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#1: Coronado, Panama

Where to Retire Overseas

Monthly budget: $1,800
Monthly rent: $600

Panama caters for foreign retirees like no other country in the world right now. Day-to-day living here is affordable, the approach to taxation is favorable (depending on your circumstances, it's possible to live and run a business here tax-free as a foreign resident), property prices remain reasonable, even a bargain outside the capital city, and the country boasts perhaps the world's most generous incentive program for retirees. It uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, meaning no exchange-rate risk for retirees whose retirement income is also denominated in greenbacks.

Further, Panama is an international banking center and the best place in the world to start and run an international business. As the gateway to the Americas, Panama's geographic position makes it an important hub for both commerce and travel. This is part of the reason why, while other Latin American countries depend heavily on the U.S. economy, this is not the case with Panama. The country stands on its own legs, has a solid economy, and thrives as a major center for foreign business and investment, attracting investors from the region (especially Venezuela and Colombia) and around the world.

Panama City is unique in Central America, the only legitimate city in the region, being remade in real time right now thanks to myriad public works projects, including the expansion of the Panama Canal. Panama also offers some of the most advanced medical care facilities in the region, with many Panamanian doctors U.S.-trained. The more remote your location, the farther you'll be from the best facilities, but Panama City's hospitals are first-rate.

My top recommendation for where to retire overseas in Panama in 2013 is Coronado, a beach community on the country's Pacific coast about an hour outside the capital. Life here could be comfortable, convenient, and turn-key, as this area is home to one of this country's most established communities of foreign retirees.

#2: Languedoc, France

Where to Retire Overseas

Monthly budget: $2,000
Monthly rent: $800

Whenever readers ask for my recommendation for the best place in the world to retire, budget considerations notwithstanding, I recommend France. It's the world's best example, I believe, of getting what you pay for. There are reasons France sees more tourists than any other country in the world, almost 80 million of them annually. To accommodate all those tourists, the infrastructure of this country, from the airports to the train system, from the restaurants to the hotels, has to be top notch and it is.

France is not only perhaps the best place in the world to live, thanks to its food, wine, architecture, history, museums, parks, gardens, and cultural and recreational offerings, but it's also, thanks to its reliable tourist trade, one of the best places to think about parking some capital. A rental property in France, especially in Paris but elsewhere in the country, too, is about as recession-proof a real estate investment as you're going to find.

Specifically, for retirement in 2013, I'd recommend the "other" South of France. Not Provence (which, yes, is pricey), but west of there, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, between Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur to the east, the Midi-Pyrenees to the west, and the Auvergne to the north. Spain is a few hours' drive to the south. Not everyone is cut out for life in the Tropics or the developing world. If you prefer Old World living, this is perhaps your best option right now. This region is colorful, eclectic, always changing, never following a formula, and very open to retirees. This is wine country, with a long history and a lot of heart.

#3: Ambergris Caye, Belize

Where to Retire Overseas

Monthly budget: $2,000
Monthly rent: $800

Warm and welcoming, independent and private. Those four perhaps seemingly contradictory adjectives best describe both Belizeans and their country. Belize is also one of the safest countries in the world, despite what you may read about it. In some neighborhoods of Belize City, gang members and drug dealers do the things that gang members and drug dealers do, but those are small, contained areas. In most of the rest of the country outside Belize City, crime is nearly non-existent. Belize was a colony of Britain until 1981, meaning the people here speak English. They also value their freedom, as it's relatively new.

In the nearly 30 years that I've been spending time in this country, I've joked that "the good news from Belize is no news from Belize." This is a sleepy Caribbean nation with but 330,000 people and three highways. On the other hand, little Belize offers a whole lot of what many retirees are looking for -- a chance to start over on sandy, sunny shores. Prices for a bit of sand on Ambergris, the most developed of Belize's islands, are not cheap but cheaper than elsewhere in the Caribbean, and it is this island, home to the country's biggest expat community, with the services to cater to it, that I would recommend to any retiree dreaming of retirement on the Caribbean Sea this New Year.

Legal residency is easy to obtain in Belize, and foreign residents pay no tax in Belize on non-Belize income. I would not recommend Belize if you have a serious health concern or existing medical condition. Health care facilities and standards are improving but limited.

#4: Cuenca, Ecuador

Where to Retire Overseas

Monthly budget: $1,300
Monthly rent: $500

Lots of overseas retirement destinations tout the fact that they're just like the United States, that, retired there, you could settle into familiar surroundings. You won't hear that about Ecuador. Each day you spend in this country, you know you're in a different and wonderful part of the planet.

Ecuador is also one the world's best place to retire overseas on a budget and to live better for less. The cost of living is low, and the cost of real estate is near rock bottom for Latin America. The health care is high quality, honest and inexpensive.

Specifically, I would recommend Cuenca, Ecuador, a beautiful colonial city with a fresh, spring-like climate 12 months of the year and a large and growing expat community that is one of Latin America's most diverse and well-blended. Ecuador has other colonial cities, but Cuenca is the cultural heart of the country, with an orchestra and active art, theater, even tango traditions that you can often enjoy free.

Perhaps the biggest draw to Cuenca is its cost of living, which is low in an absolute sense. The falling dollar has caused prices to go up sharply for overseas Americans in many countries where goods are priced in the local currency. This won't happen in Ecuador as long as the country continues to use the U.S. dollar as its currency. Real estate, too, is an absolute bargain. You can buy a small condo for less than $40,000.

#5: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Where to Retire Overseas

Monthly budget: $1,100
Monthly rent: $400

Thailand is arguably the cheapest place on earth to live well. Expat friends in this part of the world have long tempted me with tales of $1 Pad Thai lunches and $11-a-night hotels (including breakfast and free WiFi).

My top recommendation for retirees considering Thailand in 2013 is Chiang Mai, about 435 miles north of Bangkok, in a fertile river valley surrounded by mountains. Chiang Mai, home to more than 17,000 foreign residents, enjoys a more temperate climate than other parts of Thailand and is an area rich in history with a culture distinctly different from that in central and southern Thailand.

Big pluses for Thailand include health care, which is both very good and very cheap international living options. Downsides include the distance from North America.

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. The world's top retirement havens for 2013 numbers 6 through 10? I'll share glimpses of those best choices later in the week.

Meantime, today, we make our way from New York to Chicago, for leg three of our holiday travels Stateside this year. I’ll be in touch again tomorrow from the Windy City...

P.S. What else this week?

  • Our four Christmases in Paris were all about the lights. Each year, starting in November, Boulevard St. Germain, just a few blocks from our apartment in this city, is strung with tiny white lights. The trees, the building facades, they're covered with them. Each morning and again each evening as I'd walk Jackson, aged 4 through 8 at the time, to and from school, we'd linger at the intersection of rue du Bac and Boulevard St. Germain as long as possible, looking up and down, up and down, slowly, working to fix that magical view in our memories. "It's a fairy land," 4-year-old Jack declared it one morning. I see it still...

 

  • Ann Kuffner writes:

 

For those of us who grew up in snow country, it seems odd to be walking around in T-shirts and flip flops on Christmas Day. But, having lived here on Ambergris Caye for seven years now, I've come to appreciate that Belize offers a unique collection of blended Christmas traditions. More than 70% of Belizeans are Christian, so the majority of residents celebrate the birth of Christ. However, the country is also home to more than 10 different ethnic groups. The result is the most multicultural holiday celebrations I can imagine...

  • Lee Harrison writes:

 

The bang drew my attention; followed by a rattling engine noise that sounded like a 1960s-era lawnmower within five minutes of its mechanical death. Turning around, the vehicle making its way down the street was indeed a relic, but not a lawnmower. It was a reddish-brown 1971 Ford Pinto, headed straight for the park I was walking in.

The Pinto pulled up to the curb and stopped, its engine rattling to a halt. A man and a woman in their late-50s both squeezed out through the passenger-side door and opened the trunk to reveal a bushel or so of carrots and a few dozen large oranges. The lady removed the carrots and oranges from the trunk, while her husband lifted a large car battery onto the ground, which he proceeded to rig up to a pair of vegetable juicers mounted on a wooden stand.

Two minutes later, I was drinking a large, frothy glass of garden-fresh carrot juice...a great way to start the day.

And in this large, leafy park, the couple in the Pinto is not alone. An entire flotilla of fresh fruit and juice vendors has assembled on the south end, where a crowd of local residents has gathered to sample the day's offerings.

The temperature has just reached a comfortable 70 degrees at 7:30 a.m., and it's another typical sunny morning in Bucaramanga (pronounced boo-cah-rah-MAHN-ga), Colombia...

  • Expat Mike Sager is a former stockbroker and financial consultant who followed a dream...to launch a new life overseas. Today, Mike makes his home on the Ecuadorian coast, where he lives an enviable life on an enviable eight-mile stretch of Pacific beach.

 

Here's how Mike describes it:

"I get up in the morning, make a big mug of coffee, and head out to my deck overlooking Pacific Ocean. I call it my 'office.' I answer a few e-mails and then plan the day. Do I go boogie boarding...or for a ride on my motorcycle? Maybe I should call one of my fellow musicians to jam...or just sit there awhile, taking in the view and the sound of the waves below and breathing in that fresh ocean air...

"Almost all of us have a dream about how life could be...how retirement could be. But far too often, our ideas collect dust until one day, far off in the future, we ask ourselves, 'What if I had done it?'

"'What if I had pursued that dream I had long ago?'

"I promised myself that I was not going to let that happen to me...

PLUS—From resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon:

Last year, I bought an apartment in downtown Medellin, Colombia. The price was great (less than US$700 per meter), and, despite having spent much more than I intended on the renovation (friend Lee Harrison refers to this as the "Spousal Factor"), I could resell the unit today (18 months after the purchase) for a profit of at least 50%. And I could likely find a buyer quickly, as this is an active market. I bought the apartment partly as a rental and partly for personal use. One Medellin rental manager who has inspected the property now that it's been renovated and furnished projects rent and occupancy rates that would translate to a net yield of 11% or 12% per year based on the purchase price (and including the monthly HOA fee).

Not a bad return, especially as it doesn't include any potential appreciation. Of course, not everyone has the time or the inclination to manage a renovation or a rental property in another country, and not everyone wants to put as much money into Colombia as it takes to buy and furnish an entire apartment.

That's why I was excited when one of my real estate contacts in Medellin, Rich Holman, told me about a project he's put together. It amounts to a very reasonably priced first step into this market that comes with the added bonus of a Colombia residency visa.

One way to establish residency in Colombia is to invest 100 times the monthly minimum wage in a private company. At today's minimum wage and exchange rate that works out to about US$35,000. Of course, finding a private company looking for investors at that level isn't easy, so the reality is that gaining residency in Colombia this way isn't normally a realistic idea unless you're ready to invest a much greater amount.

Rich and his partner Joe Greco, however, have put together an offer using a building that one of their real estate investors bought and renovated in Medellin. The three-unit building is in the Zona Rosa in this city's tourist epicenter. Fully furnished, the units are being prepared for short-term rental.

The idea is simple. Investors can buy a share of the company that owns the building for, not coincidentally, US$35,000, thereby qualifying you for a residency visa in Colombia. The units then will be rented out, and owners will receive their shares of the net rental income after rental and property management fees have been covered.

Projected net yields are 4% to 6% after Colombian taxes (my projected net yields above for my rental scenario are before Colombian taxes, which can be as high as 33%). That's a decent yield especially when you consider that the main benefit of the investment is residency in Colombia. This is also an opportunity to get your feet wet as an investor in Colombia with a modest amount of capital.

If you were to buy an apartment in Medellin and furnish it, the minimum total amount of capital required would be around US$100,000. (One reader found a great apartment last year for US$75,000 and furnished it for another US$10,000, but that was last year.)

As an investor in the project, you enjoy a discount if you'd like to stay in one of the units. Further, the cost of your residency application is included in the investment amount, meaning this is a fully turn-key opportunity.

I think the yields Rich and Joe are projecting are probably conservative. These guys put together a similar project last year (for investment only; there was no residency component). The rental returns for that effort are beating their projections. As they own a real estate company with a rental management arm, they have a steady flow of rental inquiries from tourists, businessmen, and investors. They also have experience managing rental properties in this city.

Along with the yields, investors should see some capital appreciation of the underlying asset. While Medellin real estate prices have increased over the last few years by as much as 10% a year, prices are still very reasonable on a global scale. In addition, the local economy is growing nicely. Therefore, I expect property values to continue up.

The bottom line is that you won't find many real estate investments in this price range, and you won't find an easier residency option for Colombia. And you can reserve a unit with a fully refundable deposit of but US$500. For more details, on real estate in Medellin, Colombia, get in touch here.

  • What’s Your Pleasure? Read more about how Asia, Europe, and the Americas all offer very appealing but very different top option when it comes to deciding where to retire overseas.

    Image credit: Myukie, Keg1036, Asteiner, Francesco Bailo & Lester Mathias Andersson

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    I arrived in Coronado on a quiet Friday afternoon. Residents of the area were out at lunch, busy shopping in the new El Machetazo (the closest thing to a Walmart here in Panama), or lounging by the beach. The sun was shining, not yet allowing the dark, rainy season clouds to push their way into town. Four vendors had set up shop at the entrance to the community, selling everything from bunches of assorted flowers to plantains, tomatoes, pineapples, and garlic. Trucks were loaded with fruits and vegetables.

    I'd hoped for a weekend like this, calm and quiet. Holiday weekends can see loads of families from Panama City flocking to their vacation homes on the beach, crowding the grocery store parking lots and filling up the restaurants. For many years, that was Coronado's main purpose, to serve as the vacation getaway and weekend home for those who could afford a retreat outside the capital. Over the past few years, though, as Panama City has grown busier, dirtier, noisier, and generally harder for many retirees to take day-to-day, Coronado has transformed into a full-time retirement community.

    I've driven past Coronado many times this past year on research trips for past Panama Letter destinations, so I knew that the town had grown by leaps and bounds, but I had no idea by how much. On the Pan-American Highway at the turnoff to Coronado, three new shopping centers have sprung up, along with a number of restaurants. This area today has everything the retiree could want or need, from a medical clinic to a brand-new gym, from three major supermarkets to a dry cleaner, from a Mailboxes Etc. to a golf course, even an equestrian school and three international schools. And, remember, you're only an hour from Panama City, with its Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital, 18-screen movie theaters, nightlife, shopping, and casinos.

    The entrance to the central neighborhood that is Coronado is guarded, which provides security to all those living on the other side of the gate. Plus, right next to the guard shack is the Coronado police station.

    Residences in Coronado range from small, cozy single-family homes to million-dollar mansions and high-rise condos. While I was in the area, I heard a couple of people say that Coronado is like the Miami of Panama. I'd argue that the Cinta Costera and Avenida Balboa areas along the water in Panama City are more like Miami. I grew up in South Florida, and I'd say that Coronado is more like the Las Olas, Fort Lauderdale, of Panama.

    Some of the homes on the beach are magnificent. Some are old-fashioned and have probably been around for many years, while some others are modern, fancy, even slightly futuristic-looking. Something for everyone, including smaller homes in the US$250,000 range. If you're willing to look on the outskirts of town, even right across the street in the hillside town of Las Lajas, homes can be found for less. I met a couple living in the beautiful hillside community of Altos del Maria, which is probably about a 20-minute drive from Coronado. They were in Coronado, spending their day enjoying all that the beach town has to offer. Karys, our bed-and-breakfast owner, is selling a three-bedroom house she owns in Chame, probably 15 minutes from Coronado, for US$165,000.

    You could rent here for maybe US$750 per month. In Las Lajas, that hillside community right across the street from Coronado I mentioned already, I found a two-bedroom house for US$900 per month. In nearby Chame there's a four-bedroom home that will set you back only US$650 per month.

    Something that I've always appreciated about Panama and that I noticed is common in Coronado is growing many of your own fruits and vegetables. Mango and papaya trees are everywhere, as are plantain and banana trees. Many people grow their own spices, fruits, and vegetables, in their back yard gardens. The owner of our bed and breakfast, Morgan's Paradise, grows many of the spices and vegetables she cooks with. At the home she's selling in Chame, she has yucca, ginger, papaya, mangoes, aloe, and many other valuable plants and vegetables growing on the property. It's a way of life here.

    Chris Powers

    Editor's Note: Chris' complete guide to expat life and retirement in Coronado is featured in this month's issue of the Panama Letter, in subscribers' mailboxes now. If you're not yet a Panama Letter subscriber, get on board here now.Continue Reading:

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    Kathleen Peddicord

    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.

    Read more here.

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