Your House in Panama – Rent? Buy? Build?

I see it all the time in the expat forums – “we are exploring Panama and need recommendations on where to look for a house/property to buy”. Answers are usually – rent first for 6-12 months, I am selling a great house. PM me for details, and what area do you want? (we’re not sure, maybe somewhere near the beach but we don’t like heat and humidity.)

Seriously, if you plan to live in Panama, you’ve got to live somewhere. I can write my ideas, but I’d also be really interested in hearing from others who live here. Did you rent? Buy? Build? How did it work out? Did the process go smoothly, or what hiccups did you find along the way?  If you did it over, would you do anything differently?

I am no expert in real estate anywhere, and especially not in Panama so do your own research and homework. Don’t take my word for anything. If this topic interests you, also come back later to see if there are any good comments.

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We rent. We came planning to rent but were open to buying or building at some point, but now we have decided that we are permanent renters. Our money is in the bank, not in the house. If we have a problem, we can call the landlord to fix it. If we decide to leave, we give proper notice and hand back the keys. It helps that we love our house and location, and our landlords have been super good to us. At our age and situation this is the best option for us.

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It is possible to buy a house (or land) here even if you aren’t a resident. It is also possible to get a mortgage here but I know nothing about it, except that they require that it to be paid off before you are 70. There is no MLS here, or central database of available houses so what one agent is able to show you may not be the same inventory as another agent shows. There are also few resources to research fair prices. It can be hard to know what a property is really worth, and it’s not uncommon to have very overpriced homes on the market by sellers who aren’t in a hurry and just put them out there to see if someone will bite.

We have been taught that buying a home is a good investment. But, the reality might not be so attractive. We know of properties that have been on the market for literally years. The real estate market has been slow, buyers have the advantage, and the more expensive the home is, the smaller the pool of potential buyers.

You will be selling at some point. Maybe the reality of daily life isn’t what you thought it would be. Maybe you suffer a health setback and can’t manage in the house, or have to seek medical care back home. Maybe something goes on in the family that requires you to go back. Maybe you lose your spouse, or your own life and your heirs have to deal with selling the property here. This can happen wherever you live. It’s just more complicated in a foreign country. We know quite a few expats who have left the area and haven’t been able to sell their houses. I also know Panamanians with houses on the market for a lot longer than they would like.

Also, if you do buy it is extremely helpful to have at least months of experience living in your intended area. We would make very different decisions now than we would have when we arrived. What kind of construction makes sense for the climate and conditions? What features do you really need for your new lifestyle? What is a fair price? What do you need to know about customs, rules, infrastructure, convenience, neighbors, and other factors that will affect your daily life.

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Then, there is building…. I would be really interested to hear from anyone who has built a house here! I don’t know anyone who has had the process go smoothly or on time. My Panamanian lawyer neighbor was so disgusted that his house was a year past due that he threw the papers on the desk and walked away. Another Panamanian neighbor has been working with the bank for months, many many months and finally only now has financing been approved. She and her husband are employed professionals, good candidates. All the gringos I know have stories of serious delays, and the builder not paying the penalties in the contract. It is customary for a Panamanian to be on site daily to oversee the progress. If you aren’t physically here, then what?

There are also people who buy a home pre-construction. There are glossy,  beautiful brochures and promises, but will the condo or house meet expectations and promises? There is no guarantee and if it doesn’t, you have little recourse. There is no guarantee that it will even be built months or years after you expected to be living there.

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So, bottom line, in my opinion, if you are renting it is easy to change your mind. If you buy, proceed with local experience, local contacts, and lots of caution. If you build, expect major delays and problems. If everything goes well I think you will be a happy exception.

Ok you all, share your experiences! Fill out the picture and help the people planning their lives here.

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About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
This entry was posted in Panama. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Your House in Panama – Rent? Buy? Build?

  1. I have lived and built homes in Bahamas, CR and Mexico. It’s a culture, Spanish countries and the Bahamas where I grew up, are laid back in their attitudes, always late and don’t dare take offense. Imho, building without being on the premises is insane – rent at 6 month intervals, move around the country until you find your space, or buy something half finished. Plenty of those, usually.
    Each property I built I was onsite at least 2 weeks a month. Mexico you have to be there daily, beginning and end of each day. In Costa Rica (70’s) they were still using hand tools and we had no electricity other than a diesel generator. They actually brought the mill to the property.
    However, building a home gives you exactly what you want and a lot of joy and satisfaction afterward.
    Great blog Kris.
    .

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences. This is very helpful. Building a home can be great as long as people are prepared for the process which can be a lot more complicated than one would expect. Good for you managing it not once, but multiple times!

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  2. Laureen says:

    Excelente! This is great advice for anyone who decides to move to another country. I’ve seen too many people decide they like a particular home on a scouting mission and buy it, only to find out they don’t care for the neighborhood after living there for a couple of months. Or people that sink their savings into building a home, and then decide they’d rather live in a different town, even if it is only a 10 minute drive away. The general advice is rent, rent, rent, for a minimum of 6 months, longer is better. Then one has the opportunity to learn about different neighborhoods and towns, shopping, etcétera. My husband and I are living on property that his brother purchased way back in the 1970s, so when he asked us to move here permanently, to help oversee a remodel project and manage the place, we didn’t have the opportunity to scope out different neighborhoods. However, my brother in law had good foresight, or just got lucky back in the 70s, because we live in a great neighborhood, in a highly desirable area of town. However, if we hadn’t gotten the offer we couldn’t refuse, for sure we would be renting. Good advise Kris. I hope this blog saves some future expatriates some heartbreak or hassles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    We rent in Heredia.
    I would never buy because then your stuck there.
    Almost,4 months this time.
    Leaving here June 1st
    Coming back in October
    We pay 400 US and includes everything except food

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting! Good point, renting gives you the option to move around, which is especially good if you are trying to figure out what you want to live. 400? sounds like an excellent deal. Where is Heredia?

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  4. Felipe says:

    I agree – rent! Moving to another country is a great adventure. I’d see wherever I chose as a home base to then go explore little areas off the beaten path. There’s no way you can find them until you’re really living in an area. It you fall in love with somewhere you discover on your explorations, not owning means you’re free to pick up and go to where your heart led you. Owning just ties you down. Also, if you’re in your mid 60’s there’s no telling what type of house you or your spouse will want or what type of care you may need when you’re 75. Renting can let you easily relocate to a city with a medical specialist you may need, or some type of assisted living (I know that’s not common in Panama, but it’s available in parts of Mexico). There’s also estate considerations. It may be complicated for your heirs to inherit your property if they’re not residents. Nice topic!

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment! You have the same reasons we do for deciding that renting is the best option. There isn’t much assisted living here, but you can hire help in home for much less than in the US, and the respect given older people here may result in better care too. But I agree, the flexibility of renting is better especially at our age when you don’t know what you are going to need in the future.

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