Rent or Buy Abroad: What Do You Do?

Speaking to a number of expats on my cross-Canada trip last month, I realised that not only did they all have expat life in common, but each one of them currently rented the house or apartment they live in.

Not exactly the kind of news that stops you dead in your tracks but it did make me reflect on my own renting and house buying experiences while living abroad.

Why is it that I always purchase property wherever I live instead of renting and does this make me the exception rather than the norm?

To rent or to buy? That is the question.  Photo credit: Jennifer (Flickr Creative Commons)
The exception not the norm

We always knew our time in Vancouver, Canada would be short-term so we chose to rent. I was a graduate student and we were somewhat transient as a result. It therefore made sense to keep our overheads low and we never felt the need to put down firm roots.

Once we moved to Ottawa, we had steady incomes and were set to remain there for at a number of years. We purchased our first 'international' home in a downtown suburb of Ottawa and joined the vast ranks of Canadian homeowners. We were embraced by neighbours and friends, and we, in turn, embraced local life.

In Sydney, we rented for the first two years and neither of us were particularly happy. We switched from shabby house to basement apartment and mourned the loss of our downtown Ottawa home. At the first opportunity, we purchased property - a small house in a Northern Beaches suburb - and we've remained in it until the present day. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Or would we.

How the other half live

From speaking to fellow expats about their own situations, it seems that, for the most part, expats choose to rent a home when they move abroad.

The people I spoke to didn't jump into the property market and they didn't necessarily sell up their house back in the mother country prior to moving overseas. In fact, property ownership seems low on the list of priorities for many of those seeking to carve out a new life overseas.

Expats are a nomadic bunch and perhaps it's this frequent state of flux that creates less need for stability and a lack of desire to own your own house abroad. Or perhaps it goes deeper than that. Perhaps it's the thought that once you put down roots, that's it. You're fixed. Stuck. It's more difficult to return. Perhaps it's the fear of remaining abroad longer-term.

Whatever the reason, I'm wondering if I got my strategy all wrong.

Long-term commitment or short-term opportunity

We always saw ourselves as immigrants rather than traditional expats. We moved abroad in search of a new life in a new country, not a temporary one. We weren't sent overseas on business and we didn't expect to return any time soon. We followed wave after wave of permanent residents before us and jumped straight in to home ownership feet first, with no cause to stop and question what if and why.

I wonder then if the real question is not about renting versus home buying but long-term commitment to a foreign home rather than seeing a place as a pre-determined, short-term pit stop.

Those of us who envisage a long stint in a country seek out that sense of permanency. We crave it. We buy in to the dream of community and belonging and sense of place. We search for acceptance and structure. We yearn for an established home.

Purchasing property eased my transition from temporary visitor to established local so I buy houses wherever I live and whenever I can, in part to feel like I belong and to embed myself in the area I now call home.

Others choose to rent because the future's uncertain, the length of stay not always guaranteed.

In Sydney, whether renting or buying a property, I use Domain.com.au as a source for properties. It's a leading destination in Australia for property seekers so, if you're an expat looking for rental properties, why not give them a go.

Are you a renter or home owner? As an expat or potential expat, would you look to rent or chose to buy - and why? Do you agree that when a length of stay isn't guaranteed, most people would likely rent?


Life in Norway said... Add Reply

I'd say it's down to fear... buying is a big commitment in your own country, let alone in one where you don't understand the market, the mechanisms and most commonly the language. Buying a house in Norway makes perfect economic sense for me - but I just can't take that step. Maybe as expats we're hard-wired with travel and the inability to put down roots for evermore? :-)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

It is definitely a big commitment and I imagine a foreign language adds a whole new element of fear to it (and one which, fortunately, I haven't had to deal with yet). But I think you're right... maybe we are hardwired for picking up and moving on. Question is, what happens when you've lived somewhere for ten years or more. Do you still resist the temptation to purchase or are you happy to continue to rent?

David Nikel said... Add Reply

ask me in another seven years ;-)

wren said... Add Reply

Rent always as an expat... we lived in better houses than we could afford to buy, and we didn't have the house chores so that we were free to travel and enjoy the countries we were living in. Having said that we have after 16 years on the road, bought our house here in Australia, it seemed foolish not to be in the property market. Love the blog! Wren

Wanderlust_WTB said... Add Reply

For us I'd say it is down to commitment. If we are moving to Canada relatively soon, within the next 5 years then it doesn't make sense to buy. Then a close second is money, the amount of money we'd spend to buy a flat here I'd rather delay save and buy a house when I'm home. Better value for our money.

Susanna Perkins said... Add Reply

You also have a more traditional job than many of us. . . I suspect your overall temperament and attitude towards life have a lot to do with both. After more than 45 years of home ownership (no, not the same house, but a series of owned properties) I've chosen to leave myself as rootless and mobile as possible for now. Will I buy again? I don't know, but I have no plans to at this point. That's why I like my portable career.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

That's true. But horses for courses. Whatever works for you works best :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks Wren! Yep, I think it's not a bad thing to be in the property market over here but get where you're coming from. When I've owned a house abroad, I've spent most of my time working on that house and when I've rented, it's freed me up to explore more of the local environment e.g. when we lived in downtown Vancouver. Two totally different experiences.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

You could be right. It's whatever works best for you. There's a part of me that wished I'd kept my house in, say, Canada when we moved here to Sydney though. I felt like that was a connection to the place that I gave up, but ultimately money talked and we had to let it go.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Definitely no right or wrong way. I guess I'm just curious as to why people choose one option over the other and whether it is just down to money or other factors too. So 'where' is a good question for you... I sense a move coming on! ;)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey Susanna, I suppose I do although that changed recently (more to follow soon) so I'm currently in a less traditional career right now ;) But I see what you mean - I think my overall attitude was to buy as soon as I could and, after speaking to others, I realised that it wasn't necessarily the be-all and end-all when moving abroad. I like your rootless and mobile approach... but then you already know that ;)

Susanna Perkins said... Add Reply

LOL, yes I do :-)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply


Kym Hamer said... Add Reply

I've bought property twice in my life, felt tied down and couldn't wait to get rid of it. I MUCH prefer to rent even though I tend to stay in places a long time and consider them home (6 years in the last place). The other thing is the convenience of having everything sorted - from a leaky tap to a replacement boiler - by picking up the phone to the agent/landlord. Bliss!

ps... I also consider myself an immigrant more than an expat but that just flies more in the face of the own/rent debate doesn't it?

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks for sharing, Kym. Although you've rented, have you owned property elsewhere whilst renting or no point in your mind? Just curious.

I'm with you in terms of the immigrant over expat debate. A tricky call. In my mind, once you're part of everyday life, fully entrenched, there indefinitely, you've immigrated ;)

Kym Hamer said... Add Reply

I kept my flat in Melbourne for a year after I'd moved to London. It was a royal pain in the a**e! Happiness was definitely the day I sold it.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I bet. Good to know :)

Rusty Ferguson said... Add Reply

I have lived in the Philippines since 2008. You must be a citizen to buy land in the Philippines. You can buy a condo which I hope to do someday. You can also get a long term lease and build. Leases can be broken though, so I consider that risky. Quite a few expats buy land in their wife's name. That's pretty risky to and I suggest they consider that a gift because it is hers. :)

I rent for now but a condo, I hope, is in my future.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I always thought leases were on the risky side too but don't know enough about them to be honest. Interesting that you have to be a citizen to buy land there. And buying in your wife's name - now there's an idea! Best of luck with the condo buying in the future - I may be in that space myself soon ;)

Carrie said... Add Reply

Yes it is an interesting aspect to look at, I agree. 'Where' is a very good question, but the nice thing is that I have time to figure it out, I can wait to see what opportunities pop up. In the meantime I am making the best of my current situation, and I have stopped thinking just because I am here temporarirly I can't do x, y, and z, so I'm making the most of it!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Good on you. Sounds like a plan and I hope you're starting to see some interesting opportunities pop up. I think having the right attitude is key - just because you're temporary doesn't mean you can't fully experience everything on hand :)

Laura Fortey said... Add Reply

I think the second you choose to buy, you are sayingg to yourself, this is it. A house has so many expenses, bills, surprises that most ex-pats choose not to take on this massive responsibility. However, I know a couple who bought in the UK (they knew they were only there for 3years) and when they returned to Aus, their property had doubled and they made enough on it to buy a secure home in Aus. Buying is a savings account, which most people otherwise have trouble constantly contributing to. If you are looking to buy abroad, I think it would be very wise to buuy something that you can partition off and rent out the other side to help with mortgage payments, but then you reap all the equity gain.
Buying also make you stay in a place longer. You can easily buy and sell furniture and cars but a house; well you need to really think about that, its not like you can just turn around and sell it on Kijiji/Gumtree in a heartbeat...food for thought for sure ;) Good article and topic Russ

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey Laura, you could be right there. Buying a house definitely sets you in a place for the longer term. And it can be a big risk. So what about buying apartments? Does that make things any easier/less permanent? Interesting debate for sure ;)

Opt an effective Property Inve said... Add Reply
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