Lessons from construction projects abroad

Real estate investing in Italy and other foreign countries: fun or foolish?

Investing in a foreign country: an adventure or a nightmare? It can be both, and even at the same time.

I already had some experience with Dutch real estate, but when I bought a plot of land in Puglia, South Italy three years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It felt like an exciting adventure, and prices were extremely low compared to what I was used to. I dove in, even though everybody said I was crazy, I did not speak the language, did not know anybody in Italy and I had no idea of the local customs, rules, and regulations.

I started by restoring the old trullo on my land, with a neighbor. Then I built got permission to build a tiny house next to it. While staying in the nearby village, I wanted to buy a small studio to stay in and as an investment. I got the unique opportunity to buy a much bigger apartment in the most beautiful spot in the village. With another construction team and the help of my local Airbnb host, I started that massive project of restoration. Finally, I also bought that small studio that I was originally looking for.

Everything took much longer and was much more expensive than originally predicted. But in the end, it was all worth it. Check out the results: my Trullo & tiny house, the amazing Townhouse and the cute Studio.

Below you’ll find pictures and my lessons learned.

Lessons learned

Not only applicable to Italy, but also to other foreign adventures:

  • It ALWAYS takes more time and money than you thought, so don’t do this on a tight budget, with your last money reserves, or with a tight deadline.
  • Be patient, you cannot change the system, or people
  • Consider it an anthropological experience
  • Trust the locals. They know best. The materials, the regulations, the possibilities, and the abilities of the various artisans.
  • Build relationships first, don’t be too direct and result based, like we Northern Europeans tend to be.
  • Get to know the people you work with: what are they passionate about?
  • Learn Italian (anyway, the local language)! And even if you do speak Italian pretty well, be prepared for most conversations among your building team to be in dialect 😂
  • Find people who are used to working together. Let them select their own team of builders, plumbers, electricians, and surveyors (geometra), otherwise, it will be endless ‘finger-pointing’
  • If you are not physically present at the construction site, nothing will happen. They all have various projects and they only work on the ones where the owner is present and asking for their attention. Every time I went on a trip and discussed everything beforehand, when I returned nothing had been done. As soon as I started calling again, they started doing the work discussed weeks before. No matter what I tried: planning, WhatsApp reminders, this is how it went.
  • Nothing is done via email, Whatsapp is used sparingly. Everything is done by phone or face-to-face. Really annoying when the phone and internet reception are bad, and if you still rely on Google Translate. Get used to it!
  • Try on-site team meetings: let the working people discuss together what the next steps are, who does what, and when. Be the facilitator of those meetings.
  • Enjoy the results with your team. Share photos, bring gifts from your country (everybody loves Dutch ‘stroopwafel’ cookies!), and throw a party for all workers involved when the project is ready
  • Always ask for an estimate of extra tasks jobs or requests, so you will not be surprised at the end.
  • Be prepared to always be surprised in the end…
  • Good building skills do not always go together with planning and communication skills, and vice versa 😂
  • Aks a local for help to get to know the second-hand websites
  • I used IKEA for basics, maisonsdumonde.it is for designing furniture, second-hand shops, markets in my village, and second-hand websites.
  • Try to buy locally. Going to a bathroom showroom is an experience, which takes half a day. You have to make an appointment. Displays have no prices. Instead, you walk around with a representative, who writes down everything you like. Then you sit down in an office. The rep leafs through catalogs to find the prices, then types them into the computer (!) and only then you will find out that what you chose is way too expensive. The rep will then suggest a slightly cheaper version, which is still above your budget. But by then you are tired and hungry after already sitting there for hours and you say OK, just to get it over with. Then you have to wait months for what you ordered.
  • You will have to visit each shop, and each collaborator multiple times. Once to get a first impression. Second time to go get the preventivo/offer. Then another time to make a downpayment. Then you have to pick up the things you ordered. (Probably several times until everything is complete…). And then go back again for the final payment.

Life lessons from construction projects

  • Don’t be afraid of bureaucracy. Just dive in, don’t try to understand everything, find somebody you trust to help you move forward step by step. Be patient and curious.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy the process! Have an espresso on the square. Get to know your neighbors, the cafes and shops around your property, and even the family of the people you work with. You don’t just invest your money, also invest your time and energy in the local community.
  • No matter how much you design, plan, discuss, draw, and try to control, things will turn out differently from your plans. Instead of focusing on what you intended and being frustrated when it doesn’t look exactly the same, try to focus on what there is and make the best of it. It will save you so much stress.