Enter Mother Nature La Neve

Soon after I published the previous post about project timing, Marche got hit hard, first by a major snowstorm and them by a series of fairly strong earthquakes.

january 2017 snowstorm in le marcheSnow fell over a number of days in mid-January, piling up as high as two meters (6.5 ft) in some villages. (Kevin said there was less in our area, but over 4 feet.)

Then, on January 18, there was a series of four earthquakes in the magnitude range 4.1 – 5.7. These quakes follow the even stronger quakes of last October and August. (There have been more than 45,000 aftershocks since August.)

Rigopiano Hotel before and after avalanche
Hotel Rigopiano – Before and After
Click image to enlarge

The biggest catastrophe was in the region just south of Marche, Abruzzo, also hit hard by snow, where the Hotel Rigopiano was buried by an avalanche set off by the quakes and 29 of the 40 people inside died.

The impact on our project is only on timing. Very little work has been or will be able to be completed in January. Kevin reports that the contractor, Francisc, has been able to do some work in his shop, assembling some of the steel needed for the support columns.

An Update

I showed a list of Marche earthquakes of magnitude over 5.0 in my post about the October quakes.

Here’s an update to that list:

Oct 20166.6
Aug 20166.2
Oct 20166.1
Sep 19976.1
Oct 19305.9
Jan 20175.7
Jan 20175.6
Oct 20165.5
Oct 19435.5
Oct 19365.5
May 19875.1

So the top 3 and 6 of the top 8 have been in the last six months.

First image: | http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/18/italy-hit-four-powerful-earthquakes-four-hours-bringing-terror/
Second image: By TVSEI - CC BY 3.0 | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6La91fbpbbg
Map icons: Maps Icons Collection | https://mapicons.mapsmarker.com

Shaken, Not Stirred

I have a lot of things to write about my week in Italy, but I think I’ll start with the earthquakes.

Earthquake Activity This Week
October 2016 earthquakes in Italy
October 2016 earthquakes
Click image to enlarge

I arrived Monday afternoon and went to Urbisaglia where I stayed in a small, older hotel in the village center until Friday morning. It’s located about where the blue circle is on the map of the quakes that’s on the right of this page.

Wednesday evening about 7:10 pm I was in my room and it shook a little bit. Just a couple of seconds but very noticeable. This one was magnitude 5.5. I figured it was an aftershock to the August 24 quake — rather than being a before-shock for those to come.

About two hours later I was at dinner about 3 miles away, on the bottom floor of a newer (1960s? ’70s?) building and the shaking started again. Everyone bolted for the door, including me, of course. Outside, people were visibly shaken. Some were crying.

The shaking lasted longer this time and was stronger, measuring 6.1. (That difference from 5.5 doesn’t seem that great, but the scale is logarithmic, so this one was roughly 10 times as strong as the first one.)

When I returned to the hotel, the owner came to my room. He reassured me that the hotel was in a building that had been restored to meet earthquake standards.

There were some smaller shocks during the night.

On Friday, I went to the larger town of Macerata. Located where the red circle is, it’s the provincial capital and about 40,000 people, compared to about 3,000 in and around Urbisaglia. Lots of older buildings.

Saturday evening there was a small quake. You could see and hear the television rattle on the table. Magnitude 4.5.

October 2016 earthquakes in Italy
Click image to enlarge

Now the big one. Sunday morning I was just getting up, about 7:40. The room started to shake like crazy. I’m trying to figure out where to go. I’m not dressed, on the fourth floor, with no obvious place to go where the structure might be strongest. I’d say this was 10 seconds of serious fright. Once the shaking stopped, I got dressed, grabbed my stuff, and got to the ground floor and outside. This was a 6.6 quake, so about 30 times stronger than the first one on Wednesday.

Now I had just one problem. The car was in a garage a couple of blocks away and I needed to go back inside to get the keys to get the car.

I didn’t see any visible damage to the buildings nearby, but I wasn’t going to explore. I got the car and drove toward the coast. I wanted out of the hill towns. (My original plan was to go to a sagra delle castagne — a chestnut festival — in a small town in the mountains. It was almost certainly cancelled, but I wasn’t going there to find out.)

On the way to my next hotel near the coast and the airport, I decided to stop at IKEA just to what they had that we might use in the house. To my surprise, it was closed, at least for a couple of hours, I assume to check the building.

Some Perspective

While this week and year have been very active seismically, history shows this level and severity is very unusual. I found a list of quakes in Italy. In Marche, there have been 9 over 5.0 Here’s the list, with dates, in order of severity.

Oct 20166.6
Aug 20166.2
Oct 20166.1
Sep 19976.1
Oct 19305.9
Oct 20165.5
Oct 19435.5
Oct 19365.5
May 19875.1

So the top 3 and number 6 have been this year.

I’m hoping that the pressure on the faults has already released and we may be in for another quiet period. And our house is being built to standards to survive, at least long enough to escape, in an 8.5 or so, and there’s never been a quake nearly that big in Italy.

So the risk we do face is when we are in a village somewhere and there is a 6.0 or over.

An Update

I’m now back from my trip and a 4.9 aftershock was recorded today in the same area. Also, scientists are using satellite imagery to assess the quake and the likelihood of future events. Here’s a quote from a BBC story:

The colored bands represent motion toward or away from the satellite
Earth movement: The colored bands represent motion toward or away from the satellite.
Click image to enlarge

There remains the potential for future quakes in Italy’s Apennines region, say scientists who have reviewed the latest satellite maps of the region.

The new radar imagery suggests Sunday’s big tremor ruptured a segment of a fault in between sections broken by two other quakes in recent weeks.

But the Magnitude 6.6 event has still left the deeper parts of the fault system locked in place. And this unrelieved stress now represents a risk down the line.

The researchers are keen to emphasize, however, that predicting precisely when and where a future quake might strike is not possible.”

Map sources

An Experiment: Frasassi

To fill in between posts about the house, I thought I’d try an exercise. Write about places to see in Le Marche, with rules being I can only do research using Italian-language articles, and I’m going to look up as few words as possible.

Le Grotte di Frasassi

Le Grotte di Frasassi, or the Caves of Frasassi, seem to be a good place to start. In north-central Marche, about 66km (40 miles) northwest of Colmurano and about an hour and a half by car, these are some big caves. The Italians like to point out that the cave just inside the present entrance could comfortably contain the Duomo of Milan, the third largest Catholic Church in the world, behind St. Peter in the Vatican and the cathedral in Siviglia, Spain. (We’re talking about a space about 400 X 600 feet and 650 feet high. In the vernacular, that’s about 4×2 football fields and really high: let’s say half the Empire State Building.)

Frasassi CavesThe caves weren’t discovered until 1971, when some spelunkers from a Marche caving club felt a strong breeze coming from a small hole in the ground. They had to enlarge the opening to get in, where they saw … a very small room, but with some small gaps where the wind was whistling through. After some days of digging, they finally were in a place they could stand and they saw … darkness. But big darkness. They dropped some stones off an edge they (fortunately) did see and estimated the fall at 100m (330ft). Watch your step! They called this cave “La Grotta Grande del Vento,” the Big Cave of the Wind.

The process that formed the caves started about 190 million years ago. So far, they’ve discovered over 40km (25 miles) of cave passages. One passage connects to an earlier-discovered cave, La Grotta di Fiume. Together, they form a large underground web under the land around the Comune di Genga, in the Parco Naturale Regionale della Gola della Rossa e di Frasassi.

Inside, the temperature is always 14C (58F) and the humidity always 100%. The air holds as much water as possible. The rest keeps dripping and forming the stalattiti e stalagmiti. (Those are your stalactites and stalagmites.)

You can take the general tour, of about 1600m (a bit less than a mile). (No photos, they say. That’s the special “Photo Tour.”) This tour is about an hour and 15 minutes and costs about €15. For those over 12 years old, there’s also the 2 hour Percorso Azzurro (Blue Tour), price unknown.

Last, there’s a Percorso Rosso (Red Tour), about 3 hours and described as somewhat challenging. In fact, the description on the website says, “you are hooked to a rope, turn to your left and try not to look down” over the 30m (100ft) drop. Then it’s Attenzione la testa! (watch your head!) and … di nuovo a piedi … (… back on your feet … ) so there are some low, narrow passages.

As a total aside, I visited Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota (180 miles of passages — a big boy cave) many years ago. They told us a caver can fit through a hole if it’s bigger than the span of your hand.

This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Le Marche, but it’s mostly Italian tourists, not foreigners. TripAdvisor shows 1600 reviews in Italian, 100 in English.

Just to show you how crazy August is in Italy, here are the tour times, July vs. August:
July: 10:00 11:00 12:00 2:30 4:00 5:00
August: every 10 minutes from 9:00 to 6:00

So, I say we visit on a rainy day in the spring or fall. Do you want to join us? (You can go on your own on the Percorso Rosso.)

Image: By Kessiye (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Designing the House: A First Pass

One of the things we were looking for in a house was an open floor plan on the ground floor. It’s not that easy to find. On my first exploratory trip in 2015, I looked at 39 houses, and thought 5 had some potential overall. Only one of these had an open plan.

imageI think there are three reasons it’s hard to find this feature. First, in virtually all of the older, restored farmhouses, which were made of stone, there were interior load-bearing stone walls. If those were to be removed, steel beams needed to be inserted, which would have been fairly expensive. Second, the structural restorations were done a number years ago, when open floor plans weren’t as common, especially outside of the US. Third, many were redone with the idea of renting part of the house to tourists in the summer. That meant dividing the house into apartments and having multiple kitchens.

This year, based on this goal, we saw two finished houses with this feature and two “shells” — houses that had been structurally rebuilt on the exterior but were open inside, except for a few load-bearing columns. We also were shown a plot on which we could build from scratch a house with the open interior we want. All of these were situated to provide wonderful views across the Marche hills.

As Anne has mentioned, we chose this last option.

Home design concept in Le Marche Italy
Original option @ 160m2 Click image to enlarge

As part of this option, we were presented with plans for a 160 square meter house (about 1700 square feet) that had already been approved for this location. It had the added feature of a ground floor master suite, which would let us live on one floor when it’s just the two of us in the house, without the need to heat the top floor. (I’m avoiding mentioning that it also reduces the need for my knees to go up and down stairs.)

We had a couple of issues with this design. First, it gave us only three bedrooms, with no space for an office/study which could be used as another bedroom. Since Anne is envisioning constant guests, she wanted this extra room, ideally also on the ground floor. Further, some of the rooms seemed a little small.

Fortunately, we were told that on this plot we should be able to build up to 190m2. (The amount you can build is based on the size of any existing buildings on the land. This plot had a tumbled-down house from which we could “reuse” the space). Interestingly, we could only build within 100 meters of the original building. There are a lot of regulations designed to preserve the character of the land and environs. Overall a good thing, but it does add a whole host of constraints.

Italian house floor plan
Option B @ 190m2 Click image to enlarge
Italian home design in Le Marche
Option A @ 190m2 Click image to enlarge

Earlier today, we received two proposed designs for a 190m2 house. As you’d figure, we liked the ground floor of one option, the top floor from the other. Since the two designs have different exterior shapes and different stairway locations, we can’t just plop the two floors together. Also, we had a few suggestions about room placement and size.

You never know how someone who has designed a house — or even been involved in the design — will react to proposed changes. Would they think we were destroying their perfect design, thinking we were unartistic slugs, and then unenthusiastically attempt to make changes? Or would they understand that it will be our house, not theirs, so let us go ahead and change it to fit our desires? (I feel like I’m back working with creatives from an advertising agency.)

It’s probably helpful that we have an intermediary between us and the artist, our real estate agent/general contractor Kevin. I talked over our ideas with him. I got no push-back, just some “options to our options.” He’s off to talk to the architect to see what they can come up with.

First mage source: www.pixabay.com License: CC0 Public domain. Free for commercial use. No attribution required. Other images: Copyright Our Big Italian Adventure

Let’s Play Hide and Go Seek, Italian Style How Buying Real Estate in Italy is Different From the US

It’s not as easy to identify potential houses in Italy as it is here in the US. We have a “multiple listing service” or MLS, where essentially all properties for sale are in one big database. It doesn’t matter who the selling agent is. If it’s on the market, it in the MLS. And from that, on Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com, etc.

This makes it easy for a buyer. You just access this data and see what you can find. It’s all there. You can also see what has sold for what price. All this leads to a pretty efficient market, in economics-speak.

Needles in Haystacks?

Not so in Italy. There is no equivalent system. It does matter who the selling agent(s) are, because it only shows up on their websites(s). And you have no history or way to compare prices.

imageNote that I’m saying it might be agents, plural, not just agent, singular. The same property can be listed by multiple agents. It all depends on the seller, and it’s generally in the seller’s interest to have multiple agents on the job. (Twice, on my original trip, I was taken to see a house that, when arriving, I realized I’d seen with another agent. The descriptions and pictures were different, so I thought it was just two houses in the same general area.)

So to identify properties you need to identify agents. As you expect, you do this by web search. You can search for “Marche real estate”, for example. You’ll find a number of agents and you’ll discover the portals, Gateaway.com and Rightmove.com. (These sites take what I believe are paid listing from agents and kind of simulate an MLS system. But not very well.) From the properties listed, you identify agents. Then you go to the individual websites and see what they have for sale.

There is another way to find a house, but it’s not easy. You try to identify a house on your own, offered by a private seller without an agent. If you have good connections in the expat community, you might find a house another expat wants to sell. Or, if you’re fluent in Italian and lucky, you might hear about a house by asking around in local villages.

It’s Gonna Cost Ya

The total real estate commission on a sale is similar to the US, usually somewhere in the range of 4%-6%. But, instead of all being paid by the seller, as is our practice, it’s split by the buyer and seller, with what you pay based on the rate charged by your agent. In our case, our agent Kevin charges buyers 4%, with a minimum commission of €7500. (Also, on the commission you pay the IVA value-added tax of 22%.)

I’ll admit to not being fully aware that Kevin’s rate was above average when we started working with him last year, so we didn’t try to negotiate the rate. Maybe he wouldn’t have negotiated, anyway, since we would have been in a weak position: say “no” to his rate and then we’d not have access to his listings or have to work hard to identify another agent who had the properties. And of our list of 39 properties last year, Kevin represented more than any other agent, about 8 if I recall correctly. So, we might have missed out on some good choices.

What Will It Take To Put You In This House Today?

Finally, when evaluating prices and what you “should” pay, you’re in the dark without knowing what similar properties have sold for. Your data is just the houses you’ve seen and the asking prices. And asking prices seem to be all over the map. It’s not uncommon for a house to be reduced dramatically in price, by fifty, a hundred, two hundred thousand euro all at once. Is it now a good deal? Or if they were off on the price by that much before? Are they still too high?

(When I was getting a feel for the market at various price points last year, I saw a house in Tuscany listed at €750,000. I liked it, but told the agent it was at least €200,000 too high for us. She then asked, “If I can get them to sell it at €550,000, will you buy it?” I think she thought that it was a real possibility that they would take that price.)

So, with “hidden” inventory, buyer commissions, and “shot in the dark” prices, you could say the Italian free-for-all system makes it harder on a buyer all around.

Image source: www.pixabay.com License: CC0 Public domain. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.