¨Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.¨
Costs of Expat Retirement Communities Worldwide
One of the hardest things to tell someone is what it costs to live in another country. I have wracked my brains trying to develop an effective way to explain the cost of living in another country and determined that the best way to look at it is to compare the prices based on a percentage of the costs in the US. While I generally like this comparison method, you need to understand that these costs vary greatly. Here are a few reasons why:
The costs depend a lot on what you are doing while abroad
Nowhere illustrates this point better than Saint Petersburg, Russia. In 1994, Runzheimer International (a cost of living survey company out of Wisconsin which determines the “per-diem” rates given to employees by companies and government agencies for business travel, www.runzheimer.com) considered Saint Petersburg the eighth most expensive city in the world. They recommend providing employees on business trips with a daily allowance (per diem) of $445.
Runzheimer had a point. At that time, very few hotels or apartments provided a level of comfort similar to that found in the US or Western Europe, and these places commanded a high cost. A night in the Grand Hotel costs $375, and a monthly rental of a fully appointed apartment on Nevsky Prospect (the City’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue) cost upwards of $2,000 a month. Using radio taxis, especially foreigners, was more expensive and dangerous than flagging a New York cab. (Taxicab drivers at the time were infamous for charging tourists $200 to go from the airport to the center city if they did not first drive off with their luggage.)
The $445 per diem that Runzheimer recommended was, in contrast, sufficient to keep me when I was a student there for more than two weeks. I rented a spacious and comfortable room in an apartment owned by a Russian woman in a tired neighborhood about 40 minutes by subway and bus from the center called Kupchino. She cooked my meals (primarily simple chicken dishes) and did my laundry for $8 a day. About once or twice a week, I ate in a fancy restaurant. I studied Russian for 25 hours a week in a class with two other students. I also traveled around the city on a combination of the efficient, inexpensive (15 cents) and extensive metro system; overcrowded and uncomfortable but frequent buses and trams; and occasionally hitchhiked a ride in a car owned by a local. (Many Russian drivers at that time would accept hikers in exchange for a fee, usually less than 20% of the cost of a cab in the Big Apple.)
The cost of real estate varies dramatically depending on where you want to live abroad.
When I say that real estate in x country costs x% of the costs in the US, I am trying to compare houses within similar communities and standard construction techniques in both countries. The comparisons are entirely subjective since it is hard to define what constitutes a similar community and comparable construction quality.
Construction and communities vary dramatically. Like in the US (where a house in rural Michigan can cost 10% of a comparable home in Santa Barbara, California), all countries—even small ones like Ireland—have tremendous variations in real estate and other costs. While living in a central city in Western Europe, for example, costs more than San Francisco or New York, there are many relatively undeveloped regions (yet delightful areas) like County Sligo in Ireland or Puglia in Italy that are only slightly more expensive (though perhaps a bit more expensive) than a nice suburban community in the Southeast or the Midwest of the US.
While real estate costs within a country vary tremendously, the price of most other things – food, transport, etc.- do not change as much within a given country as real estate. That said, some goods and services can be costly abroad (even when living in a given country overall is inexpensive).
Generally, because of globalization, you’ll be able to find that many of the familiar brands and services you use in your daily life in the US will be widely available abroad if you are willing to pay as much or more than you would in the US. You will also find that locally produced food staples like fruits, vegetables, etc. (for example, fruits in Latin America) may be considerably cheaper than at home (10-35% of the cost of the US in Latin America, for example). Other staples, like meat, tend to be as or more expensive in many parts of the world than at home.
Coming up with an estimate of the cost of living abroad overall is also highly subjective. The ultimate cost will depend on what you buy. While, for example, the cost of living at Lake Chapala in Mexico is 65-80% of the US, these guidelines are totally off base for some residents. If a resident hires many labor-intensive services—for example, maid or handyman (or woman) service—they will think that Lake Chapala is a bargain since these services run 10% to 15% of the costs of the same services in the US. Mainly eating meals in a gringo friendly restaurant, Lake Chapala, will seem reasonable, but not cheap, since these meals cost about 10-20% below similar experiences in the States. On the other end of the scale, if someone needs electronic goods, imported wines, and gourmet foods, they’ll find Lake Chapala expensive since most of these products cost 10-40% more than in the US.
Costs are also a matter of how you view the community you want to live in another country compared to the US.
Let’s go back to the Lake Chapala example again. A house in Lake Chapala is roughly equivalent to a typical home in the U.S.A (around $200,000). If that is true, how does the cost of living in Lake Chapala compare with an average community in the US? The answer is it depends on what you use as a point of comparison.
Suppose you view Lake Chapala as a community with one of the best climates in the world, located within half an hour of a major, world-class city (Guadalajara) with architecturally significant homes, many of which have sweeping panoramic views of the lake. In that case, you may decide that it is “equivalent” to a place like Santa Barbara, California, where homes have a median cost of $1,000,000. If this is the case, the real estate in Lake Chapala is 20% of the price of an equivalent place in the US.
If, on the other hand, all you see in Lake Chapala is the area’s lack of unified planning (houses and businesses are often just mixed willy-nilly on the streets), poor or nonexistent sidewalks, quirky architecture, and Mexican-styled chaos, you may think that it is less appealing than a typical community in the US and thus costs more than buying a typical home in the States.
What is the Cost of Living in Various Countries Around the World?
Even with all these caveats, most of the world is cheaper to live in than the US if you don’t expect an identical lifestyle to that you enjoyed at home. The following chart describes the cost of overall living in comparison to the US, as close as I can figure, in several of the more popular countries for US expats
- Expensive Western European countries [France, UK, Germany, the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.), Switzerland, Scandinavia, Italy], other English-speaking countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England) 80-110% of the U.S.A
- Less Expensive Western European countries (Portugal), and most of the Caribbean:
70-100% of the U.S.A
- Eastern Europe and Belize: 50-80% of the U.S.A
- Expensive Latin American nations (Mexico, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina): 40-75% of the U.S.A
- Inextensible Latín American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador): 25-50% of the U.S.A
- Most of Southeast Asia (particularly Thailand): 20-40% of the U.S.A
Note: Over the next several years, I plan to visit every country on this list to develop this section more. I am also planning to create posts on living/traveling in Costa Rica/Panama and Italy. At this point, this section is under construction. Some countries are well covered, others less so. I think, however, that many of the precepts of living abroad discussed in the other chapters of the book (i.e., culture shock and logistics) will provide you with a good framework for creating and enjoying your new life abroad.
Pros and Cons of Different Expat Retiree Countries Around the World
The world is big, and there may be many places that could fit you like a glove. Unfortunately, I can’t cover everywhere in the world, so I’ve decided to focus my commentaries on countries that meet at least one or more of the following criteria:
- The cost of living and setting up a household is lower than in the US. The cost of living is a major motivation for people to choose to live (as opposed to being assigned to work) in another country. Many, if not most, of my audience are looking to live abroad to retire or at least to slow down. Stretching your dollars helps you achieve that goal.
As you’ll see, the cost of living in Asia and Latin America can be 1/3-2/3 of the cost of the US. A pensioner in the US can live a life of modest luxury in a country like Mexico, where their income is above average for the native population. (Probably more than half of all Americans who move abroad for reasons other than a new job go to Mexico (or, to a lesser extent, Central America).
- They encourage immigration and investment. Many Western countries don’t really encourage immigrants, even if they are from the US. New Zealand, for example, makes it very difficult to acquire permanent residency (you can’t live there and leave the country frequently for visa renewal) unless you are young and skilled. Developing countries, in contrast, want your money. In Panama, the government even extends significant discounts to American retirees. Mexico, though it does require you to jump through some bureaucratic loops, grants permanent residency status to most people who have an income over $1200 a month (this may go up soon).
- Americans want to live in a particular place. Though as you’ll see Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are more expensive as the US and it’s not that easy to establish residency in these places, they offer a very attractive way of life (pace, culture, and countryside) for many Americans.
International Living magazine recently named Panama as the best place to retire or live abroad. They wax poetic about the country’s extensive benefits for retirees (including significant discounts—up to 50%—on everything from airfares to medical care) and its well-developed infrastructure. Panama operates on the United States dollar, the economy is robust, and Panama City is the most sophisticated (Panama has become an offshore banking capital) community in Central America. (International Living reports that Panama City is more like Miami than Central America. Panama City has one of the most impressive Old Towns in the Americas, an impressive range of ethnic eateries, and high-quality condominium towers.)
One of the cities in Panama, Boquete, located high in the mountains, has slowly morphed into a haven for expatriates because of its ideal climate and stunning vistas of an extinct volcano and wildflowers. Panamanians call this area “the Valley of flowers and eternal spring.” The weather stays around 65-80 degrees year-round. Unfortunately, the rest of the country including Panama City is extremely tropical—hot and humid.
The cost of property here is roughly equivalent to Mexico. You can buy a nice 3-bedroom apartment for $100,000-200,000 in downtown Panama City or a small home in Boquete for $80,000.
The cost of other goods and services are a little less expensive than Mexico (Panama overall is somewhere between 60-75% of the cost of living in the US) and Costa Rica.
Belize and Honduras
Most Americans are attracted to beachfront, island communities like San Pedro, Belize and Roatan, Honduras, which are nearly idyllic tropical paradises complete with a relaxed atmosphere, palm fringed beaches, and sands that look (and feel) like flour. In addition, the natives in both places use English as their mother tongue. (Though most of Honduras speaks Spanish, the Bay Islands are English speaking.)
Unfortunately, the world has caught up with these beautiful communities. Homes and condos on these islands are not cheap any more (upwards of $250,000 for a home; $175,000 for a small condo). In addition, since these are islands, the cost of living is also not cheap. Expect to pay about what you would in the states for a meal in a restaurant.
Belize real estate varies tremendously depending on where you decide to live, however, it is quite possible to get decent beachfront homes for $100,000 or less in more remote parts of the country (including Corozal which has the advantage of being near Chetumal, Mexico with all of its urban amenities) and decent modern homes in jungle towns like San Ignacio for $50,000.
Outside of the islands, real estate in Honduras is quite inexpensive—30% to 50% of comparable properties in the US. Expect to pay about half of what you would for restaurant meals, groceries, and other local goods and services and 5-10% of what you’d pay in the US for maid and construction labor. Overall, the cost of living in Honduras is about 40-60% of the US except in the Bay Islands.
Goods and services in Belize, on the other hand, are not very cheap. Many foodstuffs and products have to be imported from other countries and are subject to high taxation. Labor is still less than 30% of the cost of the US. The overall cost of living in Belize is about 10 to 20 percent more than Mexico (80-90% of the US). Expect, however, many things to be more expensive in Belize than the US.
Whenever I mention Nicaragua as an expat option in my classes, almost invariably someone will ask, “Aren’t the politics there anti-American?” The answer is not really. Even with the recent return to power by the Sandinista government, there have been no noticeable changes in the way that foreigners are treated in the country. There are several reasons for this: 1) the Sandinistas returned to power primarily is result of the opposition party’s decision in the 2006 election to split into two camps. Thus, even though the Sandinistas only won 37% of the vote, they received the most votes of any party in the country. 2) as a result of this situation, the Sandinistas have limited power because the opposition still controls the country’s national assembly; 3) when the Sandinistas were last in power, the country was seized by a terrible civil war (the opposition almost completed funded and supported by the Reagan administration) that killed over 50,000 people and created a national animosity toward anything that wreaks of war.
Ironically, in the years before the Sandinistas returned to power, Nicaragua actively began to recruit expat investment. It was the first Central American country to sign a free trade agreement with the US. And it openly welcomed new foreign investment – and still does – by enacting a legal provision that allows retirees (who are over 45 years old and have a guaranteed monthly income of at least $400 a month) to pay no income tax on out-of-country earnings and to import household goods duty free.
I spent two weeks in Granada, Nicaragua in January 2008 and talked to probably a dozen different expats there. No one seemed to think that the Sandinistas return to power affected their lives very much. Some expats did withdraw money following the election and some others are less willing to invest there than in the past. The steady rise in real estate values in Granada that characterized the town from 2000-2006 waned – partly due to the government change and partly – as in much of Latin America- based on the declining US real estate market. The main difference that expats noted with the change in the government is that there are more electric and water stoppages than before. (This is partly due to a destructive hurricane that hit the country in 2007).
While I can understand investors’ reluctance to go to Nicaragua, I think that Granada could be a great place to live for an adventurous expat. The City has a wonderful, colonial center filled with century old adobe homes, many recently lovingly restored, with elegant tile roofs. Its location is also stunning –perched on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, with its impressive islands—and the area around the City is filled with volcanoes, each representing a totally different microclimate. In addition, Granada has a beautiful town square, is well organized for tourism (with a great assembly of restaurants and nightclubs), produces some of Central America’s finest cigars, and has a lot of old-fashioned charm that you can’t see elsewhere (like horse-drawn funeral processions featuring elegant caskets made of leaded glass encased in intricately carved wooden exteriors).
Living in Nicaragua is also very reasonable. A nice home can be purchased in the center of Granada, Central America’s finest colonial city, for $150-200,000. You can still buy small, attractive homes within walking distance of the beach for less than $150,000. (I’ve heard that some of the beaches are beautiful but have not visited them myself).
The cost of services, groceries, restaurants, native arts and crafts, and other local products generally are between 30-50% of those in the US. The country has some of the safest streets in Central America, though one is advised to be careful like everywhere in the region.
This is not to say that Nicaragua is for everyone. Following its wild political roller coaster during the last 60 years, the country’s economy has faltered (Nicaragua is now the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western hemisphere) and the infrastructure is falling apart. Many Nicaraguans – almost ¼ of the population have migrated to other countries (most prominently Costa Rica) in search of work. Nicaraguans, as a whole despite the country’s love affair with poetry, are often poorly educated.
With the demise of the once hot Argentine economy in 2002, suddenly Argentina emerged as one of the world’s best tourist destinations. Argentina is blessed with some of the world’s most impressive landscapes ranging from glaciers in the south to Iguazu Falls located smack dab in the middle of the jungle in the north. It is also home to my favorite city, Buenos Aires—often called Paris at ¼ the price—which is home to some of the globe’s most beautiful people; an extremely hot nightlife; great, cheap red wine; the tango; and many sophisticated neighborhoods (Palermo, Retiro, and Recoleta) reminiscent of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
While life is not as cheap as it was in 2002, it is still a bargain destination. A fine 2,000 square foot apartment in Buenos Aires’s best neighborhood can be had for $250,000 (a modest, small apartment in a good neighborhood can be as low as $50,000). Many celebrities have bought major chunks of land in Patagonia for under $1 million.
In addition, you can still get a good five course meal with wine at a fine restaurant in Buenos Aires for under $30 (including tip—a similar meal would cost $40-50 in San Francisco), inexpensive luxury bus service, hotel accommodations, and other tourist services for 2/3rds of the US price (with more comfort).
Ecuador is one of Latin America’s most hidden treasures. Beautiful colonial properties in need of some restoration in Old Quito, a UNESCO heritage site, or Cuenca can cost as little as $50,000. Homes in the Andean market towns like Otavalo go for $60,000. Lovely condominiums with ocean views on uncrowded beaches are available for $60,000 or less.
The cost of living is half of the United States. The economy of Ecuador is now tied to the US dollar. (The dollar is even the currency for the country.) Nowhere else on Earth has so many incredibly inexpensive Andean arts and crafts for sale.
Ecuador does have problems with crime and the beaches are considered rustic. No great nightlife or resorts there; instead just miles of quiet, tropical, remote beaches.
Asia, Oceania, and Africa
Though Thai laws make it impossible for foreigners to own property in Thailand, you can get an ownership interest in some lovely beachfront condominiums (1 bedroom for $40,000) with a view of tropical beaches inexpensively. You can also rent an apartment in some of the country’s lovely hill towns like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for as little as $100 a month. Luxurious apartments, with a view, in the best parts of Bangkok can be had for $600-$1200/month
No EMERGING country has better healthcare. The king is dedicated to building first class hospitals. Most of the doctors are trained in the US and Europe. Many Americans without insurance coverage go to Thailand for surgeries. In fact, some hospitals have even set up wings that look and feel like five-star hotels for foreigners!
The costs of goods and services are 20-40% of the cost of the US. Labor (like maid and construction services) is 15%-20% of the US. Overall, the cost of living in Thailand is probably the lowest of any country on the expat circuit. Meals from street carts cost under $1 and even fairly fancy meals in high class restaurants usually cost under $10 with all the trimmings. A train ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs $15 (about 400 miles) and a two-hour, Thai massage is less than $3. A cheap hotel room is available for less than $5 and nice-Western style room in modest hotels cost $15-20.
Thailand is extremely well-suited for expat life and tourism. A large number of Thais speak some English, particularly those associated with the tourist industry. Trains and buses run efficiently and inexpensively all over the country. Despite its reputation as a gridlocked mess, Bangkok today has such a well-developed public transportation system – including one of the most up to date Subway and Skytrain systems anywhere in the world – that it is fairly easy to avoid the gridlock. American businesses –from Starbucks to McDonald to Ethan Allen furnishings- are available in most tourist and expat centers.
There is also an astonishing array of tourist services available in tourist/expat centers. In Chiang Mai for example there are probably over 100 travel agencies that can arrange tours anywhere, fifteen cooking schools, hundreds of souvenir shops, and restaurants offering inexpensive, and mostly tasty, food from every corner of the world.
Thailand also has one of the most vital and helpful expat communities I’ve ever seen. The expat associations in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Phuket are the most eager to help new members I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Yet, the expat community is very unique. Probably about half of all expats are men – usually older- married to young, Thai wives. Frequently, these marriages garner negative comments from female expats. However, in my experience, a surprisingly large number of the couples seem happy and functional. (Probably the single most important ingredient to the success of these marriages is that the expat understands that he is responsible for the maintenance of the Thai woman and all her family. If you would like to know more about the relationship, read Thailand Fever: A Road Map for Thai-Western Relationships by Chris Pirozzi and Vitida Vasant – which is written in Thai and English).
The expat community is also multicultural. Members come from all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. However, it is probably 90% male and tales of the strange, colorful exploits of the expat population abound.
As a result of some of the problems caused by these expat colorful characters, the Thai government has become strict about issuing and requiring permanent residency from expats. To get a permanent residency, you are required to show that you have $1800/month in income from a reliable source.
You also can’t take many trips outside of the country to renew your tourist visa without being refused re-entry into Thailand. You can only stay in Thailand for one month without a visa. A visa that allows you to stay for two months is easy to acquire at a Thai Consulate in the US. After that, you will probably need to have a permanent residency to stay legally in Thailand.
The Thai culture is very different from your own. Even long-term expats will always be regarded as farang-foreigners- even when they speak Thai fluently.
The Thai language is extraordinarily difficult to learn because it has five tones (that are hard for us to distinguish) and very unique grammar and vocabulary. While learning the language in schools in Thailand is worthwhile, it is not as effective as learning other languages in schools in other countries. It is almost impossible to arrange to rent a room from a Thai family as part of a language program. Classes are usually only offered for one hour a day. You will also find that the moment you try to use Thai someone will immediately respond in English (or find someone who can). I found the only way to practice Thai was to tell Thais that I wanted to practice the language before I spoke to them in Thailand.
While New Zealand until recently was one of the hottest real estate markets in the world, properties are still available for about the cost of the United States.
Americans who live in New Zealand say that it is like living in the U.S.A in the 1950s. The pace is still slow and people have time to spend with each other. The crime rate is low.
New Zealand has some of the most varied and stunning landscapes on Earth. The North Island is filled with hot springs and volcanic landscapes. The South Island has glaciers and temperate rainforests
The only problem is that it is hard to get residency in New Zealand. The government, with its high-quality socialized healthcare system, discourages retirees from other countries. It is easier to immigrate if you are young and have specific skills, such as construction or nursing, which the government has decided are in short supply. However, if you have a lot of money you may be able to get residency here as a retiree.
NOTE: When I started this business, I expected that most of my audience would be interested in living, working, and retiring in Latin America because of the low cost, beautiful colonial and beach cities, relatively easy entry requirements, and the great pace of life. Well, I was wrong.
Many of the questions that I get are about Europe, particularly Italy and France. Over the next several years, I will spend three to six months a year in Europe for the next four to five years, paying particular attention to living in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal.
Even though I am not as much as an expert on living, working, and retiring in Western Europe as I’d like to be, I have done some research on the topic and can offer you some of my findings:
- Establishing residency in Europe, while more difficult than in Latin America or Asia, is not impossible. You can retire there fairly easily if you have a modest monthly allowance and, while it is difficult to fill out all of the paperwork, people from a variety of economic backgrounds and age groups have established residency there. I will discuss some of the basics of this process in my later section called Establishing Residency Abroad.
- You can easily find an active expatriate community like that in Lake Chapala in many popular areas of Europe. The expat communities in big cities like Rome and Paris are incredibly active. In smaller, popular areas like the Costa del Sol in Spain and the Algarve in Portugal, you’ll find an active expat community geared primarily toward the British, German, and Dutch residents.
- The cost of real estate in Western Europe is generally about 20% above the US and Canada. Just like in the US, you can find inexpensive, attractive homes in some remote areas like Sicily in Italy and County Sligo in Ireland for $150-400,000. On the other hand, you could easily pay up to a million dollars for a nice townhouse in a fashionable neighborhood in central London or Paris. (Note: Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona cost about 25-30% less than London and Paris but you won’t be able to find much to rent for less than $1000 a month or sale for under $400,000 in these places.) As far as I can tell there are no areas of Western Europe (with the possible exception of Portugal) where real estate cost less than in the US in general. It is possible, however, if you live in a high cost part of the US, like California or the Northeast, to find some very attractive areas of Europe where the overall cost of housing is less than in your hometown.
Choosing Your Ideal Place Abroad
Understanding the Pluses and Minuses of Expat Havens, Locally-Oriented Expat Centers, Off-the Beaten Path Places, Gringo Ghettos, and Business Havens
NOTE: I have made up these classifications in order to help you frame your decision on where to live. I am sure that like most efforts to classify places demographically, people can argue about whether these categories are accurate and what category a given community falls into.
Most of my audience is composed of people who are planning to live in another country because they want a change in lifestyle as opposed to people who leaving the US for work-related purposes. I have chosen to call those seeking a new lifestyle, lifestyle-expats, to distinguish them from other expats.
Types of expat communities:
In addition to determining what country you want to live in, you also need to spend a lot of time determining what type of community within that given country best suits your personality. Different people have different needs and choosing a community that meets your needs is an important part in being happy abroad.
Many books, classes, and websites only concentrate on only two types of communities abroad: expat havens and gringo ghettoes. While I believe that these communities are the best choice for about 60% of my students, I have met many of my students who will be happier outside of these communities and therefore I think it is important to include a discussion of other types of communities as well.
I classify most places into five categories: expat haven; locally-oriented, expat centers; off-the-beaten path places; gringo ghettos; and business havens. Throughout this chapter, I will talk about places that fit these classifications in various countries worldwide.
Some of these categories will get more attention in this text than others. Since most of my students will not be sent overseas by an employer, I will only mention briefly business havens. In addition, since most of my students have not lived overseas before (and therefore should seek places with at least a small American community), I will not talk a lot about off-the-beaten-track places.
The following is a description of the five categories:
- Expat Havens. An expat haven usually has around 10-30,000 Americans out of a total population of usually 50-200,000 people (there are a few exceptions like Northern Baja, that have a larger population). Most of the Americans and Canadians who populate these havens (the Southern European equivalent of these expat havens are occupied by similar populations of Northern Europeans) are there for a lifestyle related change as opposed to a job-related assignment. (Most commonly these residents are on some form of retirement, though increasingly many people migrate to these areas are middle aged).
Many people are concerned that living in an expat haven separates them for the local population entirely, though that is seldom the case. Almost always, since these communities have significant local populations, there are several, established neighborhoods where you’ll find a mixture of locals and expats. Most of these hybrid neighborhoods still retain both the charms and annoyances associated with living in a local neighborhood.
2) Locally Oriented, Expat Centers: These expat-centers usually have between 500-2000 American residents, out of a population of 200,000-5 million people. Most of the Americans who chose to live in these places are really interested, and willing to get involved in, the culture of their new home (including learning the language). Typically, these towns have a lot of culture, architecture, and history. Many of the Americans (and other foreigners) who discover these places are usually people who have traveled to the towns and fallen in love with the local culture.
3) Off-the-beaten places: Off-the-beaten places are characterized by having fewer than 500 Americans living in them; though most of these places have almost no Americans at all. (Somehow or another I have always managed to find at least a couple of Americans everywhere in the world, though more often than not they are Mormon missionaries). Off-the-beaten path places are where the majority of the world’s population lives. These places are found in small, rural communities; middle sized regional hubs, and a variety of middle and lower-class neighborhoods in most large cities worldwide.
4) Gringo Ghettos: Typically found in beach areas (especially in Latin America), gringo ghettoes are large, typically gated communities with up to a couple of thousand units, usually condominiums, that are largely marketed at and occupied by Americans (though in Southern Europe, most of these communities are aimed toward Northern Europeans). Most of these communities are at least five miles away from a local-oriented town; and have very few residents from the country where the gringo ghetto is located.
5) Business Havens: (95% of all expats live in business havens). Almost all Americans who live in these communities are sent there by a company or government agency. Most business havens are found in elite areas of large cities (these areas range from Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City to Ma’adi in Cairo to Regent Park in London).
The pluses and minuses of each of the five major categories:
- You will usually find several (at least twenty) American or Canadian realtors in expat havens. Not only will these realtors speak English natively; but they will also be very familiar with the type of questions and issues raised by American and Canadian clients. While many people assume that these realtors-because they are compatriots-will look after their interest, this should not be assumed. Keep in mind that: 1) the only way to make a living for many people in expat communities is Real Estate; 2) real estate does not tend to attract the most honest of businesspeople, anyway even in the US and 3) the US has fairly strict rules governing Real Estate that do not apply in most other countries.
- In communities where Americans own a large percentage of the properties, the majority of listings for rental properties and sales will be available through Real Estate firms. Outside of expat havens, most of the locals will sell or rent properties by owner. In addition, only in large American centers, like Lake Chapala, Mexico, will Realtors generally share listings. Therefore, in order to really get a handle on the inventory available in most of the world, you will need to visit multiple realtors and also to check out the informal for-sale by owner market. (The best ways to access the for sale by owner market are: 1) to pick up free Real Estate magazines; 2) walk around the streets looking for “for sale” or “for rent” signs and 3) talk to everyone you meet about places for sale or rent).
- Once a community reaches a vital threshold of lifestyle expats – usually around 5,000 people—it will start to develop a whole slew of businesses that help expats with their daily needs. These businesses provide: moving services, consultant to help you sign up for and get the most out of national health care services; attorneys and paralegals to help you file residency visa applications; accountants to help ensure that taxes and business reporting forms are filed on-time and accurately; property management and rental services; companies that will pay your bills and manage your accounts; mail services; high speed internet access at home; financial services; etc. The quality of these services varies and it is recommended that you talk to a few expats in the community before selecting your service provider.
- You will have access to an extensive social network in English. Most expat communities have a lot of expat clubs for a wide range of interests. In the Central Valley of Costa Rica, for example, some of these clubs cover: wine and food lovers, cooking, an active woman’s club; several charitable organizations; Hash House Harriers; a club for expats under the age of 40; and a bridge club.
- You will be able to live comfortably in an Expat Haven without knowing much of the language. Restaurants and businesses in Expat Havens usually have people who can speak English fairly well and menus (and other similar business literature) are usually available in English, as well. Many of the locals you meet on the street speak fairly good English. In addition to this, based on the significant population of expats, you will both be able to have an active social network exclusively in English and have enough of an active expat network to answer questions you have in English. (Often the best answers to your questions come from other expats because: 1) they are less likely to have a vested outcome in the answer and 2) they understand what you are looking for easier than locals).
- The cost of living in an Expat Haven is higher than in most of the other communities. This is particularly noticeable with real estate, where the cost of renting or buying a home in these communities will be two to five times as high as other communities in the country. While the cost differences will not be as dramatic in restaurants, stores, etc., you should be prepared to pay 10-40% more for these services in an expat community as well.
- Living in an expat community does not allow the same level of personal growth as living in a more locally-oriented place. In other communities, because you are forced to deal with locals daily, often in their own language, you will come to understand and appreciate the native way of life and values.
Locally-Oriented Expat Centers
- You will spend most of your time talking to locals in their language. As you come to learn the language, you will find yourself better able to understand the local people’s culture and values. To me there is no greater thrill than being able to carry on a meaningful conversation with someone in their own language. It also helps to establish a sense of trust and respect among the local population.
- If you are patient, you will find some very cheap ways and places to live in these communities. Locals will help you learn how to get the best bargains in their local supermarket; ride public transportation; and even find the best and most inexpensive properties for purchase or rental.
- Most of the locally-oriented expat centers are generally cultural centers. You will have a lot of interesting things to see in your free time and ample opportunities to learn about the folklore, history, and society where you live.
- It will be harder to settle into your new environment, particularly in the first few months. Finding the right place to live will take more time (since it depends on who you know more than finding the right realtor). As will everything from communicating with the US to paying your bills.
- You need a lot of patience, flexibility, and desire to live in a place with such a small expat community. While you will quickly meet, and may form close friendships, with the few expats who do live in your community, you will have to get to know a wide range of locals to get anything done efficiently, in addition, I have met people in those communities who feel very lonely and isolated at first. Some expats in these communities report that they feel trapped both by the “small town mentality” that develops in communities within the very small expat community and by the long time it takes to make friendships with local residents.
Off-the-Beaten Path Places
The advantages and disadvantages listed in the above discussion about Locally-Oriented, Expat Centers all apply, only more so in Off-the-Beaten Path Places. Expect it to take a lot of effort, patience, and desire to settle into your new environment in the Off-the-Beaten Path Places.
In addition, particularly if you decide to live in a rural area, you should expect to be the center of attention in Off-the-Beaten-Path places. In many of these communities everything you do will be analyzed by both the few expats in the area and the locals. While this may sound daunting, many people enjoy it because if the locals like and grow to accept you, you will really be able to participate actively in the life of your new community
Since most of these developments are new, you need to be very careful about the quality and reputation of the project developer. Most of the horror stories you hear about expats being scammed in real estate occur in these communities.
That said, many of these developments are legitimate and gringo ghettoes are the closest thing you can get to living in the US abroad. Since 90-95% of the residents are other expats, you will have instantaneous contact with other Americans. In addition, legitimate developers have often thought of everything necessary to make it easy to settle into these communities. Many of these communities have financing available with terms fairly similar (though seldom as advantageous) as stateside.
I think you are usually better off waiting until these projects are finished before buying a property in a Gringo Ghetto. That way, you know that the project has been completed and have an opportunity to talk to other expats who have lived in the development for a while.
To me, the biggest disadvantage of these communities is that they are so separate from the mainstream society. I have a hard time with the idea of living in a foreign country and only interacting with other gringos. To me, getting to know, understand, and appreciate another way of life is probably the greatest joy of expat life.
Advantages and Disadvantages
While the majority of expats live in business havens, most of the students in my classes will have very little in common with these expats.
Most of these expats in these communities will have the logistics of settling into and moving to their new home taken care of by their workplaces. Usually these workplaces will pay upwards of $100,000 to settle these people into their new digs. The services that the businesses use are generally very expensive and oftentimes not as efficient as the firms found in expat havens. (Many times, they use large, corporate service providers simply because the firms are US based).
In addition, just because business havens have a large population of expats, does not necessarily mean that you will form easy friendships in these communities. Many times, expats in these communities tend to form cliques with other people in the same company or industry. Also, many of the people in these communities are simply abroad to make more money than in the States, and thus have little interest in their newfound, temporary home.
All these caveats aside, I have heard of active expat social organizations in these business havens – particularly in cities with a large American expat community like Paris and Rome– that are extremely supportive of the needs of all expats, including the lifestyle-expats.
A Note on How these Communities Differ Worldwide
The definitions of these communities are based on my observations in Mexico. Since Mexico is large in size and has attracted a large population of different types of foreigners, these different communities are easily identifiable.
These communities differ somewhat by country. For example, based on the compact size of Costa Rica and the differing nature of US immigrants there (many live in off-the-beaten places because they are married to Costa Rican women from those communities), the distinction between these communities is less profound than in Mexico.
In addition, while in Europe, there are many large communities of lifestyle-expats throughout Southern Europe (i.e. Provence (France), Tuscany and Liguria (Italy), Costa del Sol and Costa Brava (Spain), and the Algarve (Portugal)), the bulk of the expats are from Northern European countries and, therefore, may not be that helpful as a source for information about logistics as American expats. (Keep in mind that with the coming of the European Union, it is easy for Europeans to live and work legally in other European countries, whereas it is getting harder and harder for Americans to live and work in Europe).
Pluses and Minuses of Living in The Coast Vs. The Interior of Mexico And Central America
I must admit that, like most Latin Americans, I cannot imagine living in a tropical beach locale in Central America and Mexico. I realize, however, that many, if not most of my students/readers dream about living on a tropical beach.
Please keep this in mind when you read the pluses and minuses of living on the coast listed below. I have tried to keep my own personal prejudices down to a minimum, and apologize, in advance, if my preferences are apparent below
- Tropical beaches are the stuff of people’s dreams. Ninety percent of American tourists in Mexico and Central America spend most of their time on the beach. Though the interior has much to offer, the beaches in Latin America capture most Americans’ imaginations. Seemingly every travel publication is filled with pictures of the region’s white sand beaches with palm trees and azure seas. (This is such a part of travel writing and photography that anyone engaged in the business is bound to get tired of writing about and shooting photos in these locales).
- Generally, beach communities have a very relaxed vibe. While in most of Latin America locals generally dress and act more formally than in the States, relaxed dress and comportment is acceptable- and even encouraged- along hot, tropical beaches. In addition, though Latin Americans are generally laid-back, the most laid-back people in Latin America live by the beach.
- Living by a tropical beach is a great joy for water-sport and activity enthusiasts. In the US, many beach communities are too cold, and the waves are too large, for water-sports enthusiast to enjoy their pastimes very often. In addition, living by a beach in the US is generally prohibitively expensive for many of these enthusiasts.
- Many who live in expat-havens by the coast, really enjoy their fellow expats. Generally, the expats in these communities are younger, more party-oriented than those who chose expat digs in the interior. In addition, the shared love of the relaxed, beach vibe and water-activities often allows for more easy and comfortable friendships than in other expat communities. (Read Gringos in Paradise by Barry Golson,).
- Many beach communities are great places for people who love night life and socializing. Some of the most enjoyable club scenes in the world are in places like Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. Many of these places have enough variety of restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues that you could spend every night exploring new places.
- Some of Latin America’s most beautiful flora and fauna are found along the beach areas. The variety of animal life and plants – caimans, alligators, iguanas, geckos, dolphins, and some of the world’s most colorful fish — found in many of the mangroves, rivers, and beaches along the coast is amazing.
- Most of the beach communities with substantial expat communities attract tons of ugly foreign tourists and locals. If you ever want to see Americans (and Mexicans-particularly during Semana Santa, Easter Week) at their most obnoxious, check out the Mexican beach scene in places like Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas. Tons of drunken, lascivious, loud, and insulting tourists –particularly teenagers- line these beaches and often make locals dislike Americans. (By the way, Americans are not the only offenders, probably the worst beach behavior I’ve seen is from Australian tourists in Kuta on the island of Bali in Indonesia)
- Something about living the tropical beach dream attracts both Latin America’s best scam-artists and expat victims. I have almost never heard of someone who was sold a serious bill of goods about a property in Latin America in the mountains. However, stories of people who get ripped off by unscrupulous real estate developers and realtors in beach communities abound. Somehow, the expats who are attracted to the interior are the types who will do their homework and have the patience to get the right place and lifestyle for them. Whereas, some expats who fantasize about living by the water are prone to throwing caution into the wind and buy their dream places virtually sight unseen after a few drinks and a persuasive sales pitch by an aggressive huckster.
- Most of the development by the beach is environmentally destructive. Since Mexican and Central Americans (except in Panama) have mostly lived inland, the development of Coastal resorts and towns is almost entirely a recent phenomenon. Look at a map of Costa Rica or Mexico from forty years ago and you’ll be hard pressed to find Cancun or Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) or Jacò or Tamarindo (Costa Rica). Traditionally, the only beach towns to attract many residents in Latin America have been ports (like Veracruz, Acapulco, and Mazatlan in Mexico).
Until gringos showed their love of these tropical resorts, most of the best-known beach communities were virtually pristine small fishing villages. Today, the beaches are crowded with hotel rooms, condominiums, and shopping centers that are not planned with the sensitive, beach ecology in mind. As gringo ghettos take hold throughout coastal Latin America, one can expect more serious impacts on the water supply and abundant plants and animals in more of Latin America’s most pristine fishing villages.
- It is hot and humid by most beaches in Latin America for many months a year. In most of Mexico, the beaches are hotter and more humid than those in Southern Florida, from April to November. (The worst months are often September and May). Along the coast in Costa Rica and Panama, in most places, the hot weather never really lets up much. That said, I have heard expats extol of the virtues of some of the micro-climates along certain beach areas in Latin America. So, I encourage you to ask around and see if you can find a place that suits your climate needs. (I have only experienced what I consider pleasant beach weather in Mexico and Central America in Northern Baja California (since the temperature is like San Diego, though admittedly the beaches are cold) and on the Pacific coast of Mexico from December to March).
- Many beaches in Latin America are plagued with bugs and mold. Probably the most common of these insects are called no-see-ums because though they are so small you can’t see them, they cause a lot of irritation. In addition, many places by the water are subject to serious mold problems during the rainy seasons
- The cost of air-conditioning a house, particularly a large one, can get expensive during the worst summer months. I have met people in Puerto Vallarta who have paid as much as $500 for air conditioning in the height of the summer.
- The weather, in the interior, especially at 3000 feet, is better than on the coast. Experts consider that areas in and around Guadalajara, Mexico and San Josè, Costa Rica have some of the world’s most pleasant climates. It seldom gets colder than about 55 degrees in the winter (at night) and 90 degrees in the day. Some people, though, have trouble with the large deluges of rain in some of these areas during the height of the summer. (Note: The weather at higher elevations can get cold particularly in Mexico and Guatemala during the winter – snow sometimes even occurs. The weather in the interior lowlands- which include two of my favorite Mexican and Central American cities Granada, Nicaragua and Merida, Yucatan – shares more or less the same climate as the coastal regions).
- With the exception of Panama, most of the history, culture, politics, economics, sociology, and architecture in Central America and Mexico occur in the interior of the countries. The vast majority of the region’s folk traditions, Mayan and Aztec ruins, historic monuments, and colonial towns are found away from the beach. You cannot really get to know the culture of these countries without at least spending some time in the interior.
- You can’t participate in water sports in the interior or sit on the beach daily.
- Interior areas are less relaxed than the coast.
These are the only real minuses I can see to choosing to live in the interior versus the coast. Most of the pluses of living on the coast also apply (though sometimes to a lesser degree) to the interior of Mexico and Central America. The interior areas also have active, friendly (though a little less party oriented) expat scenes and the flora and fauna found in the mountainous areas of Central America and Mexico is as varied and worth seeing as that you’ll see on the coast.
Some Blessings and Curses of Being a Expat Retiree in an Emerging Country
Living in an “Emerging” Country is not for everyone. “Emerging” countries are generally more relaxed, people-oriented, and colorful than the US. However, they also have certain things that can drive some Americans a little crazy at times.
Here are some of the joys and frustrations that many expats have told me about in EMERGING countries. (By the way, many of these same observations apply in Southern and Eastern European and so-called second world countries as well).
- Since labor is cheap, you will be able to afford maid, gardening, and handyman services. (Usually only $2 to $5 an hour). Often, once you find the right help, these people can be a great resource to help you adjust to your new life and to get things done.
That said, many people find that it takes a while to find the right people to provide these services. Though thievery is rare, many expats complain about their problems of “finding good help” so much that it becomes a cliché. In my experience, there are several reasons for these problems: 1) some expats place unattainable demands on their help and then complain about the results (Read the book Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind by Holloway for humorous, yet enlightening tales about expats and servants), 2) generally most help in these countries expect their bosses to watch them and tell them exactly what needs to be done and expat employers are not either aware of, or willing to, act accordingly; and 3) some American who have problems with servants in EMERGING countries are the types who are so fussy that they have similar problems with these service providers in the US.
- If you need to, you can live very cheaply. Most of the locals live on less than $10,000 a year and are able to support a whole family. So, can you if you are willing to live like the locals do. While this may mean, living with other people in cramped conditions, raising some of your own food, or going without imported goods, it is possible to stretch if necessary, much easier than in the States.
- It is easy for most expats to live without a car.
- You can also live easier without internet access in your home than in the US. There are more wireless access points and internet cafes in these countries. Most Wi-Fi spots do not charge and the internet cafes’ costs are negligible ($1-2 an hour).
- If you use the private medical care system, you will be able to get attention much faster than in the US, for much less cost, and the doctors will be more attentive to your needs
- Generally, locals will go out of their way to help you, particularly if they like you. I am always amazed how willing people are to walk me to where I need to go, make calls to help me find the answers to my questions, and to provide me with a little extra something just out of kindness. In addition, many people seem so genuinely happy to see you once they get to know you a little bit.
- After you’ve gained the trust of locals, and learned their language reasonably well, people will be almost eager to tell you their life stories. I treasure these moments because usually their lives are very different from our own and they help to forge friendships.
- Small pushcarts and kiosks abound in the EMERGING, often selling some of the best food you’ll ever eat for next to nothing. If you see a line in front, just follow the people and the food will be good and safe (partly because food that turns over quickly, usually doesn’t attract bacteria).
- You can get your laundry done, including ironing, folding, and in some case (Mexico is awesome this way) even shrink-wrapped for not much more than it would cost to wash your clothes yourself at a Laundromat in the US.
- People in the EMERGING are generally much more accepting of others’ faults than we are in the States. I am constantly amazed how easily Americans shun other people for the smallest things – weight, smoking, perfumes, etc. Such shunning, to most third-world residents, is ruder than the original behavior.
- Almost anything can be done in a third-world country if you are patient, creative, and determined. In the US, if a law or a policy stands in the way of getting something done (even when said policy or law is completely stupid and unfair), you simply have to accept that you won’t get what you need done. In the EMERGING, there is always some way to get it down. Some of the best strategies include: appealing to everyone’s sympathy (this particularly works well with women); bribery (think of it – and call it- a fine or a fee for service) and finding and getting to know the right person to solve a problem.
- Shopping in local marketplaces is a great joy for most expats. Most EMERGING countries have markets with an endless variety of handmade crafts and tasty, and exotic, foodstuffs. You can learn a lot about your new country, just by asking questions about the produce. I have also met expats who have formed some of their closest friendship with local merchants.
- The EMERGING is generally noisy. It is almost impossible to find a place to live without animals waking you up early in the morning and occasional loud parties keeping you up into the wee hours.
- Driving requires a lot of skill and owning a car can be very expensive. Tolls, gas, parts, license plates, etc. are cheaper in the US than overseas. In addition, driving conditions are worse and most people drive more aggressively than at home.
- You don’t have much recourse if something bad happens to you. EMERGING legal systems usually assume that it is the responsibility of every one to watch out for their own interests. That said, if you do get involved in a legal issue, you may be able to find people (and ways) to help get you out of the trouble, through informal means.
- Sidewalks are often non-existent and when they are available, they are usually very high, uneven, and full of holes. You need to get used to watching where you walk or else you will tweak your knees and ankles and fall down a lot.
- You will see a lot of serious poverty. Keep in mind that poverty, when it is more common is not shameful, like it is in the US. If it really bothers you, do something to help. There are many avenues to help and most the recipients of your kindness will be very grateful.
- You need to learn to avoid conflict at all costs and try to defer blame for things that go wrong onto yourself. If you anger someone or offend their pride, you will not only have more difficulties getting what you need accomplished, but you may also have an enemy for life who will be determined to wreak havoc on your life. In Thailand, it is even illegal to get angry in front of a government official.
- Bureaucracy in an Emerging country can be a real pain. Offices close and open seemingly at random for often only a couple of hours a day. And, often the employees seem more interested in sharing comments about last nights’ love affair or soccer game with each other, than helping their clients. Plus, the rules that you have to follow to get something done are usually incomprehensible to Americans. (Keep in mind that most things in Emerging Countries depend on your reputation, and most of the rules are designed to ensure that you are who you say you are).
- Homes, often look and feel like fortresses, from the outside. You will frequently see glass shards along fence tops, bars on the windows, and gates along the entire outside circumference of homes. This does not necessarily mean that the area is high crime.
- Crime in most Emerging countries is becoming more and more a fact of life. (Unlike in the US, where the crime rate is rapidly decreasing every year). As these countries become more democratic and economic systems more inequitable, the government’s ability to both prevent and address crime is eroding. Turn on any news program in any EMERGING country and you’ll invariably here about murders, home invasions, and other crimes.
- No matter how secure your life seems, it will always be a bit more precarious than in the US. You are guest of your new country and, as such, your rights can be taken away at random. While this is extremely rare – and getting even more rare with the advent of globalization – I have never seen an expat community in a third-world country that does not sometimes display a sense of paranoia about everything being taken away from them by a sudden change in political or economic realities. That said most of the real-life problems that expats have with their new country usually stem from the expats getting involved with scam artists or unsavory types (sometimes other Americans) abroad.
- Bathrooms can be frustrating for some people to negotiate. In most EMERGING places, you have to put used toilet paper in a trash can. In Asia and the Middle East, most homes have squat toilets that can be difficult to use for American women especially at first. (Ironically, many places in Asia have both Western and squat toilets; however, the squat toilets are easy to keep very clean, whereas books have been written describing the terrible conditions of Western toilets in Asia). In addition, many homes (mostly occupied and designed for locals) in the EMERGING have “suicide showers”—electric shower heads that create a current that you can feel while you are bathing – and some even have hot water heaters that have to be ignited with a match before each use.
- If you take public transportation and taxis, you may be uncomfortable if you are a “backseat driver”. I found that I could avoid this feeling by repeating the following mantra: “The driver also wants to get home tonight”. Now, I don’t pay any attention and just enjoy the ride.
Pros and Cons of Living in Europe
- You will be able to find some real estate in Eastern Europe and the Southern Mediterranean, particularly in Romania, Poland, Malta, and Cyprus that is slightly cheaper (approximately 80%) than in the United States. Keep in mind that Eastern Europe and the Southern Mediterranean do not have the excellent healthcare, great social services, and excellent infrastructure of Western Europe and that Eastern Europe is still quite a bit more expensive than Latin America or Asia.
- The cost of foodstuffs and most other necessities of life vary quite a bit between European countries. In Portugal, Greece, and much of Eastern Europe you may actually save up to 20% of the cost of these products in comparison with the US. In France or Italy, you’ll spend 10-20% more than in the US, but many of these products will be of better quality than in the US. Expect the most dramatic differences in cost between Europe and the US in utilities and public transportation. Public transportation costs as much as 50% more (though it is better quality) than in the States; utilities cost 10-50% more than in the US depending on the country. Gas is about 40% more than in the US, though most American expats report that either they don’t need a car in Europe or they drive less there than in the States.
- Five years ago, many rural properties were available in France and Italy inexpensively (as little as $50,000) if you were willing to do some refurbishing. Between the fall of the US dollar and the hot European real estate market, the costs of these properties have more than doubled in the past couple of years. However, you can still find cheap, true fixer-uppers (keep in mind, though, you could easily spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing these rambling wrecks) in many parts of Europe.
- You’ll generally find that most Western Europeans are friendly toward Americans though you’ll have a hard time finding people who agree with our foreign policies. The French, Germans, and Brits may appear a bit standoffish, but most Americans who live there find that the people are friendly and helpful. It just takes longer to get to know them.
- It is very difficult to find work in Western Europe for Americans. Many of the jobs that work well to help tide us over in Latin America and Asia, like teaching English and journalism are closed to Americans because, with the advent of the European Union, Brits can go anywhere in the European Union and get these jobs legally without any difficulties. That said, many Americans do make a living in Western Europe through entrepreneurial pursuits or by working in traditional jobs under the table.
- The main benefit of living in Western Europe, particularly in France, Italy, and Spain, is the quality of life. I think the words of Terry Link in his book Living Abroad in France about the quality of life in France apply throughout Western Europe: The attraction (of France), just as it has been for generations, is the extraordinary quality of life the ordinary person can enjoy. France is both modern and old-fashioned. French science and technology rival those of any nation, yet the country appreciates fine food, a slow pace, and the good things in life. Indeed, a French phrase describes it best: joie de vivre (joy of living).
- If you are interested in a European lifestyle but can’t afford the cost or if you want to live somewhere where it is easier to find work or establish residency, consider living in Latin America (particularly Argentina).
You’ve found a place you love and know you’re ready to determine if you can live there. Here are several things you can do to make sure that your new home will be a place of your dreams rather than a nightmare.
Researching another Destination while you are at Home
Many people find themselves in love with a particular place while they are on vacation. Impetuously they go to a real estate agent or apartment rental firm and decide to move abroad without much preparation.
Most experts recommend that you go home, do some research, and then return to your beloved potential new home and look at it with new eyes.
Later in this book, I’ll outline some of the things you should look at before you make a serious investment in a new home (such as buying a house or moving your belongings). However, in the meantime, I’ll give you a few steps you can take while at home to learn about your new target home:
- Read books about your new country’s culture, history, and society.
- Watch movies from your new country and read popular literature for clues about difference between your destination and the U.S.A.
- Study the language.
- Take classes about your country. If you can find classes about doing business and/or living in your new country, take them. These classes will help you know what to expect. If possible, talk to the instructors and ask them if you can send them an occasional e-mail with questions, etc.
- Try to meet locals from your new country who live in your hometown. Ask them about what to expect. Don’t be afraid to ask them if they know anyone in your new town who you can visit. This will be a good way to establish some possible social ties in your new community.
- Investigate clubs that may have branches in both your hometown and your destination such as the Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, or Toastmasters. Attending these meetings in your new town (especially if you’re a member already in your hometown) will help you to establish social ties in your new community. Since these clubs are fairly similar worldwide, belonging to these clubs in your hometown will also help you understand their protocol so that you don’t have to spend time in your destination learning about the organization as well.
- Subscribe to any newsletters, newspapers, and magazines from your destination and/or frequently read articles on the internet.
Deciding Whether to Make the Move
So, you know where you want to live and have done some original research. Now you are ready to move, right? Hold on. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in deciding to live or retire abroad is haste. It is a big decision. Too many people decide to move just after they’ve spent a couple of days basking in the beauty of a destination.
As Teresa Kendrick said, “Moving to Mexico (or any place, especially abroad) is not unlike getting married.” Therefore, just like in marriage, you shouldn’t rush into anything if you’re moving overseas. You need some time to date and get to know each other before marriage.
Judy King, publisher of the Mexico Insights (www.mexico-insights.com) says, “Many people come here and buy a property after a few days. Realtors always try to rush people into purchasing homes. Yet I recommend that people rent for six months or so, before they buy. You need some time to get acclimated and to decide if this is really the right place for you.”
Here are some of the questions that fifty-plus nomad recommend that you research and think about while you are living as a temporary resident in your dream location for a couple of months. Only after answering these questions should you consider making a serious commitment to your new home:
- How far is your new town from an international airport? How easy is it to fly to visit your family and friends in the U.S.A?
- Will you be able to live away from your friends and family?
- Can you engage in the same cultural, social, political, and recreational activities that you like at home? If not, are there activities in your community that will hold your interest?
- Do you speak the language? If you don’t, are there many people there that speak English? Are you willing to learn another language?
- How can you get things fixed at your destination? How easy will it be to access utilities? What do you need to do if you have problems with your utilities at your destination? How do you need to pay bills?
- Will you have access to good quality medical services? If not, can you get access at home?
- How much bureaucracy will be involved in setting up your new life at your destination? Will you be able to establish permanent residency eventually? How difficult will it be to do banking in your community?
- Do you want to live among other fifty-plus nomad, near an expatriate community, or would you rather live more like local residents?
- Will you enjoy learning about your destination? Are you interested in its culture, history, folklore, etc.?
- Do you make friends easily?
- Do you feel comfortable with the economic and age backgrounds of the majority of people in your new community? (Note: Many expatriate communities have a lot of retirees. This can make it difficult for younger people to make friends, particularly of the opposite sex, in their new town.)
- How close are familiar shopping facilities? How willing are you to shop at local stores?
- What are the local attitudes towards time? Will you be able to adapt to the pace of life at your destination?
- Are there are a lot of opportunities for a social life in your destination? Will you be able to find people who share your idea of a good time? Are there any legal or moral obstacles that will keep you from enjoying yourself?
- How easy is it to buy favorite products at home? (That way when you move, you can only pack or move products that are hard to find.)
- Where will my kids go to school? At a local school? Or a special school for expats? Local schools will generally enable your kids to adapt quickly to their new environment and offer a great way to learn about another country. However, it can be difficult for your kids to work in another language and many kids find big differences in the curriculum between the local school and the one they attended in the US. These curriculum differences may cause them to be held back for a grade or be bored to tears.
Most experts recommend that you put your kids in a school organized through the International School System, ISS, if you don’t intend to relocate abroad for several years. That way their credits will be easily transferable and they will be educated with other fifty-plus nomad, many of which, by the way, will not be Americans. Keep in mind, however, that these schools can be expensive and hard to reach.
Regardless what you decide to do, visit the schools (if possible, with your kids) before you leave the US. That way you can determine if they will fit your kid’s personality and needs.
Here are a few small suggestions for some unusual ways to help you do your research that you won’t find elsewhere:
- Try to stay in a local person’s home or participate in something that will allow you to “travel like a local” during this period. Arrange a home exchange, hospitality exchange (a free stay in someone’s home usually arranged through a hospitality exchange listing service), homestay (a paid stay in someone’s home) or a volunteer or school stay. This will allow you to get a more authentic feel for living in your community and will help you to have some acquaintances if you decide to move there later. (Note: if you’d like more information on these options consult my handbook: The World’s Best Kept Travel Secret: Volunteering, Learning Vacations, and Exchanging Abroad or check out my website: www.travelwithpaul.com.)
- Take any orientation classes for fifty-plus nomad if available. Several newsletters (such as Judy King’s Mexico Insights) have short classes available at a minimal fee taught by seasoned fifty-plus nomad.