Renting in Italy
Renting from owner or private agency
If you want to rent an apartment for mid- to long-term stay, you have two options. You can rent it through an agency, or you can rent directly from the owner. The most economical option is to rent directly from the owner. However, it is not always possible as the apartment you want may not be available through a private party. I will talk about apartment because in most cities, independent houses for rent are few and hard to find.
Renting an apartment is very different in Italy than the US. Whereas in the US most apartments are just for rent, and often managed by a full-time property manager, in Italy they are almost always rented by owners. Find a rental-only apartment building is very difficult. Many apartment owners choose to use an agent to advertise and handle the contract negotiation. Hence, most of apartments for rent are listed by agencies.
Rental contracts are highly regulated by the state. There are three types of most common contracts legally recognized:
Transitory: up to 18 months stay
3+2: A 3-year contract with options to renew it for two years
4+4: a long-term contract for four years, with the option to renew it for other four years.
To obtain residency in a place, you need a legal contract. The contract has to be registered with the local police headquarter and together both the tenant and landlord generally share the payment for the registration fee. Then the landlord has to pay a percentage of the rental income as tax.
The problem of renting an apartment through an agent is the cost. The typical agency in a big city such as Milan, Rome or Turin will require the following as the first payment: two months of rent as a commission; two months of rent as deposit, which is refundable; and the first month rent. In total, you have to pay five months worth of rent just to move in. The commission you pay is not refundable. Some agencies will charge you less commission, perhaps one month rent worth, but rarely will you find an agency charges less than one month to help you find an apartment.
A modern construction (post-2008) in Turin, Italy
The high cost of moving into a new apartment highlights the lack of mobility in the Italian population. How could an average young person afford to live independently in an apartment? If someone wants to move to another city for school, work, or other reasons, this heavy financial barrier will discourage most people. Unlike in the US, where moving is common and relatively affordable; depending on the city and apartment, you pay either no deposit, or little deposit, rarely more than one month equivalent of rent. Combine this financial barrier with poor job market, this causes many Italians live at home with their parents into their 30s and beyond.
I see many people from U. S. with Italian ancestry wishing to move and they are often surprised when they find out how different is their ancestral land. By the way, some US citizens of Italian descent may qualify for Italian citizenship. US citizens could also qualify for Italian American dual citizenship if they marry an Italian citizen.
Back to the agency issue, using an agency has some benefits: such as preparing a legal contract, and offering guarantee for your money in case your landlord does not provide what was negotiated.
To save money, it is better to rent directly from the owner. The upside is that you will save on the agency commission. However, still, it is normal for the owner to ask for two months rent as deposit. Some owners could even ask for three. The downside is that the owners vary in their ability to draft contract and dependability to keep your apartments available for you. However, Italian laws tend to favor the tenant in case of trouble. If you have a nice landlord, you will do fine, but if you have a bad one, you will have plenty troubles.
Many landlords prefer not to register the contract to evade paying taxes. They will often negotiate give you a lower rent in return. However, this put them at risk with the financial police if they were caught.
Many landlords are also hesitant to rent to foreigners under a long-term contract. The foreigner will need a contract to obtain residency from the city hall, but by obtaining residency at that address, there is very strong legal protection for the renter. The landlord cannot arbitrarily evict the tenant without paying serious compensation or finding the tenant an equivalent alternative place. In case of non-payment by the tenant, the legal process of eviction can be very long (up to two years in some cases).
In my own experience of more than 100 encounters with various landlords, I would say most of them are hesitate to offer a long-term contract. More than half of them prefer not to register any contract at all. Those who rented to me preferred a short-term contract.
As a tenant, you should give at least six months of notice before moving out. However, this may not be practical if you only plan to stay for several months or one year. For less than 18 months stay, it may be more practical it avoid too many hassles of the formal process. However, if you intend to live there for years, then you should seek to have the best legal protection possible by sticking to the rules.
The city of Milan has published a very comprehensive guide to renting and buying a property. Although it does not talk about many of the unwritten custom and behavior you will often encounter in the rental process. At the end of the file there are two pages of real-estate related vocabulary, which is very useful.
Furnished vs. Unfurnished
Arredato means furnished. If you read an ad without it, you could infer that the apartment is unfurnished (non-arredato). Unfurnished apartment, unlike in the U. S., are totally bare, they don't even have any essential kitchen appliance. You will just find the rooms, toilet and sinks, perhaps not even any lighting fixtures, and an empty kitchen. Since moving is much more difficult in Italy than the U. S., unless you are certain that you will stay few years at least, it may not be worth the trouble to spend a large amount of money to buy a whole kitchen set and other essential appliances to furnish your apartment. In some cases you may even need to paint the walls and install floor tiles.
When it comes to furnished apartments, the quality generally tend to be far less than ideal. While Italy is known for its beautiful interior design and furniture, forget about what you read in the home decoration or architecture magazines. In reality, most rental homes are not even remotely close to the quality of furnishing to what you see in the magazines the showrooms.
A typical furnished apartment in Italy
Although Italian landlords have no problem asking for two to three months of deposits, they have a tendency to be very suspicious of tenants. Almost every single landlord that I spoke to have the mentality that the tenant will likely to not to take good care of the apartment and will leave it in poor condition or destroyed upon moving out. As a result, they tend to put the worst quality things in there and call it "furnished"? It is not uncommon to find apartments furnished with things from their parents or grandparents, or just shabby furniture. Often they will refuse to remove any ugly or non-functional furniture or appliance with the excuse that they have no storage space. Occasionally you will find someone who takes pride in their home and decorates it like the interior decoration showroom or magazine, but that is very rare.
The landlady insists that this coat hanger is actually a full closet. Unless it takes me to another dimension, that's unlikely.
When you rent an apartment in Italy, more often than not, you should not expect it to be polished clean. Most of them will have dirt, hair, residues from the previous tenants. Likewise, the landlord cannot reduce your deposit when you leave it in the condition which it was found. This applies to both furnished and unfurnished places.
I recall visiting many completely empty apartments with agents, and I asked them why it is so dirty.
A 30-year-old washing machine that was in this condition when I first opened it
What to look for?
Besides the basics, there are some particular issues one needs to be aware when choosing an apartment in an Italian city.
This is a must if you live in a city unless your street has very little foot or motor vehicle traffic. Many older building have single-pane windows with glass panel less than 2mm thick. Some of these windows are from more than a century ago. It may sound charming but it is not. You will hear just about everything there is outside your window. If you don't like hearing everything day and night, especially when you sleep, either stay away from such apartment or tell the landlord to replace it.
The old windows have very poor heat insulation too, which will result you having a higher heating bill in the winter. In fact, to achieve more energy efficiency, many local governments offer tax incentive to landlords to replace their old poor quality windows with energy-efficiency double- or triple-pane windows.
A typical old single pane window door
Some landlords are either cash-strapped or too cheap to change the windows as they are not exactly cheap, even though the long-term benefit can be significant in term of appeal to potential tenant, energy saving, and quality of life. It is up to you to point this out to the landlord telling them you will simply not consider renting the place unless they rectify the problem first before you sign the contract. In one of the places I rented, my landlord and I split the cost of replacing the century-old window door with a high-quality one that is thermal-efficient and double-paned.
A double-pane window door to the balcony from a newer building (post-2006 construction)
Even better: An aluminum frame double-pane thermal-efficient balcony window door. Cost: About 1000 to 1200 euros
Look carefully around the street of your apartment and see if you are close to any trash bins. Those trash collection trucks tend to come in the early morning (5~7AM) to avoid traffic and can be very loud. Some are poorly maintained so they emit a very loud squealing sound when moving the trash up and down. If your apartment is close to the bin, and you are not an early riser, make sure it has double-pane window. Even then, if your apartment is located on the first two floors, the vibration from the trucks will be felt as well.
Being in the country of Catholicism, churches are everywhere. They are charming historical and cultural relics, but can be annoying when the hourly or half-hourly bell rings. If you are not a big fan of such sound, pay attention to the location of the nearest church, and if it is close, make sure your apartment has double pane windows.
Near foot traffic of common area in the building
If you like a quiet place, then you should also pay attention to the common area inside the building near your apartment. The apartments in Italy tend to have poor noise-insulation so you can often hear people walking up and down the stairs, talking, or even the neighbor's TV.
Many apartments have inadequate kitchen lighting, especially for the cooking area. So it is something you may want to pay close attention if you plan to spend much time in the kitchen. In two apartments I rented, I had to install new lighting in the kitchen.
Not many apartments come with extra storage space inside or outside. So inquire about it before you move in.
Most apartments in the city don't come with parking space included. Often they can cost anywhere from 80 to 200 euros a month extra. Otherwise you can always park on the street. Most cities offer discounted annual resident parking permit. It beats paying 1 to 2 euros a hour to park in front of your own home.
Many historical buildings in the city center look charming from the outside. To live in them day to day is another story. This is from a historical building in the city center of Turin, Italy. Many of them are not well-maintained.
Although there are days which they will do street sweeping so make sure not to park on that side of the street indicated or you will risk a fine. Street parking are often not safe from break-ins, I had my car window broken twice over two years. One person I know went to vacation for two weeks and came back to find four wheels missing from her car.
The condo fee is not very high, averaging around 50 euros a month. However, don't expect to find the amenities in many apartment buildings in the U. S. like swimming pool, gym, club house, etc. The condo fee covers the building and elevator maintenance, and cleaning, etc. Your rent generally should include such fee unless otherwise specified by your landlord.
A slow retrofitted elevator in an old building. You can walk up five floors faster than it.
Establishing utilities (electricity and gas) under your own name can be a battle in itself. I once had a neighbor who had to wait three months to have gas turned on in her home. In the mean time, she could not cook or take a shower at home. She had to shower at another neighbor's home. It may be easier to keep the utilities under the landlord's name and just pay it monthly or negotiate to pay out of your deposit upon moving out. Make sure to get a monthly or bi-monthly statement from your landlord. I did not want the hassle of dealing with the utilities companies and I had kept it under the landlord's accounts.
A typical gas meter
The most common way to access the Internet in Italy is Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Technically it is ADSL (Asynchronous DSL), which means the download speed is much faster than upload speed as the majority data usage of a typical user is from downloading. It runs on a normal copper-wire telephone cable, and the speed and quality depending on the distance between your home and the telephone company's central office (CO).
Once upon a time, the national company Telecom Italia had a monopoly on all things telecommunication. However, now there are several popular choices such as Fastweb, Wind, Tiscali, and Vodafone, all offering various competing internet access services. When it comes to DSL, they all rely on the existing telephone line infrastructure built by Telecom Italia. However, you do not need to have a working telephone line or even an account with Telecom Italia to establish DSL service with another company. The DSL provider you choose will coordinate with Telecom Italia to install or activate a phone line to your home and then activate the DSL service.
Keep in mind some newer DSL service are ADSL 2, which is not backward compatible with the older ADSL modems. With the exception of Fastweb, the other DSL providers allow you to use your own modem. Fastweb leases you their modem / router, which has an unique hardware ID (like every other modem / router).
An ADSL modem / router made by Ericsson (Model HM220dp)
It may take anywhere from two weeks to three months to establish internet service. If you order the service just before the summer holidays (July to August), then you are likely to get it around September as the companies are often short of technicians during that period.
Other options are the more recent fiber-optic connections available in some cities. The cost has decreased to a level that is far more affordable than before. It was not that long ago that 100Mbps fiber-optic connection cost more than 500 euros a month, now it cost around 80 euros.
Internet connection over 3G and 4G mobile cellular data connection is also quickly on the rise, most smart phone users choose this method. However, they tend to have a lower data traffic limit like 2GB or 4GB a month for 10 or 20 euros. It may not be very suitable to people who consume large data regularly on a computer. Though if your consumption is mainly email and light web browsing with little video watching, then 2GB traffic could be sufficient a month.
If you need to frequently upload large files, the 3G and 4G cellular data connection has an advantage over ADSL connection. It allows the same upload speed as down speed. Where most ADSL modem tops at about 350Kbits (or 35KBytes) per second uploading, 3G data connection can reach to 1500Kbits (150KBytes) to 3000Kbits (300KBytes) per second, uploading simultaenously.
If you come from the U. S. or Canada, it's going to be hard to find an apartment that is comparable to the amenities, space and convenience of parking back home (with exception of cities like New York, San Francisco, etc.). The process is also much more complicated and burdensome. So keep a lowered expectation and you will not be too disappointed.
The Salt Way (mainly for Turin and Liguria)