How to Localize Your Retire Overseas Search

Narrow down your options to a city or community that suits you best.

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Retiring overseas isn't a matter of picking the right country. No one is going to retire in France, Belize, or Panama. Instead you should be thinking about a new life in a small beach town on Panama's Pacific coast, a renovation project in a centuries-old city in the heart of France, or a horse farm in Belize's beautiful mountainous interior. These are starting-over ideas that might be just what you're in the market for.

Planning for a new life in a new country does little good. You need to narrow your search to specific communities. The lifestyle and cost of real estate can vary wildly from one region to another within any given country, just as life in Manhattan would bear little resemblance to a life in a small town in the U.S. Midwest.

Belize, for example, is a tiny country, but the lifestyle and cost of living options vary markedly from region to region. Retirement on Ambergris Caye would be a completely different experience from life in the Cayo District.

On Ambergris Caye you will find clear turquoise waters lapping gently against soft white sand, palm trees rustling in the warm breeze, and fishing boats bobbing on the horizon. San Pedro town, a former fishing village, is the center of activity and home to a growing expatriate community of North Americans and Europeans. There are dozens of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and community organizations. And you could settle in here quickly and easily because the language (like everywhere in Belize) is English.

The real estate market offers options at many price points for both buying and renting. You can buy a condo for as little as $100,000 or invest up to $1 million or more, and you can rent for as little as $600 to $700 per month or pay several thousand monthly.

Life on Ambergris is relaxed, friendly, carefree, and sunny. Adopt this island as your home, and you will enjoy almost all the services and comforts of home. And you'd certainly never want for like-minded company.

Back on the mainland, life in Belize is very different. Inland, in the Cayo District, Belize is a land of mountains, Mayan ruins, rivers, and waterfalls. This is Belize's frontier, a land where a person comes to stake a claim and make his or her own way. The wide-open spaces of the Cayo appeal to the adventuresome and the independent. Living here, you would enjoy lots of elbow room and far-reaching vistas. There’s also a higher level of support than you might expect. I was surprised and delighted during my most recent visit to Cayo to find many more shops and services than existed when I was in this part of the world last.

It might take some time to explore which part of a new country is right for you. On the opening afternoon of a recent Live and Invest in Panama Conference, one of the attendees approached me and said, "My wife and I don't like it here. This isn't for us. I think we're going to leave and return to the States tomorrow. This just isn't what we expected at all." When I asked what he was hoping for, he replied: “For us, the idea of moving to Panama has been all about living at the beach. Plus, we're on a very fixed income for our retirement. Already I can tell that we wouldn't be able to afford living here in Panama City. We were hoping to find somewhere affordable on the ocean. I guess our expectations were unrealistic."

I knew that Panama City wasn’t going to meet his expectations, but that another place in Panama might. I suggested that he travel out to the Azuero Peninsula, to the town of Las Tablas. A few weeks later I received an e-mail from that reader: "Kathleen and crew, after attending your Live and Invest in Panama City seminar, my wife of 44 years and I decided to purchase a home and live now, full time, in Las Tablas, Panama.”

Las Tablas certainly isn’t the ideal retirement spot for everyone. But you shouldn't judge any country by the first city within it that you happen to visit. Belize City, for example, is unsafe in many parts. But beyond Belize City, this country can be a delight. Don't land in Belize City, wander around for a few days, and decide that all of Belize is a miserable place. The landscape, climate, cost of living, safety, and tax rates vary by city and region everywhere. You already know this to be true back home. Florida isn't much like Texas and Manhattan is a completely different lifestyle than Detroit. But, somehow, we can forget this once we cross international borders.

France is another potential retirement spot that varies considerably by region. Paris is the best place on earth to seek out a luxury lifestyle on a budget. Whatever your idea of the high life, you can find it in the City of Light. And the best part about this city is that some of the best it has to offer comes free. Life's sweetest pleasures are here for the taking. Picnics in the Luxembourg Gardens, long walks along the Seine, and afternoons lost among the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter are all things that cost not a sous.

Paris is a never-ending feast of gallery openings, special performances, exhibitions, and celebrations, many available for little cost. You can join conversation groups, discussion groups, and book clubs sometimes free. You can enjoy prix-fixe meals for $20 or less, and you can spend hours in a café, seeing and being seen, for the price of a single café au lait.

The more practical necessities of life don't come free in Paris, but they are more affordable than you might imagine. France has some of the world's best infrastructure, and it's a bargain. Cable TV, Internet, and telephone, as well as the Metro, bus, and RER train system, are likely less costly than comparable services wherever you're living now.

But a new life in Paris may be beyond your budget. It will cost you the equivalent of about $4,000 per month to live there including rent. Look beyond Paris, though, and France becomes far more affordable. France hides country and coastal towns where the cost of living can qualify as budget.

The southwest of this country, for example, may not be the cheapest place to retire in the world, but it's one of the most affordable options on the Continent. This part of France delivers an extraordinary and hard-to-match quality of life for every euro invested. This region is historic, colorful, eclectic, always changing, and authentically French. But it’s also very open to retirees. Villages here date from prehistoric times, but the feel of this part of France is medieval. The living is simple and traditional, while still offering all the services and amenities of the 21st century.

No matter where in the world you’re considering, you aren't going to retire to a country. You are going to retire to a city, town, beach, or neighborhood in one of them. So approach your search that way from the start.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.