If someone said you could buy a house for a dollar, your reaction might be disbelief. That was how Rubia Andrade felt when she read a news article in 2019 about towns in Italy selling properties for one euro.

“Obviously, your first thought is that this can’t be true. I needed to see it in person,” said Andrade, a Brazilian American who works in California’s solar industry.

Andrade booked a flight three days later and drove to Mussomeli, Italy, a hilly town in central Sicily with about 11,000 residents that had recently launched a program selling hundreds of properties in the run-down historical center.

Of course, as Andrade discovered, the houses sell for the price of an espresso for a reason. There’s always a catch.

How the housing programs work

The 1-euro housing program was first proposed over a decade ago by TV personality Vittorio Sgarbi. Then the mayor of Salemi in southern Sicily, Sgarbi proposed the idea as a way to save the town’s crumbling old quarter. The idea has since caught on in 34 municipalities across Italy.

But it was only in the past few years that it captured the global imagination when articles about towns launching similar programs on the island went viral. Many towns featured, like Mussomeli, received thousands of inquiry emails and started receiving dozens of prospective buyers every day.

While some houses sold through these programs are livable upon purchase, most are little more than four medieval-era walls. Roofs are caved in, and floors are torn up. Many are filled with dead pigeons or other vermin. Prospective buyers who haven’t done research are usually surprised by the conditions, said Toti Nigrelli, the deputy mayor of Mussomeli.

“We tell people to come here first because we don’t want any surprises. We want them to know what they are getting into,” Nigrelli said.

But sometimes houses are so dilapidated they are too unsound structurally to even enter.

Though the official cost is 1 euro (around $1.14), fees and closing costs can typically run up to 3,500 euros (or almost $4,000). Then, you are required to renovate it within a designated time frame — typically three to five years — or forfeit a sizable deposit, usually around 5,000 euros (or $5,709). According to Nigrelli, towns use the deposit to ward off speculators and ensure buyers renovate the properties instead of letting them sit. Renovations cost anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 euros, depending on the house’s size and condition and the renovation style. Most end up spending 20,000 euros to 40,000 euros, Nigrelli said.

None of those complications deterred Andrade. She initially purchased a 1-euro property and returned that summer to renovate. Since then, she has bought two more and become an evangelist, returning every few months with friends, family and even Facebook acquaintances to help them with the purchasing process.

“Even with the fees and the cost of the renovation, it costs less than a timeshare in the U.S.,” Andrade said.

Fresh ideas and new businesses flood into old towns

While Andrade first saw the 1-euro program as a cheap way to own a vacation home, she now has bigger plans: to help revive the town. Andrade and her son are converting their three properties into an art gallery, a wellness center and a restaurant. She plans to move to Mussomeli permanently.

She’s far from the only one.

Danny McCubbin is one of about a dozen foreigners who bought 1-euro houses in Mussomeli and now lives there full-time. McCubbin, an Australian who worked for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for 17 years, bought a 1-euro house with the intention of converting it into a community kitchen to provide meals to vulnerable people. He crowdfunded over $30,000 last March for the project.

Complications due to the pandemic delayed renovations, but he has since purchased an 8,000-euro house to live in and rented a storefront in Mussomeli’s piazza.

Since launching the Good Kitchen this summer, McCubbin has become an unofficial ambassador for the 1-euro program. He has partnered with local supermarkets and farms to rescue unused food, provides Sunday dinners for the elderly, and hosts a free weekly lunch for foreigners and locals to learn about the kitchen.

“The townspeople thought I was opening a restaurant. They didn’t understand the concept,” McCubbin said. After he partnered with local charities to host picnics and baking parties for orphans and those dealing with mental health issues, locals got the idea.

For many, the 1-euro program is about more than selling houses and drawing tourists. Officials and locals alike are hoping that foreigners will fall in love with Sicily and, like McCubbin, bring new ideas to a region more accustomed to watching people leave.

“We need fresh people to come here and show us how they live, how they think, and what they think the community could be,” said Martina Giracello, a native of Cammarata, a nearby town to Mussomeli. Earlier this year, Giracello helped launch StreetTo, a nonprofit that streamlines home-buying in the village for foreigners. Through StreetTo, Giracello hopes to encourage those who want to live in Sicily permanently, rather than build a holiday home.

There is no shortage of ideas flowing in.

Tonia Brauer and her husband, Steve, moved to Mussomeli from California last year. As proud vegans, the couple worked with local restaurants to introduce vegan cooking and launched a vegan food tour to draw like-minded tourists to Sicily’s often-ignored countryside.

McCubbin said he talks every day to new owners and prospective buyers who tell him about their plans to open new businesses. He warns them that there are not enough tourists to turn every 1-euro house into Airbnbs and cafes.

“I try to encourage them to think about how what they bring can help the community,” he said.

Houston-based wedding designers David Rexroat and Sean Raspberry are working to do just that. While the couple contemplated buying a 1-euro house in Sambuca — which recently raised prices to 2 euros — they instead landed on launching a luxury wedding venue. Sambuca officials helped the pair secure a 12,000-square-foot 16th century farmhouse just outside the village. By the time they complete renovations and host the first wedding next May, Rexroat estimated that they will have spent $500,000.

While the venue will host destination and local weddings, Rexroat said he hopes that it can generate tourism to Sambuca and boost local businesses. With the help of Sambuca’s mayor, the couple have established partnerships with local restaurants, bakeries, hotels, touring companies, and vineyards for catering, cakes, lodging, local excursions, and wine.

“We only do design and decor,” Rexroat said. “We plan to employ locals for everything else.”

Beyond the businesses started by foreigners, the 1-euro program has fueled a boom that has jump-started construction, plumbing and electrical businesses and brought bustling business to restaurants, cafes, and hotels. In Mussomeli, the program has increased tourist visits from a couple hundred to several thousand each year, and it spurred public works such as parking facilities, LED street lamps, tennis courts, and renovations for sidewalks, roads, and public attractions, Nigrelli said.

The 1-euro house program has been so popular that many towns have only a handful of properties left. While Cammarata and Mussomeli are continuing to advertise the remaining houses, the towns are shifting focus to “premium” houses — better-cared-for vacant properties in the range of 5,000 to 20,000 euros.

The Brauers, like many, planned on purchasing a 1-euro house, but landed on a “premium” one for 8,000 euros (around $9,135) after comparing renovation costs. Some, like McCubbin and Andrade, have bought “premium” houses in addition to 1-euro properties. All stressed that their purchases weren’t about netting returns but discovering a place worth investing time in.

“The 1-euro program is this hook that gets people to come to Sicily, and then they realize it has everything they need,” McCubbin said.