Do you dream of an expatriate life? Here’s what it takes to buy a house in Europe.

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Since I left the United States for Switzerland, people back home have asked me if my life is not a parade of cafes, beautiful architecture and natural views worthy of the cutaways of “House Hunters International “.

Even though I tell the straight truth – taxes are complicated, most stores are closed on Sundays, and I sort my trash into seven (literally seven) categories – I still hear a lot of nostalgic sighs, followed by: I would love to live in Europe.

I understand. Life here is good, despite some minor inconveniences. And it’s easy to find yourself down a fantasy real estate rabbit hole. Just like in the United States, houses for sale in Europe are listed on websites – for example Seloger in France, Fotocasa in Spain or Immobiliare in Italy – with sometimes attractive prices. But the purchasing process can quickly become complicated. Here’s where experts say you should start.

Obtaining a visa and other obstacles

The first clash between dreams and reality will take place at the immigration office. Americans without additional citizenship in a European country can only stay in the Schengen Area — a collection of countries that covers most of Europe — for 90 days in a 180-day period. Unless you’re planning to buy a house just for vacation (more on that later), you’ll need a visa.

You can qualify for a visa with a job in another country or through family ties (I got married). Some countries offer visas to skilled job seekers, remote workers who meet income requirements, or large investors, although these so-called “golden visas” for real estate buyers may not be available for long.

Although there are some commonalities and agreements between governments, “every country has different laws, every country has different ways of doing business,” says Zola Szerencses, chair of the Certified International Property Specialists advisory group at the National Association of Realtors. The type of visa, its duration, and the qualifications to obtain it vary as you cross borders, and some countries (such as Switzerland) may impose restrictions on where foreign nationals without certain visas can purchase housing.

What will remain constant, however, are the deadlines for submitting documents. Depending on the visa you’re looking for, you might need everything including birth and marriage certificates, an employment contract, and proof of a clean criminal record. “Not only do you have to find these documents, but you also have to get a new one printed from the state or city and then have them send it to be certified. And it’s a real nightmare,” says Melissa Hughes, who bought an apartment in Spain in 2019. So it’s essential to know in advance what is required.

Find a real estate agent to help you

As more Americans buy in Europe, many real estate agencies are able to offer advice on visas, banking and other steps in the process.

“Americans now represent the largest proportion of foreign clients,” says Calum Neill, director of Leggett International Real Estate based in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, France. “[Our] The head office has done a lot of research and assistance in finding financial institutions that will assist with the transfer of US dollars and possibly the possibility of obtaining a bank loan.

The National Association of Realtors has a database of internationally certified real estate agents, listed by location and country of specialization. (Real estate agents certified to work overseas are identified by the letters CIPS.) Working with a U.S.-based agent with expertise in your preferred country allows you to “expect the same level of services and level of understanding” than you would get. buy domestically, says Szerencses.

Neill’s firm has hosted webinars specifically aimed at American buyers, during which real estate agents, local residents and financial agents answer questions from Americans interested in moving to France (including whether life is really like ” Emily in Paris”).

It’s easier than ever to tour homes virtually, and many agents are offering tours over Zoom, but it’s advisable to tour anything you’re considering buying in person (especially because you may vacation at the same time ).

“You can’t see everything in the photo,” says Neill. And not everyone stages homes in the same way American buyers are accustomed to. Thus, some international listings will require more imagination to capture their full potential. “The first house I sold alone [in France], that’s what I did: flowers, soft music, soft lighting, baked bread and the house was sold on the first visit,” he says. “But it’s extremely rare. It’s not done here.

Navigating Financing and Closing

Once you’ve found a place you like, the next step is usually financing (if you’re planning to buy with cash, you should research property and wealth taxes in your new country…but again, if you are able to purchase with cash, you probably already know how to navigate the tax laws). In some more recent developments, which Szerencses says are sometimes built specifically to meet expat needs, financing is sometimes handled by the developer. However, in general, to obtain a mortgage loan, you must use a broker and a bank. Like in the United States, your international real estate agent can probably direct you to a mortgage broker and help you open a local bank account.

Much like visa requirements, regulations regarding loans and bank accounts vary from country to country. Neill explains that in France, monthly income is more important than total wealth for most buyers to get approved for a mortgage. “There are people who quit their jobs, sold the house and moved… and they say, ‘you know, we have a bag of money,’ but that’s not how the system works here,” he said. he declared. said.

Even if you don’t need financing, having a bank account in the country where you live will help you save on expensive (and slow) money transfers.

Upon final purchase, additional attorneys and fees may also be required. In many countries, a notary will manage the sale, often for both parties, including overseeing contracts and checking liens. In France, for example, Neill says notary fees can be around 7.5% of the sale price, although this includes taxes. The precise details of these fees vary by country and agency. This is another area where an agent can offer location-specific advice to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Just like in the United States, the spending will not stop once the documents are signed. You will have to pay taxes in two countries. The insurance you need varies from region to region and there are qualifications to access national health systems. If you are considering hiring workers to maintain your home when you are not there, check the rates as labor may be more expensive in other countries. And if you’re considering renting out your European home, make sure you’re allowed to do so by local regulations before you buy.

Before planning a purchase or international move, it’s also worth asking yourself a few questions. “Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people passing through who say they’re thinking about buying something, and the question I always ask them is how much time do they really want to spend there,” says Catherine Severo, my wife’s cousin who had a house in France for years and was a helpful guide for my own move. “Because owning property is like owning property in the United States; you need to make sure the bills are paid, the grass is cut, and the rooms are painted.

The romantic view of expat life doesn’t usually include comparing vacuum cleaners or reading a dictionary and listing rules on how to recycle paper. But it’s worth taking the time to discover if your desire for adventure can survive the drudgery. “Come and meet us for three months,” advises Neill. “Live with us.”

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