minute we walked in the door.
Via Sant' Angelo, 65 Spongano
Perhaps the next door neighbor influenced how we felt about this house?
At this point it became clear that the two houses that Valerio had shown to us were the best things we'd seen. Both houses were in Spongano, on the same street. Both needed lot's of work; but it seemed that #65 was in better condition, and the garden was much larger making it possible to install a pool; a necessity for rental.
Eve had told us that there was a small film and arts community in the area, and although she wasn't able to be there while we were looking, she introduced us to Francesca Marciano who had had a house in Spongano for a long time.
We spent several more days looking; but nothing stood out or was less than a complete rebuild. Although the second house we saw was more expensive, we thought it was less reconstruction and easier to combine rooms; plus the garden in the first house had a garden which was too small for a pool. We decided to make an offer on Via Sant' Angelo 65.
which Marcello had designed and the main meeting place in Marittima.
That evening we went home and called Valerio prepared to make an offer. He told me that it would be better if we met in person, since my face to face Italian was much better than when I tried to talk on the phone. It's true.
Why this house?
Why this house?
*It was in very good condition.
*It had a full (cantina) basement
meaning that it had ventilation
under the house.
*It was on one level.
*It had a huge back yard with fruit trees, which was large enough to put in a pool-necessary for rental.
*It had a double cistern to collect
* The back garden gate opens onto a dead end street.
*We loved the relationships of the rooms, and could see how to open walls and work with the geometry of the house.
*There was a stone structure in the back of the garden which could be made into a garage.
The ceilings were all intact, and there seemed to be no water damage.
*All rooms had (Volte A Stella) Star vaulted ceilings.
*The Leccese stone, like that of any other house in this area is absorbent, and after 10 years of being unoccupied.
*Like most family homes which hadn't been renovated in years, the electrical, water, and heating systems had to be replaced.
*There was only one bathroom.
*The floors had been replaced in the 70's, and we didn't like the tile. In addition, the floors had been raised about 7" above the original level. We hoped that the original tile was underneath; but wouldn't be able to find out until we could open them up and see.
*There was only one bathroom, and we would have to build two more so we could rent it.
*Marcello was concerned that one of the two cisterns shared a wall with the house and was causing more humidity. We weren't sure what the solution would be.
*There were three front rooms, all with doors to the street. They weren't that private, so how would we organize the bedrooms?
April 19, 2019
MAKING THE OFFER
We met at the Utopia the next afternoon with Valerio and Marcello. After drinks and a bit of chit chat, we got down to business. I told him our offer, which was less than the asking price. He said that it was impossible to return to the family with the offer, it had to be higher. Fortunately our top price was one that he was alright with relaying to them. I explained to him that we had just had the negotiation, and they need not come back with another offer. If they didn't accept, we'd move on. Since this was higher than what we had intended to pay, it really was a firm offer; but the only one we were prepared to make.
Here were the questions he had for us:
-Were we prepared to put a certain amount down to hold the property from other buyers. We said: "Yes."
-Did we have a bank account? No
-Did we have a loan? No
-Did we have a check? No
He was slightly incredulous.
"How do you expect to pay for this?" Exasperation, speaking from his hands.
Candy said: "We have credit cards.!?"
We had come to Italy to buy a house, but maybe we didn't really think it would happen, and had never thought about any of that.
Candy pointed out that as Italian citizens she thought we could get a loan...perhaps?
Even though I'm sure we had told him, Valerio didn't seem to remember that we had Italian Passports.
-Did we have the Codice Fiscale? What's that???
Evidently the equivalent of a Social Security number.
Valerio had an associate...perhaps a head of his firm whom he called for advice. It was decided that the first thing we needed was:
To make the formal offer. There were 7 heirs to the property and all would have to agree not only to sell at that price. Two lived in different cities, and one had Power Of Attorney for a mother that had dementia. They would have to accept the offer with no down payment; but upon acceptance each would get 1/3 of the price divided by 7 immediately.
Valerio's office in Lecce where we would sign the formal offer that he would write.
We drove to Lecce with Marcello while Valerio drew up the contract in his office there. We arrived and of course had a coffee.
Then there was the business of reading and signing the formal proposal
We went through the entire contract in Italian and struggled over the sections we didn't understand. Valerio seemed to speak a little English; but Marcello didn't speak any. We kept our translators handy.
AND THEN WE WAITED.
There were two hold outs among the 7. Valerio was confident that the deal would be made and we would have the house. It was Easter Weekend and nothing was going to happen. We went by the house again and had Easter dinner at the restaurant on the corner.
For the holiday pretty much the only thing open, and bustling. Owner Raffaele Rizzelli was kind and ran a great kitchen. This place would take over the town square in the summer with outdoor tables.
It was 4 days that we waited, but in the end Valerio called, and they had accepted our offer- April 23, 2019.
WE HAD JUST BOUGHT A HOUSE!!
Since we were leaving in several days we would have to immediately:
-Get our fiscal codes( the equivalent of a social security number).
-Get an Italian bank account.
-Supply our birth certificates.
-Supply our latest tax returns.
-Get the transfer numbers from the bank.
-call our banks in the states to wire the funds.
-Get someone to measure the house. A "Geometro."
-Get a notaio to create a document that would give Candy power of attorney so she could return and sign all documents.
-Upon return to New York call the Italian Consulate and get our A.I.R.E. numbers for Italians living in other countries.
None of these things would have been easy or quick without the tenacity of Valerio.
Fiscal Code/Codice Fiscale
As with every transaction we meet at the bar in Spongano where Valerio's local office is. After a coffee we head to Maglie to the nearest office where we can get the Fiscal Code. The receptionist informs him that we won't be able to get the code here; but he pushes to get an agent. Ironically the agent is from Spongano and knows the house and family. He asks our address in Italy. Of course we have none; but Valerio gives him the address of the house we're trying to buy, and it's done. I'm not sure if it was legal; but there you have it.
Bank Accounts/Banca Sella
From Maglie we went back to the local bank in Spongano, on Via Sant' Angelo about a block and a half from our soon to be home. On the way Valerio called the bank officers to explain that we needed an account we could wire money into immediately. He was extremely friendly with them, and was asking to expedite this as a personal favor. No sooner had we arrived at the bank when it was suggested that we go for......COFFEE! So back to the bar.
Back at the bank, it took the better part of three hours; but we walked out with an account and transfer numbers. Valerio stayed with us the entire time.
Our lovely bank officers: Dautilia Mara Palmira on the left and Anna Maria Del Sole on the right, who helped us get all the paperwork done in one morning out of their busy day so we could buy the house. They will feature again when Candy closes on the house and signs checks for all the heirs.
Within a couple of days the money was transferred and we had paid for 1/3 of the house.
Italy's inheritance laws are complex and in our case involved seven descendants of the family. We thought they were children; but it turned out that they were nephews and one niece. Our agreement stipulated that each one would get their percentage of 1/3 of the sale price upon acceptance, so all the money had to be in place and ready to be transferred into their accounts.
For more comprehensive inheritance laws see below
The Marti Tile Factory
The morning we left Puglia, we went with Marcello to The Marti Tile Factory in Spongano. We love these tiles, and had one remaining room that had the original floor produced by this factory. We hoped that perhaps beneath the 1970's renovation of the floors in the house the original tiles were left. It turned out that the grandfather and great grandfather of the family whose house we were buying both worked in this factory.
The Notaio will make sure that there are no hidden heirs who will crawl out of the woodwork and claim a piece of the property you have just bought.
Never trusting Italian contractors, agents, and tradespeople is common advice. The reason we had so much confidence in Marcello was because of the relationship he had developed with Eve, and the work that was being done on her house. He was supervising, not the principal architect. He had put in long hours with us helping to look and advise; and although we knew it was to secure the upcoming work, we were happy to put our faith in him, and he was a really nice guy. Puglia really isn't Tuscany. It wasn't even northern Puglia, this was Salento. We were very close to the bottom of the heel, and the there seemed to be a much simpler way of doing things. Eve didn't even have a contract for her renovation; something she would advise us not to let go, and make sure that we had set agreements.....signed; but these folks were agreeable and kind. Let's hope we feel the same way after the house is completed.
Before we left we would take a last walk through house to get a sense of what we would be changing, and I would return with a surveyor, "Il Geometra" to measure the house for the technical specs.
Now we would go back to New York and wait for the Marcello to produce the first set of plans
April 30, 2019
Another new thing in our life would be the puppy we would pick up when we returned. Our other dog, Pip had succumbed to complications of Lyme disease at 14 in January. His breeder Beth had told us that she was having the last litter that would be related to him on both sides, and they had come in February. Red, Yellow, and Pink. All girls. We had chosen Yellow in a visit before we had left for Italy and while there had named her Cosima.
Cosima at 3-4 months. Similar in some ways; but very different in most personality traits from her great great uncle Pip, she would now become a part of our lives.
It had been decided that Candy would return for the closing and signing of contracts with every family member. Plans would not come in until after she was back, so I would wait until then they arrived to start responding to Marcello's suggestions. In the meantime, I would become so nervous about the cost of renovation that cashing out a 401K and 2 IRA funds to make sure that the money was sitting in the bank in Spongano ready to go when the design phase was complete.
Cosi's new best block friends, Monty, and Molly. They meet every morning and play.
Cosí Visits Cape Cod, and sees the beach for the first time with our friend and neighbor, Phil.
Very personal banker Craig Treitler at Chase helping me to organize funds to send to Italy.
Candy would leave for Italy on June 26th to sign the final papers and complete the deal on June 27. The Zaccheo family turned out to be nephews of the estate's family who were childless. Salvatore who is wearing the Don't Panic tee shirt, owns the local bar where we had met with Valerio, Marcello, and the bankers. He would help fill in much of the information about the property, family, and most importantly introduce Candy to his mother, our next door neighbor with whom we shared a side passageway, which was part of her property; but connected only to ours. This was solved by making it a dual property usage; but only with the assurances that a certain family member was NEVER to be hired as gardener for our property. An easy enough solution; but a reminder that you can never underestimate family squabbles.
Since one of the direct heirs was hospitalized with dementia it was necessary for her son to get special permission from the court even with Power Of Attorney. Without the one signature the deal would not be finalized until a vacationing judge in Milan signed papers, so Candy signed with each heir at the Notaio's office and then they all went to the bank in Spongano to make checks out for each one.
The Notaio would read each heirs contract and share of the total sale. The Italians like their legal issues to be done right!
Eve was there finishing her own house this time, and she and Candy were able to spend time together. Eve's place in Marittima was delayed by several issues, and the swimming pool would not be completed until the fall; but towards the end of August, it was finally done.
Eve's floors were a combination of original tiles, taken up, washed, and re laid, and purchased antique tiles. They were beautiful, and we hoped for the same.
We had hoped that below the tiles from the 70's, the original cement tiles would be waiting for us, in a time capsule. Wishful thinking. As soon as the papers were signed Candy went with Marcello and one of his workers to investigate. Sadly, it wasn't to be, and one of the first things we'd have to do would be to pick new tiles for each room.
The original tiles from our old kitchen.
After back and forth facetime talks with Eve assuring that we all understood each other about which walls would be opened, preliminary plans done, approval from the Commune of Spongano, the lights were turned on October 30, 2019 to get ready for demolition.
On November 4 the workmen came.
We left New York for Rome on November 17th. Since we were traveling with Cosí for the first time, we didn't know how she would deal with a close to 9 hour flight, no less another one to Brindisi or Bari, so we spent a night in Rome and rented a car for the trip to Puglia. It's a 6- 7 hour drive depending on traffic. As it turned out this 9 month old puppy was an amazing travel companion; and had as little problem on a plane as she had with the 5 hour trips to Cape Cod.
We arrived at the Baronial Palace back house that I'd booked on Airbnb at dusk. We hadn't known what to expect, since Spongano is very small and very quiet, especially off season.
We woke up to an older world that time had forgotten, beyond it's best days; but with the most magical untended gardens filled with fruit trees, lavender bushes, and flowering lantana. The Palazzo Bacile Di Castiglione, the Baronial seat of Spongano was the summer home to the Bacile family's several children; but relatively unused in the winter, and we had the back part of one of the houses to ourselves.
Not open to the public, we had the opportunity to meet our host, the lovely Giancarlo Bacile, who would invite us to a tour of the main palazzo and cellars which had stored and produced the olive crop of the family.
Marcello met us at the local bar to take us to the house to see what we called the "war zone!"
The first part of demolition was the interior. Floors were completely taken out, and the walls were stripped of tile and plaster up to 3.5 meters so any remaining moisture would dry before a new coat of plaster was applied.....in six months.
I suppose we were prepared...at least I thought I was; but it was still a bit of a shock seeing the house so completely stripped bare, the channels for the wiring and water exposed in the rock wall.
There are two kinds of stone used in Pugliese houses like this one, built around the turn of the 20th Century. Leccese Stone is the harder, and used for framing, like doors, windows, and vaults. The filler stone is called Tufo, and is even softer. It's easy to cut with a skill saw, or use a hand pneumatic hammer to chisel grooves in the walls.
About Volte A Stella
There are seven types of Vaults used in Puglia; but the Volte a Stella is the only one that concerns us. The first image is one of our rooms. Each room is framed by columns supporting the vaults. They are made of Leccese Stone. Tufo, and even softer stone fills out the rest of the wall and provides filler and weight to down onto the columns. The Tufo isn't a supporting structure, so one can reconfigure these walls inside the arches.
When these houses made of porous stone remain unoccupied for a period of time, moisture builds up in the walls, so not only is drying them out crucial; but keeping them dry becomes the largest discussion in any renovation; and also one of the most expensive.
As we've worked with Marcello on the design of the house, the discussion of dehumidification, heat, AC, water and gas are central. Since part of the design is a large arched window from the center wall to the garden, and another large window from the kitchen to the garden, the subject of temperature variation has become a major factor in how to heat and cool the house. If we don't use the right system, the windows will be constantly "sweating" from the variation of the temperature outside and inside. We saw an example of this in another house that had wet areas all around the doors. Even the refrigerator near the window was sweating moisture.
When the conversation continues after the holiday, I'll continue to update the process.
We will continue to add to this site and catch up with where we are in this exciting and scary adventure. Stay tuned.