Tips for finding your ideal home overseas
Something I’d highly recommend is to move into somewhere temporarily. It’s a great way to trial run the neighbourhood you are considering. Spend a few weeks or months getting settled into the country and the lay of the land and work out where and how you want to live.
If you’re prepared to live out of boxes for a while, then you can take your time to find the perfect home with some detailed local research.
It’s not just about choosing the right property, it’s about choosing the right area. Yes, location, location, location!
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com.
Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole, and in this episode, I want to talk to you about finding your ideal new home overseas. So it's really exciting. You're moving to a whole new country and you've got your dream life all mapped out ahead of you. You know where you want to live because you've seen on the maps that this is the best place to be. You've heard from other expats that everybody lives here, and you've got a fantastic future in a brand new home.
But wait, there's a little bit more to it than that. In your home country, it's relatively easy to identify the areas you'd rather live in or those that you'd rather avoid when you're planning to move house. You can ask people, you can easily drive around and have a look at the roads, the area, the nearby public transport. You can see how the neighbouring properties look, what the gardens are like. You can search for clues on social media and join local community groups. This is an important decision. So getting the right blend of neighbours, being close to the right schools and nurseries, being on a good transport route, being close to employment opportunities and so on, is relatively easy to do in your home country. When you try and do this overseas in a whole different country, in a foreign country where you don't know how things work, it is somewhat harder.
So how on earth do you go about making that important decision when you're moving abroad and you have limited, or no, local knowledge? Now, before you appoint an estate agent, a realtor, you need to have an idea of what is available and what you're looking for. Whether you'll be renting or buying or you'll have accommodation supplied or you'll be looking for it yourself, here are some pointers to consider to make sure you find the right place for you and your family in your new country.
Your housing options will be dictated by a number of things. Basically, though, it comes down to who will be finding and paying for your home? And what type of property is generally available there? What I mean by that is it a high rise apartment in a city centre and that's all that's available? Or is a fantastic, huge, detached house by the sea an option for you? It depends where you're going and what you're looking for.
Your home may be entirely supplied by your employer, in which case, fantastic! But there may be a couple of drawbacks with that. It usually means that it will be closer to the office, which is not necessarily the best location for the whole family. It's unlikely that you'll have a lot of choice about that, but do be aware that when an office supplies a house for you, it is naturally going to be in their best interest to have it close to work. That may mean that it's 25 miles away from the best school around. But you'll have to work with that if the house is being supplied to you. On the positive side, though, you won't have to deal with any property issues as the employer should cover all that for you. And this is especially useful when the bureaucracy and language is difficult.
We have absolutely no choice in our home whenever we move. We don't even get to see it until we move in, which was interesting when we arrived in Berlin at half past 1 in the morning. Hopefully you'll have more flexibility and choice in your life.
In some cases, an employer will pay you an allowance towards your monthly rent, leaving you to deal with all, if not most, of the property search and agent dealings. So let's assume you have some kind of choice. If you're renting, are you looking for a furnished or unfurnished? Decide this before you start packing or getting rid of all your furniture! You don't want to turn up to an unfurnished house with no furniture whatsoever, it starts getting very expensive.
Some countries do have furniture rental places, not all, but some. So don't assume that that is going to be an option for you. Do your research. I sound like a broken record, don't I? "Don't assume do your research", but hey, it's worth it. It's your life. If you're buying, there's a hell of a lot more to consider. And we'll have a look at a few key points to bear in mind when it comes to buying a property a little bit later on.
And then you get to consider what kind of property you'd like. If you have a choice, what kind of property would you prefer? Do you prefer an apartment block or a house? Some cities have mostly apartment blocks and very few houses. Do you fancy living on the fifty sixth floor? Maybe the ground floor is better for you? Maybe you don't want to live on the ground floor and you'd be happy a little further up? Do you want to live in the city centre, completely urban? Or do you want to live in the suburbs? Are you looking for a house, an apartment, low rise or high rise? It's worth having an ideal property in mind, but also to keep your options open in case your dream house doesn't exist.
Some countries encourage all expats to live in compounds. These may be low rise apartment blocks or houses that form a kind of a gated community, while others have secure complexes due to security reasons. This was the case in South Africa where we lived on a kind of an estate, as we would know it, in the U.K. with an entry security system. So you'd have to drive through a security gate with guards before you got to the estate where the house was.
The different standards of housing can be radically different from country to country. And this is where hopes and expectations can be blown out of the water. For example, Americans moving to the U.K. are often shocked by our very small rooms and the lack of en suite bathrooms and non-mixing taps. Hey, it's Britain. We're old fashioned! Many people moving Tokyo, assume all property is extremely cramped, and yet there are many enormous apartments and even standalone houses, too.
And yes, I know that these are very generalised and sweeping statements, but for some reason, housing is one of the things that people make huge assumptions about. I've even had normally highly intelligent people ask me if I lived in a mud hut in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa! And did I see lions and elephants and giraffes walking down the street? Well, no, obviously not! But you'd be surprised at the assumptions that people do make.
One thing I would strongly recommend you do is to go for temporary accommodation first. One thing that everyone discovers is that it's almost impossible to find your perfect home in the perfect neighbourhood right away. You simply don't get the feel of a place until you've lived there for a while. And it's a bit of a catch 22 situation. So, as I say, I'd highly recommend move somewhere temporarily. It is a great idea to trial run the neighbourhood you're considering. You may not realise that there's a strip bar that opens at two o'clock in the morning just down the road. You just don't know until you've been in the area for a while.
So try and spend a few weeks or even months getting settled into the country and understanding and learning the lay of the land and work out where and how you want to live. Don't despair if you can't find an area that matches all of your criteria straight away. If push comes to shove, you can make a choice based on your first couple of priorities: local to school or local to public transport, for example. Move into something temporarily and look for a better option once you arrive. Consider some short term rentals. Airbnb is everywhere nowadays and is proving extremely useful in these cases. Even house sitting could be a very useful option for you.
So what about the neighbourhood? Where are you going to live? It's not just about choosing the right property. It's about choosing the right area. Yes, location, location, location! Some cities have always designated expat areas where you're guaranteed to live near other expats have international supermarkets on your doorstep and everyone goes to the same places, the same schools, the same community centres, the same manicurists, the same restaurants.
So start by making a list of what's important to you. It's always a sensible starting point for major decisions, and in this list, you need to include all the factors that are important about where you want to live. Firstly, do you want to live in an expat community or a local community? Do you want to live near to work, or near to school? Is public transport vital for you? Do you want an apartment, a house, a compound? Do you want urban, suburban? And then drill down into your own personal must-haves and your personal nice-to-haves. Pop them in to order of priority. So your list may look like this: proximity to school, at the top of the list, decent public transport links, suburban rather than city centre, good local facilities able to walk to the shops and a friendly local tone. Or it may look like this: I need to be able to walk to work. I want lots of green space. I want to live with expats and it needs to be near tennis courts.
So this shows you, this illustrates just how everybody's lists of priorities will be very different. And it's also good to consider your future needs. For example, if you have kids of primary school age and you'll be there for some years, you may find the secondary school is on a completely different campus and that may be several miles in the opposite direction.
This is very important if you have more than one child and one will be going to primary school and the other will be going to secondary school. So it makes sense for you to look at somewhere, perhaps in between the two areas.
In Pretoria, if my daughter had stayed on at a certain school, she would, once she moved to high school, then have to catch a school bus at five o'clock in the morning! Just to get to the campus in Johannesburg, which was over 60 kilometres away from our home. Five a.m.. No. That wasn't going to happen, we were having enough difficulty getting her out of the house for a 7:30 start a few miles away! We moved schools, we didn't move house; we weren't able to - we moved schools. So once you have your list, you can start doing some research. And that may feel difficult because you're so far away. But the good news is that there are more sources of local information than you may think.
With luck, you will have been able to go on a look-see visit. Please check out my episode on Nailing your Look-See Trip for advice on how to handle that. And there are a lot of tips in that episode about finding your home as well. Google Earth is quite useful. You can take a virtual wander through the streets on the other side of the world whenever you fancy. It's not the same as a personal visit, but you do get to see local facilities, restaurants, roads and houses and it's a good starting point. Do be aware, though it may not have been updated for several years. And what may look like a fantastic area may have changed considerably in that time.
Have a word with colleagues from work and see where they live and if they'd recommend it or not. And then consider if you actually want to live near them.
If you've already chosen a school, then the administrator will be a mine of useful information because they'll live there and they know who goes to that school, who lives in the area. And the school administrator will normally be more than happy to help you with local knowledge.
Look for social media groups too. The local leisure facilities may have a Facebook page, for example. The golf club may have something similar, and there may even be home or school social media links that you can start to look at and then connect with other parents. Please do watch out for advice though, as some people cannot see beyond their own needs. Some people can almost seem insulted if you choose to live somewhere other than the place that they've recommended. You must work on your own priorities.
Now, a little bit about currency and foreign exchange. Chances are you'll be moving money between countries. Perhaps once for the property, deposit, rental or purchase or regularly if you receive salary or investments in your home currency. Currency rates are one of the most unpredictable parts of doing business abroad. Sometimes they can work in your favour, making purchases cheaper with the exchange rate. Other times it's just a complete disaster. Shop around for the best exchange rates and use a specialist currency exchange company rather than your standard domestic bank for the best rates and for easier transfers.
With something huge like this, you could lose or save a heck of a lot of money if you don't research the local exchange rates and foreign exchange fees carefully.
If you're considering buying property in your new country, here are some tips to help you avoid the most common problems. First things first is to check out the property law in your destination. Are you even allowed to buy property in that country as a foreigner? Many countries set regulations on limits on foreigners investing in property in that country. The only one I can think of personally is Mauritius, because I looked into it for a while! And you have to buy property in certain residential scheme complexes and over a certain amount of money. If you've got stacks and stacks, I mean millions, then you can pretty much buy anywhere.
In Vietnam, it is possible to own property, but not the land on which your property is located. And in China, all land is owned by either the government or by a collective. Thailand prevents foreigners from owning land unless they do so in conjunction with a private, limited company that is at least 51 percent Thai owned. So, as you see, each country, and I'm not going to go to every country in the world, obviously, but each country has a different system and not all countries are up for buying property. For many, renting is the norm. So understand the country you're moving to. If you're doing this yourself, you need to be super hot on the research. If you have a company supporting you with this, then please use them for the information.
Now, when you're buying property, you have to have a legal representative. Be cautious about who you choose. Taking care can save you a lot of time, money and frustration. Further down the line.
Don't use the lawyers recommended by the seller or the real estate agent. They may be acting for both parties. Appointing an independent lawyer will ensure you get an honest opinion on all your legal matters when buying property overseas. If you're choosing a lawyer from your home country, ask these questions before appointing them to ensure your best interests are catered for. Are they qualified to practice in your home country and overseas? Do they have experience working in your chosen country? Are they specialised in property law? Are they registered with the Law Society or equivalent professional body?
Now, what about overseas mortgages? It is with such a large investment, it's wise to take independent and trusted financial advice. It's always recommended to research mortgages thoroughly before committing. Life changes. The whole economic process changes. Sometimes people want to lend mortgages to everybody. Sometimes no mortgages are available. So be guided by the global economic outlook and do take care.
Compare offers from different lending companies. This will ensure you receive a better rate. And remember, the mortgage suggested by a seller's agent might not be the best offer for you, so do shop around. If you're unsure of any terms and conditions, ask the lender to clarify these for you so you know exactly where you are and where your money is. The main aspects of mortgages to keep in mind are: the interest rate, the repayment method and any set up fees. Also check out early repayment and cancellation fees. And also a local currency variation. If you pay in your home currency, then you might have to pay more.
Make sure you understand all the aspects of the mortgage that you're agreeing to before signing the contract and be aware of any extra costs. There's a lot more to buying a property than simply paying for the bricks and mortar. Working out the cost of the property is just one part of the process. There are many extra costs that you may need to budget for, and some of these extra costs purely exist because you're a foreigner. For example, if you're buying a second home in Italy, be prepared to pay 10 percent tax, where it's only three percent for locals. Make a plan and budget for the extra money needed for this expenditure.
So some of the important peripheral costs to look out for are; a chartered and / or a quantity surveyor, international bank transfer fees, legal advice, translation services, service charges for common areas such as private roads, pools, anything that needs a communal upkeep. Also, there'll be connection fees for water, electricity and other utilities.
Find out what other unwritten costs there are. For example, did you know that when renting in Japan, some rental agreements require you to pay something called 'reikin', which is gratitude, money, kind of like a tip. This is essentially a gift to your landlord and can cost between one and three months rent. Keeping these additional costs in mind will ensure that you don't get caught out financially.
So if you were receiving a plumbing bill or if you needed to hire a translator at short notice, you've got the budget to cover that. Leave no stone unturned. Make sure your new home is everything you hope it will be. Even though the seller may appear perfectly friendly, it's no insult to them just to check that everything is legal, above board and in good shape before any money changes hands.
Here are a few things to consider when liaising with the seller: Does the seller actually own the title deeds of the property? Does the seller have any outstanding utility bills that you could become liable for? Are all the utilities connected, safe and can you use them? Another good tip is to talk to other people living in that area as there may be issues you're not aware of, such as weather extremes, you know, flooding or something, or local electricity problems or, as I say, a hidden nightclub or strip bar just next door.
So just a quick episode from me today. I am not a financial person. I'm not an estate agent. And some of the information I've given you may be a little out of date, as I say, everything changes rapidly in the world. What I'm trying to explain here is it's more important for you to spend time researching and actually spending time in the area before you choose your house. If you have a real estate agent show you around on a look-see trip and they're not showing you places that work for you, either take the bull by the horns and change real estate agent, or start searching for the type of property you want yourself and then instruct them to go and have a look for you.
The neighbourhood is more important than the property. It may be, especially if you have a family, it may be better to have property in an area that's fairly close to school so that your kids have local friends to play with. Or it may be that being close to work is more important for you. Make your list and it's your personal list. Make a temporary start, stay somewhere for a short while, move around a little bit. It's a bit of a pain when you're living out of suitcases for a while, but it is the best way to live in an area and find out how it all works.
Knowing the extra costs and preparing ahead will help reduce the stress of overseas property hunting. And much of this boils down to targeted research. Targeted to your destination, your needs, your wishes, and finding out about any of the unwritten fees for foreigners. But remember, as long as you are safe, have a roof over your head, can get to school and work fairly easily - without having to get up at five o'clock in the morning - everything else can be adjusted and perfected as you go.
If you are prepared to live out of boxes for a while then you can take your time to find the perfect home, with some detailed local research.
Happy house hunting! I hope it all goes really well for you and you find your perfect home and your perfect life overseas. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability Chat podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.