International Real Estate
Real Estate Overseas
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Today real estate shoppers in Spain will find good-value properties at bargain prices in three scenic mountain towns—Mijas, Ojén and Torrox—located 30 minutes from the popular resort town of Marbella. With more than 2,800 hours of sunshine a year, this region attracts travellers and expats looking to escape a harsh winter back home and save money at the same time. “A couple can live well for about $2,400 a month, including $600 in rent,” reports InternationalLiving.com editor Nazareen Heazle.
What’s the first place you think of when Italy is mentioned? Chances are it’s not Apulia (Puglia, in Italian), the region that forms the heel of the Italian boot. But after visiting the region last year, I want to sing its praises from the rooftops of so many places. Ostuni…Gallipoli…Martina Franca. As for lovely Lecce, with its baroque buildings of creamy golden stone and gloriously flamboyant carvings, I didn’t want to leave. Singing from the rooftops of Apulia’s fairytale trulli homes would be physically difficult—these beehive-shaped rural houses are topped by peculiar conical domes—but you get what I mean.
For more than 11 years I’ve traveled all over Latin America. From the U.S.-Mexican border all the way to Argentina, I see firsthand the opportunities this vast land has to offer. I’ve never seen a better time to invest in development land in Latin America than right now. The biggest returns in development come to the earliest speculators who take positions. You don’t need deep pockets to invest in development land—if you know how to do it. Nicaragua, for example, is a country of stunning natural beauty and abundant resources. It has a young population and its economy is catching up from a very low base. It has great potential as a retirement and vacation locale for North Americans. In the early 2000s, money and people raced in. Many didn’t have the skills or the experience to develop real estate.
A populace that appreciates art, a local government that supports artistic endeavors, and a network of galleries to show your work…these are key ingredients for artists choosing a place to live. Surroundings that inspire creativity, whether through architecture, natural beauty, or indigenous influences, are also important. Finally, affordable accommodation and studio space are vital as well. A place where you can live well on a little income and concentrate on your work. Fortunately, even as artists get priced out of metropolises like New York City and Paris, other cities have stepped in. These havens can be found around the world. And even if you’re not a painter or sculptor, these cities are great for those who love and appreciate art…not to mention perfect places to sample new styles and snap up unusual pieces at bargain prices.
Perhaps best known for its extravagant Carnaval celebration, Las Tablas is the center of Panama’s folkloric culture. Though not well known to North Americans, Panamanians flock here regularly, particularly to the two annual festivals that are held each year to honor the pollera, the national dress. But folklore is just the start of what this friendly little town has to offer. In-the-know expats have been coming here for several years. They come from all over—we’ve met residents from Europe, South America, the U.S., and Canada.
It’s no secret that Spain’s property market has been at rock-bottom the last few years, but it’s slowly starting to pick up here in Mijas. Buyers, mostly from Western Europe, are making their way back to southern Spain. They are buying with a view to retiring to the area. (Mijas already has a very international community…I met an Irish woman who runs a chocolate shop and a relocation consultant who’s originally from England.) That’s good news if you like the idea of living here. There’s a good choice of rentals at affordable prices. And, despite the return of the European snowbirds, there are still plenty of great-value properties for sale.
When I started apartment hunting in Panama City almost a decade ago, I thought I knew what neighborhood I wanted to live in: the ritzy International Banking District, where the tallest skyscrapers face the sparkling Panama Bay. The area had undeniable cachet, and everyone I knew was living there. The district is in the heart of downtown, where you’ll find the best hotels, restaurants, shops, and more. Since 2009, new pedestrian walkways, green areas, and recreation facilities line the bay. On any given day you’ll see people jogging, buying fruit, or just sitting and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere.
Orchids, roses, coffee, and vegetables grow in the valleys around. You’ll find high-end resorts and world-class golf, but the beating heart of the town is the Central Market where hawkers wearing conical non la hats sit beside tubs of live fish and crabs, or in front of tables loaded with pungent durian fruit, shoes, and clothing. An average temperature year-round of 57 F makes Dalat a tempting option for some expats, but for most, it’s a place to spend a bit of time exploring the hill villages and escaping the humidity and heat of the lowlands. If you choose to live here, then consider a place on the outskirts of town, which is a lot prettier than the center and makes for better views of the mountains.
For me, and plenty of other Americans and Canadians who have scratched the surface, the capital of Chiriqui Province in western Panama is a retirement location that’s hard to resist. If you’re looking for a convenient hub city that’s a manageable size, David should be top of your list. It’s Panama’s third-largest city and second only to Panama City for shopping, healthcare, services, logistics, education, and just about anything else. And, with a population of about 86,000, (the larger district of David has a population of about 250,000), it’s certainly manageable.
It’s a day for dreaming of Andalucia. So I’m letting Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain take me on a musical journey back to Granada—back to the lament of flamenco guitars, orange trees, and jasmine-scented patios with pattering fountains. On my last visit to Spain, I added a Granada side trip. Sheer indulgence as I’d been before, but it’s a city made for indulgence. De Falla’s old garden, just above the Realejo neighborhood, is laden with roses. Gardens have a long history in Spain. For the Moors, a garden symbolized an inner paradise and a reflection of heaven.
Some things haven’t changed at all since I moved to Ireland. Friday night’s throb of bodhran drums in Cryan’s bar. The shy Sitka deer flitting out of the woods like shadow creatures from a Celtic twilight. The swans that come to over-winter on the loughs (lakes). The man with the van selling home-grown potatoes… Others things have changed. The house prices that soared ever upwards during the boom years have come now down, down, down. In Lakeland counties and villages along Ireland’s longest river—the Shannon—numerous properties are on the market for under $150,000.
Hip, trendy, vibrant… Those three words sum up Playa del Carmen, Mexico. This is a boomtown, plain and simple. Over the past 20 years, the population has exploded. Fifth Avenue, the main shopping and entertainment drag, is described locally as the longest pedestrianized street in the Americas. Each time I visit—that’s every month for the last three months now—it feels like new blocks have sprung up and fashionable restaurants and boutiques have opened their doors.
It’s a sun-drenched morning as I stand at a lookout point above the town of Mijas. Below me, the gleaming white buildings, with their roofs of rust-red tile, tumble down the mountainside. The pine-covered hills of the Sierra de Mijas mountain range reach up into the clear sky to my right. On my left, I can see the Costa del Sol—the Sun Coast—with the glittering Mediterranean Sea stretching to the horizon. It’s a comfortable 66 F here in Mijas, which is located in southernmost Spain. With more than 2,800 hours of sunshine a year around these parts, it’s the perfect place to escape a harsh winter back home.
The decade leading up to 2006 saw Ireland suffer through one of the biggest real estate bubbles on earth. The real estate market stalled in 2006/2007, amid rumors that transfer taxes were set to be reduced. Then in 2008 the crisis hit. In 2009, the global financial crisis rolled through, flattening Ireland’s entire banking sector and economy. In your July 2011 edition, I reported how Irish real estate was available at a discount of 80% on peak prices. Today, Ireland’s real estate market is bouncing back. News stories are filled with talk of housing shortages and fast-rising values. These reports are correct. There has been a strong surge in demand for family homes in desirable areas of Ireland’s main cities. The big buying opportunity here has passed, but right now Irish real estate is a tale of two markets.
Encompassing Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras, La Ruta Maya (the “Maya Route”) covers the territory of the Maya civilization, which reached its height from 250 to 900 A.D. One of the New World’s most advanced cultures, the Maya had written language, mathematics, a sophisticated calendar, and architectural skills that saw them construct massive temples and spectacular cities, many of which still stand. However, the Maya were never a single empire; rather, kings ruled over small territories surrounding a city.
From the quaint town of Cotacachi to the vibrant capital, Quito, from Salinas by the sea to the peaks of the Andes, Ecuador’s diversity is a key part of the massive appeal that sees it regain the coveted top spot on this year’s retirement index. Although prices have risen slightly in recent years, Ecuador’s real estate is still the best value you’ll find anywhere. This is bolstered by the generous array of benefits the government has afforded to retirees. Over-65s get discounts on flights originating in Ecuador, as well as up to 50% off entry to movies and sporting events. Discounts are also available on public transport (50%) and utilities, with the option of a free landline if you purchase a property.
There are many low-cost places to retire to in Panama. For those who enjoy the slower pace of rural living, Chiriquí Province, where I live, offers a delightful climate, easy convenience, and a quality lifestyle in an affordable retirement destination. While the city of David offers all the amenities of a good-sized city and the town of Boquete is a favored expat haven, some of the smaller towns in the area combine access to these desirable features with a lower cost of living. Dolega is one such small town in Chiriquí Province in western Panama. The four-lane highway that runs north and south between David and Boquete runs right through Dolega, so it’s easy to find. A new pedestrian overpass marks the main turnoff into town, at the Municipal Palace, shaded by a gigantic mango tree. Dolega is the administrative seat of the district of the same name, which encompasses a total of nine towns such as Los Anastacios, Dos Rios, Los Algarrobos and Potrerillos.
Ten years ago it was mainly scuba divers, anglers and adventure travelers who knew of Belize’s natural treasures. At that time few tourists could point to Belize on a map. But there’s been a growing buzz about Belize for the last few years. The constant press coverage about predictions of what would happen at the end of the Maya calendar (December 21, 2012) catapulted Belize into the international spotlight. Ever since, tourism numbers have been on the rise. And a growing number of Baby Boomers are retiring there.
Foliage presses up against the perfect, charcoal gray road. Though this time of year is known as the “rainy season” in Panama, the sky in this region is a powerful blue, and the sun is shining hot and strong. It’s quiet, and I pass very few cars…and perhaps just as many horses. For my recent scouting trip I drove the five hours from Panama City to Pedasí, a town of about 2,500. It’s a place that’s been growing in comfort and convenience— slowly but surely—since 2004. Over the past couple years in particular, it has become a burgeoning expat hub. Still, it remains a place where a couple can live on $1,300 a month including rent, and as little as $950 if they own.
Little Uruguay is a country that has advantages for producing food. It has good productive land, and a temperate climate allows the cultivation of up to three crops a year on average. Thanks to increasing wealth and food consumption in emerging markets, farmland here could generate a yield of between 3% and 9% (depending on the type of land and management option you choose), and also enjoy long-term appreciation. And Uruguay is where the small guy can directly get in on this food trend with ownership control. Uruguay has an advanced domestic farm industry. The domestic infrastructure of farm management companies, routes to market, and professional services caters for foreign investors.
Contrary to what your broker, banker, or financial advisor has probably told you, you can own just about anything in your retirement account—not just the products they choose to pitch at you (generally stocks and bonds). You can own all sorts of investments within your Individual Retirement Account (IRA)—and 401(k), too, for that matter—including foreign real estate. Most IRA custodians have a list of approved investments that they won’t deviate from. I do understand why they keep options so limited: They must endure grueling audits. If they do anything wrong, they can be fined or shut down by regulators. It’s just easier to say “no” to anything even slightly off the beaten track.
The original Riviera (from the Italian word for “seashore”) sprang up in southern France and the bordering region of Italy. Upper-crust Brits, northern Europeans, and—later—well-heeled Americans flocked here for the beach resorts, casinos, and parties. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald had a villa here in the Jazz Age, although it’s said he was a horrible party guest. The term riviera has been adopted by regions all over the world, in places where the sun, surf, and vacation vibe live on. And when we hit the new-school rivieras in the developing world, expect to get a real bang for your real estate buck.
Carlos stares into the afternoon sky, scans the horizon, and glances at his cell phone to check for messages. Then, using his machete and with a few deft flicks of his wrist, he slices through the scrub. Brightly colored butterflies float on the breeze. Whenever they come close, Carlos gently brushes them away from us and away from any danger to them. Carlos, though hardly five feet tall, wears the wide smile common among Mayans. It’s contagious. He’s one of the most successful developers on the Riviera Maya but here in the scrub, he’s a world away from bustling Mexico City where he spends a lot of his time. In the Riviera Maya is where he’s at his happiest—not in any boardroom or first class airline seat.
Costa Rica is one of the most popular and well-known vacation, second-home, and retirement destinations for North Americans. Though a small country, Costa Rica’s regions offer a wide variety of climate, lifestyle, and landscape. And renting in Costa Rica is a great way to experience day-to-day life while looking for your own place under the tropical sun. Much of Costa Rica’s lush tropical forests and sun-splashed shoreline has been designated as national parkland or reserve. Costa Rica is rapidly approaching carbon-neutral status in energy production and emissions, and its health care system is one of the most affordable and highly rated in the world.
Each morning I wake to a symphony of songbirds and roosters. Somehow, my wife, Nancy, usually sleeps through this, but for me it’s the start of another relaxed day in retirement. We live in a 968-square-foot condominium in the center of Chiang Mai, the principal city in northern Thailand. We have two balconies overlooking a large wooded farm—an uncommon rural oasis in this growing city. Despite this, we’re close to everything—trendy cafés, glitzy malls, and craft beer pubs.
Imagine a morning walk that takes you along a winding path shaded by towering pines. Nestled in the woodland around you are homes with pleasant gardens, flower-filled pots and bougainvillea-draped walls. A few minutes is all it takes to reach the low-slung dunes. You pause on top to take in the view: 18 miles of brilliant golden sands fringing the warm tropical waters of the South China Sea. About 10 miles out are the Cham Islands, a biosphere reserve where you can dive on coral reefs and explore the ancient ruins of the Cham civilization.
This valley reminds me of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Here, as there, ancient rolling hills are blanketed in a mix of pines and broadleaves. Then the bus I’m on passes a clutch of palm trees. Okay, not quite North Carolina. The Serra Gaúcha region, in southern Brazil, is practically unknown abroad, but it’s very popular with Brazilians. They flock here to enjoy the temperate, highland climate, so different from much of mostly-tropical Brazil. (Serra, in fact, means “highlands.”)
We typically see Path of Progress opportunities in places that are on the up…we usually discover distressed opportunities by finding high-quality inventory somewhere that’s broadly in crisis. It’s rare that we see the convergence of both these trends—but today that’s the opportunity we have along a stretch of Spain’s Costa del Sol. San Pedro is a pleasant sleepy Spanish town of leafy squares and pedestrian streets. Marbella is 12 minutes away (by car…25 minutes by public bus).
A view, good-value real estate, low cost of living, friendly locals…they’re all important as you search for a new community to settle in abroad. But if you have a green thumb, you may have some special requirements for your dream home. You’ll need good soil and the right light. Maybe you want multiple growing seasons, which is possible in some tropical areas.
Right now, you could buy your own piece of property right off the beach in Brazil…in a location where millionaires are putting their vacation homes…and all it will cost you is a few hundred dollars a month. The beaches here are spectacular—brilliant-white sand stretches for miles. Along that long stretch of coastline, multi-million-dollar homes are dotted. Over the past decade this part of Brazil has enjoyed an economic transformation. Very little has happened here—but now we’re seeing an opportunity.
Last month I visited the historic Gangi in Sicily, a 14th-century hamlet voted ‘Most Beautiful Village in Italy” this year. I was there to scout out undervalued real estate—and you can’t get more affordable than what Gangi offers. I’d heard that Gangi was pretty special—besides being home to an incredible real estate opportunity, it’s a hidden gem whose beauty and historic significance has been overlooked by all but the savviest vacationers.
Costa Rica is a great place for retirees for many reasons. Think warm weather year-round, bargain real estate (foreigners have the same property rights as locals), friendly people, the Pura Vida (life is good) vibe, and low-cost but high-quality health care. Plus, it’s easy to qualify for residence as a retiree with the pensionado program. All you need is $1,000 per month per couple from Social Security, disability, or a pension.
Not so long ago, you could pick up properties around my home province of Chiriquí for a fraction of their boom-time prices. In the hills and villages around Boquete, where an estimated 12,000 expats live, spacious mountain-view homes were selling for as much as 50% off. This drop was due to the 2008 financial crisis, which left many North Americans and Europeans with homes in these lush valleys in need of funds.
When it comes to the ideal beach lifestyle abroad, many expats look to Koh Samui, in southern Thailand, where the palm-lined beaches, azure ocean, year-round tropical weather, and affordable costs make for ultra-easy living. Just an hour-and-a-half flight from the Thai capital of Bangkok, Koh Samui offers something for everyone, whether you dream of a tranquil seaside retreat or prefer frequent nights out on the town.
“The developer here is in jail…” is something I heard a lot. It was alarming…but in a way, it was reassuring, too. Puerto Vallarta—one of Mexico’s most popular expat destinations— is home to an estimated 10,000 North Americans living here full-time. They chose Puerto Vallarta for good reasons. Puerto Vallarta sits at the foot of the grand Sierra Madre mountains that sweep down to the Bay of Banderas. It’s a warm and sunny spot with tropical beaches, fresh ocean breezes, and temperatures that average 73° F to 83° F all year.
Imagine sleeping to the gentle bob of the tide or of a river current, then waking up to cast off the moor lines and set out for adventure. Or, more often, to stay at anchor, enjoying the lull of the water while having a fixed address and access to onshore services. That’s the life that houseboat living offers.
A relatively small town (about 10,000 people) set on a grid, Corozal is mostly a collection of small shops, restaurants, and simple homes. But this is a bustling burg, with walkways and parks lining the vast, turquoise Corozal Bay. The bay gives it that Caribbean feel. Locals lounge in the shade of the town square, and in the small farmers’ market you’ll find oranges, potatoes, carrots, and succulent mangoes. You can walk away with a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables, plus dry goods and any imported must-haves available at local grocery stores, for under $50.
Back home, you are energetic and enjoy a life full of activities, friends and diversity. You want it to stay that way and you have your priorities. Nature makes you happy. After a lifetime living in cold weather, you’d like to throw away your winter coats. Health care and safety are major concerns. Starting a business entices you, but isn’t it too late? You love your delicious coffee and going to great restaurants with your friends. You seek volunteer opportunities to help people and give your life more purpose.
Check any list of the world’s best retirement destinations, including International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index, and you’ll find Costa Rica near the top. And it’s not a new trend; this little Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama has attracted North American expats for more than 30 years due to many diverse factors. Here are four reasons why many retirees think it’s a great place to live. One of the biggest attractions of Costa Rica is the weather. For those seeking relief from frigid winters, the warm temperatures year-round are quite welcome.
Owning a French vineyard is the ultimate dream for many expats—and it’s easy to see why. From Burgundy to Bordeaux, France’s vineyards lie in some of the most beautiful areas of the country and have produced extraordinary wines coveted throughout the world. To live in such an idyllic setting, drinking wine from your own grapes and playing some small role in wine’s ancient story, is a concept that’s both thrilling and gratifying.