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PICS: Dreamy, rustic Italian life can be yours for just R50.2m

Aug 20 2017 20:00
James Tarmy, Bloomberg

Like many families with an Italian farmhouse fantasy, this American couple retired and set to work on restoring a historic stone home and grounds in Umbria. Here’'s what it cost to get it into shape.

In 2001, Roger Arndt and his wife, Joan, decided to make a clean break from the US. He’d retired as an international captain at Delta Air Lines, and she was retiring as a marketing executive for Coca-Cola. After some deliberation, they decided they wanted to live overseas.

After rejecting New Zealand as too far from their adult children, the couple settled on Italy. “We spent a year looking at about 60 properties,” Arndt said.


The property sits on about 16 acres. (Source: Knight Frank)

“Which is quite a lot in Italy, because you can really only see one a day.” Finally they found a property that checked most of their boxes: a 16-acre hilltop farm in Umbria, on the border of Tuscany. “Being a pilot I wanted to be up high with a view, and with 16 acres I could play in the dirt and grow things,” he said.

Olive trees

There are 1 000 olive trees. (Source: Knight Frank)

The house is also set in the countryside, but about a 10-minute drive from modern conveniences and grocery stores. The city of Perugia can be seen in the distance, “and if you cut down a few trees, you could see Assisi, too,” he said.

They bought it in 2002 for “just under a million dollars,” Arndt said, sold their house in Atlanta, gave away most of their belongings, “and shipped everything we wanted to keep. We wanted to start a new life.”

Now, though, they’re going back to their old one, putting their property on the market with Casa Ambiente, an affiliate of Knight Frank, for €3.2m, and moving back to the United States. With the benefit of hindsight, Arndt told the story of his 15 years in Italy.

Renovation blitz

The house was originally a casa colonica, or a farmhouse owned by a landlord and occupied by about 20 sharecroppers who worked the land and whose payment was, in effect, their own subsistence. After World War II, the practice, which amounted to indentured servitude for the labourers, was abolished, and many of the farmhouses were put up for sale.

day labourers house

The house was initially built to sleep 20 day labourers. (Source: Knight Frank)

By the time the Arndts bought it, the property had passed through multiple hands; most recently it had been the possession of a UK owner who’d done some work to convert the property into a private residence.

Aided with what Roger described as a “stack of €50 bills,” the Arndts blitzed their way through the initial structural renovation of the home. “We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have fabulous tradesmen,” he said. “They did wonderful jobs.”


All of the electrical and plumbing was redone. (Source: Knight Frank)

It helped, he said, that they were conscientious about paying on time. “Consequently, when we make a phone call, somebody answers.”

The phone calls, it should be noted, came primarily from his wife, who after 10 weeks of Italian lessons “spoke it more or less fluently,” Arndt said. “As for myself, I got pretty lazy quite rapidly. I can talk to labourers, but I can’t have a fluent conversation.” (In 2008, Joan Arndt published a book about her time in Italy, appropriately titled Italian Lessons.)


The house has a pool and tennis court. (Source: Knight Frank)

In the 5 000-square foot main house, which has four levels, five bedrooms, and five baths, they renovated the kitchen, replaced all the electrical and plumbing and the furnace, and put in solar panels on the roof.

Next, they built a 3 000-square foot guest house with its own kitchen, bath, and two bedrooms, plus a gym, sauna, and laundry room. After that, the couple built a greenhouse, pool house, and machine building. In addition, the property has a lighted tennis court and swimming pool.

7 bedrooms

In total, the property has seven bedrooms. (Source: Knight Frank)

All the while, they were also planting about 1 000 olive trees, along with a variety of fruit trees and wending stone walls, and simultaneously terracing the property to make it arable.

Main house

The main house has four levels. (Source: Knight Frank)

All told, they spent another million dollars fixing up the property. “There was always something going on,” Arndt said. “We’re fortunate that we’re not poor, so we could have these little projects - adding another wall, adding steps. What we’ve essentially done is property improvement.”

International harvesters

Once improved, the property required minimal maintenance. Arndt said they have someone come once a week to mow the lawn, and a housekeeper who comes six times a week. “Other than that, it’s just Joan and Roger plugging around,” he said. “With no projects, we just pull weeds and do pruning.”


A bedroom. (Source: Knight Frank)

There’s one exception, though: “During the olive harvest at the end of October, we harvest by hand,” he said. Every year, the Arndts enlist the help of about 14 old friends. They’re “a bunch of retired flight attendants and pilots from Delta who come over,” he said.

“We call them the international harvesters.” They knock the olives onto tarps, transfer them to buckets, and then dump them into the olive press. All told, the property produces about 800 litres of oil, “but every year it’s exponential, because the trees keep getting bigger,” he said.

Motivated sellers

Fifteen years into their Italian dream, though, the Arndts decided to sell the property. “There are three reasons we’re selling,” he said. “One is 1, one is 5, and one is 6 years old.” The Arndts, in other words, are grandparents now, and the hurdle of crossing the Atlantic to see their grandkids is too much for them to bear.

“My grandfather was a huge influence for me, and I’d like to think that I can be the same thing to them,” Arndt said. “But to do that, I have to see them.”


Most of the property requires minimal maintenance. (Source: Knight Frank)

“We’re not motivated sellers in the normal sense,” Arndt wrote in a follow-up email. “We would gladly retain a non-equity presence and return twice a year for three or four weeks to put or keep things in order, at least for a few years until the new owners achieve a comfort level.”


The entry. (Source: Knight Frank)

Should someone - another American couple looking to buy their dream home in Italy, for instance -buy the house, Arndt is well positioned to offer a few choice pieces of advice.

“Frankly, it would be important for at least one of them to be fluent in Italian,” he said. “If I didn’t have Joan, I don’t know what I would have done.” But, he added, “she didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so I had her captured.”

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