Have you always fantasized about living in a French village or on a Mexican beach? While the dream may sound blissful, falling in love with a place is not the same as moving there. My husband Barry and I have been part-time expats in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato, in Mexico’s Central Highlands, for 16 years. After interviewing expats who live here, in other parts of Mexico, and in Europe, I came up with eight suggestions from people on the ground to help you figure out if you’re serious about retiring abroad.
1. Research From Home
You can find out a lot about a place before you ever get on an airplane. Simply browse the web by looking up “expat groups in _________.” For example, I looked up Chaing Mai, Thailand, and Cuenca, Ecuador, both popular expat sites, and in each case found multiple English-language organizations, Facebook groups, and meetups. Chaing Mai, in particular, was awash in activities, from book clubs to dance classes, cryptocurrency meetups to language exchanges. By joining sites before leaving home, you can ask questions and find out about housing opportunities, health care, banking, and other practical information.
2. Decide If You Can Afford It
A frequent incentive for retiring abroad is that the cost of living is often lower than in the U.S. — even in parts of Western Europe not known for being economic bargains. Still, you need to be sure that you can afford it or wait until you can, ensuring you make adequate financial and retirement plans to enable the move. Mary Anne Machado and her husband, Ricardo, a management consultant, who lived in Chicago until a year ago, started working with a financial planner twenty years ago to set up a savings plan that would allow them to retire in their mid-50s. They moved to Querétaro, Mexico, a beautiful colonial city two hours north of Mexico City, where they live in a classy apartment in Querétaro’s cuadro historico. Even now, they save money by not having a car and eating in most of the time. “In Querétaro I cook almost all of our meals at home, using my favorite knives and other implements that I brought with me. We spend much less on food than we did in Chicago, where we ate out a lot and did our grocery shopping at Whole Foods,” says Mary Anne. “We have also eliminated mindless shopping. I used to buy stacks of books that I never read. Now I use my library card to withdraw ebooks. We spent almost nothing on clothing last year.”
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3. Visit At Least Twice
I recommend visiting at different times of the year and staying in different parts of town. As future Guanajuato expat, John Fiore, who hasn’t moved yet because he and his wife are still raising teenagers and getting their finances in shape, puts it: “Over the last few years we go down once or twice a year and stay in different neighborhoods to evaluate the vibe, how sunlight hits the area, walkability, proximity to neighborhood stores, smelly drainage pipes, steepness of the callejones (alleys), how far the closest coffee shop is, proximity of local produce tiendas (shops), gringo concentration, barking dogs and chicken zones, vehicle noise, quality of the neighborhood infrastructure–sidewalks, potholes, art fixtures, architecture, if houses are kept up, etc.”
4. While Visiting, Meet And Interview Expats
Retirees abroad are generally an outgoing and friendly group—they must be, having put themselves in a foreign situation day after day! Many were willing to help us when we first came to Guanajuato, and now we return the favor. Over the years that we’ve lived in Mexico, several people considering a move have reached out to us, and we’ve chatted with them by email, over lunch, or by taking a hike together.
If you join an online group from home, you can probably find email addresses through the group (or write a Facebook message), but once you’re in town, you’ll pick up more details by chatting with people face to face. Ask them if you can pick their brains in return for coffee or lunch.
5. Recognize Your First Fantasy Location May Not Be Where You Ultimately Land
Before Barry and I bought our home in Guanajuato, we considered several other cities. I had always daydreamed of living in Europe, and Barry, a Brit, had loved visiting the Continent as an adolescent. In pursuit of our dream, I spent two weeks in the early 2000s in Budapest, Hungary, and later several months in Amsterdam while exploring business opportunities. For various reasons, neither of those cities worked out, and although at the time I was disappointed, I now realize it all worked out for the best. Ironically, we already knew Guanajuato and had even idly looked at buying a house before we considered the European locations.
Similarly, Carole Muschel and her husband, Kennie DeLoatch, owned an apartment in Mazatlán, Mexico for 15 years, but were only there part-time until they retired. “When we moved full time to Mexico, our beach home was too hot most of the year,” she says, “so we headed to the hills, having long been curious about the historic city of Guanajuato. After 2 1/2 years in a rental apartment, we bought a home. We love it here.”
Elyn Aviva and her husband Gary White spent 11 years in Spain before deciding to return to the U.S. They lasted a year in Arizona. “We felt like foreigners in our native country,” said Elyn. They returned to Europe, this time moving to Evora, Portugal.
6. Figure Out Housing While You Try Out A Town
In 1999, when Barry and I first came to Guanajuato, we were at the start of our 20-month sabbatical. We signed up for a Spanish language school homestay, living with a woman who is now our neighbor. Towards the end of the sabbatical, we returned for a few months, this time renting an apartment. A few years later, we were invited to house-sit a couple of times before we finally made an offer on a house. This incremental process is often how visitors turn into expats.
Nowadays, most people I know rent an Airbnb while they check out a location, but a surprising number of people house-sit — though no one does it through a formal agency. For instance, a friend house-sat for a coworker who owned a home in Guanajuato but could only come down during vacation time in the U.S. Ten years later, my friend bought her coworker’s house. Another couple I know came to Guanajuato, got to know the foreign community, and ended up house-sitting for different expats over a five year period. Some expats leave town for extended periods–to see their adult children and grandkids, for business or medical reasons, or just to go on vacation. This couple kept responding to opportunities until they found the right house in the right location at the right price.
Even once you think you’ve figured out the place where you want to retire, I wouldn’t purchase a home too quickly. Circumstances change. I’ve witnessed a number of expats returning to the U.S. due to the death of their spouse or for medical reasons, and it may not be that easy to sell your home.
Many full-time expats in Guanajuato never buy a house because the rent is affordable and they don’t want to be saddled with the burden of home ownership.
7. Try Part-Time
Many people, like Barry and me, winter abroad and summer in the U.S. Going part-time to start is another way to reduce your risk. One couple from Portland, Oregon who live in Guanajuato year round, started off part-time and had no plans to move permanently to Mexico. But the more they were there, the more they loved it, and three years after buying their home, they moved full-time.
8. Look Into Visa Requirements
Be sure you understand how long you can stay in a country before your visa expires. In Mexico, for example, your tourist visa, which you get at the airport or wherever you cross the border, gives you six months. In most of the EU, the Schengen Agreement allows you only 90 days before you have to leave. Unlike Mexico, where you can turn around and re-enter the country a day later, you must wait a year before returning to countries that have signed onto the Schengen Agreement.
Mexico, Panama, Thailand, and Australia are among the easiest countries to immigrate to. The others can be found here.
By trying out the expat life in a low-risk way, you can find out if it’s really what you want. You’ll get past the infatuation stage with a foreign community and see if you’re serious about committing. After all, you’re not 20 anymore, and you don’t have time to make bad decisions. Think of it this way: retiring abroad isn’t a fling, it’s a marriage, hopefully for life.
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