There are many good reasons to retire overseas: a change of scenery, better climate and new experiences, plus access to affordable healthcare and a lower cost of living, both of which can make your retirement nest egg last longer.
The logistics of retiring abroad, however, are complicated. Not only do you have to figure out the details for living in another country – visa requirements, taxes, healthcare needs (e.g., prescription medication, medical treatments), setting up a bank account and finding a place to live – you also have to figure out what to do with everything you’re leaving behind.
One of your biggest assets – and biggest decisions to make before you leave – is what to do with your house, if you own one. What is the best way for a soon-to-be expat to benefit from this asset? Read on to walk through the three major options for retirees planning to move abroad for all or part of the year.
Sell Your Home
If you’re planning to live overseas, selling your home can help fund your retirement – including purchasing a home in your retirement destination. Depending on where you retire (and the type of property you buy overseas), there’s a good chance you’ll come out ahead, with money left over to cover some of your everyday expenses during retirement.
While selling has obvious benefits – cash being number one – it also has its drawbacks. For one, you won’t have a place to call home when you return to visit family and friends, which can be inconvenient, if not unsettling. Also, if you sell you have to make plans to either take with you, sell, give away, donate, recycle or throw away every item in your house: potentially decades’ worth of furniture, artwork, books, clothes, kitchen goods, tools, collections, sports equipment and more.
Strategic plan: Consider holding an estate sale; you don't have to be dead to have one. A "living estate sale" can be a great way to get rid of your stuff, and make some money in the process. It’s not free, however, and you’ll end up paying a percentage of the sales to the estate sale company. In exchange, the company will visit your house, draft a catalog of everything you want to sell, market the sale, auction off the items, collect the money and handle all the paperwork.
Because there are some shady companies out there, do your research before hiring anyone: Check the local Better Business Bureau for reviews, ask for references and ask lots of questions, including "What is your commission?" and "What happens to everything that didn’t sell?" For anything particularly valuable, consider checking with an auction house that specializes in antiques or family silver and the like.
Rent Your Home
If you aren’t ready to sell your home, you might consider turning it into a rental property. Not only can this provide a source of monthly income, but it also can deliver tax benefits. You’ll still be able to deduct the interest on your mortgage (if you have one) and property taxes – just as if you were living there. But as a rental property, you’ll also be able to deduct “ordinary and reasonable” expenses for items such as repair and maintenance expenses, depreciation, utilities, insurance and management fees. What you can deduct depends on the amount of time you're not living in the house. (Some of these regulations are described in Tax Rules For Renting Out Your Vacation Home.)
Strategic plan: If you’re going to be overseas, you need a plan for managing and maintaining your property while you're away. One option is to hire a property management firm to take care of things such as marketing, renter interactions, collection of rental fees, and all other aspects of the rental process. In addition, a property manager provides routine maintenance services and can arrange for any necessary repairs.
For these services, you will pay a fee and/or a commission on rental fees collected, but that’s usually a much better option than trying to arrange a furnace repair from Thailand – or wherever your retirement takes you. See Hiring A Property Manager from Investopedia's tutorial on becoming a landlord.
Get a Reverse Mortgage
If you own a home and are at least 62 years old, you may be able to convert your home equity into cash with a reverse mortgage, a financial product that lets you borrow against your home’s equity to get a fixed monthly payment or a line of credit. Interest accrues on the payments you receive, and repayment is postponed until you become delinquent on your taxes and/or property insurance, the house falls into disrepair or you sell the house, pass away or move.
That last one’s important: If you move, the lender can call the loan. As part of getting a reverse mortgage, you agree that you will live in the house as your primary residence, which means you have to occupy it for more than 50% of the year. It’s fine to take vacations, but if you leave for more than 12 months in a row – or for more than 50% of the year – the loan will become due. Because of this restriction, a reverse mortgage is not the best strategy to fund retiring abroad.
Strategic plan: If you do intend to split your time between home and some destination overseas – and you’ll be home for at least half the year – a reverse mortgage could be worth investigating as a way to generate income during retirement. Keep in mind that taking a reverse mortgage is a major financial decision. The costs of a reverse mortgage can be substantial, and your debt increases over time because you pay interest on the loan. Depending on the size of the loan and your home’s value, there may be little left for you or your heirs after the loan is repaid. For details, see How Does A Reverse Mortgage Work? and 5 Reverse Mortgage Scams.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a homeowner and plan to retire abroad, you’ll have to figure out what to do with your house. If you sell, you can live off the proceeds, but you won’t have a place to come home to when you visit friends and family, and you’ll have to figure out what to do with all of your personal belongings. If you rent, you gain a monthly income source as well as tax breaks – and you might be able to keep some of your belongings in the house (especially if you rent it out furnished). But, depending on your home and the local real estate market, you might do better financially if you sell the house. A reverse mortgage is an option only if you are planning on splitting your time between home and abroad. Otherwise, the loan will become due as soon as you are gone for 12 months, or if you don’t occupy the house for at least 50% of the year.