After finding a great villa in Italy’s Abruzzo region to anchor our boutique tour company idea, it was time to see if we could swing it financially.
My wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais, and I hadn’t planned on deciding whether to quit our jobs in Ottawa, Canada and move to Italy or not until 2014, but in the summer of 2012 opportunity had knocked in the form of a great building in a great location. The property also needed major work, and it was going to blow our budget, but it really was just about perfect.
So in September 2012, we decided we owed it to ourselves to see just how much it would cost and if we could even consider pursuing the property.
We asked our real estate agent in Abruzzo to get good, conservative estimates for a large terrace, a pool, landscaping, a heating system, many doors and windows, substantial interior wall rehabilitation and other works. Very quickly the estimates came back at roughly 100,000 Euros with all taxes, permits, and professional and management fees.
The asking price for the property was 195,000 Euros, which was a good price for building and land and we knew we could get it lowered at least a bit. We added 20 per cent to the works as a contingency and did the currency conversion -- $441,000. It was well over the original budget of $280,000 we were trying to keep to, but we would also end up with a much more substantial property than we had anticipated getting, with more revenue potential.
So we looked at our current finances and assets.
Like most people, our house was our main asset, and we had done well on it. We purchased the four-bedroom, 1½ bath, two-storey detached redbrick and siding 80-year-old house in Chinatown in 2003 for $185,000. We had one major upgrade - a new kitchen – invested in a new porch, did some needed structural fixes and generally cleaned up the place. It was a lot better than how we found it.
The neighbourhood had changed pretty quickly too. When we moved in, there were hookers and drug dealers around, and the main mode of transportation was shopping cart. By the fall of 2012, the shopping carts had been replaced by Volvos and the hookers were now young mothers pushing strollers. Real estate prices in our area had skyrocketed in nine years. Our real estate agent showed us comparable houses that were selling in the $490,000 to $550,000 range, which seemed silly but there it was.
We also had some cash and liquid investments, and we could continue working and saving for as long as it took to get the building ready.
So it turned out we had enough to purchase the building in Abruzzo, get it renovated, put in a terrace and pool, fill the building with furniture, get vehicles and get our business up and running with a decent operating reserve by the spring of 2014.
That timing coincided with the end of Lisa’s term as President of the Canadian Association of Justice Counsel, the union representing 2,700 federal lawyers. She wouldn’t have to go back to her regular job as a federal prosecutor, a job she’d wasn’t interested in anymore.
I remember sitting in our kitchen working out the numbers with Lisa one night as it dawned on us that indeed, we could ditch the professional careers we had become tired of in favour of an adventure in Italy.
We would have to scrimp and save, but as long as there were no major unforeseen expenses or cost overruns, we could make this work.
Until that point, we had been “exploring the possibility” of quitting the North American rat race in favour of opening up a tourism business in Abruzzo, the region where Lisa’s grandfather was born that we’d come to adore. Now the numbers showing us that it was possible to do it in a great property were staring back at us from a piece of paper.
It was time to decide if we were in or out.
Were we going defer the big life change until later and likely lose out on the great property we’d found, or were we going to commit ourselves and start taking concrete steps towards opening an inn and tour company in the beautiful off-the-beaten-path region of Abruzzo?
Next Blog: The decision