Around the Margins: Property Contrasts in Portugal & Spain

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.

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8 thoughts on “Around the Margins: Property Contrasts in Portugal & Spain

  1. Wonderful story. If I wasn’t alone I would have lIved in a more traditional Portuguese town. However I now live in Parede along the Cascais Linha. Even though it is close to Cascais as well as Lisbon it is very Portuguese. Of course a more modern Portugal and much more expensive. I have great admiration for you guys.
    Stay well. It was lovely to meet you guys

  2. My husband and I are starting to figure out where and when we should make our getaway to Portugal. One current sticking point is I will probably be retiring from paid work years before he is willing to give up his remote-work programming gig and we’re not really in a position to buy a Golden Visa. Can you comment on your ability to work remotely for a non-profit with the retirement visa and NHR status?

    • Hi, Matt. Many people we know live in Portugal but work, remotely, for businesses located elsewhere. It’s quite a difficult task to report, financially, to both Portugal and the USA … which each country requires … especially if one is able to take advantage of NHR status (we do)! Basically, independent contractors living in Portugal usually pay Social Security taxes to Portugal, not the USA. But you or your accountant must provide documentation to the IRS that you are registered for — and paying into — the Portuguese system, as of a specified date. Our experience and that of others shows that it is best to, first, file for an extension (until October) each year for reporting your income taxes to the USA. Why? Because income taxes generally are reported, first, to Portugal … based on the same financial documentation you use with the IRS. For this, we use a Portuguese accountant, who takes into account our NHR status. Taxes in Portugal are reported later than in the USA–at the beginning of June. After our Portuguese income tax reports are submitted and accepted (approved) by Finanças in Portugal, they’re provided to another accountant — an American CPA residing in Portugal — who prepares and submits our tax returns to the IRS in the USA, factoring in the no “double tax” treaty between Portugal and the USA, along with certain write-offs (i.e., the foreign earned income tax credit). It does take some getting used to, but we ultimately pay fewer and less taxes.

      • Thanks! Tax filing complications aside, I was assuming that to get a retirement visa you couldn’t work. That you had to rely solely on passive income or get a work permit type visa sponsored by your employer. But it sounds like you can freelance as an independent contractor without bumping up against those rules. So maybe we won’t have to find a way to buy a half million euro property in order to move there before we’re both ready to stop working for money.

      • That’s a major difference between retiring in Spain and Portugal, Matt: With “retirement” residency (visa de jubilado) in Spain, neither the applicant (the retiree) nor his/her dependents can work … it’s referred to as a residencia “sin luctrativo” … whether in Spain or elsewhere (remotely). The situation is quite different in Portugal, however: There is only one time of “long-term” residency. Once granted, you and/or your dependents can take a job working in Portugal (good luck! 🙂 ) or anywhere else, including online!

  3. Hello, just wanted to say that I am from Wisconsin too. Not in Portugal yet but I did study Portuguese in Lisbon around 30 yrs ago. (In one of the posts, I noted the “Door County” reference, thought..hmm Wisconsin? Then figured there might actually be a Door County in another state. When I read this post, I was pleasantly surprised that I was correct. Currently in Madison but grew up in Waukesha County.

    I too am looking for a smallish town to be able to get to know people more easily. Having grown up in a small town with no bus system, more farm fields (at the time), no doctor offices in town and a 30 minute car ride ro the hospital….one or two stop lights, one fast food restaurant, one screen movie theater but multipleses were 20 minutes by car…Madison (for college) was a dream…accessible by foot! (I moved after college but after 15 yrs of living out of state, decided to move back to be closer to my mom and family. Having that juxaposition (and comparing the other locals I lived), I really appreciate having things close by so I don’t have to drive so far. (Developed a foot neuropathy a few years back that brought my driving more than 30 minutes to a stand still. I could no longer visit my family at will.)

    One thing I don’t appreciate about Madison is all the traffic, people, of course we get 30,000 students every year, Badger Football games and special events but also we get all the commuters from areas 30-40 minutes from Madison to go to work. The traffic swells at certain hours. It is harder to meet people as it’s a bigger city, etc.

    Sorry my post is long but in trying to find areas to live….can you speak to what things are in all the cities where you have property? How far away are doctor offices, hospitals, Physical Therapy locations, etc? As one gets older, one must think of these things as you pointed out. Another question is…how do the Portuguese deal wih their stairwells or cobblestone streets?

    Instead of moving, you could see how much it would cost to build an elevator or a motorized chair that will go up the steps. I suppose one would have to have a strong ropes/ supports if you install a pulley system out a window. (I have seen these at construction sites to haul up materials….surely one could put one in for going up/down without an elevator nor using the stairs…yes, I am well aware of the stares and bewildered faces that you would get…but you would not have to move!

    Another question being that it is 2021 now, my house is currently valued at $175,000….and Portuguese housing prices have been on the rise …do you think it is still possible to buy properties or even one renovated one…say near Castelo Branco or Sierra de Estrela areas?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mary. Yes, we did move here from Sturgeon Bay (Door Count), Wisconsin. In both of the locations where we live in Portugal — one a town (Alcains) just outside of Castelo Branco city, and Vila Viçosa, a village just minutes from Elvas and Badajoz at the Spanish border — good health care and hospitals are readily accessible. Due to the nature of our curving staircase separated by a landing between the first and second levels, adding an elevator wasn’t an option. (Plus, without a small yard attached to the house, we would still have to deal with walking our three dogs several times a day on cobblestone streets which can be quite slick and slippery–especially for me, in my 70’s.) While we love the two communities in Portugal where we divide our time, knowing what we know now, if we were to start from “scratch,” the areas we would look seriously at are those in Coimbra and some on the Silver Coast of Portugal, between Lisbon and Porto, where prices aren’t so high. From what I have read recently, housing prices around the globe are skyrocketing (while naysayers insist not). In popular destinations — Lisbon, Porto, Algarve and their suburbs — prices are definitely heading upwards. That said, in towns and villages throughout the rest of the country, you will still be able to find properties within your budget.

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