The ultimate escape? Houses, ghost towns and private islands for €1

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At some point we’ve all thought about dropping everything and starting afresh. But for most people it’s just a dream, right? Well, that dream could be closer than you think…

There are a number of things for sale that you might not expect: from houses in Italy and Japan selling for what are mere pennies, to things that are… slightly more than that, to people who are renovating entire towns! Allow your imagination to wander for a while, and let’s discover more of what’s out there…

That dream house in Italy

One whole, shiny euro can get you a piece of real estate in a hilltop village in Tuscany, in a fishing village on the coast of Sicily, or one of numerous other locationsOne whole, shiny euro can get you a piece of real estate in a hilltop village in Tuscany, in a fishing village on the coast of Sicily, or one of numerous other locations — Shutterstock

For a while now some small towns in Italy have been offering houses for sale for the symbolic price of €1. Yes, one whole, shiny euro can get you a piece of real estate in a hilltop village in Tuscany, in a fishing village on the coast of Sicily, or one of numerous other locations.

Sound too good to be true? Well you need to prove you’re serious about it for a start. There’s a lot of interest whenever any of these schemes begin, so each town has different criteria you’d need to fulfill. Castropignano, for example, requires work to begin on the property within two months of a building permit being issued, and for the buyer to pay the village a deposit of €2,000 — refundable once work is complete — to prove their intentions.

Nulvi, in Sardinia, has only a few houses on offer for €1, but work must be completed within three years of purchase. On the other hand, there’s no requirement to live there if you don’t want to; they’re fine if you want to use it as a second home or rent it out, plus the municipality promises to take care of all the paperwork for you.

Villages and towns hope to breathe new life into their communitiesVillages and towns hope to breathe new life into their communities — Shutterstock

Bisaccia, around 80 km from Naples in Campania, offers a more personal incentive. “We welcome families, groups of friends, relatives, people who know each other or investors to join forces. We encourage them to buy more than just one house to actually have an impact and breathe new life,” says deputy mayor Francesco Tartaglia. The abandoned area of the village is the oldest part, and the plan is to give it back its personal touch by encouraging groups to buy properties together.

More stringent rules apply in Santo Stefano. Although they are offering houses for €1, the applications board looks more favorably on people who would bring youth and life to the village. People willing to work as tour guides, shopkeepers and farmers are preferred and, while the municipality offers grants of up to €20,000 for people to set up their own business in the village, they’ve also — rather controversially — capped the age for applicants at 40 years old.

Japanese akiya

It’s estimated that 900 small towns will cease to exist in Japan by 2040It’s estimated that 900 small towns will cease to exist in Japan by 2040 — Shutterstock

There have been a few (admittedly not as high-profile) headlines concerning a similar trend in Japan, where around one in seven homes are vacant. Declining birthrate coupled with an aging population, as well as the (some would say understandable) reluctance for people to move into a property considered jiko bukken — stigmatized — means that these are properties that, while they may have nothing wrong with them physically, are considered a bit, well… odd.

Most people think this is because someone died there, and while this is sometimes the case, it can also mean somewhere in a less-attractive location, somewhere that was a base for a non-violent crime (being used as a brothel or the center of an online scam, say), a property that has been the subject of legal wrangling, was owned by someone with substantial debt, or is known negatively in popular culture.

It’s estimated that one in ten apartments in Tokyo are akiya (abandoned), so you don’t have to live in the mountainous countryside if you don’t want toIt’s estimated that one in ten apartments in Tokyo are akiya (abandoned), so you don’t have to live in the mountainous countryside if you don’t want to — Shutterstock

Because of this, akiya, or abandoned houses, are increasing in number, and it’s difficult to even give them away! Many are in rural locations — it’s estimated that 900 small towns will cease to exist in Japan by 2040 — and need work, but what house doesn’t? More incredibly, however, is that it’s estimated that one in ten apartments in Tokyo are akiya, so you don’t have to live in the mountainous countryside if you don’t want to.

As in Italy, there are certain requirements if you want one of these ¥0 houses: conditions must be met surrounding the amount of time taken to renovate the property, a minimum period of ownership and so forth, but it’s generally an untapped market for those wanting something a bit more adventurous.

A town to yourself

The US alone is home to around 3,800 ghost towns, usually relics of gold or silver miningThe US alone is home to around 3,800 ghost towns, usually relics of gold or silver mining — Shutterstock

Okay, but let’s say a mere house isn’t enough. Maybe you want to become the mayor of your own town! Would it be possible? Well, if you’ve got the time, money and energy, sure!

The US alone is home to around 3,800 ghost towns, usually relics of gold or silver mining; frontier towns that experienced a boom and then an equally sudden bust as the money and residents came and went, leaving for bigger cities or different dreams.

Towns such as Cerro Gordo, California, have been bought for a number of different reasons. Cerro Gordo itself was purchased by an entrepreneur named Brent Underwood with the intention — along with his business partner — of transforming it into, in their initial words, a “destination for dreamers”, a beautiful, distant (and Instagrammable) mountain resort. However, after traveling to check on the town in March last year, Underwood was hit by both an unseasonable snowstorm, and then the pandemic.

His initial one-week stay turned into months, in which he “learned to slow down and let stillness reveal what is most important”. He’s now planning to stay indefinitely, slowly renovating the 22 buildings that remain from its 1870s heyday.

If you don’t feel like spending all that time by yourself, maybe you could rent your town out? Albert, Texas is around an hour’s drive from Austin, and owner Brandon Easley says that upon setting foot in the town for the first time after buying it in 2009, his first thought was “Oh shit, what did I do?”

What remained of Albert — a dancehall, a storefront that became an open-air bar, and a 12-acre orchard — he initially planned to become a music venue, but after a friend asked if they could have a wedding there, the idea stuck. It now hosts around 45 weddings a year.

These sorts of places aren’t cheap of course, but they exist all around the world: Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, you name it, there’s something available. Indeed, for the price of a house in many countries, you could have bought O Penso in Galicia, Spain (five houses, a mill, a granary, a bakery, a barn and 100 acres of land, $293,000); Valle Piola, Abruzzo, Italy (10 houses and a medieval church, $596,000); or Bradian, British Columbia, Canada (22 houses and 50 acres of land in the Rocky Mountains, $995,000).

On the beach

For a little extra, you can find yourself a private island!For a little extra, you can find yourself a private island! — Shutterstock

But what about the absolute top end of the market? Let’s go find ourselves a private island!

Yes, these are as expensive as you think, but as with all property, location is key. The Caribbean is the most sought-after, with places like Spectabilis Island in the Bahamas yours for a mere $62 million. If you haven’t got quite that much lying around, try Sandy Island, 20 acres of forest, hill and beach in Grenada, a snip at $9 million.

Africa offers better value for money, with places like Valiha Island, Madagascar going for $4.5 million. That’ll get you 950 acres off the north-west coast to call your own. You can even get an island in Europe for relatively cheap: sure, they might not be perfect for year-round sunbathing but if you really want one, Mannion’s Island (four acres of rock and scrub off the coast of Ireland, $290,000) or Hanhisaari Island (in one of Finland’s many, many lakes, $950,000) might do the trick.

Whatever your budget, one day it might be the right time to take the plunge, either for a symbolic €1 or for ever so slightly more. And until that day, what’s the harm in simply dreaming of that perfect escape?

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