How renovating an abandoned $1 home in Italy changed this woman’s life: ‘It’s much easier to be happier here’

Jennifer Liu
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Rubia Daniels is from Berkeley, Calif., and bought several 1-euro houses in Mussomeli, Sicily.
Rubia Daniels is from Berkeley, Calif., and bought several 1-euro houses in Mussomeli, Sicily. Credit: Mickey Todiwala/CNBC

When Rubia Daniels heard a town in Italy was selling off abandoned homes for 1 euro each (or roughly AU$1.63), she had to take a look herself.

The Berkeley, California, resident booked her first flight to Mussomeli, Sicily, in 2019 and quickly ended up buying not one, not two, but three crumbling properties at a bargain price.

Daniels, 50, has a construction background and envisioned three dream projects: a vacation home, a restaurant and a wellness centre. So far, she’s spent about US$35,000 (nearly AU$53,000) working with a local crew on her vacation home.

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Despite the stress of renovating a home across the world through the pandemic, Daniels says the Mussomeli lifestyle has brought more happiness into her life.

Making friends in Sicily

One of the biggest reasons why Daniels decided to buy in Mussomeli was how welcome she felt when she visited.

The real estate agent who sold her the houses, Nathalie Milazzo, took Daniels around to restaurants, cafes and other parts of Mussomeli to really get a sense of what it’s like to live in the town. Daniels now considers her “like a sister.”

Socializing is big in Mussomeli, and Rubia Daniels says she made fast friends with Katerina Montagnino (left), a resident who is now like a sister to her.
Socializing is big in Mussomeli, and Rubia Daniels says she made fast friends with Katerina Montagnino (left), a resident who is now like a sister to her. Credit: Mickey Todiwala/CNBC

Mussomeli is tiny, with just about 9,900 residents, but Daniels says many people have strong bonds.

“It’s much easier to make friends in Sicily than it is to make friends back in California,” Daniels says.

“In Sicily, the social life is very important. Everybody has time to talk to you, to know you, or to share a cup of coffee.”

Daniels became fast friends with Katerina Montagnino, a local, who has become like family. Daniels hosted Montagnino and her husband during a recent trip to California, and she’s even godmother to their 2-year-old son, Leo.

That’s not to say that Daniels’ California neighbors aren’t friendly, but the pace of living is different.

“Typically back home, people are always in a rush” shuffling between work and home, she says, and they don’t have time for social activities.

Fewer money problems and less stress overall

Sicilians approach leisure time much differently from Americans. For one, most Sicilians take part in a daily lunch and nap break from noon to 4 p.m. when most of the town shuts down. Big family dinners are common and can last from 9 p.m. until midnight. And it’s both easy and affordable to travel around Italy and the rest of Europe.

The cost of living is low for a high quality of life by American standards. A nice meal out might be 10 euros (or about AU$16.30, or US$10.75) or less, while a round-trip flight out of Italy can be less than 50 euros (about AU$81.40, or US$53.80).

As far as housing goes, roughly 90% of Mussomeli residents already own their homes, if not multiple properties through inheritance laws, so rent is less of a concern.

It’s a big difference from the high cost of living in the US, especially in the Bay Area where Daniels lives, where a typical family of four needs a household income of more than US$300,000 (more than AU$454,000) to live comfortably.

Daniels sees a direct relation between high living costs and high stress, which leads Americans to overwork and means less time to invest in friendships and other passions.

“It’s a much more stressful way of living,” Daniels says.

Now that she lives in Mussomeli for part of the year, “it’s much easier to be happier here than it is to be happier back at home,” she says.

The biggest challenge for me over here in Sicily is just the amount of carbs that they consume.

Rubia Daniels

Each visit is another example of how lower financial stress, more social time and moderate physical activity (many people walk in the hilly town) can lead to better health outcomes, despite some persistent vices.

“People here, they consume a lot of alcohol, nicotine, carbs, and they live longer than most places,” Daniels points out.

“I believe it’s because the level of stress is so low and (the fact that) the community is so active that that gives them longevity.”

“The biggest challenge for me over here in Sicily is just the amount of carbs that they consume,” Daniels says jokingly.

“Other than that, life is beautiful.”

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