Climbing up the Learning Curve

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One of the questions I’ve been asked is this: Did you find so little information that you had to “re-invent the wheel”, for every little step, because there was no practical guide or information on what you were doing?

I come from a timber frame construction country. I understand that method of construction; how to build walls, how to run everything from hot air to water to electricity through them, and how to close them up with drywall, then hang a picture on them. Tah-dah, done. In Italy, you can’t even do that last step the same way. North American picture hooks don’t stick in plaster-over-stone, you have to use special little 3-pronged thingies. I guess that should have been my first warning that it would be a steep learning curve.

Although I viewed that as a point of interest more than an obstacle, it did involve an awful lot of research. Fortunately I have Italian friends, in particular DIY-inclined ones, who gave me tons of advice. I’m also language-capable, so I could read Italian renovation magazines and go to the local home shows to scout materials and learn about their use. And – this is really important – I could speak with our geometra, the contractors, and the product suppliers, to really understand the benefits and drawbacks of certain approaches.

That ceiling probably isn’t good anymore…right?

Not that it always worked out perfectly. My post on the ‘effetto cassata‘ (When is a House Like a Cake) is a case in point. I’d researched a fantastic external plaster product from Venezia, went to their head office to learn about it, found the supplier in Liguria and spoke with him, then discovered that the contractor who had real experience with that plaster wasn’t available, so we went with someone who’d never worked with it before. Plaster is plaster, right? Apparently not. The house still looks pretty good – and the plaster is fantastically hard, hydrophobic yet breathable – but the effort of working with its different texture practically gave the man a nervous breakdown. And it did look rather unfortunately like a cassata cake before it weathered in a bit.

At other times, for example when the entire roof had to be replaced right down to all the beams, I had to trust our geometra and the contractor. This is pretty much true wherever you are, though. I’d researched the materials and the construction methods, discussed a number of options with them, and we made a decision. Language was again key; I don’t know how I would have done this without speaking Italian.

I guess it’s also useful to remember that we had a lot of time between activities, so the research could be really thorough. If we’d been trying to do the whole thing in a few months, I think I might have been far less sure of it all.

Advice: This is true for any renovation project – hire people you trust to know what they’re doing, research the methods and products so you can speak with them intelligently, use a translator (again, someone you trust to be thorough in their translations) if you don’t speak Italian.

Then be flexible in your expectations. Not everything that turns out differently than you expected is a disaster. You might even learn a thing or two.

Your Most Important Renovation Asset

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One of the questions I get a lot is whether I had a terrible time trying to work with Italian workers and bureaucracy on the villa project. While this may disappoint people looking for a more juicy post, the answer is no. Why? We went local, and we had a great geometra.

The geometra is, in my opinion, the single most important decision you can make on an Italian reno project. Good ones know their way around the myriad regulations and filings, they know which contractors are good at what, which suppliers have the best windows, plasters, rafters, etc., who has the time to really devote to your project and who will try to charge you too much. They run the show on you behalf.

Fees are usually a fixed percentage of construction. This is, of course, something you want to work out ahead of time. But it’s money so well spent, it’s the last thing you want to haggle over.

Majordomo Nadia, project Queen

So how do you find a good one? As I mentioned before, it’s not through your real estate agent. We spent some time in our local community, asking around at bars and our new neighbours, and they directed us to Studio Ginocchio and the capable Nadia Silvano. The fact that she was part of the local fabric was as important as her professional skills, because when you start on a project like this, you begin to build a web of contacts and interdependencies that are just like a spider’s web: strong and delicate at the same time. No-one wanted to let Nadia down, and by extension no-one would let us down, either.

Not that we delegated completely and then disappeared. That was another important aspect of being able to get things done reliably. If you don’t make an effort to be present as much as possible, to be part of the community when you’re there, to care about who’s just had a baby and whose mother has just died, then no-one will care about the progress of your house in turn. But the number of times someone from whom I needed help asked me who the geometra was, and the way they always made an effort to give me what I needed when I said it was Nadia, convinced me of the importance of her role.

Advice: Find the geometra everyone loves. Love him/her in turn, treat them with respect (this should go without saying, but you’d be amazed), appreciate their knowledge, listen to them. They are your most important renovation asset!

Budgeting a Dream

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Budget and dreaming are words that feel out of place together in the same sentence, but indeed if you’re going to make a big project come true, you’d better be able to pay for it. More to the point, you’d better want to pay for it. And keep wanting to pay for it until it’s done.

One of the things that happened within months of buying the villa is that we suddenly found ourselves having to move back to Canada. We’d bought the place assuming we were going to continue living in Milan, but alas the working world didn’t cooperate. As a result, all kinds of new priorities entered our lives – buying a house in Toronto (we’d been renting as expats in Milan), a car (that had come from the company before), living fully in this country, and traveling back and forth to the old one. We’re not crazy spenders or lavish livers, but we can rack up a bill or two doing the things we love.

And our focus shifted. Every time I was back at the villa I thought wow this place is magical and so worth the effort and money. Months later and back in Canada, the memory of that feeling would become dim and I’d think things like it would make much more sense to spend the money on fixing up the back deck in Toronto than on electrical channels in the villa. Being so far away made a huge difference to the perceived reward of doing something, when the gratification of money spent in Canada was so immediately satisfying. That was a killer.

Hmm…shall we fix this gross thing that’s 5,000 miles away, or get laptops for the kids?

Advice: set up a budget that allows money to be put aside specifically for the project. Make sure it always goes there, and only gets spent there. We have an account in Italy and this actually did help – once the money had gone over, there was no means to spend it here.

Budgeting is very personal and relates to your own priorities. I’m not going to tell you where you should spend your money, only that you have to decide for yourself and stick to it with a firm resolve. For more ideas on budgeting, there’s a good book available that, although a bit extreme in its application, gives tons of good pointers: Dream Save Do: Stop Dreaming and Start Living: Betsy Talbot,Warren Talbot: Amazon.com: Kindle Store

Questions of Money

I’ve always found money to be a relative kind of thing. So when one of the questions is ‘did you run out of money’, the answer is more like we ran out of money we were willing to put into this project, against the benefit we thought it would create. But it did cost more than we bargained for, and we did run out, in the sense that there was rarely enough left for the villa after other priorities had been met. So why did that happen?

This might take more than one blog post.

Let’s start with our initial budget. We ludicrously underestimated the cost, getting caught up in the dream and not doing enough thorough research. We were really ignorant at the beginning. We got a ballpark estimate from a geometra who resided in a different city – one that was arranged by the realtor. It was actually not too far off the truth, but we didn’t believe it would actually be so high, as nothing was itemized and he said he made it big so we could get a mortgage that would pay for the construction.

Yes, we thought it might be made habitable relatively easily. We’d seen worse.

Advice: Use a local geometra, one who knows the contractors in the area. Ask the butcher, the bar owner, various locals who they would recommend.  Don’t use the one your realtor gives you; it’s not that they’re unscrupulous, but they are in the business of selling you the house, so you can’t expect objectivity.

Pay the neighbourhood-endorsed geometra to assess the house and get a real contractor’s itemized budget. At this point you still won’t have plans, so the estimate will not be precise in the details, but the buckets will be established. You’ll know whether the entire roof has to actually be replaced right down to every beam (yes), whether there is asbestos in there that requires an expensive hazmat team to remove (yes), whether every window is likely to crumble to dust when you try to remove them for replastering the holes in which they reside (yes).

Then add 30% and see how excited you still are to buy the house.

Nothing puts a damper on dreams faster than seeing the bill. But if it’s really important to you, you’ll figure out a way to pay for it. James W. Frick said Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.

That’ll be lesson number two: prioritizing and budgeting.

Life Upon Waking

An unexpected thing happened when I wrote my last blog about selling the villa. One of my readers took the time – quite a lot of time – to ask me a whole bunch of questions about the flip side of big dreams: the pitfalls. She thought it would be useful for readers to understand, if they wanted to try something like this themselves, the lessons I’d learned about what NOT to do.

One thing in particular about Ms. C’s note struck me: Failure is not a positive word in our western society, however I think the best way to think of it is as another word for a learning experience! 

I couldn’t agree more.

And then: Most of us have read “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Year in Provence” and we have a highly romantic, impractical view of undertaking the task of a remodel. In fact there are any number of books about how wonderful it all is and it sounds so fun and so easily do-able when you read those books and magazine articles.

Hmmm. Yes, I did read those books. And the villa project was hugely positive for me, despite my current period of mourning. To feel otherwise would be akin to wishing dead friends hadn’t been born, so that we wouldn’t miss them now that they’re gone. However, sometimes the price of dreaming is mourning, and I’d hate to think my story would stop anyone – least of all me – from continuing to pursue the big ones. From experience comes knowledge and growth.

So let’s share it! I’m going to simply work through Ms. C’s questions, on the assumption she’s not the only one who has them. If any of you have more, fire away: either here, or by sending me a message on Godzillavilla’s facebook page.

The first has to do with money. Stay tuned, my answer will be coming soon.

And thank you, Ms. C., for writing your long note asking me to do this.