“We moved from Toronto to Italy to renovate a farmhouse from the 1700s”

“We moved from Toronto to Italy to renovate a farmhouse from the 1700s”

Alper Ozdemir and Cynthia Liu bought a property in the Puglia region for $333,550. They’re spending another $1.2 million to fix it up

Alper and Cynthia standing in front of the farm house they bought in Italy
Photos courtesy of the subjects

When husband-and-wife team Alper Ozdemir, a 53-year-old former operations executive, and Cynthia Liu, a 55-year-old former financial engineer, retired, they took snowbirding to the next level. Instead of vacationing somewhere clichéd, they bought a $333,550 farmhouse in Italy—and a fixer-upper to boot. Now, with their $1.2-million renovations nearly complete, they’ve upped the ante by renting out their Toronto home and moving to Europe full time. Here, they tell us how they did it.

Alper: Cynthia and I both grew up in Toronto. We met in December 2001.

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Cynthia: I was crossing Avenue Road, right by the entrance to Museum station. A cyclist hit my ankle, and I lost balance. I fell into the stairs that led to the subway and landed about halfway down.

Alper: I was the closest person when it happened, so I rushed over to help. Luckily, she was fine, aside from a few small cuts. Once we established that she was okay, I gave her my umbrella. I’m not sure why. It was snowing, I guess.

Cynthia: After that, we went our separate ways. We didn’t exchange numbers or anything.

Alper: Then, two weeks later, I saw Cynthia walking in the lobby of the Scotiabank Tower. At first, she didn’t recognize me, but I explained who I was and gave her my business card.

Cynthia: That night, I sent him an email to thank him for helping me. We decided to get lunch and started seeing movies together. By March of 2002, we were officially dating, and five years later, we got married.

Alper: In 2013, we bought a three-bedroom house in Summerhill. Then we started travelling to southern Europe every winter for anywhere between a couple of weeks and a few months.

Cynthia: We’re not really winter people. We don’t like skiing, and the weather is way too grey.

Alper: So we’d travel to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, Argentina—anywhere warm. But, even with our longest trips, we’d arrive back to winter weather in March. Then, in 2019, we started looking at properties we could buy that would allow us to stay in Europe for longer.

Cynthia: We looked in Spain and Portugal but ultimately landed on Italy—even though we don’t speak Italian. Initially, we were nervous about Italy because we’d heard that they have a very complicated bureaucracy. Everything requires a lot of paperwork, and there aren’t always options to do things digitally. It can move very slowly. In the end, though, it was the place we liked best. We started looking for properties in Puglia, the southern region of Italy that forms the heel of the boot.

A view of the couples farmhouse from a distance

Alper: Usually when people talk about Italy, they talk about Sicily or Tuscany. We’ve been to both, and they’re gorgeous. But Sicily is at high risk for earthquakes, and Tuscany is getting so expensive. It’s hard to get a stand-alone property that isn’t divided into units.

Cynthia: Puglia is thought of as the wedding capital of Italy—a lot of people go there to get married, including Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. Even so, there are fewer tourists in Puglia than in places like Rome or Milan. It’s a place where Italians go on vacation.

Alper: Because it’s on a thin strip of land, it’s close to both the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. You can drive to either coast in less than an hour. Puglia also produces half of Italy’s olive oil, plus a lot of its wheat, fruits and vegetables. Apparently Madonna owns a house in Puglia, but nobody knows where. Meryl Streep also has one, and Helen Mirren has two.

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Cynthia: We retired in 2020, and in October of 2021 we flew to Puglia for three months to look at properties. We knew right away that we wanted a place we could renovate. We’d done five renovations in Toronto and had really enjoyed them. We also didn’t want to live in a town—we wanted to have big, open fields, so definitely something more rural. We considered things that we wouldn’t have thought of when looking for vacation spots, like how close each place was to a hospital or an airport.

Alper: Our architect, Sebastiano Canzano, introduced us to a local realtor named Sergio Bonaventura. Every region has its own system, so working with a local is a must. In Italy, there’s no centralized site for property listings. You need someone who knows their way around the area.

Cynthia: Another complication is that, for a showing, the potential buyers, the owners and their respective real estate agents all have to be present. The scheduling gets complicated, and you generally can’t arrange to see multiple places in one day.

Alper: After browsing for a while, our realtor sent us a video of a property that used to be a farmhouse. It was built in the late 1700s.

A look at the inside of the farmhouse when they purchased it

Cynthia: It looked like it had been abandoned for a while, and there were piles of stone everywhere. Half the building was originally used to house animals, probably cows, and half was the old house. There was electricity that we could reconnect but no running water. In some parts of the house, the stone walls were two metres thick. It also looked like it was in the middle of nowhere because we couldn’t see any other houses nearby.

Alper: We weren’t sure we wanted to see it, but our agent insisted. So we went down, and we were really surprised. There were, in fact, several other houses in the area. It was only a ten-minute drive from three different towns and five minutes away from Alberobello, a UNESCO heritage site. You could drive to the sea in 20 minutes, and there were nearby trains that go to Rome and the airport.

Cynthia: It was in this gorgeous valley, so the views were amazing.

A view of a door that looks onto their property

Alper: It was a bigger property than we were originally looking for—13 acres with a 3,500-square-foot house. But it’s not like Toronto, where if you see a condo you don’t like, there are thousands of others nearby. There aren’t unlimited farmhouses in Puglia, and we loved the location. So we bought it for $333,550. 

Cynthia: We’d originally planned to live in Italy part time. But we were both still in our 50s—why not take advantage of the fact that we’re still young? We decided that we would go all-in and just move there. So we rented out our house in Toronto and moved over in October 2022.

Alper: We started renting an apartment in a nearby town called Castellana Grotte, where we could live until the renovations were complete.

Cynthia: The process with our architect was collaborative—I wanted to have a say in the design. The plan is for the house to have three bedrooms, all with ensuites, plus a living room, a dining room and an open-concept outdoor kitchen. Outdoor living is huge in Puglia because it’s warm and sunny, even in the winter. Everyone cooks and hangs out outside. We’re also adding a pool.

A rendering of what the property will look like after renovations
A rendering of what the farmhouse will look like after it’s renovated

Alper: We were so excited to get started, but Toronto and Italy have fundamentally different timelines for renovation projects. Here, people are passionate about conserving the landscape and older buildings. So getting approval for different aspects of a renovation takes extra time.

Cynthia: The building rules are also very strict. In our region, you can’t demolish a building or extend it to add extra living space. So if your original building is 3,500 square feet, you cannot make it any bigger or add any new buildings—even if you have acres of empty property.

Alper: The perk of that, though, is that you don’t see McMansions going up. These beautiful landscapes don’t turn into concrete jungles.

Cynthia: We’re keeping the stone floors, and that process has been interesting. To spruce them up, they dig up each stone individually. Then they clean it, refurbish it and replace it. We’re planning to install underfloor heating. The walls are stone too, and there’s no mortar—it’s only gravity that keeps them together. We’re leaving all the interior walls as they are, just with some refinishing.

A view of the exterior of the farmhouse

Alper: We’re keeping a lot of the historic elements, including a sign above the door with the initials of one of the historic owners’ wives. But we’re also adding modern touches. We’re putting in running water, of course. Plus the house gets so much sun that we’re able to make it fully solar-powered.

Cynthia: The renovation budget falls a bit under $1.2 million. We’re hoping to finish everything by this summer.

Alper: We’re lucky that the previous owner is an organic farmer, and he offered to work our land for us. He comes and plants wheat and hay for his animals, and in exchange he maintains the property. He also gives us cheeses, red wine and cherries.

Cynthia: We’re already noticing how much our lifestyle has changed. Since the climate is so mild, we’re going on more walks. We also started taking Italian lessons, though that’s still a work in progress.

A view of the top of the farmhouse and the property

Alper: Generally, things are more laid back. Lots of businesses shut down in the afternoon, and it’s rare for a grocery store to be open on Sunday. The food here is amazing. The produce and the seafood are so fresh. But, really, the biggest benefit is that people here are friendly and much more spontaneous than in Toronto.

Cynthia: We’ll be sitting at home and suddenly get a phone call about going out for dinner or drinks that night.

Alper: The one time we tried to plan a dinner a month in advance, everyone looked at us like we were crazy.

Cynthia: In the summer, we were often going to bed around 1 a.m.—we haven’t done that since we were much younger!

Alper: These days, we’re on a first-name basis with our butcher and fishmonger, and the coffee shops always remember our order. That alone would make the move worthwhile, even without the amazing food or location—but luckily we didn’t have to choose.