Since announcing our apartment purchase in Lucca, Italy, we’ve received a ton of questions about the selection process. What kind of places have you seen? What were your criteria? How did you make a decision? How did you know “the one”?
We all enjoy peeking behind the curtain for a glimpse of how others live, so we thought it would be fun to share the search process. There was a time, before becoming nomads, when we watched episodes of House Hunters International and bet on which house would make the cut. When it’s your own search and own money on the line, the process is certainly more stressful and even more fascinating.
We spent months climbing flight after flight of stairs to view every apartment in Lucca – seriously, if it was listed anywhere in the vincity of our budget, approximately 200K euro (all prices below are euro-based), we were there. We saw every type of space from empty shells requiring vivid imagination and potentially bottomless bank accounts to designer spaces beautifully created for someone’s tastes, just not ours.
Our wish list was long – a fact which most agents seemed to derive pleasure in repeating. “You must compromise or raise your budget,” we heard this refrain often. We didn’t necessarily require finished spaces; we had that going for us. We have been through this process before (in the US), and enjoy renovating and making a home uniquely our own. We were seeking potential for two+bedrooms, two bathrooms, high ceilings, big windows and gloriously-big opportunities for natural light. However, it was our Wish #1 that caused the most head-shakes. “It’s practically impossible to get outdoor space within the historic walls of Lucca,” said nearly everyone from agents to local friends. To keep options open, we (reluctantly) agreed to see apartments with no terraces or balconies.
When buying property within a historic city in Europe, there’s much to consider. How many stairs are you willing to tackle every day? How many other apartments/neighbors are in the building? With buildings towering all around, does the space get enough natural light? What’s the roof’s condition and are repair expenses shared? Is there a condominium fee (for maintaining shared stairwells, lights, entrance, etc)? Are the windows double-glazed (good windows replacements in Italy are expansive.)? Is there cellar/storage space?
And, one of the biggies: How many people own the apartment? In Italy, it’s not uncommon to have multiple family members on a deed. (For instance, one apartment we considered has 5 siblings to wrangle on a decision. #nightmare).
Each property helped us clarify and narrow our wish list as well as know for sure what we did NOT want (hello, uneven stairs leading straight up five levels).
We hit bursts of viewing four apartments per day, followed with stretches of nada. By the end, we would view nearly 30 different apartments. Documentation was key. I took photos and videos of almost every single space – even those we knew were “Umm, no,” simply so we would have points of comparison and contrast. We also dubbed each place with a silly code name, as a trigger to fire memories.
For those of you who get giddy at the thought of property voyeurism (and, who doesn’t, really?), here is a mini-tour of what we encountered along the way.
Throughout the process, there were only three real contenders, other than the apartment we eventually selected.
Two of those spaces ran around our brains for weeks, prompting endless discussion and debate.
Can you guess which two?
Last year I wrote a piece for Architectural Digest with tips for using Airbnb and other rental agencies as means for discovering the type of home and neighborhood matching your style before making a big purchase or signing a long-term lease. (You can read that story here).
In an effort to follow my own advice, we split our “search” time in Lucca between two different apartment rentals, which were night-and-day style and location-wise. Apartment #1 was designed by the owner, a Lucca-native and innovative graphic artist. His incorporation of modern, industrial elements into the historic space was a revelation. And, though we felt inspired in the space, the location is smack in the middle of Lucca’s tourist heart. Hearing tour guides and groups on the street below was a daily occurrence. Our time here lead us to know with confidence we need to be away from the bustle.
A month later, we moved to another apartment, not far away, but with more residential and traditional vibe. That space’s exposed beams became a benchmark. “Our apartment must have potential for that kind of exposed woodwork,” we vowed and dreamed.
Living in these two spaces, both of approximately 60 sq meters, not only helped to pinpoint styles and neighborhoods, but also dial in desire for space. We had learned the “too-much-space-for-two-people” lesson from our home in the US and had no interest in going big. We wanted just enough space to feel comfortable for two, plus host and entertain friends, no more. We set our mind to approximately 100 sq. meters.
Code name: Il Magazzino
Italian for “The warehouse.”
Pros: Modern design elements contrasting historical structure. Plenty of nature light. High end appliances and finishings.
Cons: Bustling location and noise. Lacks a cozy feel. Too small for us. No outdoor space.
Code name: Sofia.
This is actually the apartment’s given name and it fits the elegant and soft design.
We love this apartment’s high ceilings, big windows and bounty of natural light. It’s a joy to wake up in this space.
Pros: Gorgeous wood work. Big windows. Expansive feel. The tiniest balcony you’ve ever seen.
Cons: No potential for extra bedroom or bathroom, too small. Balcony is off bedroom.
Okay, let’s get to the search:
The apartment below, was the first place we viewed during the official “search,” and we were struck by it’s classic Lucchese feel (I mean, those amazing historic tiles!)
Code name: Morelli.
So named for the man showing this historic family apartment.
Pros: Tons of space, 130 sq. meters. Historic feel. Those tile floors! *The building has an elevator. Small terrace looking onto the building’s internal courtyard.
Cons: Costs. The owner wouldn’t consider anything less than €230k (even though the apartment has been on the market forever). With renovation needed, this is a budget buster. Plus, the tiny rooms, with structural limitations prohibit tearing down walls to create larger spaces.
*The elevator element. As you can imagine, in the historic city center finding a building with an elevator is a rarity. When your apartment is on the top floor, not only is having an elevator handy for practical tasks like renovation and shopping, but also for investment and re-sale potential: people love elevators (we all know, that’s not claustrophobic-ly-me, but I digress…). However, the owner had not “bought into” said elevator, meaning a new owner would need to purchase rights. Ready for this? To the tune of €25k. (I’ll stick with stairs).
This apartment below is one of the most interesting. Located within a medieval tower, outside and inside, the space conjures images of childhood fairytales. Naturally, the configuration features multi-storied rooms stacked on top of each other over five floors.
Code name: The Tower.
Pros: One-of-a-kind cool factor. Great views. Spacious kitchen. Top floor room (with the brick arched ceiling) would be an amazing yoga room! Approx. 100 sq meters.
Cons: Stairs, plus stairs. Small rooms on each floor. Um, just look at that second bathroom and laundry room (height-challenged people only, please). No potential for second usable bathroom or open living spaces. Not practical for our lifestyle. And, a budget buster to boot, at €290k.
The apartment below is perhaps the only space where Matt and I disagreed. The moment we turned the corner on this street and saw the facade, I was like “Nuh-uh, I’m walking,” and that sentiment didn’t really change as we entered. Matt kept saying, “Use your imagination, consider the potential. (Honestly, I don’t think he liked it either, but at that point, this was the least expensive apartment we had seen (at $220k) and he’s a budget-hound.
Code name: Bus Station.
Pros: On budget, (the agent felt certain we could push through an offer at €200k). Small terraces off kitchen as well as all three bedrooms. Fitted with two bathrooms which both needed renovation, but with good bones. 120 sq meters.
Cons: You might have guessed from the code name, Lucca’s main bus stop is steps away. + Neighborhood’s recycling bin area is outside door (think: glass breaking when truck comes around at 6 am, two times a week).
The apartment below would have been the most impractical of many impractical places. With a list price of €250k, I’m not sure why we even looked to begin with, but then…once we saw it, we couldn’t stop thinking about that grand terrace.
Code name: Grand Terrace, (naturally).
Pros: Duh. Just imagine the cocktail parties on that terrace? Amazing view of Lucca’s mosaic-covered church. One owner.
Cons: Can two people be in the kitchen at the same time? Nu-huh. Is there space for a couch in that living area? Nope. Where would we store the bikes? Haha. Terrace and living space are about the same size of 45 sq meters- seriously!
This apartment we liked in concept and location and were intrigued by the brand new renovation – truly, I think the paint was still drying.
Code name: Pinelli.
So named for the historic bakery sharing a building.
Pros: Two bedrooms, two bathrooms with great showers! Small balcony with view of historic internal courtyard. Sleek, modern design. Laundry room. 90 sq meters.
Cons: Costs, this one is also way out of our budget at €280k. (Seeing a theme here?). Small balcony, with view of historic internal courtyard (yeah, we’re picky and holding out for an expansive view). Not enough natural light.
“This apartment is a great investment,” we were told before viewing. Apparently it is a solidly-booked Airbnb rental, year-round. Though it was way above budget, that outdoor courtyard drew us in. You’ve got to run down all possibilities, right?
Code name: The Good Investment.
Pros: Great outdoor space. Spacious kitchen opening onto patio. Built-in rental potential. No reno needed.
Cons: Stupidly over budget at €320k. Ground floor. One bathroom. Looks like a Rooms-to-Go floor model. I hate green, therefore, that bathroom makes me cringe (and it’s too far over budget to renovate).
The one below is the only apartment we viewed where the entire building is undergoing renovation. We’re smart enough to know, with renovation on this scale, the risk and the reward skyrocket.
Code Name: Casa di Mussolini
(This is one of Lucca’s most prominent fascist-era constructions).
Pros: Potential. We could envision the transformation of this space. Big rooms and windows. Crazy good light. Great floors. Clean lines. Elevators. Elegance. In the heart of Lucca.
Cons: Risk of buying into a building not yet finished. €250k ask, with at least 25k in developer fees, plus higher-than-most monthly condo fees. So many unknowns, including when/if the building will be finished and if other people will actually buy, too. (Can you imagine living in an apartment in an empty building for months or, worse, years?).
For weeks, we compared and contrasted. We scribbled pros and cons lists, then tore those lists up and made new ones. We weighed options, endlessly.
Can you guess which two apartments made it through to the end? (Side note: There was a 3rd apartment in the running, but as it is pretty much an empty shell, the photos are less than interesting. Though, it was in line with budget).
Both our finalists were budget busters and come loaded with risk. And, both have amazing potential. Somehow Apartment Morelli and Casa di Mussolini were the two apartments who made it through our process without “X’s” through.
Though drastically different spaces, both set our heads spinning and hearts twitching when we thought of either as home. We followed each apartment down the road. We even got to offer discussions, but in the end of that road: We couldn’t do it, not for either.
“Our house search in Lucca ends here,” we thought.
Then, on week #7, days before our departure, we entered apartment #28, and we found…home. The love was instant.
Code name: Home.
Pros: That love at first sight feeling. Large terrace with expansive views. Big windows, natural light. Great floors and tile work. Our favorite neighborhood. Ten euro per month condo fee. Managable stairs.
Nice balance of livability and needed renovation, aka we can live there from the start! Ability to create bathrooms and kitchen to our taste. Potential for knocking down walls and opening ceiling to create enormous living spaces as well as mezzanine. Plus, there’s amazing woodwork just waiting to be refinished beyond the current drop-down ceiling. Spot on, 100 sq. meters. Potential for cantina (hello, bike storage).
Below budget at 185K.
One owner. A little Granny who we also instantly loved.
Cons: Letting it get away.