Chicago-based financial adviser Meredith Tabbone had never even set foot in Sicily before she placed a bid on a €1 house there. But she had long dreamed about moving to Europe at some stage in her life; setting up a vacation home where she could decamp to with family and friends, and then eventually retire in.

Meredith's hails from Morton, a small town near Peoria, Illinois but her roots stretch back to Italy. Her great-grandfather was Sicilian and despite growing up in the US, she'd always felt a strong connection to Italy. She'd visited the mainland several times before and loved the cuisine, the history, the culture and the people. So when Meredith came across an article online about a depopulated town in Sicily — the exact town her great-grandfather was from — auctioning off homes from €1 she was sold.

"I saw it, I double checked. It's actually the town that my dad's family is from and I thought 'well, I'll see what's what'," Meredith tells Lonely Planet. "I did no research, I didn't know the value of the homes. I just saw a black and white photo of the front of the house and a very rudimentary hand drawn map of the town."

Sambuca is one of the many towns in Italy auctioning off homes from €1 in a bid to inject activity back into the region. The southwestern Sicilian town, about an hour's drive from the capital Palermo, has seen its population decrease by 30% since the 1950s. And the decline in population has only accelerated in recent years. Last April the council attempted to lure new residents by auctioning off 16 abandoned buildings from €1. All 16 were sold in the auction, with a further 100 purchased privately. Most of the purchasers are from the US.

"The minimum bid was €1 and it was a silent bid," Meredith explains. "You filled out the property number and your name and you had to wire the deposit and say how much you were bidding on the home. Then they opened up the bids and the highest number won." All homes sold for $5000 on average. Meredith sealed her deal with $5555 and the highest bidder paid about $25,000.

Italian vineyards
Sambuca is famous for its wine, the Sambuca di Sicilia DOP, and the village is surrounded by wineries ©Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/UIG/Getty Images

Almost all the homes purchased in the scheme required roughly $10,000 to bring them up to a liveable standard, more of a refurbishment rather than a complete overhaul. Meredith says her home probably needed the most work but regardless, she says the whole process has been straightforward, and it even unearthed a special revelation along the way.

"My dad passed away when I was a senior in high school and the people there remind me of my dad and my great-grandfather," Meredith says. "I also found out that my great-grandfather was born and raised about two blocks from where I purchased my house and, it turns out, his family still live there in that cul-de-sac. It's wild."

That revelation probably explains why Meredith felt at home as soon as she touched down in Palermo for the first time. And why she feels so sure about the project even though it's still in its early stages. Renovation work began in February but was put on hold until mid-May after Italy went into lockdown. Now with Europe-wide travel bans in place for US citizens, Meredith hasn't been able to oversee the work in person but her architect has been signing off on projects on her behalf. The two are collaborating long-distance through texts and photos and she says that the quality of work has been wonderful.

This Italian village is selling homes for €1 if you start renovations within three months

Interior of a crumbling 18th-century Italian home
The 18th century home had been abandoned for more than 100 years ©Meredith Tabbone

Her home is an 18th century building that had been abandoned for more than 100 years. It still had the traditional horse stable in the basement when she first went to view it with her best friend in June. It had no electricity or running water but that's not to say it doesn't have its charms. In fact, it has plenty of architectural detail. The building has vaulted ceilings, beautiful tile work that it's in relatively good condition and decent-sized rooms. Sure it needs a lot of work to bring it back to life, $50,000-worth of work to be exact, but Meredith can see its promise, going so far as to purchase the house next door so she can convert it into a larger home.

When the house is ready, which is expected in March 2021, it will have modern features like heated floors, solar panels for clean energy and windows that overlook the nearby lake, vineyards, valleys and Sambuca's beautiful baroque buildings. Meredith describes the location as unbeatable with beaches and towns nearby, as well as Greek, Roman and Arab ruins and sights that she can bring visitors to. Sambuca itself has a number of traditional restaurants, cafes and bars where residents gather in the evening for a glass of wine on the terrace and a chat. The new homeowner is keen to add to the town's attractions by opening her own cafe there.

Valle dei Templi
Sambuca is close to the city of Agrigento and its famous Valle dei Templi, a UNESCO Heritage Site ©Anita Bonita/Getty Images

"I've located a space pretty close to my home in the central part of the town, a place to serve wine, sandwiches, little bites and to display artwork from the local area. It's something that I want to do to give back to the community and also to create another attraction for people to go to when they visit. A place to sit down, relax and have a chat."

Eventually Meredith plans to retire to her house in Sambuca but for now she will use the property as a vacation home that she can share with her loved ones, an idyllic setting from where she can watch Sambuca recover its dolce vita.

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