Expat Interviews: Homeownership and Living Abroad

When I talk to others about moving abroad, a surprisingly large number of people say that they can’t go abroad for an extended period of time because they own a home. I think that’s why some people who write about travel and living abroad advocate against buying a house. I think they are wrong.

I’m planning to write more about why I’m planning on buying a house – and how that could help, not hinder, my future plans for trips abroad. But today I wanted to publish a question and answer with Cliff Chestnut, who has some direct experience as a home owner who decided to relocate abroad – and didn’t let his house get in the way. Cliff owns a house in Portland, and he has been renting it out ever since he moved to Spain in 2004.

In case you’re wondering, Cliff is far from the only person I know who owns a home in the United States but lives abroad or travels abroad for months or years at a time.

What year did you decide to go abroad?

I made the decision in 2003 after having visited Spain the previous year.

How old were you? Were you married, did you have children?

I was 27, single and no dependents!

In a nutshell, what made you decide to go abroad, and how did you choose to go to Spain?

I first took Spanish in middle school, and got hooked on Madrid after hearing my first Spanish teacher talk about the city. I studied the language for 5 years but didn’t get a chance to visit Spain until I was a working adult. The trip I took in 2002 solidified my desire to live abroad and truly become fluent in the language. I felt good in Spain, like I should have always been living in the country. It sounds strange coming from a person who grew up in the Deep South with no connections to the country or the culture, but it’s true.

How long had you lived in Portland when you decided to go abroad? Where are you from originally?

I lived in Portland for about 6 years. I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and spent my entire childhood in the “Lowcountry” as locals fondly refer to the region.

When did you buy your house?

I purchased the house in 2001 when property was still relatively affordable in Portland.

How did you decide to rent it out instead of selling it? Do you think you made the correct choice?

I talked to friends and relatives who were landlords and decided it made good financial sense to keep the home as an investment. I absolutely made the right choice.

Describe the process of finding a real estate management company to handle the rental, finding renters, etc. How involved in the process were you?

I personally interviewed several companies to find out how they marketed their properties, and selected and screened potential tenants. I also wanted to know how they would handle bills, maintenance and any unexpected matters that might come up while I was living half a planet away. I also got references and made the decision based on that.

What did you do with all of your furniture?

Donated some, had a yard sale, stored some items in friends’ basements – the furniture landed in different places.

What percentage of the costs related to the house (mortgage, insurance, taxes, etc) is covered by the renters?

I am fortunate that the rent covers all expenses and makes a profit each month, albeit not a huge profit!

How much time do you have to spend thinking about the house?

Not much, thankfully! I think about it when I receive a statement or when there’s a minor maintenance issue. It’s not been a headache at all.

Any advice you would give to homeowners who are thinking about going abroad and renting out their house?

Read your property management contract carefully. Stipulate in writing when the company has to contact you to approve maintenance expenses or other expenses in order to avoid surprises. Be clear about your pet policy, who is going to take care of the yardwork, those kinds of things.