Perhaps the strangest thing about Christmas in Kuala Lumpur is the big Christmas Eve buffets offered at hotels around the city. These are elaborate feasts, with turkey, roast beef and all the trimmings, local specialties, and a fantastic selection of desserts. That's not the strange part. What is unexpected are the party favors and the New Year's Eve-style countdown to midnight and the official start of Christmas Day. There are dances, visits by Santa, and Christmas skits (again, secular). At midnight, fireworks erupt. Malaysians love their fireworks, and almost every holiday is celebrated by a display of them, but we had never before considered Christmas a fireworks kind of day!Wendy Justice
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Prices in the better areas of Manila range from less than US$1,000 to more than US$2,000 per square meter. You need to do some ground work, as anywhere, to identify the particular neighborhoods that'd make most sense for you, depending on whether you're shopping for a place to live or for a rental investment. My favorite spots in the Philippines for pure investment are the resort towns of Cebu and Boracay. You can invest in a condo hotel in either of these beach locations for well under US$100,000 and expect good rental yields into the low double digits (question heavily anything projecting more than 12%). Thailand places similar restrictions to those in the Philippines on foreign ownership of property, except in this country foreigners can own up to 49% of a condo building. In this country, the resort areas can offer opportunity for rental yield; Pattaya is Thailand's biggest and best known beach destination. As in the Philippines, you can find one-bedroom apartments for less than US$60,000. Expect yields to be in the range of 6% for long-term rentals and a bit higher for short-term. Pattaya might be a place to consider a rental investment, but other parts of Thailand make more sense as places to live. A top lifestyle choice in this country is Chiang Mai, where you can find one-bedroom apartments on offer for less than US$45,000 in some new developments. That would be for a unit in a building with amenities like a swimming pool. On the other hand, that apartment wouldn't be much bigger than a large hotel room. Still, if you're a retiree with limited resources who wants to own your own place, you're not likely to find a property you'd actually want to live in anywhere else in the world for less than US$45,000. Malaysia's foreign ownership restriction is based on the price of the property. Foreigners have to spend at least 1 million ringgit (about US$300,000 right now) to own a piece of property in Malaysia. Note that it must be 1 million ringgit invested in a single property; can't be an aggregated amount among multiple properties. That limitation makes buying for rental yield difficult. The sweet spot in the Kuala Lumpur market is apartments in the 120-square-meter range, which go for US$150,000 to US$250,000. Push the purchase price over US$300,000 to meet the minimum ringgit criteria and your yield will drop. Still, Kuala Lumpur is a good, steady market. Also note that the U.S. dollar has seen a surge in value against the ringgit in the last few months. It's close to its high of 3.30 ringgits to US$1 reached back in February. Whatever the exchange rate in Malaysia, you could sell your parking space in Hong Kong and buy yourself a great apartment in the best neighborhood in KL. Lief Simon
The city has grown a great deal in the 200 years since, but it has not lost its colonial flavor. Wandering around the historic downtown, it's easy to imagine yourself living in another era and, as well, another place. Here, you're in old China. Around the corner, you could be in India. Another neighborhood is reminiscent of an old Malay kampong (village). Everywhere the architecture and infrastructure harken back to England's colonial heyday. Impressive British-colonial buildings serve the same functions as they did more than a century ago; they are banks, churches, and residential mansions. Many of the dilapidated Chinese shophouses have been scrubbed, painted, and renovated into attractive hotels, community centers, cafes, galleries, and private homes. The early Indian traders left their legacy, as well, in the vibrant Little India neighborhood where you find ornate Hindu and Sikh temples and a commercial district where you can shop for yard goods and clothing, incense, fruits, spices, herbal teas, and natural remedies. Other parts of the city reflect the Malay culture, with mosques and more shopping. Adding to the ambiance are dozens of murals and whimsical, wrought-iron sculptures depicting life in the early days of the city. The city is home to at least a dozen museums. Venues for indulging in high culture include the Penang Philharmonic, ProArt Chinese Orchestra, Performing Arts Center, and the Actors Studio at Straits Quay. Free concerts are offered in various locations across Penang Island during the summer months. Jungle parks reveal secluded beaches and indigenous wildlife. Amusement parks provide family fun. Expat clubs meet regularly to serve the large and growing foreign community. Everywhere are eateries serving delicious and inexpensive gourmet fare. When the sun goes down, cooking smells permeate the air and tables fill with enthusiastic diners from around the globe. Though there are many fine restaurants in George Town, the real food scene is in the cafes, open-air restaurants, and hawker stalls. This is where chefs prepare regional Chinese, Malay, and Indian specialties, Chinese, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Malay, Indonesian, Nyonya, Teochew, and Thai cuisines, all manner of seafood, and Western-style dishes, using recipes that have been perfected over generations. Prices are something to rave about, too. Unless you're eating in an upscale restaurant, you can eat very well for about US$3 per person. George Town is a great place to visit, but it's also a great and, thanks to the government's Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program, easy place to live or retire. The MM2H program provides you with a retirement visa that is valid for up to 10 years, duty-free importation of personal belongings, a duty-free allowance to import or purchase an automobile, and a reduction in the required minimum purchase price of a home in the state of Penang. If you don't have the MM2H visa, you can buy a home or condominium valued at 1 million ringgit (about US$307,000) or more. MM2H visa-holders can buy property on Penang Island for half that amount. Note that, unlike other countries in this region, Malaysia allows foreigners to purchase and own a clear title to land, houses, and condominiums. It is common for foreigners to move here, rent for a year or two, then purchase property or a home. As a result, sizeable expat communities have developed in the suburbs north of George Town. Some come to work at one of the many international schools in the area. Others have moved here with their school-age children, to raise them in this safe and peaceful place. Many others have chosen to relocate here for retirement, in luxury condos with ocean views or in the quiet residential suburbs. We make it a point to visit George Town whenever we're in the vicinity. It's always a fun place to linger. The people are exceptionally friendly, and language is not a barrier in this English-speaking country. We enjoy wandering around the historic downtown and, of course, the food. For so many reasons, George Town is a place worth returning to again and again. Wendy Justice
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The Malaysian government maintains that housing should be, first and foremost, for Malaysians. As the economy has grown, Malaysians have been able to spend more money on housing. Accordingly, the minimum purchase price requirements that apply to foreign real estate investors have been set purposely higher than most Malaysians can afford. This restricts foreign buyers to the luxury housing market. The minimum purchase price for foreign property transactions has increased several times over the past decade. As recently as 2009, a foreigner could buy any real estate in Malaysia for as little as RM250,000 (about US$73,600 at that time). This minimum purchase price doubled in 2010 and again in 2014. In early 2014, the government changed the existing housing laws. For the first time, MM2H visa holders could take advantage of a reduced minimum purchase price for real estate in some Malaysian localities. Although a minimum price of RM1 million (about US$310,100) has been established, some states and municipalities offer incentives to foreign permanent residents. As of March 2014, MM2H visa holders can purchase property in the state of Perak, which includes the city of Ipoh, for just RM350,000 (US$108,530)—a significant reduction from the RM1 million required for non-MM2H holders. Meanwhile, the minimum purchase price of property in the state of Sarawak, including the city of Kuching, is now RM300,000 (US$93,026). Effective this February, the state of Penang, including the internationally famous food and heritage city of George Town, allows permanent residents to purchase property for RM500,000 (US$155,044), in addition to paying a state levy of 3%. On the island of Penang, those without the MM2H status are limited to purchasing property with a minimum value of RM1 million for a condominium, or RM2 million (US$620,174) for landed property, in addition to the state levy of 3%. Foreigners with permanent residency can purchase a condominium in Melaka for RM500,000, but the minimum purchase price for landed property is set at RM1 million. Reports differ, but the official government MM2H website states that the minimum purchase price for property in Kuala Lumpur is currently RM1 million regardless of residency status. Until this year, the lack of capital gains taxes had made real estate attractive to investors. Foreigners from Singapore, East Asia, and elsewhere have purchased property with the intention of flipping it for profit a few months or years later. The change in the Real Property Gains Tax (RPGT) is the most significant law affecting the purchase and sale of real estate by foreigners. The RPGT was enacted in January 2014 to dampen what the government believed was foreign over-speculation in the real estate market. This new capital gains tax assesses foreigners a 30% tax on any property that is sold within the first three years of purchase for permanent residents—or sold within five years for nonresidents. Permanent residents are assessed a 20% RPGT if the property is held for less than four years and a 15% RPGT if the property is sold within five years. If the property is held for more than five years, nonresidents will be assessed a RPGT of 5% on selling. No RPGT is assessed for permanent residents who sell their property five years after the date of purchase. There is a one-time-only exemption on the RPGT if the individual sells a residential property and no RPGT assessed if the property is transferred from one family member to another. Although the state of Johor Bahru requires that foreigners purchase property at the normal minimum price of RM1 million whether they have permanent residency or not, there is no minimum price requirement in Johor Bahru's township of Medini. Medini is located in Nusajaya, which is part of the Iskandar Malaysia Special Economic Zone that encompasses the majority of Johor Bahru's metropolitan area. Iskandar is Malaysia's largest single urban development project to date. Key features of the Medini project include several low-density residential developments with amenities that include golf courses, a health and wellness village, swimming pools and Jacuzzis, 24-hour security, access to several international schools and universities, prime shopping areas, and an easy commute to Singapore. Foreign real estate investors are also exempt from the RPGT when buying property in the Medini development. This is currently the only place in Malaysia that does not assess the RPGT, so purchasing a home here can be an attractive short-term investment. The average residential value for property in the state of Johor has increased more than 45% over the past five years, compared to an average of just 30% in the rest of Malaysia. Foreigners must pay a state levy of 2% or RM20,000 (US$6,224), whichever is higher, when purchasing property anywhere in the state of Johor. This is the first time that MM2H visa holders have a real advantage over nonresident foreigners in the real estate market. Although the RPGT applies to all foreigners buying real estate (other than in Medini), the lowered minimum purchase requirements offer MM2H holders an incentive to buy, rather than rent, their home. The additional incentive of eligibility for 80% mortgage financing is another advantage for permanent residents. Complete information about the benefits and requirements for the MM2H visa can be found on the official website. Wendy Justice
Most fully appointed beach options are on the country's Pacific coast about an hour-and-a-half outside Panama City, the stretch of beachfront that includes Coronado (also notable as it's home to a big and fast-growing community of foreign retirees). Or travel inland along the canal about 20 minutes outside of Panama City and you will find the stunning Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Your best low-key beach getaway choices include San Blas off the country's Caribbean coast and Pedasi, a charming little beach town on the coast of Panama's Azuero Peninsula. Colombia: The walled colonial city of Cartagena on this country's Caribbean coast is one of the world's treasures. Its cobblestoned streets and many parks and plazas are lined with faithfully maintained Spanish-colonial structures with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with bright flowers. People come from all over the world to admire these historic structures and to enjoy the cheerful, festive atmosphere they create. In addition, Cartagena boasts many small boutique hotels, including luxury lodgings, plus interesting shops, sidewalk cafes, and loads of fine dining. As colonial cities go in the Americas, Cartagena is king. But just over 100 miles up the coast from Cartagena is another colonial gem, the city of Santa Marta, the oldest in Colombia. Ignore guidebooks that tell you Cartagena's sister colonial city is dirty and dangerous (as most do). Colombia has been investing seriously in Santa Marta, and the good effects are impressive. The waterfront has been refurbished to include a seafront promenade, beautifully restored parks, and a new array of sidewalk cafes from which to take it all in. There's also a just-completed marina that can accept 256 boats, and the adjacent shoreline has sprouted its first handful of seaside condo buildings. Mexico: Bahía de Navidad on Mexico's Pacific Costa Alegre (Happy Coast) is a beautiful, sweeping, crescent-shaped bay and beach with two main towns—Barra de Navidad and Melaque. In many ways, this stretch of Mexico's coast is a small-town, inexpensive version of up-scale Puerto Vallarta four hours to the north. Melaque is a typical ocean-side Mexican village where fishing, agriculture, and tourism provide a relaxed and rustic lifestyle. Barra de Navidad is chic and picturesque, with good restaurants and jumping nightspots, anchored by the elegant Grand Bay Hotel on the southeast side. Dominican Republic: The Dominican Republic has been gaining momentum as a hot-spot beach destination and for good reason. This island nation offers many sure-to-please options for those looking to jet-off to warm weather and white-sand beaches this New Year. The sand-fringed towns of Sosua and neighboring Cabarete on the island's north coast in particular are beachfront utopias. There are no high-rise towers, no big crowds and no worries. Life here is all about enjoying what Mother Nature has created in this world-class coastal spot. Beaches are perfect for swimming, and inland are many trails for hiking and horse-back riding. Ecuador: Ecuador's long coastline is peppered with appealing beach choices; however, Ecuador's best-kept beachfront secret is Samborondon. Other good options are Plaza Lagos for golfers, as well as Playas, Salinas, and tranquil Lobster Bay. Ayunque, 30 minutes north of Salinas, is a sleepy spot, historically one of Ecuador's best budget beaches, where the locals come for getaways and $2.50 lunches. Nicaragua: Warm weather and a beautiful Pacific coastline characterize Nicaragua. This country is also notable as one of the most affordable destinations in the Americas. Nicaragua's most developed beach is at San Juan del Sur, once a jet-set stomping-grounds and making a comeback today. The small town that lines the crescent-shaped bay that shares its name is the definition of chill. Nothing much happens here...nothing much matters here...but the sun and the surf. Thailand: Thailand offers sultry tropical weather and islands aplenty in the Gulf of Siam and the Andaman Sea and has a great deal to recommend beyond its beaches—its culture is rich and alive with color and character, the locals are friendly, the scenery is stunning, and the cost of everything here can be an absolute bargain. Where should you go in Thailand to ditch that winter chill? Take a look at Phuket, Koh Hae (Coral Island), Koh Lanta, or Koh Phi Phi. These spots offer some of the world's best snorkeling, swimming, and sightseeing. Thailand's Phuket Island, in particular, is an internationally famous beach destination and rightfully so. Beautiful sandy shores, separated by rocky headlands, grace the entire west coast of the island, the largest in Thailand. Onshore Phuket is a welcoming place that can quickly begin to feel like home, and more than 100,000 foreign residents have chosen to make lives here. Foreigners from across the globe have integrated into the local community, transforming Phuket into a multicultural, international retirement destination. Expats make up more than 21 percent of the total permanent population of Phuket Province. Vietnam: Tropical, culturally rich, and diverse, Vietnam is a great outside-the-box place to escape winter. You can shop in vibrant markets, visit ancient temples, sample the healthy and unique cuisines, improve your golf swing at internationally acclaimed courses, or while away the day on the shores of the lovely South China Sea. Vietnam is graced with over 2,100 miles of coastline, and the northernmost stretch of it in particular is spectacular. The north's most famous attraction, Halong Bay, covers an area of 600 square miles studded with thousands of jagged limestone karsts rising like castles out of the ocean. There are dozens of caves, deserted beaches of fine, white sand, and almost 2,000 islets extending far into the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is Vietnam's most popular tourist destination. Monkeys and other wildlife are the only inhabitants on most of the tiny islands. There are only two towns of any consequence on the larger islands, along with a few small floating villages where permanent residents farm fish and tend pearl-producing oyster beds, traveling by boat to visit neighbors. Malaysia: Ideal spots for a tropical retreat in this country include Johor Bahru and Penang Island. There are 17 golf courses in Johor State, making it a golfer's haven, while Penang Island combines a city feel with a laid-back island vibe. Photographers and nature-lovers will be in their element. The national park is criss-crossed with hiking trails and offers some of the world's best bird (and monkey) watching. The island is home to some 200 species of birds. Belize: Clear turquoise waters lapping gently against soft white sand. Palm trees rustling in the warm breeze. Fishing boats bobbing on the horizon. Birdsong and island tunes all around... Ambergris Caye, Belize, is unadulterated, unpretentious Caribbean, the sea, sand, and sunshine of the Caymans or the Virgin Islands without the price tag. San Pedro town, a former fishing village, is the center of activity and home to a growing expatriate community of North Americans and Europeans catered to now by dozens of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and community organizations. You could settle in here quickly and easily, as the language (like everywhere in Belize) is English. Life on Ambergris is relaxed and friendly, carefree and sunny; just offshore is the world's second-longest barrier reef and all the snorkeling, diving, fishing, boating, and swimming a beach-loving wanderer could hope for. Kathleen Peddicord Continue reading:
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
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