I spent my first three weeks in Las Tablas, Panama, homeless and alone. I had traveled to Las Tablas while my husband stayed back in FL. He was getting our house there ready to rent out while I was looking for a place for us to live in Panama.
After arriving in town I checked into a hotel. I had no idea how or where to start looking for a rental.
You see, Las Tablas has no organized real estate market as we know it in the US. No rental agencies, no real estate companies. Certainly no MLS (multiple listing service).
I had one contact to start with – someone I’d connected with on a Yahoo forum who indicated she knew of some rentals in the area. I sent her an email, and arranged to meet (after I got over being sick, that is!).It turned out that she and her American partner, Jim, run a small restaurant in town. Priscilla does the cooking while Jim handles marketing for the restaurant and takes on other projects. Including helping clueless gringos find housing.
Jim showed me a couple of places. The first was disheartening.
It was tiny, dark, run down and overpriced. The owner seemed to think that “American” was synonymous with “stupid” and “rich,” an attitude we see here pretty frequently.
The second was quite nice. Three bedrooms, two full baths in a nice neighborhood. It was fully furnished. It also cost more than I wanted to spend.
Based on what we’d learned during a visit the previous year, I’d been thinking we could find a reasonable place for about $200/month. After seeing a few available houses I quickly revised that figure upwards. It wasn’t only housing, prices for restaurants, groceries and other purchases were 25-35% higher than we’d seen a year before. Still, $400/month seemed steep to me, so I kept looking.
I quickly discovered that the best way to find anything was by word of mouth. I started talking with everyone I met – Americans, Canadians, Panamanians. Cab drivers, wait staff, hotel clerks, I talked to them all.Remember, now, my Spanish language skills are almost non-existent. Still, I learned the word for rent (alquilar), house (casa) and please (por favor). Google Translate became my friend.
I looked at a house that reeked so badly of cigarette smoke I almost couldn’t continue breathing through the showing. I saw a cute house in a nearby barrio right on the village square, but it was just too small for us. I saw houses in varying states of disrepair.
Finally, after almost three weeks, I signed an agreement for the second house I’d seen. By that time I’d looked at enough other places to know that the rent was reasonable, even if more than I had expected to pay.
Initially I signed a three-month agreement – just in case there were any surprises. I figured I could put up with almost anything for three months.
As it turned out, the only thing I had to buy was towels. Everything else was included – dishes, pots and pans, sheets, appliances, furniture and, yes, even light fixtures.
We’ve been in the house for nearly a year now. We’ve chosen to buy some of our own things for the kitchen because we do more cooking and baking than the initial sparse inventory allowed.
We’re pretty contented here – in fact, we’re talking about extending our lease for another year.
Besides word of mouth, there are five other ways to find a place to live in an area with a disorganized real estate market.
Go Door to Door
If you find a neighborhood you’d like to live in, knock on doors. Ask around. If your language skills aren’t up to it – as mine certainly aren’t – find someone to translate for you.
In Las Tablas, there’s a bulletin board outside the local grocery store where people put up information about buying, selling, renting, etc. If your town has something similar, check it out. Every day.
Here in Panama, the most popular online classifieds are at Encuentra24.com. If your Spanish isn’t up to it, find someone to help you.
Craigslist is also popular, but seems aimed more directly at the gringo market. That translates into higher prices.
Other Online Advertising
Yahoo and Reddit haves forums and groups for expats in a number of different countries. Some of them let you post classifieds. Or look for independent country forums.
Real Estate Professionals
If your area does have real estate agents, make sure you understand who they represent. The buyer/renter? The seller? Themselves? Don’t assume because someone hangs out a shingle or prints a card and calls himself a real estate agent that it means what you think it means.
Remember, too, that with no MLS you’ll need to work with several agents to see all the available property in the area.
A Few More Tips
If you meet someone who helps you out, make sure you’re clear ahead of time about whether they’re expecting payment or whether they’re just being helpful and friendly.
In a place where agents and brokers don’t need licenses, or where anyone can get a real estate license just by paying a fee, proceed with caution.
Once you find a suitable house or apartment, get everything in writing. It’s a good idea to use a bilingual lawyer, and don’t sign any document you don’t understand.
Have a clear understanding of what’s included in the agreement. In Latin America, an unfurnished house might be just the bare walls – no appliances, not even a light fixture.
Susanna Perkins 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
Read more of Susanna's Expat Focus articles here.