I’ve heard so many horror stories about folks who sold their homes and cashed in all their chips to move to their dream “place in the sun,” only to realize they absolutely hated it and wanted to move back home again.
I never want to find myself in that position. And so I’ve never regarded any of my moves as permanent.
I don’t own any property, so that part is easy. And I don’t transfer my entire life to the country of my new base either. I open a local bank account to make sure I always have cash on hand for small expenses. But beyond that, you can use foreign credit cards just about anywhere, and doing all your banking online is quick and easy.
My mobile phone has a local SIM card too. You can pick these up and swap them in anywhere you happen to be. And you can open a prepaid Skype or Google Voice number if you need to maintain one permanent point of contact. I rely on email for almost everything else.
So what do I look for when I’m evaluating my next possible temporary base? And how do I avoid spending a lot of money and ending up in a place I despise?
I have a pretty simple checklist in my head, and ruling out potential candidates lets me get to a short list relatively quickly.
I want to share that set of criteria with you here.
You can either use my checklist to plan your own sojourn abroad, or you can work from it to create a list that appeals to your own needs and dreams.
We’ll start with the broadest category and work our way down.
Country and Area Requirements
One of the first things I need to know is a city or location’s proximity to a good sized airport. I travel a lot, so I want a place that’s within an hour’s drive or less of an airport with good flight connections to a large long haul hub. In Europe, that means a couple flights a day to Frankfurt or London
Absolute necessity #2: high speed Internet. Fast and reliable. No exceptions. My work completely depends on it.
I also look at the prospective country’s tax rates and residency system. This is a really big one because it can save you a great deal of time and money.
I want to live in a place where income taxes are reasonable for expats, and where the financial system is more or less stable. As an expat, you don’t necessarily have to deal with the local banks, but it helps to have some cash on hand locally for day to day expenses.
In terms of residency, I want a place where things are straightforward when it comes to permits, bureaucracy and cost. The last thing you need to deal with is queuing up at some Kafkaesque government building every 6 months for a rubber stamp. Life is too short to mess around with a time consuming mountain of red tape thrown at you by some meddling bureaucracy.
Next, the weather. Now there’s something that’ll affect you every single day of your stay! I spent the first 1/3 of my life locked in 8 months a year of bitter cold and snow. I think I got that lesson, thank you. These days I look for a place that’s blessed by the sun all year round. I want warm to hot summers and mild winters. And if it gets too hot, I’ll hop on a plane and go hiking in the Alps.
My next criteria is landscape. I want a place that inspires me, that sparks my curiosity, or that otherwise adds options for my free time.
My priorities may change in the future as I shift my base outside of Europe. But as of right now, I’m looking for close proximity to the sea but within driving distance of mountains, or of some other wilderness area where I can hike. I love the Mediterranean for that. But I want my seaside base to be in an area that isn’t hideously overdeveloped.
I’m also presently looking for places that have a food and wine culture. There’s that Mediterranean influence again…
And I want to live in a place with excellent cultural events, museums and exhibits. A place where people care about art and literature. A place that feeds my mind as well as my sun-starved bones.
Finally, I want to live in a place where people are tolerant of others. Where no one is trying to control the way you live, or attempting to impose their religion or worldview on you. Yes, I often find myself traveling in such places. But when it comes to the base I’ll return to over and over again, I’m looking for a “live and let live” attitude.
That’s a pretty good summary of my Country and Region Checklist.
Okay, so what about my actual house or apartment?
In terms of the property I rent, I also have a very clear set of criteria. This makes it easy to narrow down my search and rule out a lot of unsuitable dwellings.
As an added bonus, when I use rental agents, I can give them a very clear list of what I want, and I can immediately dismiss anything that doesn’t fit this without wasting my time on pointless viewings.
First, there’s space. I always need an extra bedroom to act as an office. A room where I can shut myself in and shut the world out. My minimum is 3 bedrooms. One to sleep in and one to transform into an office. The third bedroom can either be a workspace for my photographer wife or a guest bedroom, depending on our needs at that time.
Right now I’m renting a 3 bedroom penthouse on a hill. Before that I rented a palazzo with 8 bedrooms, 2 cellars, a courtyard and more. It really depends on the place and on what feels inspiring. But 3 bedrooms, no less.
Next, peace and quiet. I absolutely hate noise, and I can’t deal with it when I’m not on the road.
So that usually rules out shared walls with neighbours—there’s nothing worse than being forced to listen to someone else’s babbling TV or the hell of a mechanically thumping bass. And no noisy party neighbourhoods either! If I want to visit a bar, I can walk to one.
After that, I look at what I’ll be sitting on. Because I’m only bringing my clothes, electronics and books, everything else—including dishes—has to be there already. Fully furnished, to a high standard. It doesn’t have to look like a designer magazine. But I’m not a student anymore, and I don’t want to live with other people’s mix and match cast offs.
My home should be a place I look forward to coming back to. A peaceful place where I can work and read. This may sound like a tall order, but it really isn’t all that difficult to find.
Modern appliances are great too. I’ve lived in both old and new places, and each has its advantages. But when it comes to appliances, I prefer brand new when I can get them, because it’s great to have stuff that works.
That’s about it.
Those are my ideals. But I have been willing to compromise when I’ve found a really unique house with a great deal of character. Apart from quiet and an extra room in which to work, I’m really not very picky.
Now comes the icing on the cake…
Where possible, I try to find a place that has a good public library system with English books. It’s a huge bonus if I also have access to a university library.
As someone who reads around 100 books a year, this is very important to me. Yes, I own a Kindle. But many of the books I’m after are obscure or out of print. Kindle just doesn’t stock them. So in the absence of a good library, I end up spending a fortune on eBay and Amazon.
The other “quality of life” criteria I look for is a properly equipped gym. Sure, I’ve got some portable gadgets and bodyweight exercise options that I use when I’m on the road or based in hotels. But when I’m at home, I prefer lifting weights. I don’t need a place with fancy machines. Just bars and plates, some dumbbells, a power rack, a bench, a cable station and a pull up bar. If that’s close to my house, then I end up saving time on commutes 3 or 4 times a week too. Even better if I can walk there.
Now Just Show Up!
So what next?
Once you’ve narrowed things down that far, you simply have to put “boots on the ground.” Visit your top candidates and spend some time there.
Don’t bog down your schedule with sightseeing and activities. Instead, rent a flat for a week or two and try to get into a normal routine. Stick to your regular work hours. Check out a few restaurants, and scout out the grocery stores too.
You should also drive or walk around the nearby towns and neighbourhoods to get a sense of the overall feel and rhythm of the place.
Your goal is to get a sense of what it might feel like to live there for a few years.
If your finalist is a major tourist area, you might also want to visit it in both the low season and the high season, to see if you still like it when the place is crawling with vacation types. Or, like me, you might just plan to go abroad during those busy times instead.
So yeah, that’s about it. A detailed summary of how I find cool places to live in exotic locations, while minimizing the hassles and avoiding expensive dead ends.
If you’re planning an expat adventure, now’s the time to create your own template.
Click next below for Part 2 of this article. I’m going to walk you through an evaluation of my current island base of Malta. It’ll be a great practical example of how to apply this process. And we’ll see how that enchanted isle stacks up to the categories I listed here.