In March 2017, Russ and I sold our modest home in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and walked away from the house and the USA with $135,000 in proceeds.
We invested the money in two Portuguese properties: one in a small village about 15 minutes outside of Castelo Branco … and the other – 18 months later – in a small village outside of Elvas in the Portalegre district, deliberately near the Spanish border at Badajoz.
(Almost fifteen years earlier, we had purchased a vacation bolt in one of the towns that dot inland Andalucía.)
While “privileged” in the absolute sense of the word, by no means were we rich, entitled, upper-class, or even upwardly mobile. One of us was about to retire on monthly Social Security payments of less than $2,000; the other earned about $1,000 per month as an independent contractor working remotely for a nonprofit organization. Yet, all three properties were purchased, renovated, updated and upgraded, then furnished (where needed) … with cash.
Takeaways from the above are that we believe in the value of real estate investments (at least here and now in Portugal and Spain); we prefer native villages, where learning to speak and understand other languages are de rigueur, rather than more “fashionable” and trendy places surrounded by other expats and immigrants whose language of choice is English; and that it’s definitely possible to purchase perfectly proper property in Portugal and Spain at remarkably low prices. Brilliant!
Each of our homes in Portugal is a study in contrasts, and quite different from our place in Spain.
With some 150m2 spread among three floors separated by a stairwell containing 37 steps, our first Portuguese purchase is in Lousa, a village of some 600 souls adjoined by its partnered “parish” (freguesía), within 20 kilometers of the big city: Castelo Branco. Sited on Rua Nossa Senhora Dos Altos Céus – the main street in town – it’s always amazing how vehicles large and small move in both directions, traversing such narrow confines, with cars and trucks parked on one side.
One of our first neighbors told me (in Portuguese) that people in the village wondered what would possess two American men to move to such a “nondescript” yet typical village in the central core of the country. I tried to explain to her that, perhaps it was the increasingly dark Americanisms devouring the USA that motivated us to move to a place with a slower pace, peaceful coexistence, and tangible tranquility.
Lousa has all the charm one could want in a homestead. Its cobblestone streets, standard blueprint church (igreja matriz) with bells that signal appointed times of our rotes and rituals exude an aura that is truly Portugal. Like every village, it reveres several saints, although paying homage to Nossa Senhora Dos Altos Céus during an annual, four-day festival.
Bespoken are the health care center, primary school, multi-sport playground, senior day care facility, “casa de cultura,” and meeting space for the “junta de freguesía.”
Not quite so obvious, however, are Lousa’s charm and character … a place where everyone knows who you are, if not your name. What the town is missing, however, are retail shops and eateries, either snack bar or restaurant. With two, sometimes three, cafés and two facing mini-markets along the main street, all of the action passes by our house (which, earlier, had housed the village’s most popular café—where lottery tickets were sold).
Our third-floor bedroom has four large windows overlooking the street; so, everything from funeral processions to passing sheep and achingly old diesel engines crunching up the cobbled stones looms loud, up close and (a bit too) personal.
Remember those 37 steps mentioned at the top of this tale? With three dogs but without a backyard, they need to be four times every day (eight separate outings, as only two can be walked at a time). Going up and down that staircase certainly takes a physical toll!
We do love the property, though.
The former café with its two separate restrooms (the men’s has a working urinal!) is now our gathering space, where we welcome friends and neighbors for food and drink. Behind it is a small patio, off of which is our kitchen and family room combination, where we cook, eat, and relax with our critters and Netflix. Above the kitchen, in that separate wing, is a secluded guest suite with private bathroom. Also on this first floor (as numbered in Portugal and Spain), albeit in the main part of the house, are our offices and an expansive living room. Up 18 steps from the landing is our own bedroom suite featuring an adjoining breakfast room and sleeping areas for the dogs, the master bedroom, walk-in closet, and another full bath. There’s quite a large, covered terrace comprising space for doing laundry, grilling, eating, and socializing. Atop the building is an attic with concrete floor under a new, insulated roof providing plenty of storage space.
All things considered – purchase price; major repairs to walls and floors; a new roof; upgrading the electricity throughout; new appliances: water heaters, four inverter aircon units, washer, dryer, three refrigerators, electric range and oven; and new cabinetry built to spec in the upper and lower kitchens – we spent about US $70,000 (slightly more than €50,000 at the current exchange rate). Furniture and furnishings (artwork!) were shipped over from the USA.
We had thought about selling this property, as walking the dogs during the incredibly hot and nasty rainy seasons is a royal pain, encumbered by all those stairs. But how could we leave a place that had adopted us, where we’re integral strands in the fabric of the gentry, surrounded by immigrant friends from nearby towns and villages? We couldn’t.
Our other Portuguese property is located in what’s known as the “high” Alentejo: Vila Boim is a village of 1,200 five kilometers outside of Elvas – a UNESCO World Heritage site – which, in turn, is just about 10 kilometers from Badajoz, Spain. Around the corner and up the street are several snack bars, cafés, and an upscale restaurant, along with a bank, pharmacy, and mini-market. Our streets here are paved in asphalt, rather than cobble-stoned.
If our place in Lousa is spacious and plentiful, this property is cute and cozy. The bungalow style, single-story structure has one large bedroom, one full bath, a spacious dining room, intimate living room, brand new galley-style kitchen, and an office … all under roof housed in a tidy 55m2. The bonus “room” is a small, bricked backyard (quintal) where our dogs can take care of their business, and a substantial storage shed. My own, special bonus is a dishwasher in the kitchen (although Russ prefers the side-by-side “American” style refrigerator and freezer). From soup to nuts, we purchased and primed this property for carefree, full-time living at an approximate cost of US $55,000 (€46,500).
Even as novice language learners, we’re aware of slight differences in Portuguese pronunciation and accents between the two villages separated by less than 200 kilometers. In both locations we have guardian angels who watch out for our welfare and help us to better understand the Portuguese people, their language and culture. Similarly, opening our front doors to knocks or the bell, we find neighbors bringing us food from their farms. In return, we take home-made meals to them: classic American cuisine: mac and cheese, franks and beans, meatloaf, cheesecakes, our own ”piri-piri” meatballs and spaghetti.
Unlike our house in Lousa, the layout and build of the Vila Boim bungalow place the bedroom squarely in the middle of the house—cutting down, substantially, on street noise. Exterior walls are at least a meter thick, providing natural insulation and keeping our heating and cooling bills to a minimum. Due to its size, it’s easier to clean, maintain, and use the premises in full than our Lousa lodging.
Besides being next-door to Badajoz, a busy and bustling metropolis, two hours were shaved off our trip each way back and forth to Spain by leaving from our Vila Boim property, rather than the one in Lousa.
(A separate post on pastorbrucesblog.com deals with our operating costs, living expenses, and monthly budget for all three properties.)
If you’ve been adding up the numbers given here, you’ll notice that we spent $125,000 of the $135,000 received from the sale of our house in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. What did we do with the remaining $10,000? Half we put into savings. With the rest, we added a “fitted” kitchen and replaced our leaky, cast iron bathtub with a walk-in shower at our Olvera home.
But that is another story!
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.