Living the resort life in Thailand

HUN HIN, THAILAND MAY 5:The home of Jeffrey Camp and his wife Mari-Ann Kubharek Camp on May 5, 2018 in Hun Hin, Thailand. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)

If you’ve ever experienced the urge to chuck everything and live in another country, you’re not alone. Maybe you dream of spending time on a beach instead of a cubicle or wish your vacation could be permanent. Maybe you want to flee the United States when its political leadership disappoints you. Or invest in an up-and-coming housing market where the currency exchange and real estate prices are favorable to Americans.

Living overseas, once thought of as a jet-set lifestyle reserved for the wealthy, is available to more than the rich. Meet a few people who have turned their dreams into reality:

From many choices, Thailand

When you’ve lived around the world, your options for where to retire are limitless. Jeffrey Camp, 53, and his wife, Mari-Ann Kucharek Camp, 45, who’s from Britain, met four years ago in Dubai where they were both working for international companies. Camp, who spent 32 years in the military and the National Guard, realized that early retirement could be an option if they set their sights on a country with a low cost of living. Besides, he says, he had no desire to return to Chicago winters.

“We looked at South Africa, the Middle East, Kenya and Australia before we visited Thailand on holiday,” says Jeff. “Our priority was security and political stability, so even though we liked South Africa, it was too dangerous and we didn’t want to have to pay for private security. Australia was too expensive. We ruled out a lot of the Middle East because we wanted to be someplace where expats are welcomed. Of course, we also needed a place where it would be legal to establish permanent residency.”

Three years after a military coup, Thailand still strictly enforces its visa rules. But the introduction of a 10-year retirement visa in 2017 signaled a warming toward foreign buyers. Thailand’s low cost of living has enticed foreign buyers for years to places such as Chiang Mai, an area with a temperate climate and mountain views, Phuket, a beach resort, and Bangkok, an affordable, multicultural urban experience. The housing market is stable, although prices in desirable locations such as Phuket have been rising in recent years due to demand.

The Camps, who moved to Thailand in July 2017, chose the central city of Hua Hin to build a home in a resort community. The enclave is in the mountains less than 10 miles from the coast.

“We learned about Hua Hin from expats Mari-Ann met through her work,” says Jeff. “It’s a resort area where the Thai royal family vacations. When we realized that we could live comfortably on less than $2,000 a month, we decided to start our retirement early.”

Health insurance costs the couple $3,000 annually. Jeff can attest to the excellent care from Western-trained Thai doctors since he was hospitalized with food poisoning shortly after they settled in Hua Hin, an event completely covered by insurance.

The construction of their 3,000-square-foot house with three bedrooms, a terrace bar and a swimming pool took nearly two years, in part because the developer of the community ran into financial problems.

“We bought an apartment and moved here because we realized we had to be general contractors and supervise construction,” says Jeff.

The Camps play in a rock band and volunteer with a group that assists refugees from Bangladesh.

“We’ve made a nice circle of friends here, mostly Australians, through our neighborhood and cooking classes,” says Jeff.

To maintain their Thai residency, the Camps need to check in with the Thai Bureau of Immigration every 90 days to maintain their retirement visa, which is renewed annually.

Falling for Portugal

Ever since Stephanie and Erik Calcott met, the Southern California natives talked about what a great experience it would be to live overseas. Once their son Rylan, now 13, was older, they began seriously exploring their options and eventually chose the Algarve region of southern Portugal.

“We had a list of requirements including good schools for our son, a lower cost of living and a beach,” says Stephanie. “We looked at lots of places in Central and South America, but nothing quite fit until we learned about the Algarve, which is a prime location for many people who want to live overseas.”

Portugal attracts foreign buyers because of its affordable prices, accessibility to other parts of Europe and abundance of experiences, from wine country to beaches, to golf courses and historical sites. Home prices fell in Portugal by 3 percent from 2010 to 2012 and by 1.5 percent from 2012 to 2014, but since the financial crisis they have risen steadily. They remain lower than in many other European countries.

After a two-week vacation in Portugal, the Calcotts sold their cars, furniture and house in California and packed everything they owned into 11 suitcases.

“It was hard for our son, who was 11 at the time, to leave behind his best friend, who he had known since he was three,” says Stephanie. “Rylan agreed to go as long as we took our two dogs, and now he loves it. He’s living the life I grew up with, riding bikes and going to the beach with his friends and only coming home when he’s hungry.”

Rylan attends an international school, and the entire family is learning to speak Portuguese. They travel often to other countries in Europe. Stephanie, 47, has an educational consulting and marketing business. She also started a side business with a friend in Algarve to help expatriates find contractors for home renovations. Erik, 50, works remotely as the U.S. sales and marketing representative for a plastics fabrication company.

The Calcotts rent the house they live in and own two homes that they lease for income.

“The long-term rental of our house, which has a swimming pool and is close to our son’s school, is between $800 and $1,200 a month, but we can get $800 to $1,200 a week during holiday seasons for our two houses in the historic part of town,” says Stephanie. “The rest of the year, we can rent them for about $700 a month.”

Their total cost of living, including groceries, restaurant meals and health insurance (about $2,000 annually for the entire family), is far less than in California.

The Calcotts plan to stay indefinitely in Portugal, enjoying the abundance of family time. The only thing Stephanie says they miss is Mexican food, but since they can drive to Spain in less than three hours or take a three-hour train ride to Lisbon, that more than makes up for their craving.

Beachside in Costa Rica

John Lane, 71, took a chance buying a fully furnished villa in Costa Rica. Luckily, his wife Maritsa Lane, 56, loves it as much as he does, although she had never seen it when he purchased the fully furnished villa for $1.125 million. The Connecticut couple now spend several months a year at their three-level villa in the Reserva Conchal Beach Resort community in Guanacaste.

Foreign buyers have flocked to Costa Rica for years for its temperate climate, central location, stable government and established expatriate community, including several multinational corporations. Home prices are highest near San Jose, the Central Valley and the Pacific coast, and less expensive in the southern region.

Lane, a retired investment banker, had been thinking about buying property offshore for diversification during the 2007-2009 recession. He was at the Reserva Conchal resort in 2011, which he had been visiting for a decade, when he learned that Westin was buying the gated community and its hotel and wanted to sell a few of the homes there.

“It took five months of negotiating and paperwork after I made a half-price offer for the villa,” says John. “I had to set up a corporation to buy it. Now we also own a one-bedroom place here that we use for rental income.”

The villa has a private pool, and for $1,500 annually, the Lanes also have access to resort amenities including a beach club with a spa and restaurant, and a golf course. They pay a property manager $150 per month to check on the villa while they are in Connecticut.

“We had a place in Florida for a few years, but we like this better because our neighbors and friends are from all over the world, from Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, France, Italy, Canada and from different parts of the U.S.,” says John Lane. “We have a two-mile beach here with pure white sand on a cove and even though it’s the Pacific and not the Caribbean the water is as clear as it is in Aruba.”

One big surprise the Lanes experienced in their first month of ownership was a $1,600 electric bill.

“The villa has eight zones of air conditioning, so we had to learn to control and monitor our electricity to get the bill down a bit,” says John.

The Lanes intend to spend more time in Costa Rica as John eases into his fourth attempt at retirement and continues his consulting work.

From New Zealand to Nice

While the most recent presidential election caused many people to contemplate moving out of the country, Miles and Julie Jaffe purchased their first property overseas in response to the 2000 election of President George W. Bush.

“We were in New Zealand for an adventure racing event when the election was settled, and we decided we wanted to get our money out of the country,” says Miles. “At that time the exchange rate was in our favor and we could buy a sushi dinner for about $3. Plus, it’s easy to do anything in New Zealand since everyone always says yes.”

The Jaffes sold their New York City co-op in 2003 to buy a small piece of buildable land on a 60-mile wide lake with a view of the mountains. The Jaffes eventually bought several homes in Queenstown, which attracts vacationers and retirees in summer for boating and outdoor activities and in winter for skiing.

“We bought a three-level, five-bedroom house with tons of glass and spectacular views of the lake, a house that would be worth more than $1 million almost anywhere in the U.S., for the equivalent of about $600,000,” says Miles. “We bought another nine-bedroom house in the neighborhood and rented that one to vacationers until about 2014.”

New Zealand enjoys a growing economy, a stable government and a reputation for an easygoing lifestyle with open, friendly citizens. Home prices average about $446,000 across the nation, but in Auckland, where demand is highest, prices average about $733,500. Among the popular destinations besides Auckland are Wellington, which is often compared to San Francisco, and Christchurch.

Buying property in New Zealand was relatively easy, says Miles. All they needed to do was create a trust for about $300. However, the government is considering proposals to restrict foreign ownership.

“After 18 years owning multiple properties and renting them to vacationers, we’re selling them and winding down there because it was becoming too demanding,” says Miles. “We brought a very fancy two-story apartment in a five-star hotel so we can keep visiting.”

The Jaffes also purchased an apartment in Nice in 2009.

“We’ve spent about three months every year in Europe since about 2001, so we decided to buy a place in Nice because it’s got a great airport close to town and it’s a beautiful city,” says Miles. “We rent the apartment when we’re not using it, which covers our costs here.”

Miles, 77, and Julie, 75, earn additional income from renting their New Zealand properties and their home on Martha’s Vineyard, where they spend three to four months each year. Because of visa restrictions, they can spend a maximum of 90 days each in New Zealand and Nice every year.

“Living in three different countries is an adventure, but it’s important that we’ve been able to make friends in each place,” says Miles. “Cultivating relationships is the key to success for this kind of lifestyle.”

Get a tour of the cheapest international cities to live in around the world, and see the housing prices for each. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

More on buying an overseas home: