7 Keys to Buying Overseas Retirement Property

Here's what anyone thinking about settling abroad should know.

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While some retirees head straight for America's sun districts—Florida, South Carolina, California, to name a few—others travel clear across the border to launch their postcareer lives. And since many overseas retirement hubs combine a reduced cost of living with a delightful tropical climate, it's no wonder they're so appealing.

Overseas retirement is "more popular all the time," says Ruth Halcomb, who runs the international living website, LiveAbroad.com. "The baby boomers are retiring, and they are the people who went to the Peace Corps and studied abroad." Although buying retirement property overseas can be enchanting, it can also be challenging. Anyone thinking about spending a chunk of change on foreign real estate should be aware of some practical considerations.

Here are seven tips for retirees considering buying property overseas:

1. Beware the market trends: While American real estate is experiencing a protracted swoon, some world property markets are moving in the opposite direction. Likewise, the dollar is in the midst of a multiyear slide against foreign currencies. Combined, these trends suggest that selling your U.S. home to buy property overseas today would be unwise, says Michael Englund, the chief economist for Action Economics. "Making that switch now would appear to be classic herd-mentality behavior—jumping out of and getting into markets that have already moved sharply in one direction—theirs being up, ours being down," Englund says. Financially, it would make more sense to wait—perhaps a couple of years—for real estate and currency cycles to reverse course. However, Englund cautions, "it's no easier predicting currency markets than it is predicting real estate markets."

2. Think proximity, safety, and health: When selecting a destination, retirees should look for a politically stable country in relative proximity to the United States. This will help minimize hassles when they return home for visits, says Deb Andrews, the editor of the Caribbean Property & Lifestyles magazine, an online publication that specializes in issues involving relocating to the Caribbean. But another consideration, healthcare, is just as important. "You have to make the decision: Either you are going to go home [for medical treatment]—in which case you don't want to be [a great distance away from the United States]," Andrews says. "Or you you're perfectly willing to migrate your primary healthcare to wherever you are moving—so you'll want to know that the hospitals are pretty solid around you." (In the event of an emergency, of course, you won't have the option of returning to the United States for treatment. That makes good, in-country healthcare essential.) Countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico generally score well on these standards.

3. Give it a tryout: Even if you're convinced you've found the land of your dreams, it's a good idea to spend at least a couple of months as a renter before buying property in that country. There are a number of challenges to overseas life that might not be immediately apparent. By renting, you have much more latitude to return to the United States if you sour on your new location. "I have seen quite a few people really entranced with the idea of retiring in Mexico or Spain—somewhere exotic—and they change their minds after a while," Halcomb says. "Either something goes wrong or they miss the community they had in the United States."

4. Make in-country connections... : While exploring your potential new home, seek out others who have left their homelands to live in that country. "You'll certainly meet expatriates," says Roger Gallo, the founder of Escapeartist.com, a website on life overseas that is affiliated with Caribbean Property & Lifestyles Magazine. "Find out what they went through—most people will offer advice." Expatriates can help you learn if the country is right for you, as well as provide information about properties, financing, and legal issues.

5. ...or enlist a pro: A large, international real estate brokerage should be able to put you in touch with an agent based in the country that you're considering. "If it's a global organization, then they probably have offices in various countries," says Brent Lipschultz, a principal in Eisner LLP's personal wealth advisory practice. In addition, you can find a list of agents with a certified international property specialist (CIPS) designation from the National Association of Realtors here. A CIPS agent will be able to refer you to a qualified agent in the country you've targeted. "That way they will have a reputable realtor that [potential buyers] can work with just like they would in the housing process in the U.S.," says Manfred Chemek, the CEO of international real estate firm Manhelm International. Buyers You can also locate a qualified in-country broker at WorldProperties.com, a website run by the International Consortium of Real Estate Associations, of which NAR is a founding member.