This US couple bought and renovated a 14th-century Italian home
Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN
Buying and renovating a home in Italy was something Doug and Leah Johnson had often dreamed about.
The couple, who are based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, say they’d sometimes go to view houses while vacationing in the European country.
But splashing out on a property there hadn’t seemed like a viable option until Doug came across a listing for a 14th-century apartment in the town of Vasanello, located in the Italian region of Lazio, with a sale price of just 13,000 euros (about $13,450).
“The idea of something that was built in the 14th or 15th century was just really intriguing,” Doug Johnson tells CNN Travel, explaining that he has a penchant for “fixing up old buildings.”
He immediately saw potential in the two-room home, featuring high ceilings and a large fireplace and after doing some research into Vasanello, which has a population of around 4,000, he was sold on the idea.
However, persuading his wife that purchasing an Italian home unseen was something they should seriously consider was far from easy.
“It took a lot of convincing,” says Leah, a retired art teacher. “People thought we were crazy.”
After spending many hours researching the town via Google Earth, the couple decided to put in an offer of 9,000 euros (equivalent to about $9,650 — 4,000 euros under the asking price) and were stunned when it was accepted.
While there were a few hitches during the sale process, they were able to travel to Italy to finalize the sale in June 2019.
“When we arrived, I knew the town so well,” explains Doug, who is also an art teacher. “I knew exactly where to park, and how to get to our apartment, where our realtor was waiting for us.”
Their visit happened to coincide with Infiorata del Corpus Domini, a local festival, during which residents pave the cobblestone roads between the local churches with flowers.
“It felt kind of magical that we were there for that time,” says Doug.
Vasanello is also home to a number of man-made caves, ancient walls and tombs that date back to the Etruscan period, which pre-dated Roman civilization.
Once the paperwork was out of the way, they were finally able to view the property that they’d previously only seen in photos.
“Actually being there was kind of mind blowing,” adds Doug. “We’d looked at the pictures so many times and just dreamed and wondered what it was going to be like.”
It soon became clear that the property was pretty much as the previous owner, who’d moved out many years before, had left it.
‘Lost in time’
“It was just incredibly ancient,” says Doug. “Everything was kind of lost in time.”
After inspecting their new property thoroughly, they opened up the shutters, taking the moment in.
“It was a great feeling,” adds Doug. “But of course, we realized there was a lot of work ahead of us.”
Although Johnson had some experience in renovating properties in the US, the couple had no idea how things would work in Italy.
“We’ve seen people on TV shows that had done it,” says Leah. “But we hadn’t ever spoken to anybody.”
They set about making design plans, and found an architect and a carpenter for the project.
While cleaning up the property, they discovered that some of the ancient terracotta tiles covering the floor were loose.
When they lifted them up, the pair were stunned to find that they could see the unit below, which was being used as a storage space, and alarm bells began to ring.
“I put the tiles back. And I thought, oh oh, that that might be an issue.”
It turned out that the structure “was not sound” and the support beams below the floor would need to be replaced.
The only way to complete the work was to contact the owners of the other unit underneath and ask for permission to enter.
Once they tracked the owner down, they decided to purchase the unit, at a cost of 3,500 euros (around $3,623), so that they could extend the property, as well as take some of the hassle out of the process.
“Once we owned it, it made it so much easier to restructure it [the ceiling].”
As all but one of the beams had deteriorated, they decided to rip out the entire ceiling, and connect the two units with a spiral staircase.
After buying two units in the same building, the couple found yet another section that they could utilize a wine cave below their second property — and decided to purchase that, at a cost of 2,500 euros (around $2,588).
They say they had to break a lock to get into the cave, which had been abandoned for many years, and were delighted to discover casks of Chianti and wine bottles.
They’ve since redone the stairs leading down to the cave and plan to fill it with wine racks and create a wine tasting area.
“We’re wine drinkers and there’s so much wine in the vineyard surrounding the valley,” explains Doug.
They’ve also had a viewing window, visible from the floor of the second unit, cut over the wine cave and plan to position some of the old wine casks so that they can be seen from above.
According to Doug, the final cost for buying the three properties came to a total of 15,000 euros (about $15,530,) while the cost of the renovation work, which is almost complete, has been between 75,000 euros ($77,654) and 105,000 euros ($106,707), including additional fees and taxes.
When designing the interior, the pair say they were determined to keep the “ancient feel of the original property,” taking inspiration from Vasanello’s Orsini Castle, which dates back to 1285, as well as other historic properties in the village.
One of the most intriguing things about the building complex is that it’s connected to an actual palace, Mercuri Pozzaglia Palace, protected by the Italian Government, a fact the Johnsons had no knowledge of until their first visit.
According to a recent press release, the palace was once owned by Sebastiano Mariani, the former Mayor of Tuscany, and later belonged to a count. While it’s had several owners over the years, the palace is now on the market.
“Whoever decides to restore it must follow strict guidelines, and may be eligible for grants from the government,” says Doug.
“The amazing thing in Italy is that they really preserve old buildings. It’s not easy to knock down an important structure.”
While they’ve been asked if they’re interested in purchasing the palace, Doug stresses that such a project would be far too costly.
However, he’s hopeful that “somebody that can afford it will fix it up” one day.
Although they previously had to stay elsewhere while renovation work was taking place, Doug and Leah were finally able to stay at their Italian home when they returned in February.
“This was an incredible experience,” Doug tells CNN Travel over email. “Four years in the making. We arrived late at night and met our friend Paolo in the main piazza.
“He handed us the keys, along with pizza and focaccia from his bakery. The heat was on, and everything was perfect.”
They’ve decided to named their home “Piccolo Tartufo,” which translates to little truffle, in a nod to the area’s reputation as a prime truffle-hunting spot.
Vasanello is also said to hold a number of secret tunnels, and one of the pair’s neighbors claims to have found one under his property.
The Johnsons have gotten to know the locals pretty well during their visits to the town, and say they’ve been “welcomed with open arms.”
“I think much of it is the novelty of having Americans investing, and loving their community,” says Doug. “Sometimes we go into shops for a cappuccino, or loaf of bread, and they won’t let us pay.”
They visited an antiques auction during their most recent visit and spent time purchasing items for their apartment, as well as decorating, and going to local restaurants like the the La Pecora Ladra, which is located just a few doors away from their apartment, and happens to be built into the Etruscan caves.
Now that they’ve fulfilled their long held Italian dream, the Johnsons are keen to spend more time in their newly renovated property.
Once Doug retires, they plan to spend at least three months — the maximum length of time US citizens are permitted — in Italy each year, so that they continue exploring the local area.
They’ve already visited Orvieto, which is around 45 minutes away and the village of Santo de Stefano, located in the mountains, and Civita Di Bagnoregio, situated about a 50-minute drive away.
“Every time we go, we’ll spend a few days visiting new places,” says Doug.
And while their family and friends were less than keen on the idea when they first began the project, it’s fair to say they’ve changed their minds over time.
“They’re all excited,” he adds. “Especially my older daughter. She was like ‘Dad, what have you done this time?’
“But she’s all excited about it now that she realizes it wasn’t a scam. So it worked out.”
Aside from their Italian home renovation project, the Johnsons are also “carefully restoring” a one-room schoolhouse in Gloucester, built in 1743, which is their full-time home.
“I love restoring old buildings, and my wife and I are art teachers, so everything is an art project,” says Doug.
“I talk her into purchasing these old properties, and luckily she is a good sport who comes along for the ride.”
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