ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Italy, one should remember, is a timeless concoction of mysteries, and time is one of those quantitative things that refuse to be measured by anything, least of all itself. Its simplicity is deceptive. A new owner just has to wait patiently for the surprises. One of these is that your neighbours may be sitting on your land, or worse, you may be sitting on theirs, or strangely, you both may be sitting on each other’s land.
No one seems to have succeeded in unravelling this Gordian knot relating to neighbours. One can only try to be aware of this potential for trouble sitting beyond the vineyard you have considered your own, or the substantial hedge that might be your boundary, or then, might not.
One must also be aware that Italy has the remnants of a quasi-peasant society still alive, and in Tuscany mostly doing very well, who often illegally arranged their neighbouring pieces of land they had inherited, to suit themselves, thereby avoiding the costly transactions required by the state. Especially when a nod of the head, and a shake of the hand settled the matter so amicably.
A second generation offspring, not yet so socially responsible as to reject these old ways, recognize a good thing when they see it, and remain tight lipped while keeping a firm grip on their wallet. This works satisfactorily, until the land passes into other ownership. Your ownership perhaps, where as its existence is like the onset of age, you won’t actually know about the inconvenience until it’s too late.
Where might you go wrong? To this there is no answer, as every transaction is subtly different, so the best anyone can do is to try and draw your attention to a possible common cause, and how to hopefully avoid it.
The actual title to a property is encapsulated in the Atto, a document that remains in the possession of the public Notary who drew it up. Yours, no matter how official it looks, will only be a copy. The Notary will probably advise you to have a copy made of ‘the copy’ as it represents the only other legal evidence of a transaction if, by any chance their copy is mislaid. Every now and again, for official reasons, it may have to leave your safe keeping, so the advice is of some moment.
It should also contain a translation if you are a foreign national, as it may otherwise contain a statement that you have understood the Italian description in the document. As even an Italian may have trouble coping with all the mumbo-jumbo therein this is a wise route to travel. It should also contain a specific statement that the property is free from liens, rights of way, and any other infringement that will detract from your sole possession of it. A neighbour, you can count on it, may have other ideas on who possesses what. If it mentions, for example, that you accept the property with all its faults (generally slipped in with some whimsical phrase like ‘to enjoy all its fruits and faults’... or some such similar wording), have the offending section removed. Fruits are not much use when your perceived olive trees turn out to be on someone else’s land. Missing a trick doesn’t matter if you don’t mind a bit of subsidence or a fluctuating water table beneath your feet. Coming down to breakfast in Wellington boots only sounds eccentric to those who don’t have to make a virtue of it. Be obdurate. Very obdurate. It should have no faults.
Allies you will have, to be sure, who will put pressure on the vendor in an effort to negate seeing their huge commissions heading for the waste paper basket. Compromise, to the civilized Italian, is a way of life. Accommodation is everything. This will not prevent errors taking place, as with all the best will in the world, the unforeseen can still remain lurking in charming anonymity on the other side of the fence.
Along with the Atto will come a splendidly ‘false’ document called the Certificato Catastale, commonly referred to as the Catasto, from which the Notary will obtain the superficial area of the property being sold. False, in the sense, that though it has been compiled with due diligence and probity it isn’t what you think it is, and may even be encouraged to believe, by certain interested parties.
Whereas the Atto is drawn up by a highly qualified professional, the Certificato Catastale is in the province of the Geometra, either a well-meaning technician of varying abilities or, if you’re out of luck, a humbug. Unhappily, they come in equal numbers, and you have to find your own or have one thrust upon you.
It is not a legal requirement to employ one for this purpose, but it is always a sound policy to have someone else on hand to be responsible for any errors, besides the alarming prospect of the Notary not being able to guarantee the state of your intended property. Chains and theodolites suggest getting your feet muddy; therefore he has recourse to a Geometra, your Geometra, and if you haven’t got one the Notary can only go by the current Certificato Catastale.
Herein may lie the nucleus of the predicament. The document they will present comes in two parts, the Catasto Fabbricati with a scale plan of the building, and the Catasto Terreni detailing the extent of the land. A third item sometimes appears which is a compilation of the two. All well and good. Well, not so good.
These documents, officially held in the Catasto Urbano, an office of the comune, may represent a tidy way of ascertaining the owners contribution for I.M.U., the council proprty tax, in much the same way as the Domesday Book did in England which, you may recall, was so called because it spared no man, and judged them all indifferently as on the day of judgement. Thus it is in Italy, and the day of judgement for the unwary is sometimes not so long in coming.
However, like the days of a movable feast, land can also vary from year to year, leading to an obfuscation of the true extent of the property. The rendered Catastale is historically accurate at the time of compilation, and on change of ownership can be modified by an alarmingly named Denuncia di Variazione, a legal amendment that updates the original, which should take account of land subsidance, erosion in the course of rivers, or a notorious vicini pecking away at your boundary. It also contains the number of the Foglio, held in the city archives, where a plan of the property exists in relation to its surroundings. You can look, but time has probably added a little inaccuracy here and there, and may not help you establish the true extent of your property.
Caveat emptor has a whole new meaning in Italy. All though is not lost. You can have a new, and accurate Catasto made. The datum points to facilitate this are indeed numerous, but unhappily the passing of history may have seen a few modifications made to the Fourteenth Century chapel that was hit by a bazooka shell and demolished, or the small farm house that became a hotel and is three times the size. You have to take potluck on this, and a lengthy delay while the province creates a new one for you. Indeed, because of such changes, you should have a new catasto drawn and updated so that it accurately takes account of all these variations, and in an ideal world the Notary should insist that what he is transferring is subject to an up-to-date technically correct description.
The vendors will protest because all the illegal transactions carried out by their ancestors, and sundry other long forgotten owners, will come to light. But you will be saving yourself from a lot of trouble, such as a costly legal battle to obtain ownership of a well that seemed to be on your land but just might be on that of your once charming neighbour Luigi. He now neither sees nor hears you, and claims what the Latin’s two thousand years ago called Usucapio, on half your olive grove.
It is politic to have your new Catasto made after you have signed a Compromesso, or agreement to exchange in a specified time, where you are required to pay a hefty deposit known as the Caparra that the vendor gets very excited about. Then, if it all comes unstuck the vendor will be responsible for returning twice the deposit, as he almost certainly won’t be able to transfer the property on the date agreed. That may be inconvenient, but represents a tidy nest egg to put away for the next mad impulse that presents itself.
The down side is, that if you do purchase the property, and innocently sell it to another party with the error still intact, you will in effect be making a false statement to the Notary with all the penalties that can incur. Worse. If it comes to light within ten years of your selling the property, having bought it with all its faults and well-kept secrets, you will be held legally responsible by the vendees for putting it back in order. That could turn out to be a very costly exercise. Thereby, a new Catasto could represent the most important decision you make.
Once all this was unlikely in property that stayed in the family for generations, but with the Italians now becoming property acquisitive like their northern cousins, a much more searching regime is sure to follow.
Alternately, if the idea of just being in Italy, and soaking up the culture without being overloaded by friends sounds bliss, you may be on to a winner. For that you could purchase an apartment where the walls have a tendency to stay put, and not go anywhere. However, apartments have acres of their own called liabilities in common. In most the fine print is too small to even read. An infinitely safer and cheaper alternative might be to just rent a property. By law there must be a written contract, generally of four years, very often for six or more, with obligatory renewing of contract if desired, for the same period. In effect the period is flexible and can be agreed to suit. The initial period is at a fixed rent, and subsequently negotiable. Plus, you only have to give six months termination of contract, and someone else is responsible for anything more than ordinary maintenance costs. On the other hand, you will still have neighbours....
If it all seems impossible, take heart. Besides avoiding the country completely, which would mean missing out on its enormous and overwhelming generosity; you might try NOT learning Italian, which would mean knowing nothing at all, and therefore avoiding an enormous amount of stress. Or alternatively, being absolutely fluent, and thus becoming more Italian than the Italians, having learnt to avoid adversity by doing nothing about anything. What you must not do, is to have a rudimentary knowledge of a language which will bring a great deal of frustration as you try and apply British values to a nation that, where property is concerned, seems to have discreetly hidden their own.
It doesn’t help knowing, that the Italians will be in exactly the same boat as you. Neighbours are everywhere, and nationality in the New Europe is completely immaterial. In Tuscany, where neighbours are concerned, there is no new unity. To borrow that overused cliché: What’s yours is theirs, and what’s theirs is most definitely their own!
An uninhabited island in the Italian archipelago? The way things are, one can guarantee some tanned and wrinkled old salt will protest his family have had mooring rights on the island for generations.