Do I need a lawyer to buy a property in Italy?
In the civil code legal system used in Italy, it is the Notaio (notary at law), a public official, who is responsible for the legal work when real estate is sold, not a lawyer. The Notaio performs legal due diligence, such as the title search, and insures the integrity of a property's title and transfer. The civil code Notaio has nothing to do with the Notary Public found in the common law legal system used in English-speaking countries, a point of understandable confusion for English speakers. In the common law legal system a solicitor is normally used, if not required, to perform legal due diligence.
Italians would rarely engage a lawyer when buying a residential property. As a result, few lawyers in Italy are well versed on the intricacies of real estate law as law is a broad field and real estate isn't their bread and butter. Notai have direct online access to property title records as well as do better real estate agents like me. Most solicitors do not.
Who chooses the Notaio when buying property in Italy?
The buyer chooses the Notaio, and pays for them. The Notaio is supposed to be impartial and represent equally the buyer in the seller, but in a tacit acknowledgment that the buyer is the weaker party in the transaction (the buyer gives up something easy to understand, cash for something complex, the property), practice has the buyer choose the Notaio. Certainly the buyer should keep in mind the seller's situation: if the seller lives in Tuscany, the seller may not be too happy with a buyer wanting to choose a Notaio in Milan or Palermo.
How to select a Notaio when buying property in Italy
Most Notai are competent, but like all professionals, some are better than others. Ideally one should ask trusted friends for recommendations. Most real estate agents have Notai they regularly work with, which might be a good or a bad thing. It is possible to ask for a price quotation, which would usually include the taxes due the state, in advance from one or more Notai; they have to have a well-defined overview of the sale in order to provide an accurate quotation.
When should the buyer engage the Notaio?
The buyer ideally should engage and speak with their Notaio before they make a commitment to buy a specific property. The Notaio is available in a consultancy role. The buyer may choose to have the Notaio oversee a preliminary agreement if there is the need for one. Few do this due to the additional cost, but it isn't a bad idea for those looking for additional peace of mind.
How to choose a lawyer when buying property in Italy
Engaging a lawyer can be valuable to oversee the correctness of the Notaio's work; a solicitor's fee can be an excellent insurance policy. A lawyer can also act on a buyer's behalf in the case the buyer cannot be present to sign and / or doesn't speak Italian. When choosing a solicitor, it is important to ascertain if they have significant experience in property law: few do. A lawyer's value will be very limited if they have little experience with property law.
Can a lawyer provide escrow account service when buying property in Italy?
A lawyer may not provide an escrow service: only a Notaio can provide a legally protected escrow account service.
Does a Notaio or lawyer perform technical due diligence?
A Notaio is legal professional, an expert in law, as is a lawyer. Neither is an expert in construction. They do not visit a property. They do not verify a property has all the appropriate permits in place. A Notaio will take statements to this effect from the seller and will include them in the sale contract. The law does not require more. Performing a building inspection and verifying building permits is the domain of a technical professional such as a geometra or an architect. In a few limited parts of Italy, such as much of Tuscany, the Notaio will ask for a sworn technical compliance report from a technical professional.
Can a real estate agent in Italy perform legal due diligence?
Better real estate agents in Italy are able to preform initial legal due diligence on behalf of buyer. A real estate agent in Italy may choose to pay ongoing fees to access official tax office (Catasto) and rights (title, lien) information on properties in Italy. Many pay for Catasto tax office records; only better real estate agents have access to rights information as the system is cumbersome and expensive.
Can I select my real estate agent in Italy?
By default a real estate buyer in Italy will work with the listing agent, the agent the seller choose. The law requires the realtor to be impartial, but practically speaking there is only one property and the agent's relationship with the seller may reflect this. Most real estate agents in Italy will collaborate with other colleagues however it is important for the buyer to let their agent contact the listing agent to avoid confusion about who is paying whom commission. Contrary to popular opinion, a real estate agent in Italy does NOT represent just the properties in their own portfolio. Practically speaking a listing agent would tend to be more motivated to push a specific property rather than assist the buyer in finding the best property overall. Do contact me for more information on how I could help you as your buyer's agent.
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The above is offered as general guidance without warranty; changes may have occurred since it was written. Do consult with appropriate qualified professionals regarding your specific situation before making any real estate purchase.
About the author
Sean Michael Carlos grew up in Rhode Island, USA. He studied in the US, UK and Germany before settling in Italy where he has lived for over twenty-five years, in three different regions.
Sean is a licensed real estate agent in Italy with over 10 years experience in the sector and would love to hear from you if you are looking to buy or sell property in Italy.