Drains, Door Frames, And Dry Rot–Shopping For Real Estate In The Developing World
When shopping for real estate overseas, here’s my #1 recommendation:
Remember the term “caveat emptor.”
Many of the safety nets that you can take for granted in North America either don’t exist at all beyond those shores or don’t operate the way you might expect.
The first overseas real estate purchase that Kathleen and I made was in Waterford, Ireland. We bought a house for us to live in. Despite the common language between the United States and the Emerald Isle (more or less), we found ourselves at a loss much of the time throughout the entire buying process.
We asked the real estate agent if he could recommend someone to do the home inspection. He didn’t know what we were talking about. He’d never heard the term “home inspection” before. Eventually, though, he got the idea. He couldn’t recommend an inspector of the kind we were describing, he told us, because no such thing existed in Ireland. Instead, he put us in touch with an engineer. Great, we thought…an engineer. He should know what he’s doing…how to inspect a house.
I don’t know what kind of engineering school this guy went to, but his report was ridiculous. He made no mention of a dozen obvious problems with the house (obvious, that is, after we’d moved in)–including such extensive damage from the damp that had been seeping into the structure for decades that you could poke deep holes in the wood moldings, door frames, and window shutters with a screwdriver.
This “engineer” did, however, take it upon himself to comment on the decoration. “I’d replace the faded curtains in the living room,” his report explained. And: “The paint in the kitchen needs to be touched up.”
The paint in the kitchen needs to be touched up? How about: The walls in the kitchen are disintegrating as a result of the rising damp!
Buy what you see, we remind you often. Hard to do sometimes when you’re not sure what you’re looking at. We’d never heard of rising damp before and had no idea how to recognize it.
Here, though, are some particular things you can look for (and that you should be able to identify):
- Check for things like hot and cold running water. Don’t let the fact that water comes out of the hot water spigot lure you into assuming that hot water is available from that tap. Look under the sink. Do you see two pipes coming out of the wall or just one with a splitter feeding water to the hot and cold tap…meaning only cold water flows out of both…
- Check the water pressure throughout the house. Run the water in the kitchen and the farthest away bathroom shower at the same time. Do you get any pressure in the shower? If not, can you live with the idea that no one can run water in the kitchen while someone is bathing?…
- While the water is running, make sure it’s draining fast enough. In many of the new buildings I’ve toured in Panama and elsewhere, the drains don’t drain. The main reason is that the workers clean their tools in the sinks once they are installed, and these guys don’t pay any attention to what they are putting down the drain…including, sometimes, wet cement being washed off their tools. Pipes get clogged…sometimes permanently…
Are the counters level? Does the terrace slope toward the drain…or the living room off which it stands?
I could go on, but you get the idea.
None of this should scare you off buying real estate overseas. It’s meant only to arm you with the fact that you have to take responsibility for what you’re buying. If you’re not a construction expert, take heart. In much of Central America, retired construction professionals have begun offering U.S.-type inspection services.
In Europe, when buying old or ancient, even with a proper inspection, you’ll never know what you’re really getting until you get it. But that can be part of the fun.
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