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From $35,000 to $446,000: What it cost to renovate a $1 home in Italy

Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It

Buying a home in the Italian countryside for cheap comes with a catch — in one case, to the tune of nearly half a million dollars.

But that wasn't on the radars of Meredith Tabbone or Rubia Daniels, who in 2019 both learned about homes being sold for 1 euro (roughly $1.05) in Sicily.

Since then, the two Americans have paid for extra real estate fees and major renovations to secure their new homes abroad. Here's how much each person really spent on their Italian dream homes.

The half-million-dollar vacation home

Tabbone, 44, from Chicago, decided to buy a home in Sambuca di Sicilia, which was auctioning off abandoned homes starting at 1 euro.

When she found out about the auction in 2019, Tabbone had just learned her great-grandfather was from the town and took it as a sign to go for it. "A lot of people warned me that it could be a scam [and that] I could end up losing a lot of money," she recalls.

She placed a winning bid for 5,555 euros, and with taxes and fees, spent 5,900 euros (roughly $6,200) to secure the property.

Tabbone flew to see her new home for the first time in June 2019. She then bought the building next door through a private sale with the owner for 22,000 euros (just over $23,000). 

The additional purchase meant more space to build her dream vacation home. It also meant much higher renovation costs: She initially budgeted 40,000 euros to renovate 620 square feet, but that grew to 140,000 euros to cover 2,700 square feet.

Over the next four years, Tabbone visited Sambuca for weeks at a time and oversaw a local crew for the overhaul: They knocked down walls to join the properties; leveled the flooring across 18 small rooms; reinforced the structure against earthquakes; added two large terraces; and opened up the kitchen, dining and living rooms. 

All in, she spent about 425,000 euros ($446,000) on renovations.

That brings the total cost of her Sambuca home to roughly $475,000.

Meredith Tabbone finished renovations in late 2023 and plans to spend four months out of the year in Sambuca.
Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It
Meredith Tabbone finished renovations in late 2023 and plans to spend four months out of the year in Sambuca.
Meredith Tabbone knocked down several walls to open up her kitchen, dining and living areas. She plans to use her vacation home to entertain local friends and fellow travelers.
Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It
Meredith Tabbone knocked down several walls to open up her kitchen, dining and living areas. She plans to use her vacation home to entertain local friends and fellow travelers.

Despite "4 million moments of frustration" over the years, Tabbone says the expense has been well worth it. She's learned more about her family history and established dual citizenship in Italy.

Tabbone says the slower pace of living in Sicily has transformed her view of work-life balance. She now prioritizes personal enrichment like traveling and connecting with new friends.

Her one regret? "If I could do anything over again in the buying or renovation process, I would have learned to have more patience" and enjoy the experience from the beginning, she says.

An artist's retreat for under $40,000

In Berkeley, California, Daniels' curiosity took her to Mussomeli, one of the most prominent Sicilian towns with a 1-euro scheme. There, Daniels, 50, bought three 1-euro properties with intentions to turn them into a vacation home, a restaurant and a wellness center.

Rubia Daniels is from Berkeley, Calif., and bought several 1-euro houses in Mussomeli, Sicily.
Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It
Rubia Daniels is from Berkeley, Calif., and bought several 1-euro houses in Mussomeli, Sicily.

The houses were sold for 1 euro each but also incurred a 500-euro realtors fee and 2,800-euro deed. That added up to a total of 3,301 euros (roughly $3,500) for each building. 

So far, she's focused her renovation efforts on her vacation home, which will include an art gallery and space for artists to convene.

Daniels set an initial renovation budget of $20,000 and has so far spent $35,000. Those expenses include a new kitchen, marble finishes, restored stone walls and a fireplace in the bathroom.

It's not bad for a total cost of under $40,000 to date. Meanwhile, back in Daniels' home of Berkeley, the median home listing price was $1.1 million in April 2024.

It's been an exciting project for Daniels, who comes from a construction background and sees Mussomeli's 1-euro program as a sustainable revitalization project.

Rubia Daniels has three dream projects: a vacation home, a restaurant and a wellness center.
Courtesy of Rubia Daniels
Rubia Daniels has three dream projects: a vacation home, a restaurant and a wellness center.
Rubia Daniels is in the process of renovating her vacation home and hopes to stay under a budget of $40,000.
Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It
Rubia Daniels is in the process of renovating her vacation home and hopes to stay under a budget of $40,000.

Most of all, she enjoys the lifestyle that prioritizes leisure and connecting with your neighbors as friends.

Now that she lives in Mussomeli for part of the year, "it's much easier to be happier here than it is to be happier back at home," she says. "The biggest challenge for me over here in Sicily is just the amount of carbs that they consume. Other than that, life is beautiful."

Conversions from euros to USD were done using the OANDA conversion rate of 1 euro to 1.05 USD on Oct 18, 2023. All amounts are rounded to the nearest dollar.

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