‘I bought a £17,000 house in Italy after Brexit – it turns out it’s an old shed with no electricity or water’

A 45-year-old gardener who fled the UK for Italy after Brexit says his vision of an idyllic expat lifestyle has fallen apart and he is now living in an old shed with no electricity.

James (not his real name), from Manchester, last year purchased a two-bedroom rural cottage near the Sicilian town of Regalbuto for €20,000 (£17,000), with olive trees and a four-hectare garden.

But just four months later – after hiring a building company to fix the roof, walls and upgrade the electrics – he discovered that the house had no existing electricity system and was initially a shed.

The home had been constructed on a piece of land that was not legally supposed to be built on due to the high risk of potential underground archaeological remains.

“It was a blow. I had been reassured by the former owners that all building permits had been filed to the competent local authorities but when I went in person to check, the officer told me the cottage had not been legally classified as a home, just as simple shed for agricultural use,” James told i.

“Practically, it was illegal to use it as a house.”

Italian law includes condoni measures that allow owners to make habitable properties built on unauthorised land or not for living purposes. James applied for one a few months ago, paid a €7,000 fine and is now living in his home.

But he is living in total darkness, without electricity or running water, as he waits for workers to implement an electric grid and install heating and water systems.

“I am currently living in total darkness at night, with just the stars as natural light, and have to move around with candles. I guess under a different perspective that could be somewhat romantic.

“For a shower, I go to a friend’s house who lives nearby, and collect water from a nearby spring source on my land for drinking and limited home consumption. Funny enough, I have gas to cook.”

James has been living in Sicily for the past 10 years. He left the UK in 2013, before Brexit (he voted Remain) and managed to get his Italian residency when it was still easy for British citizens to do so by simply registering at their local town hall.

Before moving to Regalbuto, he was living in a rural dwelling close to the nearby city of Marsala, where he ran an orchard open to the public.

“I was in such a hurry to get my Italian residency before Brexit that when my rent expired in Marsala and I saw online this cheap cottage on sale, surrounded by nature, I bought it sight-unseen.

“I grabbed it straight away without all the necessary background checks on the property, the land and the building permits. I ended up living on a land which wasn’t supposed to be built on. Only recently did the former owners admit they had built the cottage as a barn and shed for summer brunches,” he says.

Instead of suing the former owners, he decided to work with them to find a way out, and they eventually agreed to pay for the running water system and a new electric grid.

“I just feel really downbeat. I escaped the Brexit mayhem, moved to Sicily, but honestly thought it’d be more idyllic. I won’t have a properly functioning home for another six months.”

James adores his patch of land, saying it is “a blank canvas” for him to open a new orchard where he plans to grow exotic fruits such as bananas and avocados, and is still confident that he will sort out his problems.

“I have always wanted to embark on environmental-friendly projects aimed at sustainable farming. I don’t want to abandon this place just because of the trouble it is giving me.

“Things will eventually work out.”