Don’t Check Your Brain at the Border

By shaye • July 2nd, 2010

I always believed in the maxim, “diversify your investments”. So during our working careers my wife and I used to buy real estate, especially south of the border.

When it came time to retire, we chose to live at least half the year on the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico. Lake Chapala is at almost the same elevation as Denver, Colorado, but rarely gets as cold. There is a brief mild winter, but most houses are neither heated or air conditioned.

Because of the ideal weather and living costs, which are still less costly than in the United States or Canada, this has become a popular retirement community with people from around the world. Ex-patriots in Mexico number in the hundreds of thousands.

As the baby boomer generation ages, this and other places like Roatan Island in Honduras, Costa Rica, the coasts of Mexico and, of course, most of the Caribbean will become more popular – and more expensive – with retirees.

These are ideal retirement locations and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from considering them. But don’t check your brain at the border.

Except for Puerto Rico, a commonwealth associated with the US, these are all foreign countries. English is not the national language everywhere and things are done differently – sometimes very differently.

If you are considering purchasing or renting a home and make some inquiries, you will swiftly become acquainted with the large realtor populations of these places. Surprisingly they will mostly be very friendly Americans or Canadians, willing to wine and dine you, introduce you to the local ex-pat community and explain the ins and outs of foreign living.

About a year or so ago, International Living ran an article titled: “Not All Sharks Swim Under the Water”. It was about ex-pat realtors and the tales they tell. And this is where the location of your brain becomes critical.

Take everything the realtors tell you with a grain of salt. Then hang out in any local pub, and you’ll likely meet disgruntled ex-pats who are disgusted with wherever you are. Also take what they tell you with a grain of salt, but carefully consider both sides of the picture.

If you can try to find some long term, year round residents, they will usually be your best source for reliable information.

Remember, when you first visit one of these locations, you are on vacation. Things are all fun and games. You meet new people, party and drink too much. You sightsee and have a great time.

But living in these areas can be a lot different experience. The phones and electricity may not work all the time. Internet service can be spotty. You might have to pump and purify your drinking water.

There can be disputes with the native population, which you’ll generally lose.

There will be many sharks – generally ex-pats – that will be more than willing to take advantage of your naiveté.

So some advice:

1. Don’t believe everything you are told. Check everything out with as many different sources as you can. And

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if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

2. Remember you are a guest in a foreign land. Don’t act like a spoiled brat. The cultural gap can be huge. And even if a native resident speaks English, there are often misunderstandings due to that cultural gap.

3. Don’t invest your money with some friendly bloke you meet in a local pub, no matter what return he guarantees. As a matter of fact, keep your money in the states or Canada, safely tucked away in a reputable bank or brokerage firm. If you want to keep some local currency on hand, open an account at a real bank. Keep the same accountant that you had in the states or Canada. Too many people die broke ignoring this advice.

4. The laws are different. In many countries a Notary – a specially licensed lawyer – will handle both sides of a real estate transaction. But you still have the right to hire your own lawyer, interpreter, building inspector and surveyor. You would be shocked to learn how many people don’t – I know I didn’t at first. And in many countries, lawyer-client confidentiality and conflict of interest are unheard of.

5. While most of the native population will be respectful of you if you return the favor, you will be a target of local thieves. Crime will probably be lower than wherever it is you’re coming from, but it exists – especially house break-ins and auto theft. You might also find yourself resented by the more well-to-do local population. It might be hard to make friends with them. But for the most part, the streets are safe at night,

6. Try to learn the local language and customs. Don’t try to impose your values and watch where you try to butt in. The one thing that will almost always insure you get poor quality workmanship is when you try to tell the local craftsmen and laborers how they should do their job. They will do it their way, even if you are a world famous engineer or architect who knows the “right” way of doing things.

7. In many places, the only thing you will have in common with other ex-pats is the language. So be sure you choose a locale with a sufficient ex-pat community so you can create true friendships. For the most part there will be many warm, welcoming people willing to include you in their social circle. This is one of the attractions of foreign living.

8. Be prepared to deal with poverty, people living in appalling conditions, child labor and more. There will be many groups to help, but there never seems to be enough to put even a small dent in the problem. Some of the problems are due to the local culture and there is nothing you can do about them.

There is no such place as paradise, at least not in Mexico, South America or the Caribbean. You can live a very nice life style, but nothing is perfect.

Chris Cooper a retired attorney, and his wife Aileen, who has a MBA in Finance, provide personal finance and financial planning advice at Credit Yourself


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