Spreadsheets And Romance—Finding Your Balance When Shopping For Real Estate Overseas
Resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon, also, coincidentally, my husband, and I have been shopping the globe for real estate together for more than 16 years now. As with everything in marriage, it took us a while to work out a system.
Lief buys by the numbers. He researches market comps (sometimes no easy thing, depending on the market). He figures what we should spend per square meter of construction or of land. He projects at what rate the market is appreciating and for how long this growth might reasonably be expected to continue. He has a clear investing objective for every purchase and an exit strategy in mind before he makes an offer.
I’m all for making money off our international real estate purchases, of course, but annual yield and long-term ROI aren’t typically the tipping points for me when it comes to choosing one piece of real estate over another.
When we arrived in Waterford, Ireland, some 16 years ago as newlyweds, we were eager to launch our new life on the Auld Sod, and I had a clear picture of what that life was to look like. I wanted a big, old, Georgian-style stone house with land around it for chickens, maybe a couple of horses, and a garden. I never articulated this vision to Lief, for I assumed he shared it. How little I understood my new husband.
Lief’s vision for our first joint property purchase overseas had more to do with diversifying outside the U.S. dollar and into the punt (this was Ireland pre-euro) and buying into one of the fastest-appreciating real estate markets on the planet at the time than it did with a love of classic Irish Georgian architecture. The house we eventually purchased, LaHardan House, met all my criteria and delighted Lief, because, thanks to the property’s sorry state of repair, the price was under-market. I got a renovation project; Lief got a great deal.
Seven years later, as we planned our move from Waterford to Paris, we wondered what to do with our Irish country home. Sell it? Or continue to hold and rent while we were away? Lief made the call. Time to get out of this frothy market, he determined. It’s nearing its top.
We sold LaHardan House for three-and-a-half times what we had invested in it. I’d made the purchase and carried out the improvements. Lief timed the sale. He sold just before the Irish property market began to settle. (It has since collapsed.)
Likewise, in Paris, I selected the 300-year-old apartment in the historic center of the city that I wanted to buy. Lief was happy to go along with the purchase, because, as with LaHardan House, the state of the property meant the price was nicely below market. Again, I carried out the renovations, the finishing, and the furnishing, and then, fast forward a few years, as we prepared for our move to Panama City, again, we faced the question of what to do with the place.
Hold, Lief determined in this case. An historic city-center apartment in this market will retain its value, and we’ll be able to rent it out for a reasonable yield while we’re elsewhere. The yield has materialized according to Lief’s projections, and the hard asset remains ours.
This has become the secret to the most successful global real estate buys we’ve made over the past 16 years. No, we haven’t employed this strategy for every purchase–sometimes Lief has bought purely for investment in places where I have no interest in spending time and at least once I’ve bought a family holiday home that never would have held up under Lief’s spreadsheet scrutiny. These purchases weren’t necessarily mistakes, but they’ve proven the least successful from an investment point of view.
Lief may have another take on why this is so, but here’s mine: Global real estate investing is both a science and an art. To enjoy the greatest level of success at it, you must analyze the market and run the numbers, yes, but you also must take a step back from the spreadsheets and view the purchase from a more personal perspective.
Is this a place where you’d enjoy spending time and is this a piece of property you’d be happy to own even if it were never worth a dollar (or a euro or a peso) more than you paid for it and even if it never yielded you a single percentage point of return?
More sobering, is this a place you’d be OK being stuck with? You should recognize with every foreign property purchase you make that there’s a chance not only that the value might never increase, but also that it might fall. What if the market turns and your house (or beachfront lot, etc.) becomes worth significantly less than you have invested in it? We’ve all been made painfully aware over the past several years that this isn’t a theoretical question. Real estate values sometimes fall. Sometimes they fall far and hard.
If you own a piece of property you don’t like in a market where you don’t want to spend time, what happens if it’s no longer valuable as an investment?
Then it’s no longer valuable, period.
If, on the other hand, you choose your markets and your properties not only because they’re places that hold out investment potential, but also because they’re places where you want to spend time, then, if the investment return doesn’t materialize as you were expecting it to, you’re still disappointed, yes, but all is not lost. You don’t mind holding on until the market cycle moves more in your favor.
I think of it as balancing the numbers with the romance. Lief and I stumbled into this global real estate investment strategy and, over the years, we have put it to the test again and again. We’ve made together now more than three-dozen real estate purchases around the world. Coincidentally or not, the ones we most appreciate—because we’ve spent time in them with our family or because (as in the case of the 150-year-old stone farmhouse on the side of a mountain in Istria, Croatia, that remains, despite all my best intentions to renovate it, a near-ruin) we dream of the day we and our children will be able to enjoy them—are also the ones that have proven the most profitable investments.
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