Desert oasis in Marrakech? Chateau in Versailles? How about a tropical island all your own? The dream of escaping America has been around as long as, well, the American dream itself. Now, however, with real estate prices at an all-time high and America locked into an endless war on terrorism, the prospect of escape is more appealing than ever. Add to the picture job layoffs and spiraling deficits, and the idea of moving somewhere cheaper makes increasingly good sense.
Whether you’re an overworked wage slave who can’t afford a two-bedroom hovel, or a penny-pinching suburban mom or a glinty-eyed trust-fund baby, it might seem that buying foreign property could solve a host of divergent and sometimes contradictory problems.
In countries that disagree with American policies (i.e., most of the globe), for instance, you can feel as if you’re no longer condoning American imperialism abroad. In poor nations, your American dollar can allow you to live like royalty. In places where English-speaking white culture does not rule, you can bask in cultural difference. And, all the while, you can become the proud homeowner of a property you could never have afforded back in the United States.
It used to be that buying a property in another country was only for salty, do-it-yourself adventurers or jet-setting internationalists. You had to have contacts in the country where you wanted to buy, and you had to travel there (often repeatedly) to find a property and track down a native real estate agent. But now, thanks to a few savvy homegrown entrepreneurs, the dream of offshore living is only a click away.
In searching for international real estate, I discovered two great sites, each representing a different end of the financial spectrum: Unique Global Estates.com offers the largest database of U.S. and world properties worth in excess of $1 million, while EscapeArtist.com provides an encyclopedic research center to enable any regular Jane or Joe to buy in to the expat dream.
Geared to the international elite, Unique Global Estates (UGE) offers the rest of us the equivalent of real estate pornography. We can look, we may long, but we are not allowed to touch.
“We have 16,000 properties in 41 countries,” said company president and CEO Donna Lee Laue, a child model turned real estate investor who bases her business in San Francisco. Laue, who said that the average price of a listing on her site is $7.5 million and that the total value of all the properties offered amounts to more than $44 billion, adds, “We connect global buyers to the local-market knowledge by connecting them to the best local specialists in the area.”
Because UGE deals only with high-end properties, Laue said, it offers real estate agents a chance to list properties that are difficult to market. “A lot of high-end properties never get listed at all, because the sellers are concerned about their privacy,” she said. “You have to be careful about who you want to see the floor plan, for instance. But our members can search and ask for privileged information.”
Browsing the site, one can only imagine the kinds of fears these sellers might be living with in sending their floor plans out into the ether. One $2 million mansion, for example, is located in the heart of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, a hotbed of terrorism and political turmoil.
What does it cost to be a member of this exclusive club of real estate shoppers? Actually, nothing, except giving your identity and contact information to UGE. The company makes money through standard form of referral fees, wherein agents pay them a percentage of their commission. Laue wouldn’t comment on how much money her company makes or how many properties it helps sell, explaining that doing so would give too much information to competitors. But, with only four full-time employees, it probably doesn’t need to sell very many properties to show serious profit.
One of the more fascinating things one learns from the UGE site is that living in urban America can skew your sense of what bargain means. In terms of price per square foot, almost every mansion, palace and estate is cheaper than property in say, little Albany, Calif., where tiny working-class bungalows sell for upward of $400 per square foot.
Imagine yourself moving your extended family into a 10,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, seven-bathroom, five-garage “traditional Thai-style” compound consisting of six individual homes complete with a grand room/music room, a separate building for gardeners and drivers and three bedrooms and a living room for maids. The grounds include three gardens, two lawns, a nursery and two ponds. And you get all this for the price of a small three-bedroom in Brentwood, Calif.: $1.9 million. (That’s only $195 per square foot – about the same price as square footage in less-desirable parts of Sacramento.)
From this perverse vantage point, western European chateaus are no less affordable. A fully restored, 15,000-square-foot Loire Valley chateau built around 1750 – with 133 acres, 10-plus bedrooms, 10-plus bathrooms and eight garage spaces, surrounded by its own formal gardens, meadows, rivers and woods – seems like a steal (by San Francisco standards) at only $3 million. And what about the $888,800, 19th-century chateau in Brittany, with 13.5 acres of wooded park and including a lake and several outbuildings and an extension that seats 450 people? (This cheapo listing somehow eluded the site’s $1 million benchmark.)
Of course, in real estate terms, it has always paid to be rich. The bigger the property, the lower the price per square foot.
By far, UGE’s most interesting current property is a $7 million, 9,920-square-meter chunk of historical dirt from the Mount of Olives – arguably Jesus’ favorite piece of real estate on Earth! It was there that the Messiah often traveled to visit his friend Lazarus, retreated to pray after the Last Supper, was finally arrested and then appeared before his apostles after his resurrection. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Christ…) The listing suggests it might be developed with a hotel, a church or a convention center, and it is covered with – what else? – olive trees.
According to Laue, three months before 9/11, this piece of history had an eager buyer and a developer. “But then it all fell apart,” she said. “I can’t go into detail.”
While UGE is a good place to read about places built by royalty and other filthy-rich individuals, EscapeArtist.com is the place to plan a real break from the good ol’ U.S. of A. Started by Richard Gallo, a 61-year-old real estate investor who lives in Panama, the Web site is an offshoot of his self-published book “Escape from America.”
Despite Gallo’s obviously profit-making intentions in his offshore business dealings, he also maintains that his ex-pat lifestyle has a deeper philosophy. On his site, he extols the concept of deterritorialization: “The Philosophy at Escape Artist is rather straightforward,” he writes. “[W]e believe that governments and their borders and the concept of government and borders are obsolete.” Gallo recently told ABC.com that many in the expat community have chosen their lifestyles on political grounds. “There are people who have a moral will to live abroad,” he said, adding that some U.S. policies, especially foreign policies, have so disenfranchised some Americans that the United States is becoming “an emigrant as well as an immigrant nation for them for the very first time since the Civil War.”
Whether you’re attracted to the expat dream for its moral high ground or for its alcoholic slushies on white beaches, EscapeArtist.com can help you plan your practical attack. It lists an abundance of low-priced permanent getaways, from a $6,300 beachfront property on the Panamanian Caribbean island of Bocas del Toro to a 1,465-acre farm with a sandstone house in South Africa for $260,000 to a condo in a ski resort in the French Alps for $30,000.
EscapeArtist.com publishes two free magazines, Escape from America and Offshore Real Estate Quarterly, and offers information on embassies, country profiles, offshore retirement, an expat phone directory, lists of hospitals worldwide, offshore investments and tax havens, overseas jobs and education programs and virtually anything else you think you might want to know about cutting ties with the motherland.
While our nation’s leaders champion the virtues of old-fashioned imperialism, I’ve been thinking about how the world of real estate fits in. Of course, buying real estate in Iraq would be the natural place to start, but, so far, I’ve failed to find any Iraqi listings. I half expected to locate Uday Hussein’s massive, decadent estate already listed for sale on UGE, but Laue said no one has contacted her to market properties seized by Coalition Forces. She said with a laugh that when a reporter asked her to appraise the value of some of Hussein’s palaces, “I said I had no idea. I don’t even know if they’re standing.”
In any case, it would be a mistake to imagine you’d be the first one at the auction of Saddam’s country estate. Last year, Newsweek reported that Iraqis, on a bet that property in postwar Iraq might be a good investment, had begun driving up the price of real estate before the bombs fell. “Prices have doubled in the past three months,” Adnan Abd Al-Ridh, a real estate agent in Basra, told the newsmagazine.
Usually however, the lure of international real estate has nothing to do with a desire to escape the confines of your country. It’s about the sense of possibility – the sense of incredible privilege that comes with being a middle-class American, the knowledge that you have a choice at all.
These fairy-tale castles and thatched huts remind us that you can simply buy a house or a piece of land and change your life, that you can live with a completely new window on our flawed but extravagantly intricate world and that all the real estate in the world – whether it’s the Mount of Olives or not – is just that: real estate. Or, as, Laue put it, “Castles, palaces – they’re all just big houses.”
Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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