Rent Before You Buy In A New Country

For years I’ve been advising expats, “rent before you buy.” I’m so glad I followed my own advice, because my husband and I have just become poster children for renting first.

If you’re expatriating because your company is sending you overseas, you probably don’t have a lot of choice about where you’ll live. But if you’re like a growing number of expats, you’re choosing to move, and choosing where to go. Picking a country is relatively easy – climate, cost of living, and distance from your home country are all measurable and quantifiable. But narrowing down your choices to a specific city, town, or neighborhood gets a bit harder. You really don’t know until you’ve lived someplace for a while whether it suits you. That’s why it’s smart to rent for a while.

We’ve been in Panama for just over a year. Picking the country was a fairly easy process of elimination.We wanted to be close to the US, we wanted a tropical climate, and we wanted a low cost of living. Panama checked all those boxes. Choosing where to go in Panama was a bit trickier. There were some places we eliminated quickly from consideration – Panama City, David and Colon, for example.

When we moved here we were escaping from a terrible financial situation. The meltdown of the US economy in 2008-2009 really socked us hard. My job disappeared, and Orlando’s employment market collapsed at the same time. My husband had just received his Master’s degree and the only work he could find was riding his bicycle as a courier in downtown Orlando.

Cost of living was one of our biggest considerations. So we headed for the Azuero Peninsula, where we knew costs would be lower than many other parts of the country. Las Tablas appealed to us when we first saw it, so that’s where we landed. Now we’re settled in, we’ve renewed the lease on our house for another year, and we’ve decided to look around.

It’s not that we don’t like Las Tablas – we do. It’s a very nice town with friendly people, a small but growing expat community, just a few minutes away from beaches to the east and mountains to the west. Local residents describe Las Tablas as muy tranquilo – very quiet. It’s safe. Violent crime is statistically nonexistent here. It’s not that we don’t like the house we’re renting – we do. It’s a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, and it’s usually quiet here. Our landlord has been very accommodating. He let us fence the back yard to contain our dogs, and he recently erected a water storage tank at our request. We’ve made friends, both among the expats and the local residents.

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The problem is, Las Tablas is a bit too tranquilo. Outside of Carnaval, once the sun goes down there’s pretty much nothing to do here except go to a bar, cantina or casino. We’re not interested in any of those, so that leaves us with nothing. Nothing was fine when we first arrived from the US. We were decompressing from the previous few years of high stress and anxiety. We were getting established, learning our way around, struggling with the language.

Now, though, after a day at the computer in my home office, I’m ready for some entertainment in the evening or on the weekend. I’d like to take in a movie, attend a symphony, and have a wider selection of dining and shopping choices. I’d like to attend a Spanish school and make better progress at learning the language. We hadn’t expected the smallness of the town to become an issue – we’ve both lived in much smaller towns than this one. So what’s the difference?

First, we’ve come to realize that the towns we lived in before were quite different in two important ways. They were either:

• Close to a big city (an hour from Boston, for example, or half an hour from Orlando) or
• College towns

As anyone who’s ever lived in one knows, a college town has a lot more going on than a non-college town.

Usually a college town offers more restaurants with a wider variety of foods. Often a very small town with a college in it can support a movie theater. Even if it doesn’t the college shows all sorts of films, and many are open to the public. Ditto with theater, music, sports, and interesting speakers on a variety of topics. College towns are livelier because of the large numbers of young people around.

In Orlando, of course, we were close to all the major theme parks – Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World – and just a short drive away from the Kennedy Space Center and Busch Gardens. Because it’s such a tourist area, we also had huge numbers of restaurants to choose from, dozens of multiplex movie theaters, several professional theater groups, an opera company, a ballet company, a symphony orchestra and major and minor league sports teams. To top it off, we lived within half an hour of four colleges and universities which all offered theater, music and other events.

During the few years before we came to Panama we weren’t able to enjoy those attractions. Now that we have a bit more disposable time and income, we’d like to indulge occasionally. We don’t want to live in Panama City – but we’d like to be close enough to visit more often. (From Las Tablas, it’s about 4-1/2 hours.) We’ll be looking in the area from Coronado to Penonome – basically one or two hours from Panama City. And we’ll keep our options open by renting for at least six months.

Who knows, we may end up back in Las Tablas. As I say, there’s a lot we like about it. But we’d like to try out life a little closer to the bright lights for a while and see how that fits.

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 Susanna's other Expat Focus articles here.

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