Stuff The Cash In Your Bra? How To Sell Real Estate Overseas
Nov. 4, 2012, Panama City, Panama: Argentines distrust banks so real estate transactions in this country are all-cash events.
Also This Week: How This Expat Couple Has Reinvented Their Lives From San Francisco To The Caribbean One Step At A Time…10 Reasons To Choose Belize…Buy With Both Your Heart And Your Calculator…
Dear Live and Invest Overseas Reader,
Around the enormous table sat five adult siblings, three with spouses, two with attorneys, one with a grown son, plus the real estate agent for the seller, his two representatives, our real estate agent, our agent's boss, and my husband and me.
It was the summer of 2003 in Buenos Aires. Over the preceding 12 months, Lief and I had bought three apartments in this city in the wake of Argentina's 2001 currency debacle and subsequent property crash. We arranged our schedules to be able to participate in the closing of the third apartment personally. We were purchasing from the five children of the elderly owner who had not too long before died in the apartment in question.
Argentines traditionally (with good reason) don't trust banks. Following the 2001 collapse, they really didn't trust banks. Real estate closings, therefore, were all-cash transactions that took place in the offices of currency houses, like the one where Lief and I sat that sunny summer morning. Papers went back and forth among siblings and attorneys, attorneys and agents, attorneys and attorneys. Then the agent for the currency house appeared. She had the cash. Lief and I had wired down our funds a couple of days beforehand so that the required cash bundles could be prepared. It was a US$220,000 transaction.
The cash wasn't simply going from buyer (us) to seller. There were multiple sellers, each due a different percentage of the purchase amount. Into the room next, therefore, came the bill counter, the kind of machine drug dealers and casinos might employ. Sister A got US$22,000. Sister B got US$35,000. Big brother who had been living in the house with his mother until she died got more than US$100,000. The agent doing the counting passed him a plastic-wrapped brick of US$100 bills and some "change" in the form of smaller individual packages.
Each sibling had his or her own ideas about how best to transport his or her cash. Sister A stuffed much of it inside her bra. One brother had a money belt for his relatively small take. The other sister gave some to her husband, put some in her purse, and gave some to her son. The brother who got the brick of 100s had little option but to use a small duffle bag.
The real estate agents took their commissions, and the attorneys took their fees and the amount required to register the title, again, all in cash. After everyone had claimed what was due him, a small pile remained in the middle of the table, a few thousand dollars left over that belonged to the buyers (us). Lief walked out with around US$3,000 in cash in his jacket pocket. He told me later that he wondered if some local gang had figured out when real estate closings were being transacted at these currency houses so they could post someone at the entrances of the buildings and mug people as they walked out on to the street. (None of us was robbed.) The entire transaction took about an hour, with most of the time spent counting out bills.
Most closings aren't this dramatic, although it's not uncommon for campesinos in Central America (country folk in this part of the world) to request all cash at closing. One guy I purchased land from in Panama years ago supposedly transported his money back to his shack of a house in the middle of nowhere in a black garbage bag. He didn't have a bank account (and probably didn't trust banks anyway).
The particulars of closing on a real estate transaction vary by country, but more typical than all-cash is a cashier's check and a few signatures in front of a notary. You can avoid the entire process if you'd prefer, usually, by assigning your attorney a power of attorney, allowing him to sign the closing documents and manage the closing on your behalf. I'd suggest, though, being on hand in person at least for your first one or two closings and certainly if you buy in Argentina, just for the experience.
Editor's Note: Today's essay is excerpted from Kathleen's new book, "How To Buy Real Estate Overseas," to be published by Wiley & Sons in March 2013.
P.S. What else this week?
It was early February 1999 when my husband Mike and I stepped out of a tiny turbo-prop plane onto the tarmac in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, for the first time.
We'd joined a group of intrepid adventurers ready to explore opportunities in the then little-known country of Belize. We had no idea what momentous life changes would occur as a result of that fateful tour.
At that time we simply wanted to escape to our own little piece of heaven. For us, that meant a Caribbean island. We'd been day-dreaming forever about floating in the clear aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea. I couldn't wait to get back into scuba diving, and I knew that Belize's stunning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef would be an ideal choice for this. We did have it in our minds that, if we liked Belize as much as we thought we might based on our research, we might buy a place of our own in the country. An investment near the Caribbean Sea seemed like a no-brainer in 1999.
Mike and I toured the entire country during that first trip. At the end of the weeklong tour, our hearts led us back to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. We were so taken with the little island that we bought our first property at the end of that trip. Our intention was to vacation in Belize. We weren't even thinking about retirement. Not yet 50, I'd just stepped into a lucrative VP position for a Fortune 500 company. Life was good. We just wanted a place to escape for regular doses of Caribbean sun and sea...
Ours is now a brave new world of economic upheaval and uncertainty. Millions of Americans live in financial limbo. They've lost their jobs, homes, pensions, along with their hopes and dreams for a better life. It can seem to many Americans right now that the American Dream as we knew it has evaporated. It's gone. Replaced by a world of downsizing and lowered expectations.
If you're graduating and hoping to find employment in a career that will reward you financially and help you build a strong future, it's going to be tough going. If you've set your sights on the military, you should recognize that the Department of Defense has no money and is drastically cutting forces and personnel. If you're a retiree, you know the challenge of trying to find safe investments that will pay a decent enough rate of interest to support you. If you have a job and/or pension in America today, you may not tomorrow.
This is life today for a huge segment of the population in the United States.
Maybe it's time to stand up and say: Enough.
I did, five years ago. I said enough to the uncertainty and the worries of life in the United States and opted for a new life, in Belize. For me, this choice was all about new opportunities and new possibilities for growth and development and reclaiming the American Dream. Here's what my experience in Belize has shown me: The "American Dream" of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and affordable home ownership is alive and well in this beautiful little English-speaking country.
Your retirement income, whatever it is, can stretch much further in Belize. If you want or need to, you could easily work via the Internet or start your own business. Specifically, here are 10 reasons to consider relaunching your life in Belize...
With that, Mr. Rohan looked squarely at Lief and then at me, gauging our reactions. I glanced over at the monitor mounted on the wall to our right. The room where we'd been told to wait while John Rohan presided over the auction for our home in Waterford, Ireland, had no windows. The monitor on the wall was our only glimpse of the activity going on around us. It showed the auction room itself, where we'd watched, starting about an hour earlier, as Mr. Rohan had opened bidding for our Lahardan House before a crowd of about three-dozen. John had prepared us by explaining that most in the room would be bystanders, there just to see what the house might sell for. In the end, we had five serious bidders. Three pulled out quickly, leaving the gentleman from Cork and the gentleman from Dublin, who'd been going back and forth, first in the main auction room and then, eventually, from two separate, private rooms where John Rohan had escorted each in turn, for more than 30 minutes.
The year was 2004, and the Celtic Tiger was roaring. All Ireland was watching all the time to see by how much more property values had appreciated since the last time they'd checked. We'd purchased our Lahardan House, the property on the block that day, about six years earlier. John Rohan's projected selling price had us tripling our investment. Why were we hesitating to accept it?
Because overseas property investing isn't only about the money.
After more than 15 years of marriage and nearly three-dozen joint-property purchases in 21 countries, Lief and I have finally figured this out. Buying real estate overseas makes so much more sense when you do it as part of a bigger-picture plan...
Do your research, make your plans, then take the leap. Don't spend your best and healthiest years analyzing and planning. These are years of your life that you'll never recover...
PLUS: From resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon:
Trying to buy a piece of property in a market without an MLS.
Having invested now in real estate in 21 countries, you'd think I'd have gotten used to what that means, but I haven't.
Kathleen and I have been looking for a house to buy in Panama City for the past year or longer. Even here in Panama, where agents will work together and split commissions (not a likely prospect in many other destinations around the world), you have to engage more than one agent. We've been working with three. That's not only inefficient and complicated for us, but for the agents, too. In one house we viewed, we noticed the business card of one of the other agents we're working with on the kitchen counter. He'd been by to check the place out thinking it might be something of interest to us. The owners informed him, when he explained who he was working for, that we already had an appointment to see the house with another agent.
After finally deciding that no house exists in this city that we want to buy (the prices for the few we've found that we like are more than we want to spend), we've moved on to the apartment market.
Buying an apartment in Panama City can be even more complicated than buying a house. Without an MLS system, it's impossible to figure out what is actually for sale. Properties for sale are advertised online with classified listing services. These are all but impossible to decipher. Real estate agents list apartments with these services and then renew their listings forever (it seems) without adjusting the price. Sometimes each renewal appears as a separate listing, so it can seem there are a dozen apartments of the same description for sale in a particular building. But it's just the one apartment, relisted again and again to try to keep its listing position near the top. We've also seen the same apartments listed on these sites by several different agencies and also by the owner...all at different prices.
Call to inquire and the agency responds with, "Let me check and get back to you." Eight or nine times out of ten, when they call you back, it's to inform you that the apartment has been sold or that it was listed at the wrong price. Agents use these listings as feeder ads to bring in clients. They don't see it as a problem that the actual price for an advertised property is almost never what was advertised.
Sometimes the seller lists a property at an inflated price just to see if he gets any bites. In one building, we viewed two apartments for sale, identical units. The listing price for one was 33% more than the listing price for the other. When asked about his price, the owner of the higher priced apartment replied, "I'll sell if I get my price. Otherwise, I'm happy to stay put."
The way to manage a market like this is with a three-pronged approach. Work with more than one agent/agency, check online listings yourself both to source options and to familiarize yourself with the market, and drive around the neighborhood where you're interested in buying looking for "se vende" signs.
Working this way, you'll find most of the options that fit your parameters. You'll also invest an enormous amount of time, but you have no choice. Not every agency will have the same listings, not every property will be listed online, and not every property for sale will have a "se vende" sign out front. Employing all three strategies gives you the best chance of finding what you want at a price that makes sense. The key is narrowing your search to a manageable neighborhood or area.
Thinking this through, it means that you can't expect to fly into a market like this one (that is, a market without an MLS) for a long weekend and find the property of your dreams. You might not be able to see any properties if you haven't organized meetings with agents ahead of time. It can take them days to schedule showings, as most listings aren't exclusive and owners don't give keys to agents or use lockboxes as they do in the United States.
After more than a year of sometimes maddening effort, we've finally made an offer on an apartment.