I traveled this week to La Rochelle on an easy three-hour train ride that took me from Paris to the medieval port town north of Bordeaux. I’ve heard great things about it recently and I know someone who has moved to the seaside town, so I’m here to see if it warrants further coverage from us. A favorite holiday spot for the French, La Rochelle is said to have the third highest quality of life in France. The area is known for sunshine and seafood, and, indeed, it’s nearly 20 degrees warmer here than it was in Paris, and the sky is clear. As I was preparing for this scouting trip, I realized that the checklist that guides me on these trips might be helpful to others scouting out their possible future homes overseas…
Let’s assume you’ve narrowed down your options to a single country of interest, with just a couple of cities or regions within the country that you’re left hesitating between. That’s when you need to make the trip and get some personal experience.
Here is my advice…
1. Do lots of neighborhood research before you set out
You don’t want to waste time staying in any part of town that you know you won’t like.
Light sleeper? Avoid neighborhoods or streets with lots of restaurants, bars, clubs, and other late-night establishments. Retired? You might not want to live in a business-heavy district. Have no patience for tourist hordes? Make sure to dodge the most visited parts of town. Not a fan of kiddie noises? Look for local schools and plan around them. Have mobility issues? Don’t target the tops of hills…
Also be on the lookout for proximity to transit. If you’re in a city, where is the closest metro or bus line? If you’re more rurally located, how far is the nearest train station?
Research will only get you so far, of course. Once you’ve got your boots on the ground, try to see as much of the city, town, or region as you can to see for yourself what you are drawn to or repelled from.
If you can, stay in a few different areas. Test as many neighborhoods as you can squeeze in on the same visit. If you’re looking at a city, stay both in the city and just outside. The suburbs of any city are significantly cheaper than living within the limits, and can often be a great compromise to those who love city life but can’t afford it or simply don’t need to be in the thick of things.
2. Stay in a short-term rental
You can’t get an authentic feel for living in a place by staying in a hotel—it would be a waste of a trip. Home rental services (Vrbo, Airbnb, HomeAway, etc.) are ubiquitous these days, so you should be able to find a rental no matter where in the world you’re looking to move. You may need to research which service is the most used in the region you’re looking at, though, as Airbnb isn’t always the most prevalent.
Living in a short-term rental, you’ll be living in a local building with local neighbors. Whether it’s an apartment in a city or a farmhouse in the country, you’ll gain invaluable insight into living in the place. Construction quirks, how the plumbing works, grocery shopping, trash disposal, the types of appliances you can expect, figuring out the keys, intercom, elevator, etc…. all this is a major insight into what life will be like in the future, so take advantage.
3. Cook your own meals
As you’re in a home rental, you can hit the grocery store and plan at least a few of your own meals.
Observe how the locals shop—are grocery stores common? If they’re hard to find, locals probably opt for markets or specialty shops instead of supermarkets. Are markets open every day in permanent spots or do they move according to the day? If you’re living on the coast is there are seafood market or a spot on the beach for buying fresh catches?
Ask around for the best place to get X—at cafés, of your neighbors, and of anyone else you meet as you explore.
Shop as though you were at home. What can’t you find on the shelves? What is surprisingly costly? Peanut butter is a common culprit of this complaint… we’ve heard countless times over the years that a place is unlivable because either American-style peanut butter is unavailable or it costs more than US$10 a jar.
Not everything will be available or as affordable as it was back home—this goes both ways, though. Moving to France? Wine and cheese are going to be practically free compared to their imported prices back home.
4. Use your own feet to get around
As a resident, you probably won’t be taking taxis or Ubers everywhere you go and you need to get used to moving like a local. You don’t necessarily need to hoof it (though, in Europe, the best way to experience most places is on foot or by bike), but you do need to make your own way without relying on others.
Most European cities offer the best public transport systems in the world—metros, buses, funiculars, trains, trams, ferries, water taxis… all costing less than 2 euros per trip. Plus, Europe is incredibly well networked by rail, so you can get from city to city, even country to country, by train.
If you’re looking at living in a town or the countryside, you’ll likely need a car as a resident. Rent one and start getting familiar with the lay of the land.
5. Window shop as if you were settling in
Look for furniture, décor, sheets, electronics, clothing, pet food, appliances, tools, and whatever else you can think of that you’d need once you moved in. You’ll find all the various places you’ll need to shop, the style of options available locally, and even compare prices.
6. Jot down a budget
This is the best time you’ll have to gauge your future expenditures… Take note of how much you spend on groceries, gas or public transport, and whatever you scoped out in your window shopping.
You need to separate the tourist from the future resident, though. Don’t be scared to splurge on some fun, but recognize when it’s vacation-type purchase and don’t let that muddy the waters of your accounting.
I have a budget table that I fill in on every scouting trip—I ask everyone I can for their answer and average them all at the end:
|Transportation (bus, taxi, etc.)|
Create your own budget table for things that you know you spend money on.
7. See real estate
You’ll likely have digitally seen plenty of properties when you were looking for your short-term rental—that was great experience in itself. If you’re interested in buying, though, make an appointment with a couple (or a few) real estate agents. See what’s on the market, ask about foreigner financing, the buying process, etc.
Research which sites are most used locally for long-term rentals and put in your criteria to see what would suit you. You don’t need to go view them, but be aware of what’s included or not, how much deposit is required, how quickly things come and go, etc.
8. Find a banker, lawyer, tax guy, etc.
Visit a local bank to ask what would be needed to open an account. If you’re an American, this is an especially difficult step, as most banks around the world no longer want to work with Americans—you may have to stop in several banks before you find one willing to take on U.S. clients.
You’ll also need a local immigration attorney, and possibly a local tax expert. The only way to choose these service providers is by referral—ask other expats.
9. Have some fun
You chose this place because you love it—make sure to revel in that. Don’t get too bogged down in the daunting administration and the not-so-fun side of moving.
Just because you live in a place doesn’t mean you’ll never eat out or visit the local tourist sites, so get out there and enjoy all it has to offer. Was it the beaches, the golf, the mountains, or the museums that you initially fell in love with? Whatever it was, get into it.
10. Meet some locals and some expats
Find a few expat forums or groups before you head out and try to make some connections prior to your trip. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to take an expat out for a drink and ask them all about life in your potential new home. Find the local expat haunts and go to trivia or darts night.
If your new home speaks another language, it’ll be harder to meet locals, but don’t be afraid to try out your language skills. Go to church, a community center, library, the gym, or look into volunteering; these are all great ways that you might befriend locals.
Editor, In Focus: Europe