My head is spinning, I have viewed 7 completely different houses in 8 hours while in the back of what feels like a race car. Aleth isn’t on this trip with me so the pressure to make the right decision has doubled. The prices range from $80,000 – $160,000 Euros and I keep reminding myself what that original email noted “now is a good time to buy in Europe as the dollar is strong.” I could likely make a good argument to purchase any of the houses, I mean we are in Tuscany. I should note I informed Paola that I was searching for a Tuscan-style home, not one of these new modern townhouses that you could buy in any rural US community. I do find it somewhat shocking in a country which built such beautiful homes with amazing stone craftsmanship (see photo above) is now building timber and cinderblock apartment buildings. In city centers the trend definitely seems to be in the more modern building direction that you see most cities around the world.
Luckily I have plenty of affordable stone buildings to choose from but the decision will not be an easy one. Looking back now it feels like that repetitive, scripted scene that happens on every HGTV’s House Hunters International when the buyers assess their checklists and while considering their options. I am back at Golfo dei Poeti Hotel before my return flight home tomorrow and I need to narrow the choices before I report back to Aleth because she struggles to make decisions when 3 or more options are available. Big menus scare me!
I return to Paola’s first determinant: garden or no garden. The best translation of the Italian lingo is do you want land with your house or not because we are talking about big flowery gardens or rows of tomatoes. This decision seems easy for me as we will be very part-time visitors and the upkeep of a large plot of land will mean the hiring of a gardener which means the monthly maintenance just went up. So my first decision is no garden. Whichever house we select will come with the land under the four walls and no pool or rolling green fields.
So let’s begin. The first house to be considered is the cheapest at $80K EU and it shows beautifully in the photos. However what is not captured in the photos is the town and parking situation. I cannot properly explain what felt wrong about Mozzano but it felt a bit drab and there was a dog in the distance that barked nonstop. Oh yeah, parking was in a public lot about 1/2 mile from the home and then a long walk uphill. That is not going to work after veal Milanese and a bottle of wine.
I feel compelled to mention most of these houses are filled with grandma’s furniture so maybe that threw me off a bit as well. For now Mozzano is out.
The second place is the most expensive at $160K EU, Paola why are showing me something $35K over my suggested budget. Cortila is a tiny community of 80 people which they describe as a hamlet. Cortila sits about 800 feet above the valley below overlooking the town of Gragnola while dwarfed in the shadows of the Apuan Alps. You can see where this is going, right? Instant love. The house has recently been renovated to the tune of $100K by Elizabeth, an elderly woman from the Jersey in the Channel Islands, not the “How you’s doin?” Jersey. Elizabeth had replaced every window and door which had been handcrafted by Maurizio a carpenter in the neighboring town of Gragnola. Unfortunately for Elizabeth the stairs are just too much and her friend who summered in the house had recently passed away so it was time for her to close the chapter on this house. Without going into too much detail Cortila has everything we want: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, turnkey and zero maintenance…Cortila is in the running!
Next up is Verpiana and when I look back at the photos I truly cannot recall exactly why I eliminate this one but it does come with a very pitched plot of land that makes me think I’ll soon be like Elizabeth complaining about the steep walk to the house and all the stairs because this place must have had 100+ steps all over the house. This house maintained all the character that I love and the outdoor patios are beautiful, but the views aren’t the greatest. Sorry Verpiana you are eliminated.
Terceretoli it is your turn and it isn’t pretty. First of all, a blow up pool should never be included as “house comes with a pool.” I almost thought this was a joke and it was an instant strike one. The bathrooms were dark and poorly tiled, the outdoor patio was shared (strike two) and the owner definitely owned a stencil kit because every room had felt her addiction. This one was a comedy of errors and I wonder if it was ever sold and if so, at what price because $120K was absurd considering the others I have already seen. Sorry Terceretoli but you are on the editing floor.
The final house is the one that started it all, Malgrate. I will never do this justice but this town is straight out of Game of Thrones as the entire town is inside the walls of Malgrate Castle and it is spectacular. The castle dates back to the 14th century when the Marchesi Malaspina family flag flew for 300 years.
This place is a real medieval fortress, it even has a drawbridge but no moat. I can imagine Cersei making the walk of atonement on these cobblestone roads while all of Malgrate is crying out “shame.” You cannot drive a car beyond the castle walls so everyone walks and the trek to the house is a fair distance but I can imagine with a few bags of groceries or a furniture delivery this won’t be pleasant. The house itself if very much like Cortila with 3 beds and 2 baths divided into 2 separate apartments that can also function as a single house. The lower unit (bed/bath) is what they call the “cellars” but once plastered, painted, plumbed and furnished you have another apartment which clearly adds value. The drawback here is the shared patio which is very sad because it has the best view of all and it is perfectly decorated. Oh yeah, there is a small leak by the downstairs bedroom window that is been persistent enough that the lime is leaching out of the mortar…not good. I don’t care as this place is beautiful and the leak can be fixed. The kitchen has nice handmade cabinets and the living albeit very small has a nice fireplace. Without a doubt Malgrate remains a contender.
As I mentioned in The Search I saw two other properties that day but not only did I delete them from my inbox their details have also been purged from my memory. I know one looked like it had been abandoned for years while ivy took over the exterior and the other was simply crumbling with the passing years. Goodbye unknown two.
After a nap at the hotel, I FaceTime with Aleth and explain I have narrowed it down to two places: Cortila and Malgrate. Paola has also provided her opinion and she supports Cortila as she explains the shared patio in Malgrate is a huge selling point but because it is shared it could get very complicated in future years if an unfriendly new neighbor arrived. I took videos of the contenders and emailed them to Aleth and we chatted about the pro’s and con’s of each house, now dinnertime and a good night’s sleep in preparation for the return home in the morning. It was hard to fall asleep as my mind was questioning if this was a huge mistake or a great opportunity. Is now the right time? Retirement home or investment? Should we keep looking? How about a sea view? I have to admit I am very fortunate and my wife lets me run wild with my dreams so the green light is on and this is going to happen. The trek home is long and my mind has too much time to consider everything that could go wrong. After about 2 weeks back in San Francisco we inform Paola that Cortila is our choice. It really checks all our boxes: 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, spacious patio, amazing view of the mountains and fully updated windows/doors/heating/electrical systems.
The building itself is estimated to be around 600 years old per the real estate registry and Elizabeth completed a full rehab of the home while maintaining the character of the original structure with exposed stones and beams. Did we get lucky? Would someone else find such a deal? Oh wait, Paola this place is too expensive. Here is where we do get lucky, Elizabeth is motivated to sell as the place is no longer physically feasible for her with travel/stairs as well as the emotions of her departed best friend. Negotiation and the transaction will be the next post but for now welcome to Cortila!