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.