He bought a cheap house in Italy to improve his life expectancy

Rome: Most people buying cheap houses in Italy are simply attracted by the idea of paying a bargain price for the opportunity to escape to somewhere warmer that has better food.

But what if it could also help you live longer?

That was the thinking for Bingwa Thomas, 72, originally from Kansas City, who purchased an old dwelling in Latronico, deep in Italy’s southern Basilicata region, hoping that the change in lifestyle would push him well beyond the life expectancy of his demographic in the United States. Of course, price was also a factor.

Thomas, currently based in Los Angeles, decided to purchase a 110 square-meter home primarily down to its affordability after he negotiated its down to 8,000 euros (about $8,662.)

Involved in social activism since the age of 18, Thomas was also taken with the Italian town’s proximity to Africa, where he says he is involved in humanitarian aid projects.

“My main reason for establishing a residence in southern Italy was to have better access to the African continent,” he says. “To be able to use my pension to create, fund, network and volunteer with programs on the African continent.”

“I wanted a residence that I would not have to spend a lot to make habitable, so that I could have more money for the African projects.”

Thomas, who self-funds his activism work through acting gigs, including commercials, industrial films and voice-over assignments, was also attracted by the region’s healthier, slower-paced lifestyle, hoping that it would help to increase his life expectancy.

“Life expectancy in Italy is 82.7 years, while in the US it’s 79,” he says. In fact, the World Health Organization puts that US age figure closer to 77. “But for a Black male it’s 70. So in the US I’m already two years past my expiration date. But in Italy I can get 10 extra years.”

Thomas’ motivation for moving to Italy seems to be part of a shift away from the original reasons that people were buying into the country’s cheap homes selloff, which began a few years ago as depopulated and dying towns sought to attract new people to breathe new life into their communities.

At first, the majority of buyers, according to the mayors promoting the schemes, were foreign families and retired couples hoping to buy a vacation retreat.

This appears to have changed over time with artists, philanthropists and social activists now looking to make the move.

Latronico is one of the towns that’s been luring mainly American buyers with cheap houses and rentals. CNN Travel first wrote about Latronico’s house sales in 2021, and the destination has attracted much attention since.

Among properties put up for sale are turnkey homes priced as low as 10,000 euros (around $10,800) and crumbling properties in need of a thorough renovation.

According to Thomas, his purchase process was seamless, and the only challenges were mostly due to pandemic-tied travel restrictions.

He was thrilled that former deputy mayor Vincenzo Castellano, the man behind the housing scheme, picked up the phone when he called to enquire, and supported him throughout the entire purchase, and said that this played a part in his decision making.

Thomas, who has been traveling to Italy every few months since purchasing the home, has budgeted about 20,000 euros (around $21,656) for the renovation work – along with furnishings and appliances.

He says he hopes to help develop Latronico’s community by creating an arts center on the ground floor of his house in the future.

“Artists have always taken over abandoned buildings in an undesirable area of a city and brought the buildings and neighborhoods back to life only to have the newly revitalized buildings taken away or had their rents increased by greedy landlords,” he says.

“With these small neat little European villages, artists don’t have to rent, they can actually own their living spaces and studios.

“The villages get repopulated and the artists don’t get ripped off of their creative energy.”

Latronico’s old district has been in decline since the 1850s, when families started abandoning the area in search of a brighter future elsewhere, leaving behind dozens of empty homes and silent alleys.

Today, thanks to the cheap homes selloff, there’s a new buzz in the area as Latronico’s 4,000 or so residents adapt to living alongside newcomers mainly from America, but all over the world.

For Thomas, life in Latronico fits in with his artistic philosophy.

“As an artist, I love the challenge of taking forgotten, under-appreciated or discarded items and repurposing them,” he says.

“What I love most about Latronico is the dedication and attention to detail in the attempt to first, stop the bleeding, resuscitate and bring back to life this beautiful town.”

Artists have often played a role in revitalizing communities through their creativity and Thomas hopes to be another example of this by contributing to local village life through cultural and artistic projects once his arts center is up and running.

He says he admires Latronico’s revival efforts, explaining that he’s tried to do the same in various communities in the US for the past 50 years, with far more resources than those available to local authorities in Latronico.

Thomas has experience living outside the US, having spent time traveling around the world and working “odd jobs” throughout Europe.

“My usual route during this period was summer working on the Greek island of Ios, then up to either Ireland or the UK to harvest and sell Christmas trees or work in a pub,” he says.

“In the spring, I would always end up in Amsterdam, where you were legally allowed to work in the youth hostels in exchange for a bed, two meals, laundry and internet usage for two months.”

Thomas says he’d often go over to Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg district to work on the preparation of the yearly Carnival of Cultures, which celebrates cultural diversity in the city.

Then he’d hitchhike back down to the Greek isles to start the cycle all over again.

Latronico’s pace of life may seem sedate when compared to Thomas’ former lifestyle, but he says that’s what he likes about it.

“Living in Italy gives me more of the one thing that is important to me and should be the number one thing of importance to any living being – literally life,” he says.

Thomas exercises daily, going on long runs up Latronico’s panoramic wild hills and says he has been reveling in his new environment, even before he’s fully settled in.

The home Thomas purchased in 2022 is spread over two levels, each measuring 55 square-meters wide, with the top floor already habitable.

He is completing most of the renovation work himself, using local businesses to help with things like plumbing, while his friends in Italy are handling the electrics.

He plans to install a bathroom on the ground floor and restore the old fireplace and wood-burning oven.

“Upstairs, it will basically stay the same, it has functioned well as a living space for me the past couple of years,” he says.

“The only changes will be to relocate the bathroom to the back of the unit and make minor improvements to plumbing, ventilation and electrical.”

The ground floor, which had previously been used as an animal shelter, will be leveled out, with electrical outlets added, along with a toilet, sink and shower.

Thomas says he hopes to help contribute to the development of Latronico’s community by using the property to create new services and encourage other artists to move to the town.

He says he doesn’t plan to live in the house and has offered to donate it to a nonprofit, bicycle co-op in Los Angeles, with the stipulation that they use it to provide the same services offered in the US, such as free instructions on how to repair and maintain bikes.

He’s in the process of buying a second property for 39,000 euros (about $45,727) – a six-bedroom “compound” of three different rural cottages in Varrazzo, a hamlet about five miles outside of Latronico, with a patch of land, which is where he’ll reside.

Thomas hopes to transform the second “move-in-ready” home into a multi-purpose arts complex, with accommodations for visiting international youth and adult artists.

He says the cheap house prices in Latronico have allowed him to turn his back on a lifetime of having to rent.

“I have always had to choose between buying property or investing in projects for the community,” he adds. “In Latronico, I can do both.”

While he says he loves Latronico, Thomas has discovered that life in a remote rural village in southern Italy isn’t always as idyllic as it seems.

He says the main cons are linked to the town’s isolated position, as well as the infrastructure and transport systems in the south, which are decidedly lacking when compared to Italy’s north.

Thomas is still trying to “adjust to not having access to just about anything I want or need 18 to 24 hours a day.”

He’s in the process of moving out of his Los Angeles apartment and hopes to officially move to Latronico in September. He says his visitor visa will allow him to spend six months of the year in Italy.

Once he’s established in Latronico in September, Thomas says he plans to use the town as a semi-permanent residence, as well as a base for traveling to and from Africa, where he plans to volunteer on projects in remote villages in Cameroon and Senegal.

“[It] will be a lot easier going back and forth from Africa to southern Italy than Africa to Los Angeles.”