Here are 11 things I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks after four international moves across three continents with two kids, a dog, a turtle, a husband, and two businesses:
1. The first step to any move abroad is to set your priorities and to be honest in the process.
What matters to you most? Evenings at the theater? English-speaking friends? A low cost of living? A reliable internet connection?
Don’t kid yourself. If you can’t imagine life without a Maytag washer and dryer, for example, you may need to rethink the entire proposition.
2. Make all decisions jointly with whomever you will make the move.
Your spouse’s ideas about what he or she wants may shock you… and vice versa. Better to get them on the table sooner rather than later.
3. Recognize that no place is perfect.
No climate is ideal. No city is 100% crime-free. Manage your expectations.
4. Understand that no other country on Earth is as comfortable or as convenient as the United States of America.
In many places, shops, banks, dry cleaners, and government offices close for lunch and call it quits for the day by 5 p.m. You can’t run errands on your lunch break… or on Sundays.
In some countries, you must pay utility bills in person. In the developing world (not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but in emerging Europe, too), appointments and schedules are more suggestions than commitments. And only a handful of real estate markets outside the States operate with multiple listing services, meaning the search for your new home in paradise likely will be inefficient at best.
5. Don’t leave your good sense at the border.
That is, don’t mix alcohol and property buying. We call it “Margarita Madness.” It’s a syndrome that can set in shortly after your arrival in any sunny, sandy, tropical locale. The water’s turquoise, the sand is soft, and the palms are swaying. That guy you just met in the bar downtown (the one who shared a couple of rum punches with you), he’s now driving you along the beach road bordering his development, pointing out where his clubhouse will be, where the marina will go, where your new home could be positioned. Look at that view. Feel that breeze. Boy, it doesn’t get better than this. And, you know, we’ve got only two lots at this price remaining. A couple of buyers are expected in town tomorrow. I’d hate for you to miss out…
Would you buy a piece of real estate under those circumstances back home? A piece of property you’re seeing for the first time in a place where you’ve never been before? From a guy you met in a bar?
You need to do more due diligence when investing in a piece of property in another country, not less.
6. There’s no such thing as the world’s best place to retire overseas, no one-size-fits-all Shangri-la.
The only one who can determine the best place for you to retire is you. There are dozens of beautiful, affordable, friendly, safe, charming places where you could choose to spend time in “retirement.” It’s a question of what you’re looking for and of what’s most important to you (see #1 above).
7. With a few exceptions (U.S. military policies, for example), your U.S. health insurance won’t cover you once you leave U.S. soil.
Don’t worry, you have options. We cover the best of them here.
8. Rent first.
Don’t buy a new home in paradise until you’ve tried that paradise on for size for several months. Even if the country turns out to be your ideal retirement haven, maybe the city or the region or the neighborhood where you land at first isn’t where you ultimately want to be. Give yourself time to get the lay of the land before committing to a property purchase.
9. Be prepared for panic.
In 25 years speaking with people who’ve made the move to another country, I’ve yet to know one who didn’t experience a moment of, “Geez Louise, what in the world have I done?” Expect to question your sanity for having ever considered the idea of moving so far from home and hearth, if only briefly. Expect it, prepare for it, and understand that it will pass. Everything you made the move for is waiting for you. You just need to give your perspective a little time to adjust.
10. Get local tax advice in the country where you’re planning to reside before you take up residence.
When we moved to Ireland years ago, we met with Ernst & Young in Dublin during one of our pre-move visits. This turned out to be super-smart (though we didn’t realize it at the time).
In Ireland then (this is no longer true today, as the relevant tax legislation has been amended since), if you organized your financial affairs according to a certain strategy that the advisor at Ernst & Young detailed for us, you could reduce your annual Irish tax burden substantially. I won’t bore you with the details (especially as they’re no longer relevant). The point, though, is that the strategy had to be employed before we had an Ireland address. If we’d waited until we’d taken up residence in the Emerald Isle, our annual tax obligations would have been considerably greater.
11. Pay attention to your gut.
A place either feels right… or it doesn’t. All your research and figuring in advance is important, but nothing substitutes for the feeling you get when you hit the ground.