In Mexico, they call it “the margarita effect.” In Spain “the sangria effect.” In Thailand I would call it “the hot babe who loves you” effect (or worse). They all refer to someone visiting a place for a week on vacation, thinking it’s heaven on Earth, and deciding then and there it’s time to pack their bags and move. In this article you will find tips on things to do before moving abroad and how to make your first weeks in your new home easier.
You see this fantasy play out often in popular culture too, whether it’s a bad movie with Ben Stiller moving to Los Cabos or the dopey formula on House Hunters International where they make it look like it’s a good thing to swoop in and plunk down $300,000 on a house based on one weekend of looking around.
Many people do buy a house abroad on impulse and do just fine. A rising market will soon erase any overpaying and if the block-by-block neighborhood situation is not very variable, it’s harder to make a big mistake. Sometimes a house just feels right and so does the neighborhood, so the buyer gets lucky and is thrilled.
For each case like this though, there are probably three or four times as many where a hasty decision was a bad move. Even if you’re just renting, finding yourself next to a house where people party all night until dawn and have four barking dogs will wear you down fast. Or in countries where zoning laws are lax, you may suddenly find yourself next to a dry cleaner, an auto repair shop, a music club, or worse. If you’ve bought the place, you’re stuck.
The even bigger problem though is when the whole location is a bad fit. Often what looked great on vacation turned out to be much uglier when you are in a real neighborhood with monthly bills instead of on a $500 a day all-inclusive vacation budget. Or, it was great fun hanging out on the beach in a lounge chair for a week, but then after two months of that you get bored out of your skull. Playing golf every day might sound great when you rarely get time to do it. Like anything though, it can get old when that’s all you’re getting up for day after day.
Other times, I’ve heard of people buying a house in a hurry without asking many questions, in a place like the Dominican Republic for instance, then quickly finding out that nearly every house in the area gets broken into on a regular basis if there aren’t four levels of security and someone watching the place 24/7. Now, they have to try to unload the house to another equally naive foreigner willing to overpay.
Try it on for size
The solution, almost always, is to try your potential new home out first. Do at least a scouting trip, even better a lengthy trial run.
If you can go on a scouting trip during the worst part of the year weather-wise, that’s great. If not, ask locals what is like then. Many people visit Mérida or Puerto Escondido in Mexico during January and think it’s heavenly. Then they come back in super-hot May and ask, “How did I end up in the mouth of Hell?” People visit Cuenca, Ecuador in the dry season and think the weather’s perfect. Then the overcast rainy season hits and they say, “If I wanted this weather, I would have moved to Portland.” People go to some tropical beach destination in the dry season and it’s just as postcard-perfect as they imagined. They come back during “green season” and get stuck in the house for a week, putting buckets out to catch the leaks in the roof from the deluge.
If you know these seasonal issues going in, you’ll be ready for it with no surprises. Or you can make that the time of year when you go traveling or visit relatives back home.
Ideally, you have traveled enough to know which kinds of places are right for you and which are not. It’s hard to really know if a place is going to be right for you without doing two things: inner soul searching and exterior evaluation. The first is a matter of truly knowing yourself, while the latter is a matter of truly knowing a place.
In general, it’s easier to strike a place off your list than it is to decide if it’s perfect. The people who seem happiest where they’ve settled are those who have traveled enough to figure out what their key criteria are. I’ve met expatriates who carried out their research in a very methodical way: one actually rented places in five different locations in Mexico before he settled in Guanajuato where I live. Others have done it subconsciously over decades, asking, “Could I live here?” each time they land in a new place. Some set out for a trip through a dozen countries, looking for the perfect spot.
However you do it, once you have a place narrowed down, go do a trial run and see if this destination is really a place you can call home. Find a way to rent an apartment and stay for at least a few weeks, preferably longer. If you want to do it on a tight budget, house sit for someone through an organization like TrustedHouseSitters.com, MindMyHouse.com or HouseCarers.com.
Another option is to do a home exchange, either through a formal exchange membership program like HomeExchange.com or informally through Craigslist, word of mouth, or message boards.
Live like a local, not a tourist
Whichever method you choose, the goal is to live in a real neighborhood, not in a business hotel smack in the middle of the tourist district. You want to feel what it’s like to live there, not be a short-term tourist. Shop at local markets. Explore different neighborhoods by foot or bicycle. Eat at cheap places serving typical local food. Check the prices of things you love to consume and experience regularly. Take some language classes. Ask other expats what they struggle with.
Here are some ideas on what to do to get a real feel for the area:
1) Run every possible errand you would in the future. Go to the hardware store and buy something, even if it’s just an electrical adapter or screwdriver. Get meat from the butcher shop, bread from a bakery, shoes from a shoe store. Pick up local liquor or juice where your neighbors do.
2) Find a festival. Follow the noise and go see what’s going on. See how the local celebrations work.
3) Try local services. Get your shoes shined or fixed, your pants hemmed, your clothes cleaned, your hair cut.
4) Take local language classes and ask lots of why and how questions of the teachers. They’ll be able to explain the accumulated mysteries in English.
5) Rent a bike or scooter. You can see a lot on foot, but doing a little exploring will get you outside the bubble. If the safety worries you, take random buses to random places during daylight hours to assess the real situation.
6) Go to a local gym. What classes do they offer? What kind of shape are the machines in? Can you live with what’s around? If not, find other exercise alternatives you’d use instead.
7) Go to church or poke your head in for a wedding. Even if you’re not religious, this experience offers great insight into the local culture.
8) Go to a local sporting event.
9) Linger in public spaces. In countries that aren’t car-centric, people spend much of their time outdoors, walking, socializing, and just hanging out. Join them and observe.
Now, did you love or hate this experience? Is there one factor really bugging you that could be a deal breaker? Or are the negatives manageable?
The key thing to remember during your trial run is that you need to get a glimpse into expatriate life, not tourist life. That’s why it’s key to rent an apartment where lots of people live rather than staying in a hotel zone. Eat where you’d be eating on a monthly living budget, not on an inflated tourist budget. (Sure, go out for a nice meal now and then, but don’t eat at the most expensive places every night). Drink what the locals drink regularly, not Starbucks lattes in the morning and gin & tonics at night. Shop at the local grocery stores and markets, not the Costco 45 minutes away. Try activities and performances where people who look like you are in the minority, not the majority.
After all of that, as you’re coming to the end, evaluate the pros and cons. If the pros outweigh the cons and the place still pulls you in, mission accomplished. If the negatives are too great and are gnawing at you after a month, they’re really going to gnaw at you after a year or two. Still, mission accomplished. Better to come up short after a month of fun away from home than to make a full-blown move and then be miserable. Learn from the experience and find a more suitable spot. It may be just one town over, or it may be another country at a different latitude or altitude. After this valuable experience though, you’ll be better equipped to figure that out.
Article by Tim Leffel
Buy This Book – I would have loved to have a book like this when we first moved to Costa Rica and then Guatemala. Instead of going through all the trials and errors, it is great to have a guide to follow to make the move easy and enjoyable.
This article was partially excerpted from the book A Better Life for Half the Price, by Tim Leffel. Buy it at Amazon (paperback) or at CheapLivingAbroad.com (e-book). See more tips at his Cheapest Destinations Blog. Leffel has spent several years living in Guanajuato, Mexico—after trying it out for a month of course…