House Hunting in Bargain Portugal

It wasn’t until I lost my job as assistant to an attorney that my husband Keith and I began to take a serious look overseas. My Social Security and Keith’s income were not enough to continue to pay the mortgage and living expenses in California.

So in 2012 we arrived in Portugal for a six-month trial-run adventure.

I was an IL reader. I was excited by what I found. The low costs were refreshing as was the laidback lifestyle and tranquil surroundings. So I wrote to IL to tell them about it and they asked me to write an article.

Keith and I were living in an old stone cottage nestled in a northern valley. It overlooked a goat pasture, yet a city was just 10 minutes away and cost just $500 a month. Here’s some of what I wrote:

“A herd of goats frolics into the pasture below my patio. The flock leaps over the stream, threading its way through the field. They butt each other in exuberance as I savor my morning coffee and fresh rolls with creamy butter. It’s 10 a.m. but I only know that because that’s when the milking finishes in the animals’ ancient stone quarters across the road. Distant bells from the village church are also a clue. Like the goats, I’m exuberant: after years of visiting Europe, I’m now living here.”

That six-month trial period flowed into five years of renting in various regions as we fell for this diverse country and all it offers.

For a few months we were in windswept Esposende, a kite-surfing mecca on the Atlantic between Porto and the border with Spain, where for $600 a month we had a fully furnished two-bedroom, two-bathroom modern condo with a common pool.

Moving a little farther south our next rental was a Spanish-style villa in a village 30 minutes from the medieval university town of Coimbra, sometimes known as “the Oxford of Portugal,” where students still wear black capes. This fully furnished home overlooking a vineyard offered four bedrooms, an office, a large living room and dining room, and private pool, all for $900 per month.

Then we moved to Mafra, 40 minutes north of Lisbon and home to a magnificent Palácio Nacional. Our house there was in a little enclave called Quinta de Santa Barbara within walking distance to the center of town with its shopping and restaurants. It was a large two-story home of four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a four-car garage, and a small guesthouse outside by the garden area. Even with such an appealing location we paid only $1,000 per month.

Last year we finally began looking for a house to buy. We agreed on a budget of $300,000 and compiled a wish list, beyond the must-haves of high speed internet and quiet. The necessity for excellent internet is obvious. As for quiet, one negative we’d found is that Portuguese dogs—who have very effective vocal chords—live outside all day and sometimes all night, when they often bark.

Our wish list included a couple of acres of land, a well, a view, solar panels, and a vineyard. Keith threw in chickens and goats. I countered that no matter how convenient it might be to have fresh eggs and milk this was simply not happening. We travel a great deal. Who would stay home and mind the coop?

Keith’s dream of a vineyard almost came true when we viewed a house in the Alentejo, a classic Monte Alentejano, a traditional house. The long, low lines and thick walls of these white-washed structures retain the cool in summer and warmth in winter but mean they are dark inside. The vineyard boasted three different types of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon. But we estimated that grading a portion of the property, erecting a wall (the house sat on the road), installing skylights, and building a storage facility (armazém), would cost about $70,000, putting us $20,000 over budget, since the selling price was $220,000. A bargain for someone looking to make a foray into the wine business.

On another farm yielding apples, onions, potatoes, and grapes, the owners invited us to tour their property and home for sale. We met pigs and goats, chickens, and the requisite dogs. The owners graciously proffered a taste of their homemade brandy, aguardente, sending us home with not only a whole bottle of it, but a bottle of their wine, as well.

On our longest day searching we viewed five homes in over 16 hours. Energy Performance Certificates (the official designation for energy efficiency) ranged from A to F; acreage from two to 22, prices from $69,500 to $289,000.

We were well rewarded for our efforts.

When we first saw the home we would eventually buy we were overwhelmed. More than four acres featured pine, eucalyptus, acacia, oak, and young cork oak trees, as well as cherry, orange, lemon, and other fruit trees. There was even a pool, an unexpected bonus, surrounded by terracing bordered with lantana hedges, and the area included synthetic grass sections perfect for pétanque, a kind of bowling game to which I’m slightly addicted. We looked at each other and said, “how bad can the house be?”

Not bad at all. It was warmly decorated with lots of wood touches, lovely country furniture, and charming details like carved hearts, fragrant candles, even an antique harpsichord. Although furnishings ultimately were not included—and we certainly had enough of our own—the psychological effect was such that we decided on the spot to make an offer.

The house had been on the market for more than four years. Originally listed at $470,000—high for both the economy and the area—by now the price was reduced to $300,000.

Our offer of $250,000 was accepted.

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