Chat with Mark and Sara Hayes
Have you ever dreamed of leaving it all behind and move to Italy? Mark and Sara Hayes did just that. In 2018 they quit their jobs, packed up their car with the bare necessities and dogs, and drove (Mark on a motorbike and Sara in the car) to pursue slow living in Italy. Three years later, they’re like kids eating Cadbury Crème Eggs in a candy shop each time they look out on the rolling hills of Alfiano Natta or walk through their large garden filled with fruit trees and inspiration.
An adventure that began when Mark was a child summer vacationing in Trieste and a Moto Guzzi memory, eventually led to finding his perfect life partner. Sara, who is just as much of an adventurer, didn’t need to be convinced to move to Italy. Within three months of making the decision, they purchased and renovated a farmhouse, opened a holiday home called No. 18 Casa di Campagna, and now live life to its fullest. If you have a similar dream, keep reading our interview and stay-tuned for the full version to be posted soon on our YouTube channel.
Tells us the history of the name No. 18 Casa di Campagna?
No. 18 Casa di Campagna is based in Sanico in the Comune of Alfiano Natta. It’s a town with less than 800 inhabitants and where we are there’s about 150 inhabitants. We went through a few iterations of the name. It was a really difficult choice to find something that had meaning and resonated with us, but also would have appeal with people traveling and paint a picture of what Casa di Campagna is like. No. 18 is the house number and we think the name is timeless and contemporary.
Where are you both originally from?
Mark: I was born in Liverpool. When I was young, the opportunities weren’t that fantastic. So, I became a bit nomadic first traveling around the UK to look mainly for work, but also experiences. I eventually landed in London and started in a retail store. That kind of formed my career for the next 35 years and I worked both in London and around it. Once I started to experience more things, I lived in Essex, spent some time in Norwich and my job eventually took me all over the UK and Europe. Actually, my job took me to meet Sara. So, that walk-in job in London as a 19 year old, led to my whole life!
Sara: I am originally from the outskirts of London. At about 12 years old, we moved into more rural Surrey where I fell in love with the outdoors. I fell into retail and worked for some well known brands in the UK. After relocating to Spain in 2003, I had only been there a few months when an ex-colleague called me to ask if I’d come back to London. I was living in Spain and then commuted to London. In the end I realized that I enjoyed the career, returned to London and eventually met Mark.
Moving to Italy
Mark: It started when I was a small boy. My Mum is originally from Messina in Sicily, but spent most of her young life in Trieste. So, my summer holidays as a kid were spent in Trieste. Although I went every year since I was about four, I never grew tired of it. It’s an absolutely fantastic city and beautiful location. That’s where my passion for Italy came from and other things. My mother has a photo of me beside a Moto Guzzi and I’m sure that’s where my passion for motorbikes came from! Since I was fourteen, I’ve always had motorbikes right up until today.
The passion must be contagious because Sara caught the bug and we rode across Europe to Italy one year to see my Mum and Sara was at the back of my bike. But by the end of the holiday, I asked her what do you think (because not everyone loves motorbikes)? She said, “I really enjoyed it, but I want to drive and be in control of my own bike!” When we got back to the UK, Sara started taking lessons, passed the test and since then, has always had her own bikes.
Sara: I was completely blown away with Trieste. I didn’t expect it to be so diverse, interesting, historic and also have that wonderful beach front. It’s just fantastic and I love it very much! My first introduction to Italy was amazing.
And from then we started thinking about hanging up the work coats and go to spend a lot of time in Italy. Very quickly that idea became, “let’s look for houses in Italy.”
We spent the first five of eight years looking at properties while on holiday. It was quite frenetic and we didn’t have a lot of success.
We needed to be boots on the ground and at the end of the day, that’s what we did.Sara
Making the move.
Mark: In many ways it was a good thing. We spent a lot of time here and visited lots of different regions. We started in Friuli, but we also looked in Liguria, Tuscany and ultimately Piemonte. It was a really good experience to see the areas and climates at different times of year and meet the people. At the end of those five years, we were very close to buying a house and on the day of signing the contract, the whole thing fell through. It was the one bad experience of the whole process: it was terrible. However, it gave us the jolt to make the move.
Sara: In fact, it was a bit of a mixed blessing because whilst we’d been to a lot of different areas, I started chatting online to some people who had done a similar thing to what we’d done. They were working to live and they sold everything and moved over. That’s why we came to Piemonte in the first place. They really sold it to us because they had bought a similar Piemontese farmhouse.
The area was very similar to the countryside in Wiltshire–like the rolling hills, big open vistas and nighttime skies are phenomenal because you don’t get the light pollution. When we got here it felt like a home away from home and it felt very familiar to us.
The reality can be very different particularly in Italy because it’s famous for having lots of administration processes. I remember one house we saw and understood the reality of getting it from its existing state to the type of house we wanted. We spoke with an architect in Milan and told him that we spoke to one person who said that it’s going to be ‘x, y, z’ and he said no. He advised that in that way it would cost us more, take longer and eat into the budget. We didn’t want to believe it because he was shattering our dream, but actually he was 100% right. Making those contacts helped us make the right choices.
Sara: I think if we’d bought the house that we’d gone through that traumatic experience, we would have been disappointed. Having got to know this area more, you realize how important it was to have an amazing view: not just for ourselves, but for guests who come. You want to open the windows and go, “Wow!” I’m looking out now and I can see the mountains and the green rolling hills.
The Process of Buying a Home In Italy
We were actually doing research. That is part of our DNA from our professional background. We’d make a plan and a tour of where we wanted to go and which realtors that we needed to meet with. I think it would be very difficult unless you made the local contacts on social media of people who have done what you’ve done. They know the local area and they can say, “this is a great area to live in.” We went through a realtor even when we were living here because sometimes you might see a property for sale, but the owner might not be living in the same county or even country. It can be quite difficult to get a hold of the right person to show you the property within a short time frame.
I talked about administration or bureaucracy. A lot of houses in Italy may have had work done in the past that hasn’t been registered at the local comune. You might see a house you like and if you don’t go through a professional realtor who can do the necessary background checks for you, there may be a chance that down the line, you can’t buy the house of your dreams.
Our experience tells us to get a really good realtor. It also helps if they’d sold to international buyers because that comes with its own set of rules.
Sara: For us it helped to use a fantastic architect, a really good real estate agent and builders that were recommended to us by people who we trusted their opinion.
The Value of Networking In-Person and Online
Sarah: If you’re open and willing to listen, people are very generous with their advice. They’ll invite you over and show you what they’ve done. We have some friends who have a B&B who kept all of their receipts and bills. They showed us the real bolts of how they went through this process and it was really useful. In fact, they introduced us to the builders that did our redevelopment for us.
I think it’s important to build a network of not just English speaking people, but with Italians who have local experience. They can point you in the right direction of all sorts of things like utilities.
Mark: It’s a careful balance. There can be a lot of negativity online. I know when we were looking for help on social media, it was kind of easy to get pulled down a little bit by the stories of things that didn’t go well. So, you have to balance what you are seeing online with your own gut feeling, intuition and experiences. Together having all of that information, it really helps guide you.
Tell us about Alfiano Natta.
Mark: Alfiano Natta is in an area known as Monferatto. The region is very famous for its food, wine and truffles. It’s made up of very gentle rolling, green hills (always with a 360 degree view of the mountains in the background) peppered with vineyards and agriculture. To me, it’s really picture postcard Italy!
This isn’t like Tuscany (that is also so beautiful), but I’d say a bit more rural and not quite as polished as Tuscany. To me, it’s real Italy and authentic Italy. There are local artisans doing what they do.
Sara: You would never know when driving through Alfiano Natta that there were so many people with these cottage industries. And interesting to know that all of these people were not born here and come from another area of Italy and completely changed their life. Like us, they were at a stage in their life when they decided to give everything up, move to the countryside and do something completely different. And like us, slow down and live a simpler life.
Leap of Faith
Mark: We moved April 22, 2018 and the decision was three months prior.
Sara: We quit our jobs, put our house up for rent and completely decluttered. Mark flew to Germany to buy a left hand drive car, drove it back to England and then we had to register it as English for about a week before we then brought it to Italy. It was crazy!
There was an emotional side to it too. We had to say goodbye to our friends and family. Also, we were separated because Mark was on the bike and I was in the car. We’d stop at petrol stations to talk. When we eventually arrived, we secured online a super little house at Castelnuovo Don Bosco. There was a fantastic lady who has now adopted us, so now we have like an Italian mother too. We stayed with her what we thought initially would be three months, but ended up being nine because we couldn’t find a house.
We had a very strict criteria of what we wanted: rural; with views; wasn’t too run down; within our budget; accessible to a city for shops and a hospital; and not too isolated.
We eventually looked at 57 houses in a six month period. The nicest thing about No. 18 was that it was a family home. Lots of places that we looked at had been completely abandoned. It was nice to meet the owners, find out the history and how things worked. The fact that they had a white horse kind of sold it to me. Rushall, Wiltshire where we had lived in, is known as the ‘vale of the white horse’. When we left, our friends had given us a picture of the Pewsey White Horse which now hangs in our kitchen.
It was one of those goosebump moments when you wonder if it was a sign.
We had to compromise and if we had waited to tick all of the boxes, we wouldn’t have found anything.
Restoring a House in Italy
Mark: When we completed on the house, we spent four weeks decorating and do things necessary to make life comfortable. By December, we started formulating ideas of what we wanted to do with the barn because we always had the idea of having a vacation home on the property. It would help give us an income and a purpose.
Through our travels and experiences, we’ve gathered our own strong ideas around what a nice vacation home should look and feel like. We felt that we could create something that would have wide appeal and different than what others were offering in rural Italy.
To fast forward, the work started in May 2019 and in that time, we hired a local architect. Because they kept all of the records, it was easy to update them with the local comune. The process went fairly smoothly. We got quotes from local builders and ones from further afield and ended up with a building company that had been recommended by friends.
Sara: It’s very important to get word-of-mouth recommendations and see their work, plus haggle a bit.
Green Building and Tax Incentives
Mark: We discovered some of the home renovation incentives offered by the Italian government which are fantastic! To begin with, we always had the idea to grow our own fruit and vegetables and live a more local life. At the same time, we wanted to save rainwater and have an environmentally friendly existence. Shortly after the build started, I looked into things like heating and very quickly by looking online and chatting to our architect realized that there were many incentives for refurbishing your property in an environmentally friendly way. So as an example, on the heating and ventilation system, we were originally going to have a gas boiler because in the UK you generally have that or an oil boiler. Here, pellet stoves are really popular. We would get 50%-65% in tax incentives by investing in green energy if we replaced a polluting old system.
There are ten energy classifications for house efficiency and ours was the ninth worst and now we have the best! So, after we looked into the heating system, we started to look into the insulation materials. You can get more tax incentives if you use the most modern up-to-date insulation systems on the outside of your property.
Other Tax Incentives
Mark: There are many more green incentives in Italy for refurbishing your property like roof insulation; window;, heat systems; cappotto (external thermal insulation); even redecorating the outside of your house can be incentivized by the government. Of course, there are rules that have to be abided by. However, even repainting the outside of your house can give you up to 90% tax incentives.
Sara: It really pays to investigate and not to be put off by the paperwork involved or the process seeming complicated. If you have got the right advice and people talking you through it, it’s definitely worth persevering with.
Designing No. 18 as the ideal vacation rental
Sara: We found that there was a gap in the market for slightly bigger houses that were totally independent. So although we live next door, this house has a completely separate entrance. It has a third of an acre, completely secluded garden and it’s set up high so you wake up to stunning views.
There are three double bedrooms with three ensuite bathrooms and downstairs there’s an open plan, so it’s a real social place. It sleeps eight. There’s outside dining and we have a pool which is a real must in the summer. We tried to be more eco-conscious so it’s more neutral looking and fits in with the environment. There’s also a saltwater system.
Mark: Back when we had our professional lives in the UK, I did very little DIY at home and had such a small garden. But here, we started to experiment doing our own things because we knew we had to. You can’t pay someone to do all of the little things. It became so rewarding.
I planted tomato plants and it was such a nice experience doing it. I felt good thinking about what we would have to do in the coming weeks and months to get them where they need to be.
Sara: We can’t wait to show it to people and are super excited to have them enjoy it. We’re so proud because it’s been done with real thought and love.
Custodians of the Garden
Sara: We inherited this huge garden. It’s like having your own park. We’ve got two massive fig trees, four cherry trees, apples, pears, peaches, plums, prunes, well everything! It was a learning curve and thank goodness for the internet. We felt like we were custodians of the garden, so I researched how to take care of these things.
I introduced fig chutney to our neighbors when visiting one day. Lo and behold, the next day we had someone stop at the gate and asked us if we sell chutney having heard from our neighbor how amazing it was. So, I just gave her some. The next day she came by and gave us chocolates as a thank you.
People here were so welcoming. They would stop by the gate to say hello and ask why did we come? They thought it was amazing since we are the only English people here, so we’re quite a novelty.
There are two or three Italians who speak English which is great. We have a really nice network of friends now, plus we’ve got more time to build those relationships.
It’s another thing you realize when you slow down and take a breath. You can really connect.
Your Definition of an Expat
Mark: Well, I think for me that an expat is somebody who really embeds themself in the way of life of where that person has moved to. There are so many communities both in Italy and abroad where there a lot of groups of expats. For us and definitely me, it was something we wanted to avoid.
Not fluent in Italian, it would have been easier moving to a community where there were lots of English speaking people. However, we wanted to be a part of the real Italy and all of the beauty that it offers. We were happy to accept all of the challenges, but in the end none of those challenges existed.
Sara: Having lived in Spain for a short time while working, I was surrounded by English-speaking expats, so it really didn’t feel like I was anywhere different. To come here and be totally immersed in Italian rural life is a world apart. The other people who moved here to have a slower and simpler life feel like expats as much as we do–even though they are Italian. It’s an interesting thing that all of these people have come together in Alfiano Natta.
We wanted to be part of the real Italy and embrace everything that it brought with it — both the challenges and the opportunities.Mark
Note: Watch the video interview to see what Sara misses about the UK! A hint is at the beginning of this article. Can you guess?