Before we moved to Panama in the spring of 2012, we sold off pretty much everything we owned. Some went through ads on Craigslist or eBay, but most of our worldly goods went to others in the course of a single-day estate sale.
Trouble was, we still owned the house itself. The real estate market was so depressed at the time we didn’t dream of selling it, so we found a good rental agent who in turn found us an excellent tenant.
One year later, the real estate scene was looking better so we decided to put the house on the market.
The internet is a wonderful thing. Thanks to modern technology we were able to sign all the listing agreements through an online service. When the first offers came through, we could respond virtually to those as well.The real adventure began with the closing.
We’ve bought and sold property before. Usually it’s the everyone-sits-together-in-a-room-and-signs-papers scenario. When we moved from upstate New York to Florida 25 years ago, as sellers we signed closing papers before we left. That closing was otherwise uneventful.
Now here we were in one country while the house, buyers, closing agents et al were in another. No virtual signing allowed now … yikes!
Because of some complex financing, the buyer asked for 60 days to close instead of the more usual 30. As it turned out, that was probably a good thing.
We had two main stumbling blocks:
#1: Signatures had to be notarized
Here in Panama there’s exactly one place to get signatures notarized for US documents – the United States Embassy in Panama City. To use this “service,” you must make an appointment in advance and pay $50 per signature.
We live about a 4-1/2 hour drive from Panama City, and appointments are only available in the morning.
#2: We had to get the physical documents back to the closing agent
Here you can’t just stroll down to the post office and put important documents into the mail. Nor do we have easy access to UPS, FedEx or other international delivery services.
Several times we’ve sent documents to the US. We go to Chitre, about half an hour away, to the Mailboxes, Etc. store. There we put our documents into a US Postal Service Priority Mail envelope. They get it from Chitre to the Mailboxes, Etc. facility in Panama City. From there it goes on a plane to their Miami offices, and from there into the US postal system. Once it hits the post office, it’s a three-day delivery.
Based on our previous experience, we knew the whole process should take four days, five at the most.
Armed with this information, I contacted the closing agent to explain our challenges and discuss our options (in Florida routine real estate closings are handled by the title company, not an attorney).
I learned that, if we were lucky, they’d have final numbers from the lender about one week in advance. They could conduct the closing with scanned / emailed copies of the signed and notarized documents, but they’d hold onto our money until they had the actual documents in hand.
We managed to take another step forward in late July. I was back in Orlando for a couple weeks, so I went into the closing office and signed documents in person. It was a little scary as they didn’t have real numbers yet, so I was basically signing blanks. I figured it was okay to do since my husband wouldn’t be adding his signature until we had the final documents in hand.
Fast forward … the closing date of September 10 was approaching and we still hadn’t seen any final documents.
I contacted the closing agent to remind them we needed as much lead time as they could possibly give us.
A few days after that they emailed documents. With errors. Oops! Paperwork zinged back and forth a few times. One week before the scheduled closing, we finally had a set of final documents awaiting my husband’s notarized signature.
We whipped into high gear.
Monday, September 2. I went online and scheduled an Embassy appointment for my husband for 10:30 AM on Wednesday, September 4.
Wednesday, September 4. He left the house at 10 minutes before 4:00 AM and drove like the proverbial bat out of hell for Panama City.
He was making good time until he got close to the Bridge of the Americas – one of the only two routes into the city – where traffic ground to a standstill.
Apparently there had been an accident … and if he didn’t get across that bridge he was going to miss his appointment.
He kicked it into full-blown kamikaze mode and barreled down the road on the shoulder until forced to squeeze back into traffic. After doing this a few times he made it past the snarl and found the embassy.
An hour later and $250 poorer, he had his notarized document.
He raced back home, and we scanned the documents and emailed them to the closing agent. She checked them over, told us they were fine (whew!) and to go ahead and send them.
By this time it was too late to get them moving that day.
Thursday, September 5. First thing in the morning he drove to Chitre.
We debated whether it was worth it to spend an extra $50 to send them “Overnight” by UPS or FedEx. I say “overnight” in quotes, because they would still have to travel from Chitre to Panama, and then to Miami, before being handed over to the carrier.
Since regular mail only takes a day to go from Miami to Orlando anyway, we decided to save the $50 and stick with our original plan to use the USPS Priority Mail envelope.
And that’s when it all fell apart.
One week later, on September 12, the closing agent still had not received the documents. I was a little concerned because, included in that packet, was a voided check so the funds could be directly deposited into our account. I called our bank to explain the situation and ask them to please watch for any unusual activity, and I began checking our account daily.
Two weeks later, on September 19, after several impassioned phone calls with the folks at Mailboxes, Etc., we managed to trace our missing package as far as Panama City.
I was going online daily to the USPS.com website, and every day I got the same message: they had no tracking information for our Priority Mail.
The closing had happened. We no longer owned the house, title had transferred, but we didn’t have our money either.
Wednesday afternoon, September 25. My husband had been getting more and more anxious and despondent, and on this particular afternoon, he started to really lose it.
Seizing a moment when he was out of the house, I called a friend and told her, “You have to have dinner with us tonight. Our documents still haven’t arrived and my husband is driving himself and me completely crazy. I’ve got to distract him. Help!!!”
Thank goodness for friends!
When my husband got home I told him cheerily, “Bill and Judie want to have dinner with us tonight. We’re meeting them at 6:30 at Kasa 21.” (They make the best pizza in town there.)
We met our friends for dinner and they did a fantastic job at distracting my husband and keeping him from obsessing over our missing documents.
Thursday, September 26. Our documents arrived. It had taken three full weeks.
Much to my surprise, I was quite calm about the whole thing. As long as nobody was stealing our identities with the information on that voided check, I was cool. In the worst-case scenario, we would be in Orlando in November and could re-sign the documents in person. In the meantime, it’s not as though we were losing a lot of interest on the deposit or were waiting for the proceeds to buy something else.
Of the two of us, I’m usually the one to go over the top while he stays calm, cool and collected. Not this time, though!
I’m happy to say he calmed down right away once the closing agent had the signed papers in hand. I sincerely hope I never have to live through another inter-country real estate closing, though.
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
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