By Silvia Marchetti | CNN
When Italian villages started selling houses for the price of a cup of coffee, most foreign buyers rushing to grab a slice of the action saw it as a fun property hunt – a search for the ultimate bargain.
But for some, buying an old home in an offbeat location has turned out to be a life-changer.
In 2021, Jeffrey Pfefferle bought two abandoned houses in the Sicilian town of Mussomeli. One cost one euro – a little over a dollar. The other was a “premium” property – a ready-to-occupy home in need of only minor fixes.
Pfefferle – a South California-based retiree in his late 50s – and his British partner Leon McNaught never imagined how much the purchases could change their lives.
“It gave us an opportunity to take a closer look at our lives and we found that the things we value in life are abundant in Mussomeli,” says Pfefferle.
“It’s a place that offers a quality of life that predominantly values people above money. A place that embraces a slower pace, giving more priority to the important things.
“We are surrounded by a community that have shown us extreme caring and kindness. It’s a place that has taught us that time is our utmost prized possession and that time is meant for living, and living it to the fullest with those we love and care about.”
In 2019, when the couple read a CNN article on Mussomeli’s bargain properties for sale, they initially thought it was too good to be true, and potentially even a scam. Despite their concerns, they decided to take a look. However, the pandemic put a damper on their plans, forcing them to sit back and wait.
“Then in July 2021 we went. We said to each other that in the worst-case scenario, we were going to make a vacation out of it if it turned out to be just buzz,” says Pfefferle.
Ending up in Sicily
The couple initially wanted to also visit Zungoli, on the Italian mainland in Campania, where local authorities have launched similar housing schemes to lure expats. But in Zungoli, they had to make an appointment to view the homes, which complicated things. So they settled for Mussomeli.
But getting there wasn’t a piece of cake.
“We really fought for it from the start, and it changed everything in our lives. At Rome airport I went into panic mode when we missed the gate for the Palermo flight – luckily we were able to catch another plane later that same day,” says Pfefferle.
Once in Mussomeli, the pair were lucky enough to be given a private tour of available properties, since other potential foreign buyers had canceled due to the pandemic.
They eventually decided to buy a turnkey home requiring a minimal makeover, for less than 30,000 euros ($32,000).
Then, strolling along Mussomeli’s winding cobbled alleys and uphill stone steps they walked by an appealing one-euro ($1.07) house close to the one they’d already bought. It came with a garage – a rare find in the old center of town. So they bought that too.
“Locals were stopping us in the street, asking, ‘Why Mussomeli’? It struck us how everyone was so incredibly nice, it was the people that shoved us over the edge,” says Pfefferle about their decision to buy both houses.
As a retired former entertainment manager in his late 50s, Pfefferle says he “can’t buy time and wants to live the dream now.”
The centuries-old 1,100-square-foot main house is spread over four floors. In the past, families lived with their donkeys on the ground level and put kitchens, bathrooms and storage rooms on the higher floors. It has two entrances, front and back, on different streets.
The couple bought it fully furnished: antique furniture, glass chandeliers, plates and blankets were left behind by the former owners. The floors are clad in travertine stone and decorated majolica tiles.
They are remodeling the two bedrooms into three smaller ones and sprucing up the kitchen.
The one euro home is smaller, but also on four floors. They bought it without setting foot inside. “It’s been gutted [by the previous owners] and our architect says it’s an easy fix, a blank canvas. The electrics are fine, the plumbing done. Once it’s fully renovated, it will be liveable.”
The couple was last in Mussomeli in February to check on the works. Although the costs of renovation are decent, supervising everything from thousands of miles away in the US can be challenging, says Pfefferle: “We’ve hired an architect and a contractor, but chatting on WhatsApp is difficult, and the time difference between Sicily and Southern California makes it more complicated.”
However, the distance, time and language barriers are no match for the team. When a floor was missing tiles and there was no obvious match, the local team made huge efforts to find suitable replacements – and eventually succeeded.
‘I can’t believe there’s community’
The Italian working style pleasantly surprised the couple and made them further appreciate Sicily’s laid-back vibe.
“Everything is slower compared to the US timeline. Don’t expect a repair overnight, it takes longer but if something really is not working, and is crucial like heating, then locals are super-fast and extremely available,” says Pfefferle.
He recalls one chilly night when the windows of the main home were not closing all the way. He called the real estate agent who, two days later, sent a team of seven locals over to have them fixed.
“That’s the people, the community: If somebody needs help, they’re there. I can’t believe it,” says Pfefferle.
“Neighbors also help each other in the US but in Mussomeli there’s a different way to look out for others – like it used to be in the past.”
Although they bought their houses because of the residents, rather than the location, he admits that the panorama from their premium house’s top floor kitchen is “a million-dollar view” over the sheep-grazing fields and hills.
In the future, the couple might relocate to Mussomeli by applying for an elective residency visa, which requires a certain amount of passive income, and does not allow work. Although Pfefferle is already looking into this, his partner still works and they have pets in the US so they’ll wait a while for now before making any decision.
As for the paperwork, he says Mussomeli’s real estate agency, Agenzia Immobiliare Siciliana, was really helpful in navigating them through the entire process.
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