home reno, italy, Liguria, living abroad, longing, renovation, restoration, villas
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about why it is that ownership is such a compelling concept. Not only with respect to our general human love of acquisition and possession, but more specifically concerning houses. Certainly if you have any grasp of math and are at all rational, you’d realize that owning a vacation home is often not a brilliant idea, financially.
Let’s do a little quick math on Godzillavilla. A rough figure of total investment for the done thing: € 250,000. That sum was, until recently, around 50% bigger when converted to the currency we earn in (Canadian dollars), but let’s not even think about that right now. Let’s just assume that we would visit every year for 25 years, which is about how many I might still be agile enough to cope with the stairs – that’s a cost per year of about €10,000. If we were there a minimum of 5 weeks a year, that could look fairly reasonable.
However, then we add taxes, maintenance, someone caring for the place when we’re not there, and emergency repairs due to acts of God or nature. Ah, you say, but if you rent it out all those things are covered and more. Yes, if you manage to rent it enough. Which will in turn create more maintenance, and the cost of a property manager to meet, greet and clean up after your guests.
You see where I’m going with this. Home ownership is expensive and relentless. You can make the numbers add up, and lots of people do. Then I look at people who are renting, year-round, lovely homes in areas similar to ours, for less than €4,000 a year. We used to do this ourselves, when we lived in Milan. We had a place in the hills around Levanto for €3,600 and one in Courmayeur for slightly more. We co-rented a country villa in Chianti for about the same.
So why on earth did we go and buy our own place – a ruin that that wasn’t even habitable?
It’s a darned good question, hence my lengthy contemplation of it. My conclusions about my motivations are not entirely flattering but neither are they entirely foolish, and I’ll bet they’re pretty common. I say ‘my’ because I don’t think I should speak for the rest of the family on this one, but I think I know what things drove me, personally.
One aspect had to do with transformation. I absolutely adore taking the latent beauty in a house or landscape and turning it into all it can be. As a family we’d done this for years, in fantasy form, with all kinds of abandoned houses in our travels around Italy. A ruined house of soft, old stone, a vine scrambling up the wall, the setting gorgeous, the view spectacular…it’s an absolute shame that such a thing is crumbling to pieces. I want to restore them all to their true beauty. I might have satisfied that need by becoming a contractor and doing it for other people, but in Italy as a foreigner that wasn’t really an option. And it wouldn’t satisfy reason number two –
Which had to do with nesting. When we bought the villa, we were renting in Milan. We’d been away from Canada for almost eight years, we’d sold our farm there, we’d lived in Milan for a bit, then the US, then back in Milan. Our rented house in Milan was lovely, even luxurious. Was I a spoiled brat for still wanting one that was our own, special place, regardless of where we might be earning our living? I wanted a place that made me sigh with the satisfied sense of truly being home, the moment it hove into sight. And that brings me to –
The biggest reason: the allure of possession. The (as it turns out, unfounded) belief that ownership bestows security – you will always have it, you can use it whenever you want, no-one can take it from you. The delicious idea that once you have restored its breathtaking beauty, it will be yours to have and to hold from this day forward. That you will forever have the opportunity to turn down its lane and heave that sigh, to walk through the door and greet its ghosts, to sit under the cherry tree and soak in the serenity of its valley.
I think it was a pretty good reason, actually. Even if it didn’t turn out to be true in our case. Even if it doesn’t make any sense. The dream of it still has great allure.
Dear Shelagh. I’ve harboured such a dream as yours too. So many of us have. I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot lately – and what actually happens if/when a dream comes true one day. Dreaming is its own pleasure sometimes. But I digress. I really wanted to say that along with possession and ownership, there’s the big draw of having a tiny piece of a place you really love. An emotional security blanket, far from an financial one. I’ve often thought I’d ‘feel’ better if I owned a part of Italy. For now though I have to content myself with the sure knowledge that Italy owns a part of me. And yes, I see a book in all this for you. Wouldn’t that be great? xx
I’m sure I’d feel better if I continued to own a piece of Italy, too – but sometimes desires come at too great a cost. And the sense that it owns a bit of us instead is a lovely thought. The experiences there, the shaping of our perspectives on so many things – ownership doesn’t change any of that.
Your question about what happens when dreams do come true is interesting. Along the lines of ‘be careful what you wish for’, it’s not always what you expect. Some of mine have resulted in even more than I hoped for. Those are the ones that keep me dreaming AND acting.
Debra Kolkka said:
Luckily for us our dream of owning a place in Italy has worked very well. We didn’t have to renovate and the price of our apartment was manageable. We rent to friends and aquaintances when we are not there and that covers all our costs. I love being part of a community in our village and going ” home ” to Italy.
I spend 6 months each year in Italy, which I would not be able to do if not for our situation.
The house we are building in the mountains is another story…..not finished yet.
I think you did a lot of things right…you got a place that was immediately habitable, you’re right in a town that is recognized, but not inundated, making it attractive to rentals, and you probably budgeted! We just fell in love and failed to plan it all properly in our blindness. It was a lengthy swoon. Great fun, but tough to sustain.
Shelagh–Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. It confirms what I have concluded. I have been thinking that instead of renovation we could spend 3 months or so renting a home in each of that long list of places that I want to experience. Right now we will focus on renovation of the two homes we already own, so that they will be rentable when I retire. I do love to dream, though and look forward to reading a book if you decide to write one about your experience.
Having a long list of places you want to go can be at odds with owning a single place to which you feel obliged to go. But, as you’ve figured out, if you have a vacation home (or any home) in a popular place, you can always rent it out and use the money to go someplace else yourself – or do a home swap. That was part of our original plan for Godzillavilla, but now we’re going back to having just one, in Toronto. You seem to have managed things better than we did. Please share any good tips you learned!
As for a book…it has crossed my mind. Thanks for the encouragement.