12 Steps To Your New Life In Paradise, Part 2
March 20, 2009
Panama City, Panama
- Cheap, Cheerful, And Safe In South America...
- Counting The Costs Of Life In Ecuador...
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Dear Overseas Opportunity Letter Reader,
Yesterday, I detailed
steps 1 and 2. Here's the rest of my 12-step program for How To Retire
Step #3: Get On A Plane
No amount of Internet research (alas, not even careful reading of these
dispatches) can substitute for spending time in a country that interests
you. A place can make sense on paper but appeal not at all in person. Pay
attention to your gut. Often, you'll know within 24 hours of arriving in a
new country if it's a possible match...or not. It will feel right...or it
Step #4: Research Residency Options
They're different for every country. A local attorney can detail them for
you. The critical thing is to understand them before you get too far into
your relocation plans.
Most user-friendly in this regard are Panama (which offers
more than a dozen choices for how to become a legal resident of that
country, including its famed pensionado program and its
reforestation program, which gives you a hard-asset investment along
with your visa) and Belize (where you can become a
QRP resident if you're older than 45 and can show a regular income of at
least US$2,000 a month from outside the country).
Step #5: Meet With Every Local Real Estate Agent You Can Find
In addition to a local attorney, while you're in each country on your Dream
Havens list, meet with as many players in the local property game as you
No real estate market anywhere is as efficient as that in the United States.
No other country offers a nationwide Multiple Listing Service. And in no
other country do real estate agents cooperate the way they do in the States.
Here are a couple of ground rules to remember as you venture into foreign
-- First because there's no MLS, each agent can show you only what's
on his books. To get a more complete idea of what's available in your price
range in any given market, you've got to review the books of every agent in
town. This is true not only in emerging markets south of the Rio Grande...
When we moved to Ireland 11 years ago, we didn't know what to think when the
first agent we visited in Waterford told us he had two houses among his
listings that might suit us. Our search parameters weren't overly
restrictive. How could he have but two houses to fit them?
He had two...and each of the other six agents in town also had two or three
on their books. Yes, some of these were the same houses but not because the
listings were shared. It was because the owners in a few cases had listed
their properties with more than one agency...sometimes at different prices!
-- Second, outside the States, the real estate agent you're speaking with
doesn't work for you...and he doesn't really work for the seller either.
He works for the commission, which he wants to be as big as possible. In
some markets, this leads to what's called "net pricing," whereby the agent
will promise the seller a fixed amount for his property. The agent then
sells for whatever he can sell for...and pockets the difference. Maybe he
walks away with a reasonable commission...or maybe he makes 20%, 30%, or
more on the deal. You, as the buyer, never know.
Step #6: Rent, Don't Buy
When you execute Step #5, you're meeting with local agents to get the lay of
the land...to find out what's available at what price, etc. You're not,
though, preparing to buy. You're not ready to make that commitment yet.
First, you need to take your chosen haven for a test spin.
Once you've narrowed your list of Dream Havens to one...and you're thinking
you've found your ideal match...plan to spend six months at least living in
the place (preferably through the least-agreeable season--the rainy season,
the hurricane season, the tourist season). During that time, rent. Maybe
your Dream Haven won't turn out to be all you imagined it to be. Or maybe
you'll find that the country suits you fine...but the neighborhood where you
settled for your trial living experience doesn't.
If you haven't invested in the purchase of a home, no problem.
In both Ireland more than a decade ago and then, five years ago, when we
began spending time in Paris, we rented for nearly a year before
buying...and we were glad we did.
In Ireland, we thought at first that we wanted to be in Waterford city
center. We rented a small house on the river within walking distance of our
daughter's school. Ideal...on paper. In fact, we found quickly that
Waterford city living wasn't for us and began looking for a place in the
country. When our lease in town ran out, we were ready to take up more
permanent residence in the old Georgian farmhouse we'd found 20 minutes
outside the city with fields of sheep and cows and low stone walls all
around. Lahardan House, as the place was known, was our comfortable and cozy
Irish country home for more than six years.
In Paris, we'd always thought we wanted to settle in the 5th arrondissement,
right in the heart of the city. A few months in a rental apartment across
from Notre Dame cured us of that mis-idea. We realized that, in fact, we
wanted something a little quieter and more out of the way of the tourist
throngs in season. We found and purchased an early 18th-century apartment on
a narrow street in the 7th that few tourists ever find. We're tucked away
from the beaten path yet only one block back from the river and five
minutes' walk from the Louvre.
Step #7: Get Good Tax Advice
Don't organize your life according to tax code...but don't ignore it either.
Once you've settled on two or three Dream Havens, research the tax
implications, given your country of citizenship and other personal
circumstances, before you make your final determination and certainly before
you make a move.
If you're an American, you need two tax advisors, one in the States (where
you never lose your obligation to Uncle Sam) and one in the country where
you're considering establishing residency.
Again, do this work before you have an address in your chosen haven. Certain
opportunities for mitigating your tax burden can be taken off the table once
you make the move.
Step #8: Set Up a Virtual Office
When I began writing about the idea of living and retiring abroad nearly a
quarter-centry ago, the would-be expat had his work cut out for him when it
came to paying bills, receiving his mail, managing his investments, and
staying in touch with the folks back home. Today, these things are
Here's what you need:
Step #9: Figure Out What To Do With All Your Stuff
- An e-mail address (Ah ha! You've already got this.)
- Online banking access (You probably already have this, too.)
- An online brokerage account to manage your investment portfolios (Again, I
bet you're covered.)
- VOIP (So you can phone home free via your laptop or PC.)
- A mail-forwarding service (We've used the UPS Store. If you're moving to
Latin America, choose a service out of Miami.)
- A U.S. address (This makes dealing with credit card companies and shopping
online and through catalogs extraordinarily easier than it would be otherwise.
You can arrange a U.S. address through your mail-forwarding service.)
- A driver's license (If possible, renew your license just before leaving
your home country. You'll want it for renting cars and as a secondary form of
- An international cell phone...or a cell phone that allows you to swap
local SIM cards.
- A laptop (This isn't absolutely necessary. You probably could get by using
PCs in Internet cafés, etc. But the more self-sufficiently mobile you are, the
Perpetual traveler friends of ours have downsized completely. They travel
the world continuously with but a few suitcases and a couple of laptops.
They worry not at all about shipping furniture or storing heirlooms.
I admire their freedom, but I can't bring myself to follow their lead. We
shipped a container load of antiques and household goods from Baltimore,
Maryland, to Waterford, Ireland, 11 years ago. We shipped another container
load of more antiques from Waterford to Paris five summers ago. Then we
shipped yet more old tables and chairs from Waterford to Panama City last
Meantime, we're keeping our apartment in Paris as a kind of home base.
Stored here in plastic tubs are family photo albums and our children's
christening outfits...Jack's first grade report card and Kaitlin's high
school art portfolio... my grandmother's recipe files and the bedspread my
mother embroidered for Lief and me when we were married.
I can't let these things go. So, as we move around the world, we have to
factor in storage and shipping. Unless you're ready to part with all your
worldly possessions, you will, too.
Again, international shipping and storage are far more easily accomplished
today than they were, even a decade ago when we shipped our first
trans-Atlantic container. Go to
www.intlmovers.com. Type in the details of what you'd like to have
shipped from where to where, then sit back and wait for estimates from
international shipping firms interested in the gig. This online brokerage
service is how I found the company that shipped the furniture we bought in
Ireland for our new home in Panama, and I heartily recommend it.
Step #10: Shop Health Insurance Carriers
If you're an American, Medicare won't follow you outside the States
(although your Social Security will). Local health insurance can be your
best bet. That's how we intend to arrange coverage in Panama.
Here are the two most important things you need to know about shopping for
international health insurance.
Step #11: Show Up
Woody Allen once said that this is 80% of life.
Do your research, make your plans...then take the leap. Over the years, I've
met people who've been thinking about living or retiring overseas for years.
They can tell you how to get a visa, where to open a bank account, how much
to budget for rent, and the per-square-meter price of buying a home in a
dozen different countries.
Still, they're deliberating...weighing the options...not quite sure the time
To everyone who's been long planning for a new life overseas...and,
especially, to you, dear reader, I say now: Just do it.
Pack your bags and go for it.
What's the worst thing that could happen? See Step #12...
Step #12: Prepare For Panic
What were you thinking? You must have taken leave of your senses. Paradise?
This place is no paradise. This place is a nightmare.
Take my word for it. No matter how much due diligence you've done...no
matter how ready you are for the move...at some point, probably during your
first year abroad, you'll wonder what in the world ever possessed you to
think this leaving home thing was a good idea.
My best advice is to wait out the panic. It will pass.
In Ireland, we questioned the sense of what we'd done starting mid-February
of our first year in the country. By April, when the sun finally came out,
we realized Ireland really wasn't so bad. Irish winters on the other hand...
Every year thereafter we planned to spend January and February in sunnier
In Paris, we wondered about our sanity from the start, during our first few
months, the four of us crammed into the 55-square-meter one-bedroom
apartment rental we stayed in while the apartment we'd purchased was being
renovated. Kaitlin and Jack slept on cots in a tiny mezzanine. I stored
clothes in the china hutch. Lief and I shared a single Internet connection
at the single desk in the corner of the single bedroom...
Here in Panama City, we're still adjusting...to the ever-present noise and
mess of the never-ending construction, for example.
And, right now, we're missing spring.
No place is going to check every one of your boxes.
That's where Perpetual Retirement comes in. Move around with the seasons,
for example...winter in the tropics...then springtime on the Continent...
101 Things You Should Know Before You Even Think About Living, Retiring,
Or Investing Overseas
Shipping your belongings across international borders...moving with your
children...or a pet...obtaining residency...getting a visa...opening a bank
account...getting the best international phone rates...learning a new
language...using VOIP...obtaining an international driver's
license...working with an overseas real estate agent...shopping for
international health insurance...
This is everything we wish someone had told us before we set off on our own
live and invest overseas adventures. And it's available to you right now
"Kathleen, I just signed up for your newsletter and love it. It's so
insightful and offers tons of useful information. Thank you!
"I want to leave Canada for about six months. I've lived in Asia and
Australia before and have traveled extensively throughout Europe. Now I'm
looking for somewhere new to go.
"I've never been to South America so am considering going
there. I'm a single woman and will be traveling solo and living on a modest
"Here are my questions:
"Is South America safe and are there parts safer than others?
"Also, can you recommend a beach town/small city that is cheap and cheerful
that would be a good place to rent a house or condo and use as a base? That
way, I'd be able to take smaller trips around to other South American
countries over time."
-- Tracy H., Canada
That sounds like a great plan, dear reader. I'd recommend you take a look at
Uruguay. Another solo woman traveler, our Correspondent in that
country, Sol Maria Tuya, tells you more
"Look so forward to your e-mails. Thanks very much.
"Do you have any information or facts about Ecuador?"
-- Leon H., United States
We rate Ecuador as one of the world's most affordable places to retire. Our
Latin America Correspondent Christian MacDonald, who has lived in Cuenca,
Ecuador, to prepare a detailed monthly budget for the cost of living in that
Read it here.
In addition, here's more on both the cost and the quality of life in this