The New American Dream: 'How I Bought a Home Abroad'

Buying a home here may be the American dream, but buying property abroad seems more like the realm of fantasy. And yet setting down roots in a foreign country is not as unusual as you might think: More than 6 million United States citizens are currently living outside our borders, according to the aptly titled Association of Americans Resident Overseas. If you'd like to join them, tune in to the insider advice of these three Americans who bought abroad.

'It started out as a vacation'

Nona Jones Martinez, Cahuita Limon Talamanca, Costa Rica

Purchased a three-bedroom house in 2011 for less than $200,000

How she got there: A former New Yorker, Jones Martinez fell in love with Costa Rica while vacationing there -- so after her wedding, she persuaded her husband, Jorge, to move there permanently.

"While we were first getting established, we house-sat for three years for a couple who owned property," says Jones. "We were delighted when they announced they were returning to their native Canada, and looking to sell." The Martinezes were able to buy one of the properties that they'd worked to maintain: a bright yellow bungalow on nearly an acre of lush land.

The challenges: "We worried about securing a mortgage, because foreigners have to jump through hoops to get loans from Costa Rican banks," says Jones Martinez. "You need official residency and guaranteed income from stable jobs. We filled out lots of paperwork so we could prove we had steady income from the real estate management and tour companies we run."

Her advice: "In the end, we wound up not needing a mortgage because we were able to settle on a price we could afford in full," says Jones Martinez. This can make all the difference when buying property in countries where you may not qualify for local bank loans, says Kathleen Peddicord, who publishes the website Live and Invest Overseas and who has been buying property abroad for 30 years. "Since the recession in 2008, it's been hard to get loans in the U.S. to buy property overseas," Petticord reports. "If you can't, you need to ask for a purchase price that works for you."

Other tips? "Since real estate agents don't have to be licensed to sell real estate here, find a real estate lawyer who is reputable and experienced to help you work with them," Jones Martinez says. Such attorneys generally command 1.5% of the total purchase price, according to the Association of Residents of Costa Rica.

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'To buy in Ireland, you have to drive a hard bargain'

Catherine Dunne, County Cork, Ireland

Bought a two-bedroom home in 1998 for approximately $100,000

How she got there: For Dunn, a native of Queens, NY, Ireland has always been a second home. Both her parents were born there, so she visited frequently during her childhood summers, then later spent time studying abroad there.

"In 1998, I managed to find a stone cottage for an affordable price," she says, adding that she supports herself by working as a licensed psychologist. "I love the deep connections you can make with people here."

The challenges: "The system here involves just one real estate agent, who represents the seller," Dunne says. "As a buyer, you're dealing with this person directly, with no Realtor representing you in a bidding system that can be very informal. There's a lot of bluffing and banter that you just wouldn't get in the States."

Her advice: "When haggling, you need to do your research and be prepared to play an elaborate game of chicken," says Dunne. Petticord agrees. "Such back and forth is typical in Ireland, where I've bought property myself. Seller's agents overseas are not necessarily your allies. Avoid taking advice from them; get counsel only from people who are working on your behalf."

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'I'd always dreamed of returning to the town of my youth'

Jesse Salas, La Romana, Dominican Republic

Bought a two-bedroom home in 2013 for $350,000

How he got there: After leaving the Dominican Republic at age 15 with his family, Salas dreamed of returning to La Romana, the seaside town where he spent his childhood. As he searched for properties, Salas scored his dream home -- a sun-flooded, modern, two-bedroom house -- right in the heart of the marina in a seaside luxury resort called Casa Del Campo. "It had shops, restaurants, discothques, and great fishing," he says. Plus, "I can sublet when I'm away."

The challenges: While "foreigners can buy and sell property pretty freely here," Salas says homeownership in El Salvador does have its drawbacks. "Here, mortgage interest rates can be 7% to 9%," he says. "And down payments have to be 40% of a property's value."

His advice: "I knew people who alerted me about properties, but if you don't have local connections, you need to work with reputable experts," he says. Petticord recommends searching for attorneys who advertise through English-language websites, because they likely have experience with overseas investors and can communicate with you clearly. And since foreign real estate is a small world, check out these agents' reputations with expats in online forums. From there, "go with the agent who's exerting the least pressure on you," Petticord says.

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