‘We bought a house in Sardinia after Brexit and spent £69,000 renovating it. Then the real owner turned up’

A couple who decided to leave London after Brexit bought a dilapidated rural cottage in Sardinia for €1 in 2019 and set about turning it into their dream home.

The British-Belgian couple in their sixties spent €80,000 (£69,000) renovating the four-bedroom home in the north-western province of Sassari.

But three years later, in 2021, there came a knock on the door from a man saying he was the home’s owner – and Angela and Tom (not their real names) would have to leave.

“We were told the paperwork was fine, the cottage had no owners, so we felt safe that we were doing things the right way,” said Tom, a retired software engineer from Leeds. “But then we got a nasty surprise.”

Angela, an interior designer, said the news was “a shock”, after the agency that sold them the house told them the original owners had long abandoned the home, emigrating to Australia, and had no heirs. i approached the agency for comment but there was no reply.

The dilapidated front entrance to the cottage before the renovation (Photo: Supplied)

“We escaped London to avoid living in post-Brexit era and thought we had found our dream place where we could relocate for good, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards,” Angela said. “But we bought the wrong house.”

The couple had seen online adverts for Italy’s €1 homes in largely abandoned villages, and when they spotted the cottage, they quickly snapped it up, with plans to convert half of it into a bed and breakfast.

But just a week after they completed the lavish, three-year revamp, an Australian man in his thirties knocked at their door saying the home still belonged to him, and he had not been notified of the sale.

He was the sole heir of a local family who had migrated to Sydney in the 1930s, and wanted to reclaim the cottage to reconnect with his Sardinian roots.

Tom and Angela were flabbergasted: he showed them a document from the local land registry which clearly stated that he was entitled to own the house.

“It was a blow, he told us he had been living in Switzerland the past year and had heard from locals we had bought the property,” said Tom.

The couple was desperate, and feared losing all the money they had invested in the renovation. However, they were able to reach a compromise with the owner, who agreed to pay 20 per cent of the renovation costs.

But the rest of their money and hard work was for nothing, and they had to move their furniture into storage.

The agency that mistakenly sold them the abandoned cottage apologised, saying it had gone lengths to track down any existing owner before placing it on the market, but that this does sometimes happen – although rare.

Absent owners are often hard to track down or avoid contact over fears of having to pay retrospective property and city taxes. Some owners living abroad sell their house privately without notifying the local authorities, which further complicates matters.

“Heirs popping out of nowhere last-minute to claim old family properties long abandoned by emigrants is quite frequent in the south. Had we known about such risk, we would have picked a more expensive property with the current owners still around,” said Tom.

The pair briefly returned to London before they found an apartment to rent in Sassari, where they’re now living hoping to find a property to buy – one that comes without any nasty surprises.

“We voted Remain, abandoned London way before the Brexit travel rules came into force, and were able to take up residency in Sassari. Our life is here now, there’s no way we’re going back,” said Angela, who loves Sassari’s proximity to both sea and mountains.

“We were unlucky, this has been a terrible, sad experience and we advise people buying old homes to make sure the legal paperwork is all in place and find out whether the owners exist.”