A wo­man at war in Um­bria

If you’re not care­ful, buy­ing a home abroad can land you in deep trou­ble. Mal­colm Moore re­ports on an ac­ri­mo­nious le­gal bat­tle in Italy and out­lines how to play safe. And there are more tips from Spain, as Nick Southey de­scribes how he fell foul of an es

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Overseas -

Sarah Gran­ito Pignatelli di Bel­monte is not a lady you would ex­pect to lose a deal. A steely-eyed and in­tel­li­gent 62year-old, she has lived in Italy for more than 35 years, is mar­ried to an Ital­ian prince, and speaks the lan­guage like a lo­cal.

How­ever, her on­go­ing hor­ror story about buy­ing and re­fur­bish­ing a house in Um­bria is a cau­tion­ary tale for any­one look­ing to in­vest in Italy. “If this can hap­pen to me, with ev­ery­thing I know and have been through in this coun­try, it can hap­pen to any­one,” she warns, sit­ting amid tall piles of le­gal pa­pers in her apart­ment in Rome.

When she set­tled on her “per­fect home”, Princess di Bel­monte al­ready had plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence of the opaque and shift­ing world of Ital­ian prop­erty deals. She had spent a decade ren­o­vat­ing her hus­band’s an­ces­tral hunt­ing lodge south of Naples, fight­ing off tru­cu­lent builders and even the grasp­ing hand of the lo­cal Mafia.

“I con­verted it sin­gle-hand­edly into 20 apart­ments, sleep­ing over 80 peo­ple,” she says. Palazzo Bel­monte is now a lux­ury ho­tel with a fresh­wa­ter swim­ming pool. “At one point, how­ever, things were bad enough that the lo­cal po­lice chief gave me a gun li­cence,” she adds darkly.

With that project be­hind her, she started scout­ing for a new house in the sum­mer of 2001, and found a run­down but im­pos­ing, 17th-cen­tury fam­ily home over­look­ing the green val­ley of Spo­leto. The 13,000 sq ft, 10bed­room house still had its orig­i­nal fres­coes and wood­work, as well as its own chapel, a li­mon­aia for win­ter­ing lemon trees, a fresh­wa­ter spring and ovens for bak­ing bread and pizza.

Spo­leto it­self is a cob­bled jewel, an hour and a half from Rome by train. The town is most fa­mous for be­ing the site of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Fes­ti­val of Two Worlds, a mu­sic, dance and theatre event at which Allen Gins­berg and the beat po­ets used to per­form.

The own­ers of the house, the Massi Benedetti fam­ily, were well-known landown­ers in the re­gion. A writ­ten deal was quickly reached by the end of the sum­mer, for 2.45bil­lion Ital­ian lire (about £1mil­lion).

The first whiff of trou­ble came just months af­ter­wards, shortly af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks in Amer­ica. The Massi Benedet­tis sud­denly an­nounced that there was a ri­val buyer, and that the price was now 2.6bil­lion lire (£1.05mil­lion). Left with no choice but to pay the ex­tra or lose the house, Princess di Bel­monte re­luc­tantly agreed.

How­ever, as usual in Italy, the deal was far more com­pli­cated than it seemed. Noth­ing could be fi­nally com­pleted un­til the roof of the house was fixed. The prop­erty had been dam­aged by an earth­quake in 1997, and the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment had made pub­lic money avail­able for its restora­tion. How­ever, the work was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Massi Benedet­tis.

Nev­er­the­less, a com­pro­messo – the most com­mon type of pre­lim­i­nary con­tract – was signed. It stated that an agree­ment had been reached, and a sched­ule of pay­ments was es­tab­lished. Princess di Bel­monte put down an ini­tial one bil­lion lire (£350,000) de­posit and be­gan plan­ning how to ren­o­vate her dream home. “I rented a house nearby and went about ob­tain­ing per­mis­sions to land­scape the gar­dens and put the trees in or­der. I had thin ter­ra­cotta tiles spe­cially made so that we did not dam­age the an­tique doors. The house had three bath­rooms, and I was putting in an­other seven,” she says.

“The house was so beau­ti­ful, it had charm, it had his­tory. The drive on the way up to it was beau­ti­ful. It was thrilling to be in the gar­den and to dis­cover an­cient walls, or to see new views of the val­ley and moun­tains open up when we pruned back the trees. It is so sat­is­fy­ing when you see some­thing that re­ally needs some ten­der lov­ing care slowly re­gain­ing its orig­i­nal beauty.”

She was de­ter­mined to keep all the an­tique de­tails of the house: “I had spe­cial­ists come in and fit polystyren­e pro­tec­tion over the fres­coes while the work was be­ing done. That is the whole point of buy­ing a lovely old house, and keep­ing its char­ac­ter. You have that feel­ing of his­tory. Oth­er­wise, you could just build a mod­ern home.”

The fol­low­ing year, when half the build­ing had been com­pleted, she paid a fur­ther 800 mil­lion lire, as stip­u­lated in the con­tract.

The work con­tin­ued apace un­til the sum­mer of 2003, when a let­ter ar­rived from lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the Massi Benedet­tis. The let­ters al­leged that she had breached her con­tract by car­ry­ing out “unau­tho­rised” work on the build­ing. By the time she re­turned from Lon­don to Spo­leto in Septem­ber, the gates had been closed and new locks fit­ted to keep her out. “I man­aged to get in the next day be­cause the builders left the gates open,” she says. What she found was dev­as­tat­ing. “They were de­stroy­ing all the bath­rooms, re­mov­ing the main walls, re­paint­ing the out­side, and to­tally de­stroy­ing all the elec­tric­ity and wiring sys­tems,” she says. “They were even re­paint­ing the out­side a ghastly pink.” All the fres­coes had also been painted over.

In an at­tempt to save the house, she vis­ited the town’s mayor and showed him pho­to­graphs of the works. She even re­quested a block on build­ing work from the pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor and started lob­by­ing the Min­istry of Cul­tural Her­itage. How­ever, she was met with to­tal in­dif­fer­ence. Only a year later did the min­istry even­tu­ally give the build­ing a Grade I list­ing.

What she now be­lieves is that the Massi Benedet­tis treated her con­tract as at an end and sold the house again, this time to a lo­cal Spo­leto busi­ness­man. A lawyer rep­re­sent­ing the fam­ily said that Princess di Bel­monte had “no foun­da­tion” to her case and that she had voided her con­tract by be­hav­ing “out­side” the con­di­tions stip­u­lated.

“The busi­ness­man’s fam­ily was lo­cal, and the com­mu­nity closed around them and against me,” she says. She be­lieves the close-knit Um­brian com­mu­nity wanted her out: “They do not like for­eign­ers. Um­bria is land-locked and the peo­ple are land­locked.” She adds that her noble fam­ily ti­tle was not an ad­van­tage in a tra­di­tion­ally com­mu­nist state.

Her trips to Spo­leto were met with in­creas­ing hos­til­ity, and the Massi Benedet­tis filed seven charges against her, in­clud­ing one that she had used bad lan­guage in ad­dress­ing them.

Ablack wig hangs over the back of one of her chairs in her apart­ment in Rome, which she wore to move around Spo­leto and gather in­for­ma­tion with­out be­ing spot­ted. “Of course, their charges are be­ing dealt with, but mine seem to be lan­guish­ing, even though I have hired one of the most pres­ti­gious crim­i­nal lawyers in Italy,” she says.

How­ever, her civil case to re­cover the house is un­der way. A judge will de­liver a ver­dict in the next few months. Her lawyers are op­ti­mistic but the slug­gish Ital­ian court sys­tem is against her. “I just found out that even if I win the first round, which will with luck end later this year, I could still be in the ap­peal court for an­other three years with­out be­ing al­lowed back on the prop­erty,” she says glumly.

The Massi Benedet­tis have of­fered to settle, and re­turn her money mi­nus an un­spec­i­fied amount of “dam­ages”. How­ever, she says the terms of her pre­lim­i­nary con­tract stip­u­lated that they would have to pay two bil­lion lire (£700,000) if they broke the deal.

Princess di Bel­monte is adamant she would never find a sim­i­lar house for the money, af­ter a prop­erty boom in the area. “I went the other day, and I saw lots of houses, but they were all charm­less, and so ex­pen­sive,” she says. “The point is that I am very at­tached to that villa. I put two years of work into it.” In the mean­time, her Ital­ian dream seems to have crum­bled. “I wanted my daugh­ter to be mar­ried there,” she says. “I think Um­bria is the most beau­ti­ful part of Italy.” But, she ad­mits, she may well be fac­ing years of tri­als be­fore a res­o­lu­tion.

“I am not giv­ing up. I don’t see why I should have to,” she says. “I have even writ­ten it into my will that this case is to be con­tin­ued.”

De­ter­mined: (above and right) Sarah Gran­ito Pig­natelli di Bel­monte (right) and the 17th­cen­tury Spo­leto home she re­fuses to aban­don, above and right

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