The 6 Lessons Of Italian Apartment Disasters

No matter whether you’re buying or renting, finding a place to live in a new city or town can be daunting.

You finally find the right place, but it’s out of your price range. You find the right price range, but you’d rather live in a cardboard box than in that neighborhood. Or on that street. Or with those people nearby. You’re always two hours too late to beating the person who “just signed the lease,” or two months too early to the current tenants vacating.

In a foreign country, however, home hunting can be epic. The contractual rules, the currency, even the living standards are different, and then to negotiate all those things through the veil of another language…? Well. You might as well have landed on the moon.

The interior of our second apartment in Cavareno (Trentino, Italy)
The “mountain lodge” meets “late 1980s” interior of our second apartment in Cavareno. (Trentino, Italy)

In Italy, the standard lease is four years (not 1 – 2, like in the US). So, renting a place for less than four years puts you in the non-committal, quick-turnover tourist apartment category. Which was our situation. Until recently, we were never in a position to make a long commitment, plus having no furniture or legal status (in the beginning), our only option was to go with furnished tourist joints.

(Talk about never knowing what a place is going to look like when you walk through the door — it could be anything from whatever was in style last time the apartment was lived in circa 1962, to a hodgepodge of leftovers rummaged from nonna‘s attic. In the above photo, it was mountain lodge meets late 80s chic.) 

But, decorating styles aside, these short-term rentals meant living with — and through — our fair share of apartment woes. And since we’ve learned things the hard way, that means: you don’t have to.

First Apartment: “Muffa”

Black mold in our first apartment in Val di Non (Fondo)
Black mold in our first apartment in Val di Non (Fondo)

We rented our first place through the cousin of one of Jason’s cousins. We were still working out the details of our citizenship, then, unsure of how long we could stay, and this cousin of a cousin preferred not to pay taxes on the rent we paid her, anyway, so we never signed a contract. But perhaps it’s better that way, we reasoned. So that we’re not locked in.

When I realized that the black mold growing like tree trunks up the walls of the apartment was spreading, though — and when both J and I started feeling ill — I pointed it out to the landlord, who brushed it off. “È muffa,” she said. It’s mildew.

If that was mildew, then I’m Margaret Thatcher.

Lesson #1: No rental should come standard with black mold. And if someone tries to convince you it does, ask them about the last time they had tea with the mad hatter.

Second Apartment: Construction

Construction in our Cavareno apartment (Trentino)
Construction below our Cavareno apartment (Trentino, Italy)

I will not go into detail on this one because I still feel sick to my stomach when I remember it. But…we moved into a lovely old place in Cavareno, and within a month, the downstairs apartment started being renovated. For nine hours a day we were bombarded with the sounds of jackhammers and concrete saws, a layer of construction dust laid over our entire home.

After enduring it for weeks, we finally packed our bags and moved out all within two days. And I still have concrete saw-related PTSD, as a result.

Lesson #2: If you can, inquire about any known nearby renovations before moving in. An entire building redo just after you’ve been handed the keys is immediate grounds for terminating your lease. This should not ever happen — not even in the worst slum on earth.

Third Apartment: Stingy Nonesi

Our second apt. in Cavareno. We were in the back part of the house, where you see the balcony (Val di Non)
Our second apt. in Cavareno. We were in the back part of the house, where you see the balcony (Val di Non, Italy)

This was our second experience with this Italian furbizia.

  • First, our landlords screwed us out of the last month of our lease, so that they could make more money renting to tourists in August.
  • When I confronted our landlords about doing this, they tried to blamed Jason, telling me that he had probably “lied” to me about what they’d all agreed on.
  • Then they lectured us about getting everything in writing, demanding payment for things which weren’t in writing.
  • And, finally, they screamed at us upon move-out day because there were defects with the apartment (we’d lived there a year, and naturally, had left a scratch on a wood floor and a small spot on a wall).

Despite it being the most beautiful place we lived, and at the edge of a protected forest, we were so fed up upon moving out that we never even bothered to return for our deposit.

Lesson #3: Make no verbal agreements. Get everything in writing, and then when your landlord tries to get you to do things that aren’t in writing, you aren’t stumbling over the funny language words coming out of your mouth trying to understand who said what, when, and where exactly you should send them hate mail for the next 20 years. 

Fourth Apartment: More Furbizia, Perugia Style

View of the chimneys from our first apartment in Perugia (Umbria, Italy)
View of the chimneys from our first apartment in Perugia (Umbria, Italy)

Between the neighbor’s chimney smoke coming in through our windows, forcing us to sleep on the living room floor ever few nights, and the hot water heater that vacillated between cold and scalding…we’d had enough. We ended up having our lawyer send a letter to the rental agency (through which we’d found the place), withholding our rent until things got fixed.

They were never fixed.

Lesson #4: If an apartment hasn’t been lived in for years, or is only used occasionally as a vacation spot, assume that major appliances won’t work well and that wintertime problems won’t have been addressed (like drafty windows). And just because you rent through an agency, realize that honesty and trustworthiness may not butter their bread. Be ready to counter-offer their shitty non-compliance with whatever you got, because hey — at this point, what else have you got to lose?  

Fifth Apartment: Too Burnt Out To Care

Narrow kitchen at Via Bella apartment (Perugia, Italy)
The very narrow kitchen at Via Bella apartment (Perugia, Italy)

Even though, in terms of condition and location, this one was the worst of all our Italian apartments we’ve lived in, it was also the easiest to handle and the most memorable. We took it on a month-to-month basis, rebounding from the previous smoke-filled apartment, using it as a sort of camping out spot while we searched for something better and longer term.

But it truly was shit.

There was tons of street noise. The bathroom sink never drained right, and the shower had the most pitiful water pressure I’ve ever lived with. The refrigerator leaked water all over the floor, so we left a bath towel on standby to sop it up. The beds were worse than in a turn of the century insane asylum, the only bathroom was right off the kitchen (smells that don’t mix well), and it was overpriced.

For some reason, though, we just didn’t give a damn. It was summertime, the place was temporary, anyway, and we were busy with our big plans to find a more permanent home, setting our sights on that. And, really — there was something about living on Via Bella (Beautiful Street) that was just captivating. Unparalleled. The place full of life. And I loved every minute of it — in a strange, sort of masochistic way, I just did.

Lesson #5: Learn to embrace the chaos and liveliness of living in more cramped quarters on busier streets. Nothing is forever, and there’s beauty hiding even in the most over / underwhelming places. Even in a place where you can watch the oven from the toilet.

Sixth Apartment: Home Sweet Home

Via Vermiglioli, where we live in Perugia (Italy)
Via Vermiglioli, where we live today in Perugia (Italy)
View from our Via Vermiglioli apartment (Perugia, Italy)
View from our Via Vermiglioli apartment (Perugia, Italy)

Finally! We’ve signed a four-year lease and furnished the apartment ourselves. Our landlord lives in Belgium, and is a genuinely nice person (we shared an aperitivo with her in the town square!). Just to be safe, we had our lawyer look over the rental contract, and, “It’s fair,” she said. The view here alone makes me want to invite strangers upstairs, just so they can see it, too.

Sure, there have been minor defects with the house: a toilet that stopped working, some mold issues in the attic, a few drafty windows that suck up heat money all winter long. But the bar was set so low before this place, that as soon as things have gotten addressed, we’ve been happy as pie. And we are. Now if only we could convince the landlord to install an air conditioner, too…

Lesson #6: Sign a long-term lease where you furnish the place yourself. Find a landlord who — even though she’s Italian — lives abroad. And always keep a lawyer on retainer.

Had any horror stories in places you’ve rented? Tell me all about in the comments below, and I’ll share the wildest stories in a post I’m thinking of calling: “Renter Beware”. 

[Feature Image Credit: For Rent by David Amsler, licensed under CC BY 2.0 (image has been resized).]

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