Kathryn, Fred and their daughter Kitty (one of four children) came on one of my Puglia property trips last February. We had spoken a couple of times and exchanged countless emails and two things were immediately clear to me; firstly that they were lovely and that I would enjoy working with them, secondly that their budget was not very realistic for what they ideally wanted (100-130K) – a property large enough for their whole family (grandparents included) to come for family holidays. This also had to be beautiful- Kathryn is a talented artist and the whole family is very visually orientated
Normally the Puglia property trips are simply a chance to explore the area and see the kinds of property on offer, but I was pretty sure they would buy something immediately and also which property they would choose, which worried me slightly as it would be pushing their budget to its maximum.
When we first viewed La Lanterna, a turn of the century property in Nardò, last used as a restaurant
and on the market at 145,000, they saw past the appalling clutter, assorted junk and industrial trunking/strip lighting. As fellow romantics, they saw the beautiful church which forms a background to the courtyard garden rather than the pallets everywhere and the cracked, uneven concrete flooring, the soaring vaulted ceilings rather than the obvious infiltration of water through some of them. It was clearly going to be a love affair but, equally clearly, we had to limit the restoration work which could be done within budget. The slime yellow flooring in the hall had to go, ditto the kitchen/livingroom floor. The wiring was clearly lethal and there was only one, inadequate bathroom and no kitchen. All of the rooms used as dining areas had been made interconnecting by cutting large archways in the walls. Raising the parapet on the large roof terrace to make it usable wasnt viable at this stage and we would just have to close the door on the large stairwell going up to it – just too many square metres of plastering and painting.
I wasn’t too worried about the water damage on the ceilings because the owner assured us that it was a historic problem and that the section of roof above it had been re grouted. On inspection, under the layer of green algae that you get on unused flat roofs paved with limestone slabs, you could see the lines of fresh grouting. In general I was really worried about the budget though, as there was no margin for ‘unforseens’ and said as much. I also said that the work would take ‘around’ three months. Before I knew it Kathryn had booked flights for her entire family to arrive exactly three months after we started work. I was horrified and, although I know that she would have entirely accepted the house not being finished and would have been prepared to camp out, I absolutely hate disappointing people. The challenge, or sfida was on…
Shortly after the purchase was completed, and before we started work, there was unusually torrential rain, both outside, and unfortunately inside, the house. Our planned work schedule went out the window – the absolute priority was to get the roof cleaned off to see what was going on. It transpired that the ‘regrouting’ had been done very shoddily, without cleaning out the existing joins, and there were several lesions where the new and old material had separated. On top of this there were several badly cracked flagstones which needed replacing. We had already noted that the parapet walls were exposed stone and had planned to plaster them as, potentially, you could get damp infiltrating if you had a combination of driving rain and winds directing it sideways. This of course is what we had. It didn’t literally rain in the house, but the areas of damp were spreading..
The rain held off long enough for us to properly repair and make good the roof, 70% of which had not been budgeted for but started again just as we were about to start work on the courtyard. All the cracked concrete had to come up and a new base laid with a slight slope away from the house – the staus quo was that all the rainwater was running towards the house and pooling next to the walls. This was planned work and needed to happen before tubes were laid for replumbing and rewiring. It wasn’t possible, so we decided to start inside the house and work out towards the mains.
To do these we had to cut trenches in the existing floors – we had decided, after this, to put new floors on top of the existing floors to save money. It would mean cutting a couple of centimetres off the doors and door frames but they were high enough to permit this. Again we hit problems. Under the lino in what would become Kitty’s bedroom there was an enormous hole. Originally the old septic tank, before mains plumbing, it had been filled in with eathe which had largely washed away, and the rest had compacted some way down. While I was glad that we found this before someone fell down it, it took up more time and racked up more unforeseen costs. we were running late and the budget was looking dangerously low.
Somehow it had to work though. It was already challenging but I managed to source end of line flooring – trimming 30% of the outdoor paving costs and 20% off the internal flooring. I scoured the internet for hours and found discounted high end bathroom fittings. We were back on track – at least financially but a host of other unpredictable things cropped up which needed resolving – rusty pipes behind the plaster in one of the bedrooms, damp from the excessive rain coming through the wall where the courtyard flowerbed met the house and the neighbouring property (necessitating huge trenches lined with a waterproof barrier and extra drainage material ) and so on.
Luckily my best and most loyal team were on the job, and massively joined the ‘do or die’ team effort – for the last half of the work they charged a basic hourly rate plus materials – losing most of any profit they were going to make. Halfway through the work I got hospitalised with kidney stones and was in and out of hospital and in considerable pain and everyone rallied round – coming to get me from my house and taking me on site where I directed traffic from a largely seated position, and running to the local alimentare to get me panini so that I could take painkillers which couldn’t be taken on an empty stomach.
The team also acquired two new members – or rather one new member and a returning member. Before we started work, over a dinner with Fred and Kathryn where drink had definitely been taken, Kathryn and I decided it would be a terrific idea to rope in both our youngest sons to paint all of the existing woodwork (lovely wooden art deco door frames for example, which were stained a horrible orangey colour). We also planned to close all the arches between rooms with shelves on both sides – so all in all a lot of woodwork to paint and no budget to get it done professionally. Jamie (my 20 year old) had worked on another property for me, restoring woodwork the previous summer and speaks Italian. Will (Kathryn’s son of the same age) was a complete novice. They had never met and it was just our hunch that they would get on. They did, tremendously well and made a game effort, even though the speed at which they worked, and the time constraints, meant they ended up wprking somewhat long hours. My ‘proper’ team were very tolerant of them and imparted much arcane wisdom – leaving WIll with an extensive vocabulary of technical Italian woodworking terms while still utterly unable to hold a normal conversation in Italian.
Somehow we managed and we finally finished the evening of Fred and Kathryn’s arrival. I still don’t know how. The entire house was replumbed, rewired and repainted, most of it had new flooring and we had to replaster all of the areas where there was damp. A new, hand built, kitchen and bathroom were added and the existing bathroom improved. All the doors and windows were repainted and the outdoor courtyard had the existing flooring removed and replaced. Also outside, we added a large built in seating area with upholstered seating. Indoors we closed all the archways with wooden shelving – between the master bedroom and kitchen and the master bedroom and new bathroom. We removed industrial quantities of strip lighting, trunking, wall tiling and assorted crap and we completely restored the roof. I am not going to tell you the final expenditure because I am never ever again taking on a project without insisting on a sensible margin on the budgets (or asking my building team to work super cut rates). At the end of it though I do have a whole lot of new suppliers selling super discounted fixtures and fittings and it was all massively worth it when Fred and Kathryn and their family arrived and I saw their reactions….
This is what they had to say ‘ When buying in Puglia patience and unshakeable confidence one is doing the right thing and sufficient money to complete the mission are necessary qualities to have, but not enough. Add speaking Italian. Understanding – really understanding – the property market and the region. Knowing how to open bank accounts. Navigating the bureaucracy of obtaining a codice fiscale. Planning permission. Negotiating with builders, plumbers, surveyors, electricians. Advising on how to restore a property, the best materials, prices etc. Project Management . Giving contractors grief when they fall behind. Even recommending the right plants for a garden.
Caroline very simply was the difference between having a nice (and by now probably abandoned) idea of buying a property in Puglia and being where we are now. Owners of a converted former restaurant with vaulted ceilings, three bedrooms, a newly fitted kitchen, a beautiful bathroom where there had once been extractor fans and strip lights, a courtyard, a baroque church looking down on the back of our house and sitting next to the city walls and 15th Century castle in Nardò.
All achieved between viewing in February, concluding the purchase in April last year and walking into what we thought was an Interior design magazine page spread in July- right down to chilled wine and a puglian feast when we arrived. All in less than six months.
We love Nardò and the Salento and our 4 children between 14 and 25 are total converts. The process has had its twists and turns and we needed to engage fully with the process throughout…..albeit from a distance. But Caroline bridged the gap between theory and practice again and again, and firmly steered us away from many daft whims that possessed us along the way.
Has it been a good step for us? Absolutely. And Caroline was a significant reason for that. She has a great eye for design, a tremendous sense of humour and awesome work ethic. We now consider Caroline a really good friend.
And the feeling is mutual…
If you would like details of forthcoming Puglia property trips, or you have a project you would like help with do email me: firstname.lastname@example.org and we can fix a time to talk.