Design & Travel

Navigating the real estate market overseas

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Buying a home abroad sight unseen during a pandemic?

Yes, you read that correctly (well not totally unseen thanks to WhatsApp)! My wife Kelly and I did just this in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, including remodeling the space. Some may think we had lost our mind doing this, but with the right tools, and mostly the right people, you can reach your real estate dreams!

Going back to 2017, we began traveling fairly extensively in southern Europe, always with a mindful eye to find a place that we may want to call a second home. We began to narrow our search after a trip we made to Spain and Portugal, returning to Albufeira, Portugal, the following year for a months-long stay. It was during this month we learned to live like a local and get the feel for a place after all the short-term visitors go back home.

Albufeira is in the Algarve region of Portugal and it checked many of the boxes (and created some new, unknown boxes) we wanted to check in finding a second home. For starters the weather is ideal for our lifestyle, 60-degree mornings and 80-degree afternoons, no humidity, no cloud — and no bugs! The natural beauty of the landscape is postcard like. The beaches are world famous, and there are 87 Blue Flag beaches in the Algarve alone.

The people are warm and welcoming; we felt right at home immediately. The lifestyle is simple and absurdly affordable. We literally walk everywhere and don’t have a car. A fantastic dinner out including a bottle of wine may cost $35-$40. I’d go on but I’m afraid more people will want to move here and spoil our secret!

OK, so for these reasons, in some type of COVID insanity, we began exploring homes through an app that allowed us visibility to any properties for sale within our search parameters. We kept an open mind about the current home layout as we remodel homes for a living and figured we could do the same on any place we might buy. We did hear some horror stories about remodeling in a foreign country even when you were physically there, so doing this remotely would seem slightly insane, but undeterred we plowed on.

We spoke to 10-plus different realtors and saw a few properties via virtual tour on WhatsApp. The buying experience was a learning one. For instance, there is no real equivalent of Multiple Listings in Portugal. Also, appraisals and inspections are not always part of the formalized process. And contractors don’t need to have a license or pass any certifications!

These are reasons why you need a top-notch real estate agent, and boy did we find one in Matthew Theunis with Divine Home. Not only did he go to the property for WhatsApp video calls anytime we needed, he connected us to a local attorney (to handle the documents and closing), a remodeling contractor and a property manager to look after the place when we were not there. With all this now in place we closed on our flat and began the next phase — remodeling remotely!

Open floor plans are not the norm in the Algarve. Galley kitchens, large tile floors, big wooden built-in wardrobes and smaller showers are. Having the vision to see past these minor obstacles and focus on the desired end game, we started to think more about location.

Having spent a month in Albufeira prior to our search was a huge advantage. Our contractor spoke minimal English (but he could email some!), but with Matthew’s help on WhatsApp video calls we were able to get specs and measurements for the flat. Kelly was able to do 2D floor plans, and we were off and running.

Down came the wall isolating the kitchen from the dining and living areas. Same for all the entry way series of doors … gone. We wanted to soften the tile floors in the flat, so we installed luxury vinyl floors throughout. We also increased the size of the master shower by 50% and painted the entire place to brighten it up.

Since Kelly Canada Design + Build + Interiors has its roots in interior design, the real signature touches came when Matthew was able to connect Kelly with Simple Taste, a furnishings company in Albufeira. Kelly was able to do the 2D layouts and choose all-new furniture, lighting, window coverings and accessories. The associates at Simple Taste even took fabric samples over to our flat, to show via WhatsApp how they would look with the flooring and drapes! If that wasn’t enough, the team actually installed all the furniture, window coverings and even the lighting fixtures without an added expense. Not something you experience in the states for sure.

There are some language differences we needed to solve for in remodeling jargon, but one of the biggest differences is the need to convert all your thinking to the metric system, even for the size of a bed, which are not standard U.S. sizes.

We did also bring over four large suitcases of items not readily available in the E.U., like down-based pillows and mattress toppers. These work exceptionally well when you utilize the electric shutters that essentially black out the bedroom at night!

All included, our remodeling investment was about 50% of what it would have taken in the U.S., we now have an amazing, open flat, which is our Happy Place, and also is ideally situated as a launching pad to all of western Europe. Some called us crazy for investing overseas, many more thought this when we did it remotely and over a cell phone, but with the right vision and team around us it worked our perfectly!

Saude!

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