Entire days spent reviewing your finances, sifting through property listings in newspapers or online, reviewing and re-reviewing your list of like-to-haves and can’t-live-withouts – all to find your perfect dream house, idyllic holiday home, or tranquil sanctuary in which to retire after your working days are done. And yet perhaps you find it, quite unexpectedly as you read the daily news, like Charlie Bucket discovering the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory:

“Come to Sambuca di Sicilia, a tiny historic village in the heart of Sicily, part of the association of the most beautiful small Italian towns, ‘I Borghi più belli d’Italia’, and where you can become a proud landlord for the price of a coffee.”

This particular ‘one-euro house’ initiative came into the limelight in January 2019, thanks to an auction announcement made by the town hall, which caught the eye of media outlets around the world. US news channel CNN was the first to talk about the beauty of Sambuca, and also the first to let the world in on the town administration’s project.

[Photo: Gaspare T]

Their report was later picked up by Italian and international media, and in the months after, the phone in Sambuca’s town hall hasn’t stopped ringing. Tens of thousands of calls and emails arrive on a daily basis, with over 120,000 potential buyers from across the globe interested in taking part in the auction. This unforeseen feedback led the town administration to create a task force, complete with tour guides and translators.

But let’s take a step back.

If You Sell It (For €1), They Will Come

In 2010 art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, then-mayor of the Sicilian town of Salemi, came up with the proposal (perhaps inspired by an idea from photographer Oliviero Toscani) to sell old houses at the symbolic price of one euro. It was an attractive offer for many possible buyers, but it was unsuccessful; it was immediately blocked by Italian magistrates due to structural issues in the houses for sale.

Despite the failure of Sgarbi’s project, the idea ended up burrowing into the heads of several Italian mayors, including the mayor of Sambuca di Sicilia, Leo Ciaccio. This year, Ciaccio decided to shake up the town’s economy by arranging to auction off 16 houses at the symbolic price of one euro. Each participant in the auction had the obligation to start bidding at one euro, pay a deposit of 5,000 euros as a guarantee of the offer, and commit to renovating the house within 3 years following the purchase.

The world perked right up as soon as the announcement was made: buyers from the US, England, Saudi Arabia, India and China started clogging up the town hall’s phone lines without end.

“Before we announced the initiative, we had to acquire the assets from the cultural heritage foundation, a task that required no less than a year of work,” Ciaccio explains. “We lost a lot of time in filing the paperwork until January of this year, when we were finally able to announce the project to the public.

“Since 18 January, when CNN broadcast its report about the one-euro houses for sale here in Sambuca, our phone lines and inboxes have been literally flooded. We didn’t expect such success. We’ve been literally invaded by hundreds of people who decided to move in our town. Since the town hall was crowded with people coming from the four corners of the earth, we decided to arrange guided tours of the town, specially tailored for those ‘real estate tourists’ eager to know more about the 16 houses for sale. We started with two tours a week, but then we ended up with two tours a day.”

A Town On The Rise – And On TV

After months of work, the envelopes with the offers were opened on 8 May at Palazzo Panitteri, which hosts the city museum. “We examined the 49 envelopes containing the different offers – coming from several foreign countries – and we then proceeded to assign the houses,” Ciaccio says. “Many people decided not to wait for a new auction, and bought their houses directly from private sellers. Besides the 16 houses sold by the city administration, 100 more houses have been sold. Amazing figures, which nobody was expecting.”

[Photos: Giuseppe Cacioppo]

But that’s not all. The ‘one-euro house’ initiative will soon become the subject of an international TV series broadcast by Discovery Channel; one of the houses to be renovated was sold to Discovery Channel, and the world will be able to follow American actress Lorraine Bracco as she oversees the renovation of the house and experiences life in Sambuca.

The city, winner of the ‘Borgo dei Borghi’ award in 2016, is a big construction site today: all the 16 buildings sold are in the city centre, in the old town, and – having been built about 100 years ago – are characterised by a variety of historical elements on the interior. The renovation works on many of the buildings have already started – including on the house bought by Discovery Channel, and another sold to an Iranian group that’s planning an ultra-modern space with extremely sophisticated architecture.

“Considering the success of this initiative, our administration is ready to continue the revolution, which is already producing some results,” adds Ciaccio. “We are working to be ready to announce a second auction by next January, for the sale of 10 more houses in the old town.”

[Photos: Giuseppe Cacioppo]

“The idea of promoting our city with an auction of international relevance shows that we have a good city administration, which once again proved its worth,” adds Enzo Randazzo, a Sambuca resident, former teacher of Italian and Latin at the Liceo Scientifico in Menfi. “Thanks to the one-euro house project, tourism is growing, in particular among foreigners; but also the real estate market is improving, and people who left our territory years ago are now coming back.

“The small town of Sambuca has always wanted to be a city: always welcoming and rich in culture, it has been blessed with administrations committed to its improvement. Today, we need to be aware of our capabilities and understand that tourism is a way to create jobs.”

[Photo at top: Giuseppe Cacioppo]

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