Buying heritage listed properties in Italy: pros and cons

As everybody knows, Italy boasts  a sumptuous and varied artistic and architectural  heritage and every city on the peninsula is dotted with a myriad of buildings that are genuine works of art of the highest historical and cultural value, often  reflecting the very identity of the places where they stand.

We have exchanged a few words with architect Gianluca Paron, head of an architectural studio located in Trieste, and asked him what should be expected by those domestic and international investors who dream of owning a «piece of history» of the Belpaese.

Q - Gianluca, first of all, when did the first heritage building protection acts  come into force in Italy?

A - In the Peninsula the concept of «monument» has been known since Roman times, but the first attempts to set forth proper norms regarding their protection were carried out only in the Papal States during the Renaissance. Following the issuing by the Pope of several bulls on the subject, on April 7, 1820, the so-called Pacca Decree («Editto Pacca») was passed, which served as a milestone from which the relevant legislation of that time and of later centuries stemmed. The Editto Pacca among other things imposed the extension of the protection measures to different types of objects, set forth regulations for archaeological excavations and exports, established the principle of cataloguing and provided for restrictions on private property by establishing specific monitoring authorities.

Q - Since when has a proper law for the protection of heritage listed buildings been in force in Italy in Italia?

A – After 1860 the Italian State continued to refer to the Editto Pacca, in particular for the regulation of the art market. The first attempts at protection legislation were made in 1872, but it was not until 1902 that the first law, n. 185/1902, was passed. However, it was only in 1909, with the Rosadi law, n.364/1909, that for the first time the protection of objects of the cultural heritage was introduced. The law’s fundamental principles included: the inalienability of state property and public property, protection obligations for private owners of listed properties, the introduction of the first refusal right for the State in the case of alienation of privately owned liste property and the establishment of the Superintendencies as local offices of the State controlling the territory. In 1939 the main laws of the Italian State on the protection of  listed properties were issued (the so-called «Bottai law»): n.1089/1939 for the protection of objects of historical and artistic interest and n.1497/1939 which aims at the safeguard of natural beauties. For completeness’ sake it’s worth adding that only in 1999, with the Law Decree n. 490/1999, all the legislation on the objects of the cultural heritage was reorganized in a single set (Testo Unico). Eventually in 2004 a new Code of Cultural Heritage was approved by the Council of Ministers of Italy and is still in force today.

Q - What are the most typical obligations to which must adhere the owners of heritage listed buildings?

A - Basically there are two types. The first relates to «man-made»  assets, e.g. buildings, blocks of buildings, historic mansions, etc. which are protected because of their history, their architectural uniqueness or even for the materials they were built with, as they are regarded as identifying the culture, history or art of our country and, therefore, must be carefully saved from destruction, decay or alterations.

The second case relates to environmental restrictions aiming at  the preservation of a specific landscape, which is considered of great value. The relevant regulations are contained in Part III of the Code of Cultural Heritage, and very often are applied to very large portions of territory.

Q - Are there still regional grants in place for the restoration of cultural heritage properties? Is it possible or realistic for the owners of these properties to get access to this sort of funding programmes?

A - The «Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage» dating from January 2004 states that public and private entities are obliged to guarantee the conservation of the listed objects in their ownership and to bear the costs linked with their maintenance. The protection regulations give the regional authorities the right to partly funding the expenses incurred by the owner for the restoration of the assets of architectural interest. This is set forth by articles no. 35, 36 and 37 of Law Decree 42/2004. I personally always advise to try applying for them, even though this sort of requests often are left unheeded due to the local authorities’ lacking funds for these purposes.

Q - Many investors like the idea of converting old buildings,  historical mansions or castles into boutique-hotels, apart-hotels or similar. Is the procedure for the change of use of a heritage listed property more complex than for unlisted buildings? Or does that depend primarily on the local planning regulations, provided that the elements subject to the protection obligations are duly preserved?

A - The rehabilitation of a listed asset in a bad state of repair, if carried out by a private entity, usually is aimed at bringing  new life  to the property in view of its best possible use. This is clear also to the controlling authorities, as a consequence they usually take into due consideration the proposed changes of use provided that the protection of the property is guaranteed and the prescribed constraints are respected. In any case, the proposed change of use must also be compatible with the provisions of the municipal master plan. If this is not possible, the owner has in any case the possibility to submit a detailed plan with a variation request.

Q - Do owners of listed properties enjoy other incentives or tax relief?

A - While owning a listed property gives access to several benefits, including discounted tax rates and the possibility of free rental contracts, on the other hand, the imposed restrictions do not confer significant advantages. Still the tax advantages currently in force are varied and very appealing and include, but are not limited to: reduced rates applicable to the income tax, tax bonuses calculated on the amount of expenses borne by the owner, discounts on registration duties, mortgage and cadastral taxes, inheritance and donation taxes, municipal property tax, etc. 

Q - What’s the typical timeframe for obtaining permits for the rehabilitation or change of use for properties of the cultural heritage?

A - The release or denial of permits for the conversion of listed properties  often depend on the Superintendency officials’ subjective judgments.
In certain cases the applicant is required to make additions or amendments to the project. Usually, once the project has been submitted to the relevant authority, the process does not exceed 2-3 months. On the other hand one should take into account also the urban planning concessions to be released by the municipality, whose timeframe depends on the extent of the project. In some case it could be possible to start the works  straight away, while in other a period of up to 4-5 months should be expected.


Alessandro Alessio
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