Living Abroad: If It’s All Over the News, You’re Probably Too Late

living abroad Central America

Housing development for foreigners in Costa Rica

One of the most frequent questions I’ll get about A Better Life for Half the Price is, “Why did you leave out Costa Rica?” Not far behind is, “Why did you leave out Spain?” Then “I noticed that Belize isn’t in your table of contents…”

You may have heard a lot about people moving to these places. You may even personally have friends there. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re much cheaper than where you’re living now. They may be too popular for their own good. Sorry, but Costa Rica is not a bargain.

If you have ever dreamed about living abroad or investing in property overseas someday, you will need to dive in and do some deep research. If you’re basing your decision on one article you read in some lifestyle magazine, that place is probably now beyond your reach—or at least more expensive than other nearby alternatives.

I read an article back in 2006 in called “The Rise and Fall of an Expat Haven,” about San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. I know that city well and have been on the faculty at their annual writers conference for two years. The word “fall” wouldn’t come to mind if you saw the throngs of tourists and English-speaking expats flooding the place now. What they meant by that though, even back then, was that it was losing its Mexican character and becoming an overpriced gringo town. As you can imagine, a decade later it’s even worse. Now you see articles on what you can get for a million dollars in San Miguel when you buy a house.

Start From Scratch in Your Destination Research

empty beach in central america

The problem is, many people who suddenly wake up and think they want to live abroad are not really all that well-informed. They are spurred on by an article, a TV show, or one friend’s experience and they do a minimum of homework. They hear about Costa Rica and think it’s the place to be, not even realizing they are 30 years too late. They think Roatan Island is some exotic backwater where the bargains are there for the plucking because it’s Honduras, even though the people who really made out like bandits there moved on to Nicaragua 10 years ago. They read some article about how lovely Croatia is and start making plans to buy property there, not realizing that they will be buying from a rich European who scored that dream home 15 years ago–at 1/4 the price.

Granada Nicaragua rooftops and church from aboveMy point is, by the time you’re seeing a location featured in every major media outlet, it’s old news. By nature, those outlets are conservative, with long lead times, and frequently the writer hasn’t ever lived in or traveled to the places he or she is writing about. (I know this because I get interviewed by them all the time.) Plus when a half million of the richest people in the country have read about something, as is the case with the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, you can be assured your buying power has just decreased dramatically.

If you want to do this, do it right. Start off by getting the best book on moving abroad on a budget. If your move will be years away, subscribe to International Living. (Just ignore all their annoying sales pitches for conferences and properties where they have a vested interest.) Join ExpatExchange for free and read their articles from people who have already made the move. Spend some money to buy specific country reports or books. Make contacts with people who have been there, done that, and have lived to tell the tale. Go to the places that weren’t hot 10 years before you even started looking.

Then spend some time on a scouting trip or two. Shop where the locals do and pay attention to prices. Ask people what they’re paying for rent and if that’s typical. Ask what the weather is like during the worst time of the year. Ask them what bugs them about this place and see if you can live with those annoyances. Once your potential destination passes the tests, relax and make it happen. Now you know you’ve made a good decision.

  1. Dean LaCoursierre

    And Tim your publication and the others are helping ruin the few places left by making your/their readers aware of them so you/they can live the good life off their contributions to your bank account. Can’t you see this, or maybe you just don’t care….. Now with e-magazines and youtube vblogers time is running out for paradise!

    PS: I know you won’t publish this!

    • Tim Leffel

      I’ll publish it, but this is my last warning to you. Stop coming into my house with your muddy boots and putting your feet all over the furniture. Every comment you have ever made is negative, so why are you here reading this blog?

      If you’re trying to keep your little corner of the world a secret, good luck with that. It’s like Trump trying to stop globalization and free trade. Or coal miners trying to stop the advance of clean energy. When people have the freedom to move anywhere, the smart and intrepid ones will do their homework and figure out the best matches.

      • farkennel

        I noticed that you didn`t deny his allegation.What`s up with that?By the way,any thoughts on East Timor as a permanent living place?

        • Tim Leffel

          He’s a known troll. There’s nothing to be gained by feeding his bitterness.

          Never heard of anyone wanting to move to East Timor, so you’ll have to dig around locally to find expats who may be there for info.

  2. Anthony Thomas

    Thanks for this Tim. Common sense isn’t that common anymore. Monkey see, monkey do is what the majority of Americans do.

    Expat Wisdom is the podcast I recommend if provocative. He is honest about the culture in Latin America because he lives there.

  3. Wade K.

    One thing to consider. San Miguel de Allende, for example, has been a favored destination for a long time. What that means IMO is that destination, like others, has lost at least some of it’s cachet with the “in crowd” that’s always looking for the latest and greatest. We went to SMA in 2013, found a terrific apartment for $450 a month all inclusive. There are deals like that, you just have to look. And while you see gringos around, most of the 65,000 population is Mexican, and most tourists are Mexican. Even the Lake Chapala area, which still has plenty of expats, doesn’t seem as popular as it once was just based on the various expat forums I read. Merida, Yucatan State’s capital, seems to be gaining a lot of popularity. Considering the very hot humid climate I’m guessing that Yucatan state being by far the safest state in Mexico, plus good amenities and culture, is the reason. That being said I have to thank you for mentioning Georgia. With a 360 day tourist card it’s very easy to get into. And is well served by discount airlines to the rest of Europe. And is far enough out of the way that it probably won’t get overrun by masses of tourists. Heading there just as soon as my 16 yr old dog passes away. Everything I’ve researched says Tbilisi is a great city to live in, and very affordable.

  4. Dean P.

    I’d also, say the easier it is for Westerners to get there-the more expensive it will be. A lot of these Central American locations are closer than a flight to Los Angeles for people in the East Coast and South Florida. m=Meanwhile, Thailand-while talked about a lot is a 16 hr. flight from the U.S. East Coast. That makes a difference. Westerners are abundant. But they are not driving the prices like in Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, etc.

  5. Thomas Eugene Mayer Jr

    I am living in a small town above Grecia, Costa Rica. In September I will have four years. My first house was $600 a month with utilities and internet. My second house was $400 with nothing but water. My third house that I have lived in for two year cost me $240 a month. I have dropped my living costs now to $590 a month for the rent, water, electricity, very fast internet & HAD TV and my monthly national health insurance (CAJA). I have residency so I can’t get out the out of the CAJA, which costs me $106 a month. It has taken me these nearly four years to learn how to live, shop an economize my life. I am able to keep my expenses low because I first careful not to buy everything imported from the USA, making a lot of things for myself because I just like doing that and not eating out a lot. I now have a small restaurant I go to that is about half as the expat favorite. I perfectly happy living in an Tico neighborhood and not seeing anybody from the north for weeks at a time. I plan to use all of us experience to move myself next year to Medellín, Colombia. I want to live now in a more Urban area and I am spending three weeks there in August. Plus I am willing to later go back for a follow up if necessary. My failure in all of this was simple. For five years running before I moved 9/11/2013, I spent three weeks each year in the Orisi valley. I never went over my daily budget. I was staying in a guest house where I cooked at one or two meals a day. What I didn’t?pay attention to was to record for myself how much my groceries were costing me from year-to-year. In 2013 I quickly learned that groceries were freaking high and just getting everything I wanted was not one or two stores in the community I end up moving into. But now I am able to benefit from my experience and save 30% of my Social Security. I must add that I don’t shop PriceSmart much because I just over shop to much. I pretty much Tico shop slightly modified. I buy and keep a lot of vegetables & fruits and but enough staples for a week to ten days. I have cut my meat purchases by 70% over the USA. I go days without eating meat because I make a lot of Indian food. All and all it has been worthwhile? but I have seen many expat’s that have to flee back to their home country because life they are use to can’t be replicated without a lot of green backs being spent.

  6. knight4444

    I’m enjoying this blog, I laugh at the trolls! my feelings are, If you don’t have ANYTHING constructive to say, then STFU!! I’m a black man moving to the philippines in august, but if the usa keeps embarrassing itself like it has since the orange baboon took office, no american may be welcome!!

  7. Michelle

    I actually did the opposite. Moved to Thailand with very little research, and ended up living in Bangkok for 14 years. Best thing I ever did.

    Last year, I up and moved to Vienna, Austria, again with little or no research, just a quick trip here before I moved. Again one of the best things I ever did.

    I think people are different. Some people need a lot of research and a lot of prep time. Others like me just pick a place and go and learn how to survive and love it :)

    I agree with you, though. I think most people would benefit from buying the books, doing the research, really knowing why they are going where they plan on going to, and how much it’s going to cost them when they get there.

    • Tim Leffel

      Part of it depends on how well-traveled they are already and how adaptable they are to a new place. A lot of people who look at moving abroad in retirement age don’t meet either criteria, so just winging it is going to be trouble.

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