What I’ve Learned from 25 Years of International Living

If I had to name one thing I’ve learned in 25 years of publishing International Living, it might be this: When you set out on any journey, you don’t always end up where you expected to go – you end up where you ought to be.
This has been the case in my own life.

Follow Your Instincts

Ten years ago I went to France with my wife. We were in Paris starting a business and heard of a house for sale in the middle of the country, outside Paris. Our idea at the time was to get a place we could use for conferences, for meetings, and also a place to spend time with our family, especially in the summer.

When we saw this house, we wanted to buy it immediately, but we were forewarned not to be so hasty. So we hired somebody to do some research for us. He went and looked at all the properties around Paris that were similar to the one we had seen and loved, and then rated them. He concluded that the house we had our heart set on was the worst of the whole bunch. He warned that we were going to need to spend a fortune fixing it up … and that it was too far from the center of Paris. Instead, he had 10 other places he wanted us to look at.

So we went and looked at them. The trouble was we didn’t like any of them. They were all better, supposedly, but this is something you do with your head and your heart, and these kinds of decisions you can’t rate on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s like choosing someone you’re going to marry. You can rate them on paper, but that’s not the same thing as what you feel.

We ended up buying the original house we saw. When we moved in I was expecting to just spend the summer here, but when I wasn’t looking my wife was secretly putting down roots. Pretty soon we were attached, and, after a while, we couldn’t leave at all. Now it’s 10 years later, and my life is entirely changed. Not only do I spend time in France, two of my children are French. (Two others are American, and two don’t know what they are.)

What am I doing in France? I don’t like taxes. I don’t like regulation. I don’t like government. Yet here I am in the most highly taxed, highly regulated country on earth.

This is what I mean. You end up where you didn’t expect to go.

Keep in mind that a move to another country comes with a lot of stress. When you think about moving overseas, you think about all the nice romantic evenings in cafes and walks along the beach. But that’s only part of the picture. Paris is a wonderful place to be, but there are a lot of Americans who don’t want to be here.

Typically, if you move overseas as a couple, one of you integrates – learns the language, meets new friends, develops a new life, etc. – while the other partner may feel left out or left behind. This can lead to stress for both.

I’ve been lucky. My wife integrates easily. She picks up languages, and she has done something remarkable in Paris – she has cracked the rather closed French society in the bourgeois 16th arrondissement. That is a real achievement.

Be Aware of Long-Term, Fundamental Trends

During the quarter of a century that we’ve been publishing International Living, we have seen booms and busts almost everywhere. We’ve had a boom and bust in Russia, in Hong Kong, in Japan, in Argentina. We’ve had booms and busts in the U.S., too.

The point is you can’t time these things. When you’re ready to go somewhere, you can’t think, “Well, I’m not going to go now, because they’re in the middle of a major secular boom.” A boom could last 12 years, or 25 years, so you have to take things as they are.

Still, you need to be aware of fundamental trends – especially big, long-term trends. One of them has to do with this huge population of what we call baby boomers. (I’m one of them.)

The baby boomers are getting older. They have been successful in their lives and are thinking about what to do next. They grew up with this vision of living on the beach – having a free and easy kind of lifestyle. That vision is not going to go away. That’s one of the reasons why beachfront property has generally been such a good investment in the U.S. There’s not that much of it. Beach is like gold. You can’t make more of it. You can’t print it. There’s less and less of it all the time, and more and more people who want it.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is getting rich.

If you go outside the U.S., one thing you are struck by is that there are a lot of rich people. Not only in Europe, where you’d expect them, but also in Asia. (There’s a lot of new money in Asia.) What do these people want? Well, they don’t want things so different from what you and I want. They want beautiful places by the sea, too, and there aren’t many of those. Most of the coastline of the world is not a place you’d want to live. There’s a limited amount of it that’s beautiful, warm, accessible, safe.

So one of the major trends that I see is an increase in value in real terms in these limited resource spaces by the sea.

There’s something else going on, which I think is fascinating: Cities have become brands. If we met, and I tell you I live in Dubuque – what would you think? But if I say I live in London, that communicates something. That’s a brand. It’s like a Rolex watch or a BMW – people know immediately that this is a mark of status.

San Diego is a brand name. Santa Fe is a brand name. There are three billion Asians who are getting richer all the time, and they, too, want brand-name properties. They want an apartment in Paris, or in London, or in Rome.

People all over the world want to be in these places – and there are precious few of them. That’s why they have gone way up in price, and quickly

Do you think these trends have run their course? Are we at an end? Are they going to bust? We don’t know. Remember, things go up and down.

Buy What You Like

This brings me to one more point I want to make: When moving overseas, buy what you like.

If I were to buy an apartment in Paris, I’d buy something that I’d want to keep and want to live in. I don’t care if it goes up or down in price. I certainly felt that way when I first bought in Nicaragua. And I’m looking at more property in Nicaragua with the same idea in mind. Do I care if this thing goes down in price? And if I don’t care, well then I think it’s a good deal.

Does it produce some earnings if it’s a rental property? Does it produce enough earnings to make it worthwhile? If it’s not a rental property, does it produce enough pleasure? Is it something you feel good about owning, something you want to hold onto? Something you want to pass on to your children? Those are the kind of questions I ask myself, and that I recommend you ask.

Remember, managing property from afar is no picnic. I’ve done this for years, and it’s amazing the kind of problems you run into. You need a structure. You need people in place, you need systems set up. It takes a lot of time, it can be expensive, and you may have currency problems, economic problems. You never know how it’s going to play out.

So you don’t want to get involved in managing property long-distance unless you’re into something that really matters to you, something you really like, something you really want to hold on to.

Despite the problems.

Don’t Be Afraid to Open the Door to Another Way of Life

There are only three major decisions you make in your life. You decide what you’re going to do. You decide with whom you’re going to do it. And you decide where you’re going to do it. Each of those decisions is critical because your life changes entirely based upon how you make them. Reading International Living can certainly help you make the final decision … the where. The idea behind International Living is that you have a lot more choices than you may realize. Its intention is to open the door to many possibilities that might not exist for you otherwise.

You hear it said that people don’t do things because they’re afraid of failure. I don’t agree. I think it’s because they’re afraid of success. When you open these doors, if you fail, you end up right back where you are now. You haven’t moved. Everything is the same – familiar, comfortable.

If you succeed, though, if you open the door and go through it, taking up an international lifestyle, then everything changes. And that’s pretty scary. That’s why you have to be careful which doors you go through and with whom.

[Ed. Note: This article was excerpted from a speech that Bill Bonner gave at the 25th Anniversary Live Overseas Conference in San Diego in March.]