Renting Overseas Rule #1: Think twice before renting new construction or just-completed renovation. You don't want to be the first person living in a place. It makes you a guinea pig, forced to work out the kinks. This was our very frustrating experience in our second rented home here in Panama City, in Casco Viejo. The owner hadn't done a punch list after the extensive renovation he'd undertaken just prior to our moving in. We were left, therefore, to discover a long list of things that didn't work and that hadn't been properly addressed (including a roof that leaked in nine places, no hot water in the guest bathroom, and bedroom doors that couldn't be closed because they bumped into the ceiling fans). We discovered too late that the long-distance owner didn't seem to care whether anything worked or not, leaving us to deal with his incompetent and unresponsive property manager. Thus our third rental... Renting Overseas Rule #2: Investigate the reputation of the management company responsible for the property. Ask around. If the feedback is all negative, consider finding another place to rent. This also applies to building management in the case of a high-rise apartment building. In Panama City, most new buildings come with loads of amenities (swimming pools, grill areas, children's playrooms, basketball courts, tennis courts, even putt-putt golf). However, if the building administration isn't maintaining the amenities, and you therefore can't use them, what's the point of paying for them (as you will, through your monthly building fees)? Renting Overseas Rule #3: Understand what documents you will need to rent. Depending on where you're moving, the answer could be none. On the other hand, in some markets (France, for example), you're going to have to prepare a complete dossier of paperwork (including, for example, recent bank statements, pay stubs, reference letters, and letters of guaranty) to submit for approval before you'll be able to sign a lease. In Panama, you generally don't need any documentation to rent. You find a place, sign a lease, pay your deposit, and move in. In Paris, on the other hand, again, you'll need a folder full of paperwork—unless you rent on the black market. Renting long term on the black market can be more expensive, but it overcomes the dossier hurdle, which, depending on your situation, you may not be able to meet. Renting Overseas Rule #4: Understand what deposit you will be required to make. The general rule is that you'll have to pay the first month's rent plus a deposit equal to one month's rent. Sometimes, the deposit can be one-and-a-half or two months' rent. Whatever the deposit, don't expect to see it again. Friends in Paris joke that the best way to think about any security deposit you make in that market is to amortize it over the lifetime of your rental. In other words, consider it part of the rent. (I'm speaking about long-term rentals, not short-term tourist stays.) In Panama, if your landlord is following the law, your deposit will be posted with MIVI (Panama's department of housing). MIVI holds the funds and then releases them at the end of the rental term. If something is to be deducted for damages, the landlord informs MIVI, and the renter (you) are given a chance to sign off on the amount to be withheld for repairs. Unfortunately, not all landlords do this (many foreign landlords aren't even aware that they're supposed to do this). This means your deposit is at risk. In the case of our first rental in this country, an apartment in a high-rise, the landlord returned our deposit within a couple of weeks of our moving out. He made no deductions, and we got our deposit back in full. In the case of the house we rented in Casco Viejo, the property manager refused to return our deposit, citing "damages." However, he refused to tell us what the so-called damages were or to itemize the costs for repairs. He kept the full amount. As he hadn't posted the amount with MIVI but kept it himself, we were out of luck. Renting Overseas Rule #5: Use an attorney. You know to use an attorney when you buy property overseas, but you should also use one when signing a rental agreement in another country. Unless you are very familiar with tenants' rights and the particulars of rental contracts in the country where you're renting, it pays to have someone who is reviewing the documents before you sign. A good attorney will also inform you of any negotiable clauses—that is, any opportunities for you to adjust the terms of the agreement to your benefit. Lief Simon
Continue Reading: Gringo Pricing And Bribery In Ecuador
In the six years we've been living and running our Live and Invest Overseas office in Panama, we've moved house four times and office three. This is a small city offering a great diversity of lifestyle experiences, and, to be honest, we've had trouble finding our ideal fit here, both personally and professionally. Finally, though, we think we've hit on the combination that suits us best. We're living in a high-rise tower on Avenida Balboa, enjoying views all around of the Bay of Panama, the Pacific Ocean, and the entrance to the Panama Canal...and we're working from a big old house in El Cangrejo that we've reconfigured to provide pleasant office space with loads of personality. It's a 10-minute commute (on good days) from our apartment building to our office. We have parking out front and all around. Within a five-minute walk of the office are dozens of lunch and Happy Hour options, plus pharmacies, dry cleaners, banks, gift shops, and hotels where we put up guests and visitors. Definitely, this is a great place to base yourself as a small business owner, be your business bricks and mortar or virtual like ours. If you're younger than we, you'd probably also find it a great place to live, as do a half-dozen of our 20-something staff. One of those 20-somethings, Staff Editor Matt Chilliak, shares his perspective on why he's chosen to live and work in El Cangrejo, Panama City's liveliest sector, in the feature report in this month's Panama Letter issue, in subscribers' inboxes yesterday. If you're not yet a Panama Letter reader, you can become one here now in time to read all about our favorite Panama City neighborhood. Kathleen Peddicord
Continue Reading: The Rising Cost Of Living In Panama City
The plantation's manager is a fourth-generation farmer in Panama with experience not only growing mangos but also selling them. He has long-standing relationships in place with juice companies in Panama, which are standing by to purchase as many mangos as he can produce. Right now, the majority of juice companies in this country are forced to import their mangos, which is far more costly than buying locally. In addition, the developer is in contact with groups in the United States, from dried fruit wholesalers to grocery stores, lining up contracts for selling the plantation's mangos directly into the U.S. marketplace, where they would be worth much more than the local Panama juice companies are paying. (Note that current projections for return for this investment are based on the price the mangos are currently being sold for in Panama, meaning that, again, the projections are conservative.) Phase one of the plantation has been sold out. Phase two is selling at a rapid rate, and implementation is well under way. Thus, again, the planned price increase. I have asked the developer, however, if Live and Invest Overseas readers could have one final chance to get in on this opportunity at the original phase one launch price of US$33,500. He has agreed and will honor that price for LIOS readers for the next two weeks. Thereafter, the price permanently increases to US$36,500. You can request more information here.
"Kathleen, if I rent an apartment in a foreign country, specifically in Central America, do I have to get preapproved and a credit check?" --Joseph B., United States If you're renting short-term, you leave a deposit and pay the rent up front. No credit check or other documentation is required in most cases, as the presumption is that you are a tourist and will leave the country without hassle (that is, the owner doesn't have to worry that you might refuse to vacate the property when the time comes). If you're renting long-term, it depends on where in the world you're renting. The requirements are generally more lax in Latin America than in Europe. In France, even for a grey-market apartment rental (meaning a rental that doesn't go through a rental agency…those rentals require a stack of documents thicker than your combined tax returns for the last 10 years, everything notarized), you'll have to provide proof of income and/or assets and probably a local guarantor (this for sure if you're not a legal resident of the country). To that end, you may be asked to show tax returns from back home, pay stubs, and/or bank statements. In Latin America, the formal requirements for a long-term rental are less onerous; still, as a foreigner who is not a legal resident, you might have trouble finding a landlord comfortable renting to you, depending on where, specifically, you're looking. Landlords don't like renting to people who can just up and leave the country overnight. This has happened often here in Panama City, for example, and landlords in this town are gun shy these days. Credit checks are typically only used and/or useful in the context of a mortgage application…meaning they're relevant only in markets where it's possible for a foreigner to borrow locally for the purchase of real estate. Banks in Panama, for example, will ask for a U.S. credit report from Americans and whatever is available in the UK for Brits when considering a mortgage application.
In one case, the land is collateral for eight investors. If you've ever tried to get eight people from different countries and backgrounds to agree on a single path forward and been successful, please get in touch. You have skills I lack and could benefit from. In another case, my collateral is an apartment. This is even more complicated. The short story is that the contractor walked off the job after having been paid a substantial amount of money for the construction but before finishing the work. Somewhere between the developer signing the agreement with the contractor and the contractor bailing, the contractor stopped paying on his insurance bond that guaranteed completion. The condo development is unfinished, and we who invested along with the developer are left holding the bag. In addition to the direct-developer investment, the lady who wrote in to me last week has lost in other ways, too, though the other investments she told me about aren't write-offs, at least not yet. One is a lot in a development where the developers haven't fulfilled all the amenities. The lot has value but no real market right now. The woman also invested in a renovation project in a colonial city. That didn't work out because the architect she chose (on the recommendation of an attorney I recommended) turned out to be a scoundrel. She managed in this case, though, to come out a little to the good after all was said and done. The nice thing about real estate is that, unless you're leveraged, it's difficult to lose all your investment. Still, holding property that you want to sell but can't can seem the same as losing your investment. I've been investing in real estate for more than 20 years and have bought in more than 20 countries at this point, more than 40 purchases and counting. Most have been positive and profitable experiences. Some are still playing out, and, for these open investments, the current values of the properties are greater than what I paid for them in every case except one. The key is to manage risk. To that end, I follow a few mantras. I break them regularly but do so knowing that I'm breaking them. When I do, I carry out more due diligence and I'm prepared to lose my money. Mantra #1: I don't buy property in a place where I haven't been. The corollary to this rule is to visit any property before investing in it. That's not always feasible. Further, visiting a place and seeing the piece of real estate you intend to invest in before you invest is no guarantee the investment will play out in your favor. I've visited properties and decided, as a result of my on-the-ground research, to invest only to have things fall apart. That said, probably my best and my worst investments to date both have been in properties that I didn't visit before buying. The one that didn't work out was a pre-construction project in the UK. Everything looked good on paper. The location was central in the town where the building was going up. A colleague had a friend involved in the project. Both assured me I couldn't lose. So I acted without making the trip to see the place myself. Unfortunately, thanks to overbuilding in the town, which I would have recognized had I gotten on a plane, the rental projections were optimistic, to put it politely. Worse, I bought with leverage. In the end, this was a total loss. On the other hand, I also acted on an opportunity in Panama City without seeing the project for myself. Again, this was on the recommendation of a colleague. This investment, though, has been, you could say, the most successful of my career. I've made far greater returns in whole numbers from loads of other buys, but, on paper, by the percentages, this one is near-perfect. The property has appreciated nicely in value, year on year, and has generated a double-digit net yield every one of the seven years I've owned it. It has been occupied by renters better than 90% of the time. Lief Simon
Good luck finding this level of sophistication and infrastructure anywhere else in Ecuador outside Quito (which we also would not recommend as a place to live). Why Not Boquete? Boquete has long been heralded by many (starting, in fact, with us, more than 15 years ago) as one of the world's top retirement havens. However, we decided not to include this Panamanian mountain town in our 2014 Index for two reasons. First, the cost of living in Boquete continues to rise. Second, you have other better choices elsewhere now, which we wanted to feature instead. We limit our Index to 21 destinations. This is an arbitrary restriction that forces some hard choices. The truth is, as more places worldwide become more appealing for the would-be retiree, other places, including some well-known, like Boquete, become less so. Boquete is still a great turn-key choice for overseas retirement, but we'd say it no longer belongs on a short list of the world's top 21 choices. One big draw of Boquete is its large and growing expat community. If the idea of retiring to a place where many others like you have already paved the way and stand ready to welcome you to their ranks, you have other more affordable choices, including Cuenca and Chiang Mai, for example, both of which offer super-cheap, high-quality lifestyles (and both of which are included in our Index this year). Puerto Vallarta and Barcelona are two other expat-friendly options featured in our 2014 survey. The cost of living is higher in Puerto Vallarta and Barcelona than in Cuenca and Chiang Mai...and higher than in Boquete. However, the cost of living isn't unreasonable for the quality of life available for purchase. The quaint mountain town of Boquete just can't compete for lifestyle with chic, cosmopolitan Barcelona or Pacific oceanside Vallarta. Why Not Uruguay? Uruguay has gotten expensive, too expensive for the lifestyle on offer, and it's likely to become more expensive still. Uruguayans are used to the devaluation of their peso. They refer to appreciation as atraso cambiario, "the exchange rate is running late." Because of this phenomenon, prices for many big-ticket items in Uruguay (including real estate, cars, and even high local salaries) are quoted in U.S. dollars. Why Not Brazil? High crime rates keep much of Brazil off our radar and out of our survey. That said, south from Ceara to Natal, you can enjoy super-cheap coastal buys in safety. Further, the bureaucracy, red tape, and corruption at all levels involved with getting anything done in this country are significant downsides to life here. The country doesn't make establishing residency easy and offers no retiree benefits program. Also, Brazilians speak Portuguese, which, for most of us, is not as easy to muddle through as Spanish, French, or Italian. Why Not Ajijic, Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, Or Merida? Mexico offers many well-publicized options for the foreign retiree. Why did we choose Puerto Vallarta over the rest of the choices for our 2014 Retire Overseas Index? Because if offers the best option anywhere for the retiree looking for developed Pacific coastal living on a budget. Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador all also offer Pacific coast options, but none is anywhere near as fully appointed as Puerto Vallarta, which offers marinas, country clubs, golf courses, shopping, and fine dining. Yet, you could retire here on a budget of as little as US$1,910 per month, which is more than an average budget for other countries with Pacific coastlines in our Index but a very reasonable amount given the lifestyle on offer. Why Not New Zealand? We like New Zealand as a part-time retirement spot, but we didn't include it in our survey this year because it's just not a realistic full-time option for the typical retiree. The truth is, New Zealand (like Australia) isn't overly keen on the idea of foreign retirees and doesn't make it easy for the retiree to establish residency. In fact, in most cases, it's not possible. Why Not Costa Rica? About three decades ago, Costa Rica decided to make a business of the foreign retiree. The Costa Ricans invested in a formal and successful advertising campaign, targeting Americans primarily. Tens of thousands of would-be retirees from the States took up the invitation and relocated to this beautiful land of hills and rainforests. The benefits Costa Rica offered retirees who became resident were terrific, including the original pensionado program against which others were measured for decades. In addition, way back when Costa Rica made a name for itself as a top retirement choice, the cost of everything from groceries and eating out to prime coastal property was super cheap. Fast forward a couple of decades, and, thanks to investors and speculators, Costa Rica wasn't so cheap anymore, neither its cost of living nor its beachfront real estate. And, while prices had risen dramatically, the infrastructure hadn't kept pace. Retirees were happy to overlook falling bridges and unpaved roads when prices were low. Harder to rationalize putting up with failing infrastructure in the face of appreciating costs. Worse, after working so hard to woo American and European retirees, Costa Rica seemed to change its mind. The Costa Ricans didn't eliminate their famous pensionado program; they simply eliminated most of the tax breaks it had promised, as part of a deficit-reduction austerity package. And they didn't grandfather in existing pensionados. So those who'd chosen Costa Rica for the retiree benefits it offered were surprised and disappointed to find that those benefits existed no more. Now the Costa Rican government is considering a further pensionado program adjustment. They're talking about increasing, maybe substantially, the minimum monthly income requirement to qualify. And, again, if the change is made, existing pensioandos won't be grandfathered in. To renew your status, you'd have to qualify under the new requirements. Kathleen Peddicord P.S. Our 2014 Retire Overseas Index is featured, in full, in this month's issue of our Overseas Retirement Letter. If you're not yet an ORL subscriber, become one now to receive this bumper special annual edition, hot-off-the-virtual-presses. Or you can purchase a copy of the Index on its own here.
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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.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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