Andre's The Big Winner, But What About Joselyn And Thelma?
Jan. 27, 2013, Panama City, Panama: In Panama City, as in any market without a Multiple Listing Service, you must work with as many real estate agents as possible to have any idea what’s available for sale or rent.
Also This Week: Take Your Medicare With You Overseas? Maybe, If These Folks Have Anything To Say About It...Six Rules For The Offshore And Overseas Real Estate Beginner...The Road to Kashgar, China's Last Frontier...When Not To Travel...
Dear Overseas Opportunity Letter Reader,
For the past year, as I've reported on and off, Lief and I have been looking for a new place to live in Panama City. When we arrived here four-and-a-half years ago, we rented an apartment in a high-rise tower in Punta Paitilla. The apartment was comfortable, and the location was convenient, but we were not happy. High-rise living, as we'd always suspected and finally had a chance to confirm, did not suit us.
From Paitilla we moved to a renovated Spanish-colonial house in Casco Viejo. The house was great (historic and architecturally interesting) but too small for our family long term. Also, Casco Viejo, this country's World Heritage Site neighborhood with centuries of Spanish-, French-, and American-colonial history, while, no question, our favorite part of Panama City, is also an increasingly maddening place to try to commute to and from. The ever-expanding construction (renovation of old houses in Casco Viejo and never-ending erection of new high-rise towers in every other part of Panama's capital); infrastructure (further expansion of the Cinta Costera to include an extension around the Casco Viejo peninsula over the sea, plus re-running phone and electricity cables underground and building the new city metro); and beautification (relaying the old brick roads in Casco and landscaping along the Cinta Costera) projects this city is investing in mean that getting in or out of many spots within it, especially during rush hour, is an experience to test the patience of a saint, as they say. Casco Viejo is one of those spots.
Finally, we had to admit that we liked the idea of living in an old colonial house in Casco Viejo more than the reality. From Casco we moved to Marbella, in the center of the city. Much more convenient location. In addition, this is one of the few places in Panama City where you find houses. Most of this city is given over now to apartment towers.
Alas, the convenient location in the heart of the city has meant that, over the past two-and-a-half years that we've been living here, we've watched as our neighbors have decamped, one by one, and the houses they've left behind have been rented not to other families but to commercial enterprises. Our neighbors now include CompuLine and an architect's office. In addition, Monday through Friday, our street serves as a primary parking lot for employees of the half-dozen banks within walking distance. Every morning at 7:30 when we leave for the office, we have to maneuver carefully out of our driveway and between the solid rows of parked vehicles on both sides of the narrow street. If we return home before 6 p.m., we often find someone else's car in our driveway.
Where to next?
We've agreed we'll make just one more move. I'll schlep our stuff and ourselves from one point in this city to another once more, but that's it. So we've been taking our time, trying to make sure we get this right finally. The search has extended, now, as I said, for more than a year.
We talk often about the inefficiencies and other downsides of trying to find a house to rent or buy in a market without a multiple listing service (MLS). One is that, because no agent can know everything that's available at any time, you must work with as many agents as possible. This translates into a considerable investment of time, both yours and the agents'.
We've undertaken this most recent Panama City search in fits and starts. We travel often and are out of town for extended periods. However, when we've been in the city together, Lief and I have dedicated an hour or more a day to this effort, going out, sometimes, with five different agents in a single week. In the end, we've worked most closely with three agents, each of whom has invested even more time than we have trying to find us the ideal place to call home. Joselyn, Thelma, and Andre have chased down owners, made inquiries of doormen, and followed up on Se Vende signs, tips from friends, and local classified listings that have gotten our attention. They have tolerated our seriously schizophrenic approach, which has had us renting, then buying, now renting again, as we've tried to consider every possibility. Along the way, they have negotiated rents and lease terms, down payments and seller financing. With each agent, we have come very close to signing on the dotted line at least once.
Frankly, we've been nightmare clients. We've been certain of our plan and then reconsidered it completely. Through it all, Joselyn, Thelma, and Andre have been patient and gracious, helpful and accommodating.
Now, again, we believe we're at the end of this search. We've found a Spanish-colonial house that checks all our boxes. It's big enough for our family, plus private, and it's been recently renovated to include new bathrooms and a new kitchen, as well as a swimming pool and a nice back yard. It's also in a pleasant, well-kept residential neighborhood that is within walking distance of our office, meaning no daily commute! With the help of the agent (in this case, Andre), Lief has beaten up the owner on price, and, as of yesterday morning, when we did a final walk-through of the property, we're ready to move ahead.
We're very happy for Andre, who will make a nice commission from this deal. However, the situation is highlighting another downside of doing business in a property market without an MLS.
What about Joselyn and Thelma? Each has made a big investment over many months, and now, it seems, is going to walk away with nothing! They're both pros and understand, I realize, that this is the way it goes in a market like this one. None of us had any way of knowing how all this would play out. Now that we do, though, Lief and I can't help but feel bad for the two ladies who have been both pleasant and persistent in their efforts to find us what we were looking for, even when we didn't seem to know ourselves.
We're sending Joselyn and Thelma each a small gift, along with our heartfelt gratitude and best wishes.
But, jeez, that hardly seems a reasonable return for the efforts they've made. Especially as, I have to admit, I hope we never find ourselves in need of their services again.
P.S. What else this week?
As you likely already realize, if you're an American living, retiring, or traveling overseas, your Medicare doesn't travel with you. Currently the United States prohibits Medicare from paying for medical services for retirees outside the country and its territories. The nearly half-million retired Americans living overseas and the millions more who travel extensively abroad must either go without care until they return to the United States or pay out-of-pocket for the care they need. We see this as a fundamentally unfair situation for retired Americans who have paid into Medicare their entire working lives. This restriction on Medicare coverage is also unfair to American taxpayers because it ignores the potentially huge cost savings to Medicare offered by lower-cost healthcare options abroad.
The time has come to make Medicare portable and to give ordinary retired Americans the same benefits enjoyed by Americans working abroad for U.S. companies, active and retired military personnel, retired civil servants, and even members of Congress...
Recently, as we were trying to make our way back to Beijing from Kashgar, in the far west of China, we were reminded that even though we may not involve ourselves in the internal mechanisms of our guest country, we still are affected by them. In this case, we were traveling during "Golden Week," China's eagerly anticipated week-long national holiday, when nearly all of the 1.3 billion people residing here enjoy a full week's time off from work and school and take the opportunity to travel.
Well, not all of them. Official estimates reported that "only" 647 million drivers and passengers took to the roads. An additional 79 million passengers, including us, used the railways. We were actually fortunate that we were able to get train tickets at all. Tickets sold out 12 days in advance--the day that they became available...
Sometimes, just the name of a place can conjure up images of the strange, different, and exotic. Mandalay, Marrakech, Casablanca, Kathmandu...
When I first read about the Silk Road, I heard the name Kashgar, China. I liked how it rolled off my tongue. Kashgar. I imagined men in turbans sitting on plush pillows passing around the hookah, women in flowing gowns cooking pots of stew, the children tending to the camels resting amid the sand dunes, sounds of Middle-Eastern music bringing life to a desolate land...
My friend spent more than US$100,000...didn't understand the structures he ended up with...didn't want to ask more questions, because they led to more answers he didn't understand and more billable hours...and, then, a few years later, found he was in violation of some French tax code he'd never heard of. Certainly, he didn't mean to run afoul of the French tax authorities. And, even when presented with the facts, he didn't understand exactly what he'd done that he shouldn't have done.
In the end, he had no choice but to pay the resulting US$50,000 fine...and, then, to hope no further surprises awaited him down the line.
I joke now and then in these dispatches about how mind-numbingly complicated, as I like to say, this international tax and structure stuff can be.
It is. And it doesn't have to be.
At first, when you're starting out, making your first foreign real estate purchase or setting up your first offshore corporation, it's intimidating. You don't know what you don't know. You fear you'll end up like my friend, breaking some tax law you didn't know existed...
PLUS--From resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon:
My investment focus is real estate and other hard assets. When I've invested in stocks, I've mostly lost money. The problem for me with stocks is that you have to pay attention on a daily basis to each and every company in which you own shares. Hard assets make more sense to me for many reasons, including the fact that values aren't likely to change by 10%, 20%, or even 50% or more in a single day, as they can for stocks, simply because some piece of bad news related to the company in question is circulated.
On the other hand, real estate is not very liquid. Even in an active market, it can take months to find a buyer and complete a sale. Metals--precious and industrial--are more liquid and don't require the same capital commitment that real estate can. You can buy a fraction of an ounce of gold if you like. The premium on that piece of gold will be high, but the point is it's an option if you don't have enough cash to buy more.
On the other hand, gold and silver are typically seen as places to store your wealth rather than as investment vehicles. Prices of these metals reflect sentiment as much as anything else. Industrial metals, more specifically rare strategic metals, are an exception. These can be both a hedge against inflation and an investment in a hard asset that has the potential to increase in value as consumption surpasses demand.
Rare strategic metals are used in every modern product you can think of, from iPads to cell phones, from flat-screen TVs to jet planes. They are "rare" because they are difficult to mine and are generally by-products of other mining operations. Mining them is dirty work...not environmentally friendly. Most mines producing these metals in Western countries have shut down due to the cost of complying with environmental guidelines and restrictions.
As most of these metals aren't to be found on the commodities exchanges alongside gold and silver, prices are controlled by the supply/demand cycle rather than by investor speculation. A manufacturer who needs indium for his product is going to buy the amount of indium he needs no matter the price. The amount of indium needed for any single unit of production is so small that the effect on the final product price is insignificant.
The metals in question include but are not limited to:
The problem for the small investor is finding a way to invest in the metals directly, as, unlike gold and silver, you can't simply call up your broker and place an order.
A group out of Europe has addressed this challenge. SwissMetals, Inc. (SMI), working with sister companies involved in the industrial metal industry in Germany and Switzerland, has created packages of different rare strategic metals that you can purchase as an individual investor.
Unlike some physical gold programs that require a minimum investment of US$125,000 or US$250,000, the lowest-priced basket is currently priced at around US$6,500. The highest-priced basket is currently selling for around US$23,500. And SMI will arrange for storage of your metals until you're ready to sell (which is a good thing as these metals are sold in kilograms rather than the ounces that gold and silver trade in).
An investment in rare strategic metals doesn't replace the need for some gold and silver in your portfolio as a hedge against currency crises. However, I see this new asset class as an excellent inflation hedge as well as a play on the continued growth of the global economy. With stocks, you have to decide which company in which country will do well. An investment in rare strategic metals doesn't depend on which products or which countries are doing well. As long as the products that use the metals are being made and sold, your asset value has the likelihood of increasing. That's the kind of "sit back and watch" investment that makes sense to me.
You can inquire for more details on the four different baskets of rare strategic metals currently available from SMI here.
Mention you are a reader of the Overseas Opportunity Letter when you inquire about the rare strategic metal baskets at SMI, and they will give you four years of free storage on the "D" basket and three years of free storage on the other three baskets.
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