The process of buying a home in Italy should start long before you visit the country to look at properties.

Ideally, you should see your lawyer to discuss the important question of who should be the legal owner before you get caught up in the rush and drama of choosing a home.

Why should you be interested in who is the legal owner? Because, even on a simple holiday home, making the right choice will save you many thousands of pounds in taxes in Italy, in Britain or in both. Do not assume that just because you are buying with your husband or wife the correct decision is to put the property in joint names. Sometimes a different choice can save you lots of money.

The next stage, for most people, will be dealing with an estate agent. In Italy, the agent may, as in Britain or in Ireland, simply be someone appointed by the seller to sell the house - in which case the responsibility is to the seller and not to you. On other occasions you might appoint an agent as an intermediary to locate property or an agent may offer his services for this purpose. The agent will have a duty to act fairly in his dealings with both parties. Whichever situation applies in your case, remember that if you don't buy the house the agent does not get paid - and his commission will usually be a lot higher than agents in Britain.

Once you have found a property in Italy, you will be expected, to sign some kind of 'contract'. In fact, it may sometimes be an actual contract and sometimes an offer to buy. An offer to buy is a formal written offer from you to the seller. It is accompanied by a goodwill payment. If the seller accepts your offer within the time you have stipulated, that will create a binding obligation between you. In many respects, this is similar to a contract. Alternatively, you may be asked to sign a preliminary purchase contract, called a compromesso. Always get these documents checked by your lawyer before you sign them.

When you sign the contract, you will normally pay a deposit which can vary between 10 and 30 per cent. Unusually, at this stage you will also have to pay the estate agents commission (typically 3 per cent plus VAT). In Italy this is usually payable, at least in part, by the buyer.

Before you sign the final contract your lawyer will make a number of enquiries to make sure that the property is safe to buy. This will include checking that the seller has good title to the land and that the property has all necessary building consents. Other important enquiries will be necessary depending on where you are buying and the type of property you are buying.

In order to make these enquiries, you will probably need the services of a local Italian surveyor - geometra. This is not a surveyor of the British sense who checks the structure of the property but someone who is responsible for measuring land and establishing that what is there corresponds with the official records and what you think you are buying. Your lawyer will arrange this for you.

In Italy, it has long been the custom to declare less than the true value of the property in the official Deed of Sale - rogito. This practice is illegal and dangerous and it is rapidly disappearing. You should try to avoid an under-declaration whenever possible.

Once the necessary enquiries have been made and in the case of a resale property you will proceed to sign the Deed of Sale. This is signed in front of a notary public in Italy. It is important that you understand the role of the notary. Some people say that, because the Deed is witnessed by the notary, you do not need a lawyer. This is wrong. For an Italian, dealing with a strong forward transaction, it may make sense not to use a lawyer but for an English or Irish person who does not understand the language, the culture or the legal system it is foolish. The role of the notary is not the same as the role of the lawyer. The notary is there to witness the signature of various important documents and is required to carry out some basic checks on the title before doing so. He acts for both parties - buyer and seller - and he is not there to give legal advice to either of them. He will also be unlikely to know about the law or taxes in your country.

Once you have signed the title the notary will pay the taxes on your behalf and your title is registered at the Italian Land Registry. The property is then fully yours.

The total fees and costs involved in buying a property in Italy (lawyer fees, geometra fees, notary fees and taxes) will typically amount to about 15 per cent, but it can be more or less depending on the type of property and its value.

The author, John Howell, is a senior partner at the International Law Partnership.

Some information contained within this article may have changed since it was first published. HomesOverseas strongly advises you to seek current legal and financial advice from a qualified professional.

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