The idea of escaping abroad started getting tossed around a lot in conversation leading up to the 2016 election. Now it’s 2023, a Trump presidency and a pandemic later, and a lot of people made good on their word. They didn’t exactly go to Canada, as promised, but south to Mexico and across the Atlantic, particularly to Southern Europe. Considering doing the same? This week Escape Home contributor Timothy Harper writes about what to know before buying a first or second home in another country:
Jack Hatch has long been a fixture in Iowa business, politics and civic affairs. He and his wife, Sonja Roberts, started a successful real estate development company specializing in affordable housing. He served several high-profile terms in the Iowa state legislature, capped by a heralded but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor nearly a decade ago.
For many of those years based in Des Moines, Jack and Sonja had a weekend getaway: a log house on six acres in the Iowa countryside. When their two daughters grew up and moved away, they began looking farther afield for their next escape home. Much farther afield.
They are now in the process of resettling in San Miguel Allende, a city of about 175,000 in Central Mexico, 155 miles north of Mexico City known for being not only safe but welcoming to foreigners. They are among the growing number of Americans who are establishing escape homes in other countries for a range of the usual reasons: good weather, lower cost of living and stimulating recreational and cultural opportunities.
Some friends have fallen in love with favorite vacation spots, from Puerto Rico throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and ended up setting down a second set of roots — villas, condos, timeshares, houses large and small. Other friends have worked abroad as expatriates, and loved it so much they kept second homes in those countries, some as far away as France and Malaysia, after moving back to the States.
Sonja and Jack vacationed in San Miguel de Allende, and loved it. They kept returning, and began thinking of the town as not only a getaway while they were working, but possibly as their principal residence in semi-retirement and eventually retirement. They would flip the equation, and their longtime Iowa home — or some downsized version — would be their escape home for returning to see family and friends and do whatever business they still had in the Midwest.
Jack told me they were first drawn to San Miguel de Allende – the locals call it SMA – by its rich history and culture; it’s a World Heritage site for its architecture and colonial history. “We visited San Miguel five years ago and immediately fell in love with the city, the culture, the art and music community and the people,” he said.
They kept returning, and began to envision the place as home. It helped that they could make the trip from Des Moines to San Miguel in seven hours, sometimes less, with a brisk connection through Houston or Dallas.
Jack said they finally started looking for houses when they agreed it would take a move that big and bold to get him away from business and politics.
“It’s working,” Jack reported recently, a few months after buying a comfortable but modest house in a neighborhood popular among the many other mostly American but also Canadian and European expats — 15-20 percent of the city’s population, by some estimates — who have moved to San Miguel either permanently or part-time.
He joked that he and Sonja like San Miguel because it’s the Iowa of Mexico, right in the middle of the country, three hours’ drive north of Mexico City and eight hours from either coast.
“When we first arrived in SMA, we were inundated with what appeared to be daily festivals, music in the streets, hundreds of restaurants — five stars to taco stands — bars, coffee shops and retail stores, selling everything from touristy stuff to beautiful works of art,” Jack said. “I have become a fan of the folk-art industry and its beauty.”
As a history buff, he’s thrown himself into learning how independence from Spain in 1810 and Mexico’s 1910 revolution started in the local state, Guanajuato. “Living in SMA is like living in the past but operating in the present,” he said. “Every view, we see houses and hotels and offices as they were hundreds of years ago. But newer houses have been built to replicate the old style — incredible.”
The people might be as friendly as Iowans. “Every face has a smile and a welcome greeting of buenos dias,” Jack said. “We visit wineries, museums, theater, dozens of choices of music and entertainment every night in the Jardin, the central square park where mariachi bands play.” There are warm springs and hiking trails and places to ride horses and play tennis, soccer and croquet.
And, of course, wherever well-off older Americans gather, there’s pickleball.
When they decided to look for a house, Jack and Sonja found an expat American who had been working as a real estate agent in town for many years, helping other Americans find their getaway roosts. They made an offer on the second house they saw in August and closed in October.
They got good advice on doing the extra paperwork to protect their foreign property in their estates.
“To prevent any loss of property in the future, it was strongly suggested we write a ‘will’ and be specific to whom we would leave the house upon our death,” Jack recounted. “Otherwise, it might be swimming in probate purgatory for many years.”
Meantime, when not back in Des Moines to keep an eye on the Hatch Development Group, Jack is fixing his do-good civic jones by joining two water and land environmental restoration programs in Mexico started by American expats to provide better water quality in poor areas around San Miguel.
Sonja, a big fan of the local folk art, has connected with an artist cooperative and volunteered at the local public library teaching English to local women.
When they’re back in Des Moines or traveling elsewhere, Jack and Sonja have no trouble finding house sitters who will watch over the house and their two dogs and two cats.
At my urging, Jack offered these thoughts, lightly edited, on the dos and don’ts for anyone thinking of buying a second home abroad:
- Location, location, location. Find a place overseas that you have visited and that meets your ideal environmental surroundings. Go to the coast for the ocean. Rainforest, desert, whatever topography you want should be your first priority.
- Town or country? There is a big difference in the services available. Americans most likely want modern services like water, sewer, roads, along with cable, television and internet. And, of course, the big concern for many: health care.
- Visit as many neighborhoods as possible to find what you prefer: lively or quiet, commercial or residential, a young vibe or a mixed population, edgy or ultra-safe. Consider the architecture: does it appeal?
- Engage a real estate agent early in the process. Every country has different laws. An agent can not only show you neighborhoods and homes, but also help you understand the rules and find the right lawyers, notaries, tax advisors and other professionals who can help you avoid complications.
- Develop a relationship with a local bank. Get to know the banker. This can save you both time and money.
- Consider hiring a property management company if you’re not going to be around much, or you are counting on the place also being an income property. This is especially important if you are not fluent in the local language: a property manager can help find the electricians, plumbers, builders and other skilled trades people you might need.
- Finally, Americans overseas have to be assertive in reaching out to neighbors and finding new friends. We’re all more comfortable when we know neighbors and have friends who can share local information with us and help us avoid some of the inevitable pitfalls of local nuances, whether social, financial or cultural.
Have you bought a home abroad? The Escape Home would love to hear about your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org.