“Imagine yourself sitting on this veranda each afternoon,” said my real estate agent, “watching the sun sink into the horizon straight out there. The orientation of this unit couldn’t be better.”
I glanced down at my compass—something I always carry when looking at real estate—and saw we were facing south. That doesn’t bode well for sunsets in the southern hemisphere.
When buying real estate overseas, your primary interface with the market will be the real estate agent. And, while the certification requirements and rules of conduct are fairly rigid in North America, you’ll find a mixed bag overseas.
So it’s best to go into your real estate search with the proper expectations. Here are five ways that I’ve found agents abroad to be different from what I was used to in the States.
1. Training And Certification May Not Be What You Expect
Real estate agents in most countries are licensed, trained professionals. Some are better than others, but we can be pretty sure that anyone selling real estate is a genuine real estate agent.
But it’s not true everywhere. The developing world is full of fly-by-nighters.
I once met an agent in Ecuador who came to pick up one of our readers at her hotel in a dilapidated, old taxi. He had no office, no landline phone, and no car. But thinking she was saving money, the reader eventually bought a house from him anyway.
As it turned out, the agent bought the house from the seller for US$105,000 and sold it to her for US$135,000. Not exactly the deal she had in mind. This is what can happen when agent licensing laws are nonexistent or not enforced.
On top of everything else, even a qualified, professional agent may not speak English.
Only work with agents who have a genuine business or are employed by someone reputable. A good rule of thumb is that if the agent doesn’t have an office, a website, or a car to drive you around in, he’s not a pro. Use extreme caution.
If the agent doesn’t speak your language, I’ve found that people can usually get by if they know a few key phrases. To help out, I’ve made a few real estate dictionaries for Ecuador, Colombia, and Uruguay… as well as a Portuguese dictionary for Brazil.
2. There Is Usually No Multiple Listing Service
When buying in North America, we’re spoiled by the MLS. We can search for exactly the property we’re looking for and see every home on the market no matter which agent has it listed. Also, you can work with a single agent that you like and have access to the entire market.
And convenience is only part of the benefit of an MLS. The real value is that it establishes an official price for every property that’s on it. No one will try to charge you more.
In markets with no MLS, you need to go to several different agents to see everything that’s out there meeting your criteria. This is time consuming and can be tedious; you usually can’t just pick a good agent and see everything. There are, of course, exceptions. In Colonia, Uruguay, for example, I worked with two agents who would show anyone’s listing… and another who refused to show any listings but his own.
Don’t work with just one agent, especially if they’re not showing you a good selection of properties that fit your criteria. Check the newspaper, private sales on the Internet, and as many real estate sites as you can find. Eventually, you’ll see what’s out there… just be sure you remember to allow time for the extra work.
3. The Agents Often Pad The Asking Price
When I was house shopping in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I walked into a well-known realty office to get a price on a house I’d seen while driving around. But, instead of one price, within 30 minutes I got three different prices from three agents who worked there. The highest “asking” price was US$30,000 higher than the lowest (which was probably already inflated).
I had another agent add 30% to the asking price and she had the nerve to tell me that she’d negotiated a great deal on my behalf. In Ecuador I knew local agents who didn’t post prices at all, preferring to assess the client and then price the house according to what they believed the client could pay. All this is possible when there’s no MLS to keep everyone honest.
My first reaction was to call the agents crooks (which they are). But as the years went by, I came to realize that this is simply how business is done in many markets.
Learn what properties are worth. I keep a record of the properties I’m going to see and break down their cost into dollars per square meter. After looking at a handful, I can quickly see the averages and the outliers.
In my experience, regardless of price padding, there are always some fairly priced (or even bargain) properties on the market. You’ll spot these if you look at enough properties and then use them to bring down the overpriced properties.
4. They May Not Convey The Offer
I offered a low US$50,000 for an apartment in Montevideo a few years ago and was told the seller turned the offer down. So I raised the offer to US$55,000 and he took it. Later I learned that he would have accepted the US$50,000… but the agent had not conveyed the offer.
I came to learn that this is very common in markets where there’s no official requirement to present every offer. You have to get by the agent first… if they’re not happy, the owner will never hear your offer.
Determine what you’re willing to pay and stick to your guns. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the market you’ll know what the property is worth… And once you know this you can offer a genuinely fair price, which the agent will pass on to the seller. If they don’t, move on.
5. They May Not Manage All Items Required For Closing
In the United States, our agents will generally manage everything that needs to happen for closing, from termite inspections to title insurance. This is not always true outside the States.
Familiarize yourself with the property purchase process before you buy and make sure all the bases are covered. You should be in good hands if you have an experienced local attorney… but a smart buyer will understand the process and make sure everything stays on track.
My Experiences In Buying Properties Abroad Have Been Overwhelmingly Positive
The real estate agents I’ve bought properties from overseas have been honest and professional. And even the fly-by-night pseudo-agents have found me some good deals.
In fact, my overseas experience has generally been better than my U.S. experience, where I’ve been tricked, swindled, and lied to.
In retrospect, the reason I’ve had bad experiences in the States is because I was depending on regulations and licensing to protect me… and that doesn’t work. Overseas, I knew I was responsible to look out for myself and did so.
Today I realize that the agent’s job is to find properties. My job is to know if I’m paying a fair price. Using that outlook, the difference between agents in the United States and abroad won’t really matter that much.