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Buying a dream home in Italy can be a nightmare. This couple says they have the answer

In World
May 20, 2024

Perhaps you’ve dreamed of buying a home in a remote, quiet village or coastal area in Italy’s southern region of Calabria, but were daunted by the research, the paperwork, the red tape of purchasing and the efforts of restyling.

That’s where Bruno Mongiardo and his wife Ginevra dell’Orso come in.

The couple has set up a flourishing business buying properties, restyling and reselling them, ready-to-occupy, helping foreign buyers every step of the way.

Mongiardo, a 56-year-old architect, and dell’Orso, a 51-year-old interior designer and real estate broker, have been doing this since 2015 from their office-home in the characterful town of Isca sullo Ionio, on the Ionian coast of southern Italy’s Calabria region.

They hunt for old houses in historical villages in need of a makeover, which once renovated make the perfect summer getaway.

Their business, Calabria Sea Side, offers tailored services, including customized renovations and guided tours of the region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot, showcasing its unspoiled nature and beauty .

The couple knows the area well. Mongiardo is a Isca sullo Ionio native and escaped back home after 25 years working in Venice, which he says was “too tight for him.”

Dell’Orso, originally from Milan, used to vacation in Calabria as a child and 15 years ago bought a home in the charming medieval village of Badolato, which is also among the places in their real estate portfolio.

“In those years depopulation in the villages halfway up the mountains was very strong, and houses came cheap. I was captivated by the idea of owning a piece of history, facing the sea while surrounded by mountains rich in nature and still untouched by mass tourism,” Dell’Orso tells CNN.

‘Ideal place to live’

The couple promotes properties scattered across the Ionian coast, which they believe is the most authentic and pristine corner of Calabria, as opposed to the more crowded and popular Tyrrhenian coast.

“Here the nature is very intense, the villages are charming, and the seawater is crystal clear. It’s the ideal place to live and raise your children,” Dell’Orso says.

The idea of launching a buy-and-restyle homes agency first came up as a joke, they say. It all started with them buying a small house, renovating it and then renting it out for the summer. They were surprised when many of the foreigners staying at their place asked them about similar vacation homes to buy.

“So it came naturally to us to turn to foreigners – both Europeans and Americans – who seem to appreciate this environment much more than Italians, who take it for granted,” says Mongiardo.

“We then decided to purchase a few properties that needed full renovation and went on to resell them. Today though, most of the properties we sell are not our own but belong to our local clients. We act as intermediaries.”

Buying a house is never easy in a foreign land. Buyers have a lot of hesitation because they’re not familiar with the laws, notary procedures and other aspects of the Italian real estate market, says Dell’Orso,

But the real challenge is how and in what time frame customers can adapt to and feel at home in a culture that is very different from their own.

The BEFORE picture: The couple find old houses in need of a makeover. - Bruno Mongiardo

The BEFORE picture: The couple find old houses in need of a makeover. – Bruno Mongiardo

Pizzas and paperwork

“When we sell a house, we are actually selling a real-life project, which may begin as a [vacation home], but can turn into a radical change,” she says.

In fact, quite a few of their American and European clients decided to permanently move to Calabria after buying a home in the area.

The pair helps clients discover and blend in with their new surroundings. They get together for a pizza and sunset aperitif and show them where the stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and tourist sites are, as well as solving technical aspects of daily life, like finding a plumber or buying plants for the terrace.

Their services range from legal assistance and renovation works to property management and property insurance. They can also help rent out the property when the buyer is overseas.

“The properties we put on sale are chosen carefully and we know personally each of the owners, who are proud of their homes and want to sell them to people who will appreciate their neighbors and take good care of their house,” says Mongiardo.

By selling these homes, their goal is also to promote the beauties of the Calabrian Ionian Coast, with wonderful seaside landscapes juxtaposed with views of the rising mountains dotted with ancient Greek ruins. In the past the area was part of Greece’s overseas kingdom dubbed “Magna Graecia.”

The duo wants to help depopulated towns regain their lost grandeur and restore them into thriving communities.

The AFTER picture: A perfect Italian getaway. - Bruno Mongiardo

The AFTER picture: A perfect Italian getaway. – Bruno Mongiardo

Southern hospitality

Locals here have retained the warmth and charming hospitality for which they’re traditionally known, says Mongiardo. They accept a changing world but don’t want to give up the old ways that have provided them with security and stability throughout their life.

“Perhaps it’s a slightly ancient world, but still rich in values and humanity”, he says.

Since homes are located in small villages where life is slower-paced and everyone knows each other, Mongiardo says that newcomers find the ancient vibe very fascinating and are always pleasantly impressed.

“Over here it is a bit like stepping back into the past. Foreigners show more passion because they don’t take for granted certain ways of doing things, like celebrating religious events, that Italians, especially those in the south, experience in their daily lives.”

Mongiardo says there is a growing number of Americans who have begun to buy vacation homes in these under-the-radar spots, many even living here year-round.

The old properties the pair handles are located in small towns where centuries-old traditions survive. These are little-known, secret gems such as Isca sullo Ionio, Sant’Andrea Apostolo dello Iono, Badolato, Davoli, San Sostene, Santa Caterina dello Ionio, Montepaone and Soverato.

The houses they re-sell – all ready to occupy and equipped with modern comforts – are mostly stand-alone properties with several floors, usually in the local medieval “tower house” style.

However, even though re-modeled, the couple says they guarantee that the buildings retain their “original soul” and have a unique architecture – none are identical.

Second chances and new challenges

Most houses on their books are located halfway between the sea and the mountains, with the beaches just a few minutes away by car.

“There are also people who prefer to stay up on the mountains, even at higher altitudes you can enjoy a wonderful sea view,” says Dell’Orso.

They deal in houses starting from 300 square feet up to larger properties of 3,000 square feet, some with gardens.

“Obviously prices change quite a bit, but this gives us the opportunity to offer different solutions, depending on one’s needs or tastes”, says Mongiardo.

The typical seaside house for two to four people with an average 700 square footage costs around $35,000 and requires roughly $55,000 to renovate. For a total cost of $90,000, it’s possible to have a beach house in a historic hamlet, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and an open-plan kitchen and living room.

For Dell’Orso every “home project” is a new world to explore. The part she loves most about her job is meeting new people and fascinating them by spinning tales of the region. Mongiardo deals more with the technical side of real estate – construction sites, workers and permit requests.

“My wife and I are a team, so we spend most of our working time together. I really like old houses and the idea of giving them a second chance: especially when they are abandoned buildings rich with history. Every project becomes a new challenge, which eventually pays off with great satisfaction,” he says.

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