A LOOK BACK: CHASING A DREAM
If you love architecture, design and property voyeurism (and, who doesn’t really?) then this story is for you.
Our aim with this post is to provide a peek into the wildly different range of possibilities when looking to purchase within a historic city center like Lucca. These particular properties reflect the search over a period from 12-24 months ago.
By design, I did not include the two “runners-up” from our House Hunters International experience, so be sure to check out the episode on HGTV!
Since announcing our apartment purchase in Lucca, Italy, we’ve received many questions about the selection process. What types of places have you seen? What were your criteria? How did you make a decision? How did you know “the one”?
There was a time while living in the U.S., when we watched episodes of House Hunters International and bet on which house would make the cut. (It’s truly crazy that we now have our own episode! See bottom of post for episode information). When it’s your own search and money on the line, the process is more stressful and fascinating than we ever could have imagined.
We were open to renovation, so viewed apartments covering a wide range of styles and budgets (from approximately $150 to $350k), and spent months climbing stairs to view every available apartment in Lucca. Seriously, if it was listed anywhere near our budget’s neighborhood, we were there! We saw everything from empty shells requiring vivid imagination and potentially bottomless bank accounts to designer spaces beautifully created for someone’s tastes, just not ours.
The 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 were seeking potential for two+bedrooms, two bathrooms, high ceilings, big windows and gloriously-big opportunities for natural light, plus good entertaining space. 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 without outdoor space.
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 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 had 5 siblings to wrangle on a decision. #potentialnightmare).
Each property helped us clarify and narrow our wish list as well as know for sure what we did NOT want (hello, wonky, uneven stairs and sloping attic ceilings).
By the end, we would view nearly 40 different apartments. Documentation was key. I took photos and videos of almost every space, 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.
A few years ago, 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 apartment rentals, different in style and location. Apartment #1 was designed by the owner, a Lucca-native and innovative graphic artist. His incorporation of modern, industrial elements were a revelation. We felt inspired in the space, but with a location adjacent to Lucca’s historic amphitheater, waking every morning to the sound of tour groups was a turn off. This lead us our aim away from the bustle.
A month later, we moved on to a place with more residential vibes. That space’s exposed ceiling beams became a benchmark. “Our apartment must have potential for that kind of exposed woodwork,” we vowed.
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.
The apartment below, was the first place we viewed and we were struck by it’s classic Lucchese feel (I mean, those amazing historic tiles!)
Code name: Morelli.
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 budge on asking price, even though the apartment has been on the market forever. With renovation needed, this was a budget buster. Plus, the tiny rooms, with structural limitations prohibit tearing down walls to create larger spaces.
*The elevator. As you can imagine, in the historic city center finding a building with an elevator is rare. 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, 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.
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 and he’s a budget-hound.
Code name: Bus Stop.
Pros: On budget. 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. I’m not sure why we even looked to begin with, but then…once we saw it, we couldn’t stop thinking about that terrace – grande!
Code name: Terrace Grande, (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? Barely. Where would we store the bikes? Haha.
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: 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. Though it was way-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. Ground floor. One bathroom. Looks like a Rooms-to-Go floor model. I loathe the color 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. 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?).
It should be noted, I have not included the two runners-up from our House Hunters International episode, well, because…watch the episode! (haha) See below for episode information. If you follow us on social media, you likely have seen images of our choice, aka our sweet Lucca apartment. So, here goes…
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.
Our heads and hearts twirled on all these different spaces, each with wildly distinctive personalities and feels. Still, with all the choices, we never had the “this is it!” feeling upon entering, not in one single space. We knew from experience of home purchases in the US, it was that feeling, or bust.
“Our house search in Lucca ends here,” we thought.
Then, on week #9, days before our departure from Lucca, we entered apartment #39, and, instantly, we found “it”…
…aka home. It was love at first sight.
Code name: THE View.
Pros: That love at first sight feeling. Large terrace with expansive views. Big windows running along both sides of the apartment, natural light and cross breeze. Lucchese floors and tile work. Our favorite neighborhood. Fifteen euro per month condo fee. Managable stairs.
More pros…Nice balance of livability and renovation potential, 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.
Below budget to boot!
One owner. An Italian Nonna who we also instantly loved.
Cons: No cantina nor bike storage. Vintage pink bathroom from 1950s.
Potential time zapper. Nope, not renovation hours or time spent carrying bikes upstairs, but all the potential coffee and wine sipping hours spent on that balcony.
How will we ever drag ourselves away from that view???