You want to be sober when considering property purchase options in a foreign land. Certainly, you want your wits about you when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.
The trouble is, in the lands of mañanas and fiestas, the rum flows and so do the promises. The key to success navigating overseas, especially in developing world real estate markets, is avoiding the liquor and turning a deaf ear to the assurances.
Here’s how this will go. You’ll arrive in the country where you’re dreaming of launching your new life. In the terminal of the airport, the lobby of your hotel, and the restaurant down the street where you go for lunch, you’ll be approached by friendly fellows with houses and beachfront lots to sell.
Every taxi driver, every bar owner, every shopkeeper will have a piece of property for sale or a brother or a cousin in the real estate business. You won’t have to seek out agents or developers to help you find your new home. They’ll find you.
Once, years ago, in Granada, Nicaragua, I was early for a lunch meeting with a friend and decided to sit on a stool at the bar of the restaurant while I waited for my friend to arrive. Two minutes later, a fellow gringo sat down beside me.
“Hello,” he offered. “Have you just gotten into town?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, if you’d like a tour of the city, I’d be happy to oblige. Are you having lunch? I’d love to keep you company. I could tell you about Granada. This is a beautiful town with a long and colorful history. I’ve been living here for five years. I know the place well. Are you thinking of moving here?”
“No,” I replied.
“It’s a great place to live. And real estate is a great bargain. This is the time to buy. Do you like old buildings? The old colonial haciendas of this city are a treasure. I know of two available right now for very good prices. These are the best buys in the city. Both are owned by friends. I could take you to see them after lunch if you’d like?”
“I’m meeting a friend. I don’t think I have time for a real estate tour today,” I explained.
“Well, then, maybe tomorrow. As I said, I’ve been in this city for five years. I know it better than anyone else you’re going to find. In fact, I’m the local representative for Live and Invest Overseas. I’ve been working with the publisher for that organization, Kathleen Peddicord, for years. Maybe you’ve heard of her? Kathleen has been writing about investing and retiring in Nicaragua for a long while.”
I’d never seen this man before, and, clearly, he’d not met me until this chance bar encounter. I didn’t make an issue of these facts but let the fellow finish his pitch. Finally, my friend arrived, and I was able to break away.
I never ran into this particular gringo Granada property expert again, but the story of my brief exchange with him has stayed with me, because it’s a good example of the absurd lengths these guys will go to hook a buyer.
As I said, in these kinds of markets, the challenge isn’t finding a real estate agent to show you around. They pick you out by the color of your skin, your dress, and your gait and posture as you walk down the street.
The challenge isn’t finding one to take you shopping; it’s finding one you feel comfortable doing business with. The best strategy is to speak with as many as possible and to take nothing any of them tells you at face value.
Likewise for property developers in these kinds of emerging Wild West markets. A good rule of thumb when touring with a developing market developer is to buy what you see. He’ll drive you out to his beach. There, at the shore, he’ll have erected a small clubhouse. Come in, have lunch, enjoy a drink, he’ll say. The fish is fresh. My guys caught it just offshore from our beach this morning. And the rum is local.
After you’ve eaten your fill, the developer will take you out in his 4X4 or maybe on horseback to explore the beach and the surrounding countryside. As the sun is beginning to slip behind the horizon, and the ocean’s surface is glittering and dazzling, the sky behind it turning fire red and orange, the developer will begin pointing.
Over there, he’ll say, is where the new clubhouse will be constructed. What you see today is only temporary. Down there will be the dock and, over there, the marina. On the hills all around us will be the houses. Just look ahead. Look at that sunset. This could be the view from your front porch. You could have a front-row seat for this show every evening.
Come on, he’ll continue. Let’s head back to the clubhouse. It’s time for some Sundown Rum Punch.
You’re smitten. Who wouldn’t be? Nothing wrong with appreciating what’s being put on the table in front of you. The coasts of Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, and the Dominican Republic, for example, are special and extraordinarily beautiful. Seeing them for the first time can make you weak in the knees.
The feeling can be something like falling in love. Don’t resist it. Give in and savor the experience. But don’t so lose your balance that you marry the first beach that charms its way into your heart. Ask yourself, is this the beach you want to grow old with?
Enjoy the developer’s hospitality, his fresh fish, even his rum cocktails. Let him make his pitch. Then take your leave. Go find out what the guy at the next beach has to offer. And the beach after that.
Then go home, sober up, and consider your options from a distance.
I enjoy a local rum cocktail at sunset as much as the next girl, but I’ve learned to wait until the effects wear off before I begin talking business.
This article was first published in 2018 and has been recently updated.