Step #3: Get On A Plane
No amount of Internet research (alas, not even careful reading of these dispatches) can substitute for spending time in a country that interests you. A place can make sense on paper but appeal not at all in person. Pay attention to your gut. Often, you’ll know within 24 hours of arriving in a new country if it’s a possible match…or not. It will feel right…or it won’t.
Step #4: Research Residency Options
They’re different for every country. A local attorney can detail them for you. The critical thing is to understand them before you get too far into your relocation plans.
Most user-friendly in this regard are Panama (which offers more than a dozen choices for how to become a legal resident of that country, including its famed pensionado program and its reforestation program, which gives you a hard-asset investment along with your visa) and Belize (where you can become a QRP resident if you’re older than 45 and can show a regular income of at least US$2,000 a month from outside the country).
Step #5: Meet With Every Local Real Estate Agent You Can Find
In addition to a local attorney, while you’re in each country on your Dream Havens list, meet with as many players in the local property game as you can.
No real estate market anywhere is as efficient as that in the United States. No other country offers a nationwide Multiple Listing Service. And in no other country do real estate agents cooperate the way they do in the States.
Here are a couple of ground rules to remember as you venture into foreign property markets:
— First because there’s no MLS, each agent can show you only what’s on his books. To get a more complete idea of what’s available in your price range in any given market, you’ve got to review the books of every agent in town. This is true not only in emerging markets south of the Rio Grande… but everywhere.
When we moved to Ireland 11 years ago, we didn’t know what to think when the first agent we visited in Waterford told us he had two houses among his listings that might suit us. Our search parameters weren’t overly restrictive. How could he have but two houses to fit them?
He had two…and each of the other six agents in town also had two or three on their books. Yes, some of these were the same houses but not because the listings were shared. It was because the owners in a few cases had listed their properties with more than one agency…sometimes at different prices!
— Second, outside the States, the real estate agent you’re speaking with doesn’t work for you…and he doesn’t really work for the seller either. He works for the commission, which he wants to be as big as possible. In some markets, this leads to what’s called “net pricing,” whereby the agent will promise the seller a fixed amount for his property. The agent then sells for whatever he can sell for…and pockets the difference. Maybe he walks away with a reasonable commission…or maybe he makes 20%, 30%, or more on the deal. You, as the buyer, never know.
Step #6: Rent, Don’t Buy
When you execute Step #5, you’re meeting with local agents to get the lay of the land…to find out what’s available at what price, etc. You’re not, though, preparing to buy. You’re not ready to make that commitment yet. First, you need to take your chosen haven for a test spin.
Once you’ve narrowed your list of Dream Havens to one…and you’re thinking you’ve found your ideal match…plan to spend six months at least living in the place (preferably through the least-agreeable season–the rainy season, the hurricane season, the tourist season). During that time, rent. Maybe your Dream Haven won’t turn out to be all you imagined it to be. Or maybe you’ll find that the country suits you fine…but the neighborhood where you settled for your trial living experience doesn’t.
If you haven’t invested in the purchase of a home, no problem.
In both Ireland more than a decade ago and then, five years ago, when we began spending time in Paris, we rented for nearly a year before buying…and we were glad we did.
In Ireland, we thought at first that we wanted to be in Waterford city center. We rented a small house on the river within walking distance of our daughter’s school. Ideal…on paper. In fact, we found quickly that Waterford city living wasn’t for us and began looking for a place in the country. When our lease in town ran out, we were ready to take up more permanent residence in the old Georgian farmhouse we’d found 20 minutes outside the city with fields of sheep and cows and low stone walls all around. Lahardan House, as the place was known, was our comfortable and cozy Irish country home for more than six years.
In Paris, we’d always thought we wanted to settle in the 5th arrondissement, right in the heart of the city. A few months in a rental apartment across from Notre Dame cured us of that mis-idea. We realized that, in fact, we wanted something a little quieter and more out of the way of the tourist throngs in season. We found and purchased an early 18th-century apartment on a narrow street in the 7th that few tourists ever find. We’re tucked away from the beaten path yet only one block back from the river and five minutes’ walk from the Louvre.
Step #7: Get Good Tax Advice
Don’t organize your life according to tax code…but don’t ignore it either. Once you’ve settled on two or three Dream Havens, research the tax implications, given your country of citizenship and other personal circumstances, before you make your final determination and certainly before you make a move.
If you’re an American, you need two tax advisors, one in the States (where you never lose your obligation to Uncle Sam) and one in the country where you’re considering establishing residency.
Again, do this work before you have an address in your chosen haven. Certain opportunities for mitigating your tax burden can be taken off the table once you make the move.
Step #8: Set Up a Virtual Office
When I began writing about the idea of living and retiring abroad nearly a quarter-centry ago, the would-be expat had his work cut out for him when it came to paying bills, receiving his mail, managing his investments, and staying in touch with the folks back home. Today, these things are ever-easier.
Here’s what you need:
- An e-mail address (Ah ha! You’ve already got this.)
- Online banking access (You probably already have this, too.)
- An online brokerage account to manage your investment portfolios (Again, I bet you’re covered.)
- VOIP (So you can phone home free via your laptop or PC.)
- A mail-forwarding service (We’ve used the UPS Store. If you’re moving to Latin America, choose a service out of Miami.)
- A U.S. address (This makes dealing with credit card companies and shopping online and through catalogs extraordinarily easier than it would be otherwise. You can arrange a U.S. address through your mail-forwarding service.)
- A driver’s license (If possible, renew your license just before leaving your home country. You’ll want it for renting cars and as a secondary form of ID abroad.)
- An international cell phone…or a cell phone that allows you to swap local SIM cards.
- A laptop (This isn’t absolutely necessary. You probably could get by using PCs in Internet cafés, etc. But the more self-sufficiently mobile you are, the better.)
Step #9: Figure Out What To Do With All Your Stuff
Perpetual traveler friends of ours have downsized completely. They travel the world continuously with but a few suitcases and a couple of laptops. They worry not at all about shipping furniture or storing heirlooms.
I admire their freedom, but I can’t bring myself to follow their lead. We shipped a container load of antiques and household goods from Baltimore, Maryland, to Waterford, Ireland, 11 years ago. We shipped another container load of more antiques from Waterford to Paris five summers ago. Then we shipped yet more old tables and chairs from Waterford to Panama City last July.
Meantime, we’re keeping our apartment in Paris as a kind of home base. Stored here in plastic tubs are family photo albums and our children’s christening outfits…Jack’s first grade report card and Kaitlin’s high school art portfolio… my grandmother’s recipe files and the bedspread my mother embroidered for Lief and me when we were married.
I can’t let these things go. So, as we move around the world, we have to factor in storage and shipping. Unless you’re ready to part with all your worldly possessions, you will, too.
Again, international shipping and storage are far more easily accomplished today than they were, even a decade ago when we shipped our first trans-Atlantic container.
Step #10: Shop Health Insurance Carriers
If you’re an American, Medicare won’t follow you outside the States (although your Social Security will). Local health insurance can be your best bet. That’s how we intend to arrange coverage in Panama.
Here are the two most important things you need to know about shopping for international health insurance.
Step #11: Show Up
Woody Allen once said that this is 80% of life.
Do your research, make your plans…then take the leap. Over the years, I’ve met people who’ve been thinking about living or retiring overseas for years. They can tell you how to get a visa, where to open a bank account, how much to budget for rent, and the per-square-meter price of buying a home in a dozen different countries.
Still, they’re deliberating…weighing the options…not quite sure the time is right…
To everyone who’s been long planning for a new life overseas…and, especially, to you, dear reader, I say now: Just do it.
Pack your bags and go for it.
What’s the worst thing that could happen? See Step #12…
Step #12: Prepare For Panic
What were you thinking? You must have taken leave of your senses. Paradise? This place is no paradise. This place is a nightmare.
Take my word for it. No matter how much due diligence you’ve done…no matter how ready you are for the move…at some point, probably during your first year abroad, you’ll wonder what in the world ever possessed you to think this leaving home thing was a good idea.
My best advice is to wait out the panic. It will pass.
In Ireland, we questioned the sense of what we’d done starting mid-February of our first year in the country. By April, when the sun finally came out, we realized Ireland really wasn’t so bad. Irish winters on the other hand… Every year thereafter we planned to spend January and February in sunnier climes.
In Paris, we wondered about our sanity from the start, during our first few months, the four of us crammed into the 55-square-meter one-bedroom apartment rental we stayed in while the apartment we’d purchased was being renovated. Kaitlin and Jack slept on cots in a tiny mezzanine. I stored clothes in the china hutch. Lief and I shared a single Internet connection at the single desk in the corner of the single bedroom…
Here in Panama City, we’re still adjusting…to the ever-present noise and mess of the never-ending construction, for example.
And, right now, we’re missing spring.
No place is going to check every one of your boxes.
That’s where Perpetual Retirement comes in. Move around with the seasons, for example…winter in the tropics…then springtime on the Continent…
“Kathleen, I just signed up for your newsletter and love it. It’s so insightful and offers tons of useful information. Thank you!
“I want to leave Canada for about six months. I’ve lived in Asia and Australia before and have traveled extensively throughout Europe. Now I’m looking for somewhere new to go.
“I’ve never been to South America so am considering going there. I’m a single woman and will be traveling solo and living on a modest budget.
“Here are my questions:
“Is South America safe and are there parts safer than others?
“Also, can you recommend a beach town/small city that is cheap and cheerful that would be a good place to rent a house or condo and use as a base? That way, I’d be able to take smaller trips around to other South American countries over time.”
— Tracy H., Canada
That sounds like a great plan, dear reader. I’d recommend you take a look at Uruguay. Another solo woman traveler, our Correspondent in that country, Sol Maria Tuya, tells you more here.
“Look so forward to your e-mails. Thanks very much.
“Do you have any information or facts about Ecuador?”
— Leon H., United States
We rate Ecuador as one of the world’s most affordable places to retire. Our Latin America Correspondent Christian MacDonald, who has lived in Cuenca, Ecuador, to prepare a detailed monthly budget for the cost of living in that colonial city. Read it here.
In addition, here’s more on both the cost and the quality of life in this country: