Category Archives: Before You Go

Global relocation issues to be considered before becoming an expat. Defining Moves – Inspiration, information and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner.

Facebook settings.

Birthday Approaching? Change your Facebook Privacy Settings…

Facebook settingsFacebook have replaced Apple as the leaders in constantly changing terms and conditions, but with far greater consequences. Where their privacy settings previously allowed you to limit who saw what, now all bets are off and it only takes an ill-advised tag to have your worst moments immortalized.

So, while we are busy safeguarding our children from the perils of social media, a new challenge has snuck up from behind. Poor eyesight and the Facebook app…

I am now in the ‘of a certain age’ group, and frankly, things are starting to go a little downhill. Along with the anti-aging creams and the increasing reliance on Spanx, we are now seeing (or not) increasing use of reading glasses and the large font setting on your iPhone.

All very well, until you factor in the constantly changing privacy settings. It’s easy to pictorially record a moment for posterity and share it with the world, but when you are doing it on a two inch screen without your glasses on, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Now, when someone tags you in their status updates and adds a particularly awful photo of you, they may think they are only sharing it with their own friends, but they are not. They are sharing it with yours, and everyone else mentioned in that darn update. And as viewers around the globe share their condolences on the loss of your dignity, they just add fuel to the fire. Cos it’s now gone out to their friends, too…

[Tweet “A  new social media challenge has snuck up on the over 40s. Poor eyesight and the Facebook app.”]

You know it’s bad when my sister (also known for her fetching array of dodgy photos) laughs solidly for 10 minutes. On an international phone line. She has grown up with me, and has thus been witness to some blinders, but even she was impressed.

While Facebook is a wonderful tool for staying connected with friends, families and networks, never forget that it’s primarily a profit-driven business. It makes money by leveraging your activity against advertising access, which means it wants as many people as possible to see what you are up to. It then charges businesses to gain access to you, your activity and your network, and the more unrestricted (i.e. tagging, liking and commenting without setting individual privacy limits) interaction you have, the more valuable you are.

[Tweet “Check your Facebook privacy settings now. Once it’s out there, it’s ‘shampooing-the-cat’ difficult to get back”]

Let this be a lesson to you: check your Facebook privacy settings every time you post, comment and like, and while you are at it, consider adding your own internal filter before your fingers hit the keyboard. Because once it’s out there, it’s damn near impossible to get back. (Think shampooing-the-cat difficult…).

For those of you about to embark on a birthday weekend away with friends, here’s my ‘How to Remain Friends and Not Humiliate People” checklist. You might want to print them out and distribute them with the boarding passes…

 

1. Agree a “Posting and Tagging” policy pre-departure. Facebook is a minefield when it comes to offending people whose city you are visiting – especially if you aren’t visiting them.

2. If you post status updates to Facebook, notify anyone pre-tag so that they can have editorial approval. Your friends may find your offbeat humor hilarious, but their co-workers / future employers / elderly relatives may not.

3. Check your privacy settings before you go, and select either ‘just me’ or close friends. This video will take you through the umpteen places you need to do this.

4. If anything untoward creeps through, untag yourself or ask the poster to remove it. Never comment directly on the offending pic/post; doing so triggers a notification to your network and makes it even more visible.

5. If you are over 40, posting photos of people from your iPhone is strictly prohibited… Seriously.

6. As a last resort, temporarily ‘unfriending’ your travel companions will prevent them being able to tag you, so your network will stay blissfully oblivious. The bad news is that you won’t be able to see what’s being posted, but any shared friends will…

 

So off you go. Now. Before Many Happy Returns takes on a whole new meaning…

 

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture.

(Often Ignored) Expat Essentials – Writing a Will.

Yes, I know. You don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it, which is why I have been getting shifty looks from most of my expat network this week when I asked them the seemingly simple question: “Do you have a will?” Want to know how many people said “Yes”?

Two. Out of about thirty people, all of whom have high net worth, children from at least one relationship, and often dual citizenship / resident status. A little worrying, no? 

I can’t claim the moral high ground – we recently unearthed our Will, dusty from 10 years in an unmarked cardboard box in a storage container in Walthamstow. Not exactly accessible in the event of our demise, and even worse, was so out of date that the paperclip holding it together was rusty and the Feisty One was not even mentioned. So on her behalf, I am doing something about it… Here goes.

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture. I have a new dirty word: intestate. For those of you who have been living a carefree life of blissful indifference, it’s what happens when you don’t have a will. For non-expats, the implications are unpleasant: it gives the state responsibility and control over the division of your estate, decisions about who will take care of your dependents, the timeframe it all happens and (of course) access to a large chunk of your assets via taxes.

It’s a simple fix – a Will. It’s the document that tells those left behind what you want to happen to your dependents and estate.  Most of us overthink it, imagining a torturous process requiring three weeks of desperate hunting for title deeds and old bank statements. Nothing could be further from the truth – the best wills are simple statements of intent, which give executors something to work with and a few clues about where you have hidden your treasure. Combine that with a good estate planning lawyer and you will create a plan that saves everyone time, money and heartache at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Introducing first part of the Defining Moves “Ducks in a Row” program. Our aims are simple:

  • To inspire you to act. Right now. Because this is important.
  • To get you to the lawyer on time. We want to prompt to you think, discuss, list and plan, so that any legal advice you get is based on reality, not just the bits you could remember in the car on the way to the lawyer’s office. And make sure that when whoever prepares your will asks a question, you know the answer and are not paying $300 per hour for them to watch you think about it / argue with your spouse / try to remember whether or not you mailed the last life insurance premium.

So grab your pencil and paper, and let’s get started…

 

Step one: The People.

There are three groups of people you need to consider when drafting a Will;

  1. your dependents
  2. your beneficiaries
  3. your executors

 

Dependents.

These are the people who rely on you for some sort of care, support and/or protection. Traditionally, these were children still living at home, but modern families are often complicated with blended families, shared custody arrangements, adoptive children, elder relatives and even pets added to the mix. Thankfully, lawyers have seen it all before, and, even better if you have a family as nutty as mine, are sworn to secrecy…

Make of the list of those who you are responsible for, whether physically, socially, financially or legally, and the type of care you provide. Keep it simple – the rest can be figured out later – at this stage, your task is to create a comprehensive list.

Now list any special circumstances that will have to be addressed.  For many families, this may involve shared custody, child support or special needs but for expats there may also be issues of differing nationalities, citizenship and resident status that may have tax and legal implications.

For those of you with your own business, bear in mind that you may also have professional responsibility for continuity of care of clients – check your licensing organization or professional code of conduct if you are unsure.

 

Beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the recipients of your estate – usually immediate descendants, siblings, friends and charities. Typically, assets are divided equally between your children, so if you want to use a different split, make this clear to your lawyer so that they can prevent your will being subject to legal contest. Note also that laws differ about division of assets when you die intestate – half siblings, step and adoptive children are often treated differently, and the portion of the estate automatically assigned to the spouse varies widely internationally.

If you have any other people or organizations who you want to leave money to, add them to your list now.

 

Executors, Financial Guardians and Legal Guardians.

It’s your group of guardian angels, so pick wisely. These are people who you trust to administer your estate and make sure your wishes are carried out, to care for your dependents and to manage the finances of the beneficiaries if they are unable to do so. The roles carry huge responsibility, so discuss whether or not your intended choices are both willing and able. They can be family members, friends or lawyers; typically, lawyers are paid (and aren’t given custody of the children…) whereas family and friends are less likely to be.

Note that guardianship differs from child custody: while custody refers to the physical care provided by a parent (who may have no legal powers), legal guardianship may involve physical and/or legal custody, and continues until the child reaches adulthood or the guardian’s death. By contrast, especially in the modern family, custody is far more flexible and changes according to the situations of the parents.

Here’s where expats need to be especially careful, because the local laws may be very different to those of your home nation and custody / guardianship arrangements and next of kin may not follow familiar rules. In the UAE, for instance, if no will is in place, Sharia law prevails, meaning that assets and custody of children potentially follow the male line – your husband / partner’s parents, brothers and sisters. How is your relationship with your mother-in-law, by the way?

 

Step Two: The Money

Your estate is the sum total of your assets, and while many of you will be rolling your eyes that I am pointing out the obvious, I can guarantee that there will be plenty of things that you will have forgotten. The temptation is to run to the filing cabinet / junk drawer and fish out the most recent bank statement, and start noting down numbers, but don’t. Your assets are constantly changing, so you only need to include categories – current and savings accounts, property, jewelry stocks, shares, businesses, investment accounts, life insurance, digital assets (websites, videos etc) – and where those assets are held. For a starter list, click here for pdf cheat sheet.

While you are making your list, make note of who your beneficiaries are, and how they are reported. Typically, life insurance goes to the spouse, but in a world where divorce rates run at about 45%, there are a huge number of exes who are still listed as primary beneficiary. Take note, and make any necessary changes…

 

Step Three: The Decisions

Now that you have the information, you can start making decisions about how to pass on your legacy, human or otherwise. Your key priorities are the welfare of your dependents, so start with those and work from there.

Guardianship of dependents.

Who do you want to care for your dependents if you are no longer around to do so? Depending on the complexity of your family and the types of dependents, there may be more than one answer to this question, so set it all out clearly, naming each dependent individually. Talk to all the parties concerned before you head to the lawyer’s office – you may be surprised to hear who your children would hate to live with, or which relative is intending to move to Outer Mongolia next month – to prevent return visits. Factors that may affect your decision are not just emotional – also consider location (how will your children feel about leaving the country, for instance), age and health of potential guardians, relationship with other friends and family, support network and financial ability to provide care.

Include financial provision for your dependents and decide who you want to manage your estate for them if they are still minors. In many cases, life insurance helps to cover the cost of raising children, but once you include the cost of college education it may not go as far as you think.

Financial, legal and professional dependent provision will require discussion with your lawyer and with those who you nominate to take over; the good news is that if planned in advance, the process is straightforward (and certainly infinitely preferable to leaving your legal advisor / executor to try to unravel the mess in your absence).

 

Step Four: The Division

This is the fun bit, providing you have money to leave. But before you start divvying up between your offspring and the local cat protection league, here are a few pointers:

  1. Remember that your debts and liabilities (taxes, funeral expenses, etc) will be deducted from your estate before the remainder is distributed. You can offset many of these by establishing a Trust, which will will talk about in the next chapter, but for the moment, just remember to include your loans, debts and other obligations when you are cataloging your estate.
  2. Ensure that you own your assets outright before you will them away. Anything jointly owned needs careful consideration to avoid passing on a headache rather than a well-intentioned gift. If you hadn’t already discussed future plans with the co-owner(s), now is the time to do so.
  3. Now is not the time to make a point. Sure, you may have favorites, but remember that in many cases you are not just leaving behind a bequest, but a lifetime of family discord and ill-feeling – not to mention legal challenges. It may seem a lovely idea to leave the bulk of your estate to your newest grandchild/ favorite nephew or next door neighbor, but the resulting fallout can often sour the best of intentions. The same rules apply for property – find out which mementos, furniture or jewelry are most loved by your friends and family, and divide accordingly, informing all of them who has been given what. That way, any discussions, disagreements or disappointments can be directed at you, rather than unwitting recipients.
  4. While we are on the subject of leaving objects to people, think carefully about whether they want them, and the responsibility you are handing over. It’s difficult to part with things, no matter how ugly, unwanted or expensive to maintain without feeling disloyal to the person who gifted it.

Now you have done the difficult bit, it’s time to put pen to paper and make a rough outline to take to the lawyer’s office. If you are an expat, you may be advised to get legal input from both your home and host nation perspective – while the laws of your home nation usually take precedence, extended residence overseas may change the rules, so be sure to explain the situation rather than making assumptions.

You need to include:

  • Your name, and identifying details (usually your address, but if you are an expat, you will need to clarify your domicile (primary place of residence) with an experienced lawyer – it has significant tax and legal implications.
  • Names of beneficiaries; the people and organizations you want to leave your assets (whether money, housing, land, stock options, digital assets etc ).
  • The name of your executor (the person responsible for making sure your wishes are met).
  • Guardians of your dependents – Legal and physical.
  • Who gets what.
  • Your legal advisor should also include a “residual clause” that states the recipient for any assets you forgot to mention, or have been accrued since you wrote your will. “I bequeath any residue to” should take care of it.
  • Signature and date, with initials and date on every page.

Congratulations if you made it to this point- you are well on your way. In the next post, we’ll be introducing the fun stuff.. Planning your funeral, Living Wills and frustrating the tax man.

Bet you can hardly wait.

 

Further Resources:

Nolo.com – Legal encylopedia – Wills

USA.gov – advice on writing both social media and regular wills.

UK Citizens Advice Bureau information on writing a will.

Australia. gov – Resources on wills and power of attorney

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation

Women, Money and What ‘Dependent Partner’ really means. The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse.

The Fragile Finances of the Expat Trailing Spouse. Defining Moves, The Art of Successful RelocationUpdate: After considerable lobbying from consumer groups, the US Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has amended the rule requiring evidence of independent income when applying for consumer credit, replacing it with a declaration of household income. This is excellent news for accompanying partners in the United States who had been denied access to credit and left unable to build an independent financial identity, in a country where a credit card or credit history is required for everything from hiring a car to setting up a cell phone contract. Sanity is restored…

I came to a horrible realization the other day that I was beholden to my husband. It sounds incredibly old-fashioned; even using the word ‘partner’ in that sentence would be wrong, because it implies an equality that I had let slip away.

The dictionary describes the term beholden as owing something to somebody because of something that they have done for you’, so if you view being shuffled from pillar to international post as a favour, the word pretty much covers it. I realized that although I live in California, where community property and a 50/50 division applies, I did not have the independent means to pay for legal advice. And when he leaves all his dirty breakfast dishes on the counter above the dishwasher for the 5 millionth time, there is a big emotional difference between don’t want to divorce my Other Half, and CAN’T…

As with the vast majority of dual career couples, when I agreed to the OH’s first relocation, I was aware that from now on my own career would take a back seat. Global mobility research discusses the change (usually reduction) in income when a couple relocate, but discussion centres around household income, rather than individual earning power.

Which is exactly what I have lost. I have never worked in professions known for lavish salaries (nursing or teaching, anyone??), but I was able to earn significant personal income with opportunities for promotion. Now, however, my sole income in drawn from the ‘household’, and as such, is vulnerable. And I’m not alone.

It’s not just those of us who relocate that are in this position. It’s anyone who has chosen to reduce or give up work to manage family commitments, whether you are in constant global motion, or have never set foot outside your home town. If you have no independent source of income, whoever earns the salary holds the keys to your supposed household income.  And while you are legally entitled to a portion of those, it requires court approval to gain access to them, whatever the circumstances. Which also requires legal counsel, who (funnily enough) will want to be paid.

Take credit cards. Over the last 20 years, we have become used to being approved for credit, regardless of our personal income; the household income has always been taken into account. Sure, the credit limit may be small, but it’s quickly increased once our payment history shows our ability to make payments and manage the account well. However change is afoot, certainly in the US, where credit card issuers are changing their rules, and making it far more difficult for the accompanying partner to gain credit (and a good credit history), unless they are employed outside of home.

Last year, the Fed ruled that credit card applications should ask about a consumer’s individual income or salary rather than his or her “household income”. This isn’t just for students under 21, but for everyone. That means that a stay-at-home parent is considered as unworthy of credit as an unemployed college kid–and seven out of eight stay-at-home parents are mothers. No one without a pay stub, no matter the value of her contribution to her household, can get a line of credit unless her spouse cosigns the account. (Anisha Sekar,  July 7, 2011)

Now, in light of the recent economic meltdown, placing more focus on individual income and ability to repay debts is no bad thing, but it does have ramifications for those of us who suddenly lose the ability to get even the most basic forms of credit like a cell phone contract or credit card. It also means that unless you are named on the account, you lose the ability to make financial decisions, access accounts and resolve disputes, which if, like mine, your partner spends a great deal of time out of the country and on air flights, can make financial management impossible.

The Other Half is also the primary name on the host country bank account, and I don’t have automatic access to his account. Typically, he goes ahead to take up his new post, while I remain behind with the children to finish up the school year and pack the house for the move. It works well for us, but does mean that he has sole responsibility for setting up basic financial services in the new location, so it is his name on the salary transfer and tax details, and therefore his name on the account, at least until we get around to updating it.

We choose to manage this by having me sign all the checks (if he signed one himself, it would probably be dismissed as a forgery), I have the ATM card and PIN number, and I’ve set up the internet banking with my passwords. And while this unusual state of affairs makes for amusing dinner party conversation, it gives me absolutely no legal right to the household funds in that account, nor access to them should he suddenly develop amnesia / get run down by a London bus / decide to trade me in for a younger, blonder model…

The mention of Tax ID and salary above should alert you to the fact that opening your own bank account is not necessarily as easy as it first appears. Requirements vary from country to country, but most require evidence of who you are, your legal right to be in the country, how you will pay tax on any interest, and how you intend to fund the account. So when you turn up with your passport and cash, you may be disappointed… However, it is something that is worth doing if you value your sanity, because things can and do go wrong, and I am willing to bet that it is you who will be left holding the can when it does. If the money is in your sole name, you have control over it; if it’s not, you don’t. Simple as that.

And finally, let me mention the dying thing. I have known a few situations where a spouse has died at a young age, and not once did I ever hear the words “well now, let’s get on and sort out the money”. What I saw were people who had their lives knocked out from under them, who were trying to cope with immense loss, overwhelming grief, and devastated children. Imagine how much worse it gets when you are overseas, your right to be in the country expired with the demise of your spouse, and all your assets (and therefore your ability to get home, to make funeral arrangements, to pay medical bills and to pay for normal household expenses) are now severely compromised. I have seen it happen, and it was horrific.

So, if you do nothing else today, do these things for me, wherever you are. Get started on your own personal credit history, even if you have to take out a secured credit card to do it. Promise to keep track of your credit score, every month. Get an independent bank account in your host country, and commit to funding it, every month. And finally, make a joint will, keep it simple and safe, and make sure it is legal in the country that you live in.

Oprah would be proud. I feel more secure already…

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013

Why You (and every expat) Should Be Going to FIGT 2013

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013It seems incredible that a year has passed since the last Families in Global Transition conference; forever infamous as the one where I had a complete (and very public ) online meltdown at the eminence and credentials of my fellow presenters, only to have my cover blown by one Judy Rickatson, (aka @wifeinasuitcase) who is the expat online version of Wikipedia. If it’s out there, she knows about it, Tweets, Likes and Pins about it, and, I strongly suspect, has superhuman powers. If she was in charge of the search for the Holy Grail, it would have been found years ago, and it has become my life’s work to try and find an expat blog that she hasn’t yet discovered. She is the Simon Cowell of the expat social media world, discovering talent from the four corners of the globe; only much, much nicer.

Hence my blubbering gaining the attention of various members and supporters of FIGT, who all headed across to the Defining Moves website to offer kind words, support and offers of hospitality. It was the single most generous spirited gesture, and it embodies all that is special about the FIGT organization. People with years of experience, a hugely diverse range of backgrounds and an incredible depth of knowledge, all passionate about making expat life better.

It’s why I can’t wait to go back this year, and why you should all be joining me too. It’s a two day whirlwind of people, presentations and discussions from every perspective; starting with a keynote presentation from the brilliant Pico Iyer. Whether you are an accompanying partner, a expat service provider or from corporate HR, you will leave with a wealth of information and a host of new friends and real, live expat human resources. The only dilemma is how to fit it all into two days.

As for me, I have very personal reasons to want to go there too. It will be the first time I will actually meet many online friends in person, both those who regularly pop up here in the comments sections, on the Facebook page and on my Twitter feed.

At the top of my list?

Judy, of course.

 

If you need more information about Families in Global Transition and the FIGT 2013 conference, here’s the link to their website, including information on registering, becoming a member (as well as all the other benefits, you qualify for a reduced registration fee), global affiliates, sponsorship,  the New Attendees information webinar and the New Attendees welcome evening. I hope to see you there!

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.

Essential Expat: Simple steps to speedier settling in.

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.I’m getting better at this moving thing. This comes as something of a relief, because this is the 8th house in 16 years. And despite the fact that we have bought yet another fixer-upper (there will be comprehensive mutterings on the dubious wisdom of buying this type of property as an expat, mainly because one consigns oneself to a life of finally getting somewhere habitable, only to leave within the next 3 months… it’s like clockwork…), on the whole I have remained emotionally intact, with only the odd descent into babbling incoherence – and then only when the drains back up for the fourth time in a month. Predictably, in the bathrooms that we just finished remodeling.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that this calm and serenity comes at a price – namely the complete lack of any activity outside the house-hunting/mortgage application/signing on the dotted line/painting/tiling/grouting variety. Hence the echoing silence on the blog, causing those who know me well to be concerned by what for me is a very unusual silence.

Those of you who noticed and enquired about my life/health/sanity, thank you. I am now back, and your email inbox will once again be cluttered with occasional wisdom and eagerly awaited tales of the Other Half’s latest foray into home maintenance…

In the meantime, here are my essential steps to remaining sane, whether you are moving across town, across the country or across the world.

1. Know yourself.

It’s the defining moment of your first expat move – what to put in your household goods shipment. Especially if (like us) you have two small children and a container the size of the average office desk. What’s so important to you and your family, that you can’t leave it behind?

Eight years of expat life later, I know the answer, at least for myself. Our sense of family is strongest at mealtimes, so our dinner service – the plates, the silverware, the serving dishes – all get shipped. So do family pictures, treasured mementos, Christmas decorations and the numerous animals, but that’s about it. Furniture, clothes, books are all replaceable, so instead we use our allowance to take things that will make our future life easier. Things like industrial quantities of chocolate, laundry detergent and Bisto.

For you, it will be different. It may be bicycles, board games, films. The good news is that there is no right answer, there is only the answer that is right for you – and the only people who will ever know about your inability to part with your treasured collection of china cats will be you and the customs official…

2. Understand what lies ahead.

We all do it. Someone says they are being transferred to Hawaii, and we groan with envy; mention Angola and we wince – reactions purely based on second hand media reports and the odd travel brochure. Not exactly the most reliable source of expat advice, now we come to think of it. But there are plenty of excellent blogs, websites, forums, Facebook groups and networking sites, full of information and real, live people who have been there, done that. So do your own research from a wide range of sources, understand that the information you get will be from someone else’s perspective and use that to guide you.

3. Set up an expat and local support network before you go.

This is the era of the internet, of social media and of cheap VOIP calling, so you have no excuse for not staying in contact. Create your own expat preparedness kit; get an independent email address, set up social media profiles, sign up to cheap calling, get a comprehensive contact list, and start introducing yourself to your new network before you set foot on a plane.  If it all sounds too daunting to tackle by yourself, check out our guide and cheat sheets here and here.

4. Come prepared to make friends.

If you have done your research and made some social media contacts, you should know what other resident expats miss, what will be valued and what you can bring as ‘hostess gifts’. It’s an instant “in”, not because of the gift itself, but because you have shown you have what it takes to be a successful expat – the willingness to share, an interest in the welfare of others, and the understanding that not a single ounce/gram of luggage allowance should be wasted. Ever.

For those who are currently screaming the words, “I’m not moving to XXX just to mix with expats” at their screens, please don’t misunderstand me. I expect you all to get out there and meet whoever your heart desires, but take it from me, settling in and getting established is a whole heap easier with someone to point you in the right direction, who not only understands your language, but also where you are coming from. As a Brit in the US, I can assure you that there is plenty of scope for cultural misunderstandings, and I can only thank my lucky stars that the locals here are a forgiving bunch…

5. Know that you will have times when you want to go home.

That’s why you have set up your international communication strategy – so that when the rubber hits the road (or the other stuff hits the fan, and take it from me, it will, repeatedly), you have a voice at the other end of the line to help you get through it. In time, you will develop a local network, but for the first few months, use the “who wants to be a millionaire’ approach, and phone a friend. Preferably one who has the right answers.

6. Say yes.

You may have absolutely no interest in a tour of the local sewerage management facility / scrapbooking /fellwalking club, but if someone has invited you, say yes. It a) gets you out of the house, b) introduces you to a whole new set of people, c) shows that you are interested in trying new things (an essential trait in the successful expat) and d) if nothing else, gives you an excellent (and preferably hilarious) horror story to tell later (another accomplished expat characteristic).

7. Remember, it’s a numbers game.

The more people you meet, the greater your odds of meeting your expat soul mate, so the quicker you get out there, the better. No, you don’t have to commit to a lifetime study of yoga or the collected works of Agatha Christie – you just have to show up with a positive attitude, a desire to meet people, a willingness to go with the flow, and preferably, one of the aforementioned hostess gifts.

8. Give yourself space.

It’s the lesson that has taken me the longest to learn, because we all have such great expectations (some good, some bad) about our new life, but underestimate the amount of time, effort and sheer emotional energy that building it takes. For me, it meant taking an unplanned 3 month sabbatical from writing simply to move 5 miles across town. But I know from experience that my personal and family wellbeing are closely linked to a sense of home and a network of friends – and that takes work and commitment, so treat it like you would any other job and give yourself realistic goals, appropriate resources, and most importantly, time off. You need downtime, a moment or three where you are not on best behavior and where you get to please yourself and refill your cup.

 

As for me, things are gradually starting to get a little calmer; most of the walls are now painted, we have withstood the obligatory new home dramas and I am finally able to devote time to something other than project/crisis management. We are indeed, finally, settling down.

 

 

 

 

 

The golden rules of expat housing - buying a home. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

The Golden Rules of Expat Housing – Buying a Home


I’m not a real estate professional, so the good news is that I’m not going to try and sell you a home. Predictably though, I have made plenty of mistakes when it comes to expat housing, and have spent long hours with more seasoned expats discussing what they have learned and what advice they would offer. So here, following on from our Golden Rules of Renting, are our points to ponder when considering buying property as an expat.

The golden rules of expat housing - buying a home. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation

Understand your assignment contract.

Many assignment contracts include a buy out clause to facilitate a quicker move for the new expat family (or one transferring to local payroll), but don’t assume that you will automatically qualify. There are often limitations on the type of property that are included, such as homes that are atypical for the local area, ones that have planning or permit issues, any covenants or contractual limitations to the property or ones that you bought without conforming to company assignment policy.

In addition, buyout clauses tend to offer a ‘competitive market value’ for your home, which in plain terms means a price at which the property will sell within three months. For expats whose home location has a slower housing market, this can mean a substantial reduction in home value.

Understand your finances.

Since the 2008 financial meltdown, rules and restrictions governing mortgage eligibility have tightened  significantly. To the expat, this means  you may have difficulty qualifying for a home loan or that your limited local credit score only qualifies for the higher interest rates.

Talking of credit scores, you are going to need one if you plan on applying for a home loan. While some lenders will allow your international credit history to be taken into account, many won’t. Establishing and building a good local credit score means taking out some form of credit agreement as soon as you arrive (the length of credit history is one of the crucial factors in your score), and then managing it carefully, especially in the year preceding any mortgage application. For more information on credit history, scores and how they are calculated, check out the links at the bottom of the page.

When you are deciding what you can afford, it’s not just about the mortgage payment. Investigate any fees, charges and taxes that may not be standard in your home location. Most fees and taxes are calculated according to home value, and where international assignments are concerned, there will be wide variation in housing values.

Council taxes, local authority charges or property taxes are all calculated on home values, but need to be researched thoroughly  before you commit to buy – they vary hugely between states, regions and countries, and can add up to 25% to your mortgage payment.

There are also huge variations globally in terms of real estate agent fees and as an expat, you are likely to incur these more frequently than a permanently local employee, so include them in your financial calculations from the outset.

Be realistic about your timeframe.

When you take on a long term assignment or switch to a local payroll, it’s tempting to believe that you will live in your new home for the long term. However, unless you are emigrating or retiring, you are far more likely to be in your new home for between 3 and 5 years –  currently considered a ‘long term assignment ‘s international relocation terms. Your company may well help you with the moving costs, but I can guarantee you will have invested plenty of your own money in furnishings, maintenance, remodeling, landscaping and services. For assignments of under 5 years, renting will almost certainly be cheaper, so consider your motivation for buying very, very carefully, and be honest about the real costs over your assignment duration.

Understand the work involved.

A home is the largest single purchase you are ever likely to make, and involves a great deal of money, complex legal requirements and a team of people. If you haven’t already bought or sold a home, be prepared to expend a considerable amount of time, effort and emotional energy. If you are selling a home it’s even worse; open houses, viewings, contract negotiations and surveys are all demanding your attention just at the point you need to concentrate on planning your own relocation. There are ways you can minimize the effort involved (see list of tips, below) but still, know that if your relocation involves a property sale, you are less mobile, less focused and at the mercy of the buyers market..

 

STILL WANT TO BUY?

If all of our advice hasn’t made you run screaming for the hills, you must be serious about your plans to buy a house. From experience, the rules for buying a house as an expat are a little different, and for many of us, we have learned them the hard way. Luckily for you, we’re here to let you into our ten secrets for making your life in global transition a while lot easier..

1. Get a good real estate agent with a proven track record in the local area and who you trust to work in your best interests. Sometimes, this also means telling you what you don’t want to hear.

2. Listen to your real estate agent. Even if you don’t like what they are saying. You don’t have to agree with everything they tell you, but you do need to consider their advice.

3. Buy small. I love cathedral ceilings and huge family rooms, but experience has taught me that furnishing, heating, decorating and lighting them is more expensive than it seems. And nothing will fit in the next house – I guarantee it. A small home means that you have less debt, lower ongoing expenses and your house is far more rentable should you need to move. Oh, and it’s cheaper to heat, light and decorate..

4. Buy popular. Spend time watching the local real estate market nd understand what sells quickly, because if you get the offer of a lifetime on the other side of the globe, you are going to need to sell your house as fast as possible. Add in that most relocations have a very short turnaround time, it avoids the unpleasant situation of the working partner being transferred while the rest of the family wait behind for the home to sell.

5. Avoid quirky. By quirky, I mean anything that may raise red flags on inspections, or reduce your pool of potential buyers. You may love the murals in the front entrance, the 1920’s themed bar area or the garden gnome habitat, but everyone else is just adding up the cost and effort of removal.

6. Avoid fixer-uppers. Oh, I know, you love a project – but try to limit yourself to work that can be done in under six months and on a moderate budget. You are in the unenviable position of not knowing anyone well enough to call in favors, you don’t have a list of tried and trusted tradespeople, and no matter what the company says about your assignment being 3-5 years, if it ends early, you are stuck with a half-finished property..

7. Limit your spending. I have lost count of the property listings that I have seen which detail the huge amount of money spent on granite countertops and maple cabinetry. Neither of which I would want in a kitchen – give me white cabinets and butchers block every time. If something is very important to you, by all means go for it, but don’t for a minute assume that you will get your money back when you sell. Keep your spending proportional to the value of the home and the budget of the local buyers, and if in doubt, get a real estate agent to give you advice, rather than the contractor who would be doing the work. Realtors get very, very tired of sellers who are unrealistic about the true market value of their marble whirlpool spa.

8. Get permits. Make sure that any work you do is fully documented and inspected if necessary, and use licensed contractors. It’s not just about safety and quality, it’s also about having all the necessary paperwork when it comes to selling. The collapse of the financial markets has meant that lenders are being far more cautious about the properties that they lend money on, and any irregularities that the survey turns up may void the sale. In addition, it may invalidate any buyout clauses in your relocation assignment contract. You have been warned.

9. Ask your real estate agents for recommendations for tradespeople. They usually have a fantastic contact book of people who do work well, quickly and inexpensively, and most importantly, don’t leave a job unfinished.

10. View your home as a consumable, not an asset. In financial terms, expecting to make money on a property in the short term is highly risky, especially when it is your family home that you are speculating on. Even experienced property owners have been burned in by the recent fluctuations in the housing market, and they have the advantage of catering solely to the market, rather than having to make compromises to meet your individual family needs. Consider any  spending in the same way as rental payments, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Now it’s your turn.  There’s an unlimited comments section stretching out below, just waiting to hear about your triumphs and disasters – I’ve got a great Dulux Paintmate story to trade….

 

Online Resources & Further Reading 

 

FreeScore – provides information on credit scores worldwide 

MyFico Credit Basics (US)

US Federal Trade Commission Access to Free Credit Report information (US)

Credit Karma (US) Website providing ongoing free credit score & management information

Money at HowStuffWorks.com’s overview of the credit system.

BBC Guide to Credit Score (UK)

BBC Guide – How to Check Your Credit Rating (UK)

Money Saving Expert – Consumer Guide to How Credit Rating Works

 

 

Choosing schools - the Defining Moves Expat Guide to Relocation

Choosing Schools

Choosing schools - the Defining Moves Expat Guide to RelocationOh boy. If you thought sending your child off to school for the first time was the hardest day of your parenting life, think again. Try taking them out of the first school, transporting them across town /state/country/continent (delete as applicable) and then asking them to go to a new one, where they know “NOBODY – ALL MY FRIENDS ARE BACK HOOOOME..”.

In reality, starting a new school is not the end of the world that our children would have us believe, but until they are settled, it is incredibly stressful for all concerned.

The bottom line is that you and your child are looking for completely different things in a school;  for you, you need to be sure that the school provides a safe and nurturing environment and is academically stimulating, while your child wants friends, interesting teachers, fun play equipment and good snacks. Not necessarily in that order.

Ask yourself what is most important to you long term.  For “Third Culture Kids”, they are unlikely to achieve long term academic success without first addressing their emotional well-being, so my advice is to look for a school that meets those needs first, and worry about the academics later. The same applies to a local move however – no matter what the reason for the move, until a child is comfortable and secure in their environment, they are unlikely to learn anything effectively.

My mother, a child development specialist, always maintained that children only developed in one area at a time, so when they were going through a physical growth spurt, their emotional development would slow down for a time, and if they were in a socially challenging situation, their academic performance would dip.  Education is a journey, not a race, and so my preference is to go with a school that meets their social and emotional needs, rather than necessarily having the best academic record. However, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me, so whatever your parenting preferences, here are my top strategies for choosing schools.

 

Make a list of available schools.

Ask your HR department, future work colleagues, destination service provider, relocation counselor, realtor or your Embassy. Go online, do a Google search, and explore expat websites like School Choice International if you are still struggling.

 

Contact schools in advance,

requesting a prospectus or information. Private schools will usually have a printed prospectus available, public schools may have a website.

 

Information to look for includes:

 

  • Numbers of children at the school, and demographic profile
  • Numbers of children moving in and out of the school
  • Academic curriculum followed – most commonly US, UK or International Baccalaureate
  • Age range at school, and which schools children commonly progress to
  • Class size / student:teacher ratio
  • Range of classes offered
  • Qualifications of teaching staff
  • Test results
  • Overall philosophy and values of the school
  • Antisocial behavior policy.
  • Fee schedule
  • Transportation – public / school bus / car pools / sidewalks
  • Accessibility – traffic, bell schedules, after school care

Bear in mind that school test scores can be affected by high numbers of ESL / EFL (English as a Second /Foreign Language) students, by having a higher number of students with differentiated learning needs, or by rigorous entry requirements. It is most important to find a school that reflects your values, whether they be academic rigor, cultural diversity, sporting excellence, alternative teaching methods or all the above, rather than looking simply for high test scores or a foreign language program. However, if you know you will be moving often but would like your child to attend college in a specific country, it’s a good idea to follow a single type of curriculum that is widely accepted once they reach high school years. While colleges are becoming more flexible about the range of entry qualifications they accept, there is no point in making it more difficult for your child than it needs to be.

 

Consider curriculum options.

Depending on if, when and where your child/ren will be attending college, choose a curriculum that will support those future choices, while meeting their wider learning needs. Consider also the long term implications: should your assignment be extended, become permanent or your allowances change, will you be able to afford the fees privately, and will you be paying international student rates.

 

Visit shortlisted schools.

If possible, take the child attending the school with you, so that they can experience it, and  you can see how school staff interact with your children. Visit during school hours to observe classes, watch how the children and teachers behave, and get an understanding of the school culture as a whole. Encourage questions from your children, and take time to visit the parts of the school that they want to see. Especially the bathrooms – you can learn a great deal about a school from their bathrooms..

 

Request a copy of the school transcript

Once you have selected a school, arrange for your child’s school transcript to be sent to them in advance and keep a copy for your own records. Request copies of the new school calendar, the name and email of your child’s teacher, and any immunization, uniform or school supply requirements, and the contact details for any parent organizations, both in the school and the community.

 

Write a brief note to your child’s teacher,

introducing yourself, your child and anything you feel would it would help them to know, and invite questions from them.

 

Ask if there are any supplies / resources / donations etc. that you can bring

as part of your household shipment that are not on the official list. Teachers have home lives too, and are a wonderful source of information, recommendations and support in the early days, so any efforts you make now will be amply repaid when you land…

Relocating? 9 Essential questions every expat should ask. (Part 2)

It’s the second part of our guide to avoiding relocation disaster – and the same rules apply for domestic moves, diplomatic postings and international assignments. So before you sign on the dotted line, here’s numbers 4 and 5 of the essential questions that every relocating expat should ask.. If you missed the first part, you can catch it here.

4. What support is available? If you answered the first three questions, you already have an idea of what support you’ll need – so here’s where you have a clear conversation with HR about what support services are in place to meet those needs. Many packages seem lavish to the casual observer, but when you scratch the surface, the services included are not always right for your family needs.

Schools, for instance. While the local schools may be excellent, if you are on a 2-3 year contract with a high school age child. you need a curriculum that accepted by their target college rather than a host location one. If the relocation package doesn’t include funding for private schooling, your salary has effectively been reduced by anything up to $30,000 per child, per year.

Increasing numbers of assignments are to developing markets – India, China and Africa – all of which need considerable amounts of cultural orientation and language training. Does the package include enough for you to be able to function effectively and meet your personal goals outside the home or workplace? Shopping, medical visits, dealing with bureaucracy – all are a very real part of the transition, and all involve interpersonal communication.

These examples are gleaned from experience, and the best way to understand what support is needed is to see it firsthand. Hence number 5.

5. Do we get a family pre-visit? In my mind, the pre-visit is vital to a successful relocation – there is no substitute for seeing firsthand the challenges that you all will be facing. Throughout the assignment process, your life transition is facilitated by people whom you have never met, and who are deciding your needs for you. The pre-visit is your chance to see what they got right, and what they have wrong.

The biggest mistake people make is to use the pre-visit purely to find housing. This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. it means you agreed to the assignment based on a very small amount of information and
  2. the time is better spent identifying the challenges you face, not choosing floor plans.

So what should you be doing? Sadly, not staying in the hotel enjoying room service, or visiting the local tourist sights. Your goal is to recreate daily life, in all it’s glory, using the information that you put together in the previous steps. Look at neighborhoods, visit schools, experience traffic and commute times, do some grocery shopping, and most of all, talk to other expat residents.

Listen carefully to what they are telling you about the good, the bad and the plain ugly of your new home. Not all  of their concerns will be problems for you, but you can count complaints about the weather, issues with utilities, security, traffic and schools being pretty universal.

Once everyone has given you the low down and dirty, listen carefully to the concerns of your own family. The work environment will be more familiar and (usually) more supportive, whereas everyone outside of work is flying solo, and your package needs to acknowledge and make allowances for that. With “62% of all refusals to accept an international posting .. family related” and “34% of expatriates return from assignment prematurely because of family concerns”, this pre-visit is a time for the whole family to identify the potential pitfalls and possible ‘deal breakers’ while you still have time and negotiation on your side.

References:

Tales of woe from the roaming professionals

Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Survey

 

Camel train circa 1900's

Relocating? 9 Essential questions every expat should ask. (Part 1)

Camel Train circa 1900

 

When we think of living abroad, we instantly conjure up images of white sandy beaches, turquoise seas, friendly locals and a leisurely quality of life. That is, until we’re two days into our first relocation, surrounded by boxes, with no power, not internet, and no help in sight. By day four, the bloom has gone off this particular rose, and by day seven, we realize that we were possibly just a little naive in thinking that four bedrooms, a balcony and guaranteed sunshine were really all we needed to find our bliss. So for the anyone considering relocating, here’s part one of the ‘9 Essential Questions Every Potential Expat Should Ask’ series. And yes, the same rules apply for domestic relocations too..

1. Where am I going?

The standard ways of finding out destination information – travel guides, websites and maps – tell you very little of what you need to know when relocating. Visiting a country for a short period is very, very different to living and working  there, and it’s the challenge of day-today living that causes many assignments to end early.

To understand whether your new location is a good fit for you and your family, you need to do two things. Firstly, assess how your time is spent currently, including work, school, commuting travel, after school activities, sports, socializing etc. Using resources specific to long term living rather than short term visits, assess how much change you would experience, what benefits and disadvantages your new location has, and decide whether or not this is really the move for you.

This might be anything from a lack of sunshine /open space/daylight hours/ professional theatre to different education systems, religious practice or high crime rates. There is a whole world out there, and it’s better to keep your options open for a more appropriate assignment than be forced to terminate one early.

Ask your HR department about global information that the company purchases –  resources like Living Abroad, Expat Arrivals, the Not for Tourists guides and the Lonely Planet guides will give you much of the information you need, and online blog registries and expatriate forums have the real life experience. Consider joining a network like Internations to meet locals and expats from your potential host location.

2. How long will I be going for?

Notice that didn’t I ask how long was your contract was for?  Ten years and 5 relocations ago, we were offered a 1 year temporary assignment to Kenya. I have yet to return home, and all of our wedding photographs, birth certificates, photographs of our children as babies and furniture are still in a house in Wales. Contracts get extended, new transfers are offered, and if you are taking short term assignments, often all your belongings are not included in the relocation policy.

More importantly, you need to have a clear understanding of how long all members of the family are willing and able to participate a globally mobile life.

The long term issues surrounding schooling mean that your children may not have the required qualifications to attend the school of their choice (although colleges and universities are becoming much more flexible in terms of acceptable international admission criteria) or they may now be liable for higher ‘international’ tuition fees as you have lived outside your home country for too long to qualify for local fees.

The accompanying partner may have negotiated a year’s leave of absence, or may be required to maintain professional registration status, both of which become vulnerable if an assignment is extended.

3. What does the package include?

There are various types of relocation policies, including local, local plus and international, all of which give different levels of pay and benefits dependent on location. And while some will seem very generous in terms of base salary and hardship allowances, once on assignment you can quickly discover that the money is eaten up in unexpected ways.

If you have the information from the previous questions, you will have a better idea of what your new lifestyle will cost, and whether or not components that you consider essential are reflected in the assignment offer.

Key areas to look for are not just base salary, but frequently reviewed goods and services supplements (useful in less stable countries where the price of goods and exchange rates can fluctuate wildly) , health insurance coverage, childcare and school funding, whether you will be paid in your home or host currency, travel allowances, emergency evacuation policies, and repatriation assistance.

Talking to other expats will give you the best understanding of the real cost of living, which brings us neatly to the first question in Part 2 – “Do I get a preview visit?”

Social Media useful for the relocating accompanying partner

Making Friends and Building Support Networks: Using Social Media in Expat and Domestic Relocation

Social Media useful for the relocating accompanying partnerOne of the most important parts of successful relocation – establishing a new social and support network – can also be one of the most difficult, especially when you first arrive. Social media is an excellent tool for expats, transferees and accompanying partners all to make their own connections and get established.

For those of you who missed this my not so quiet meltdown, I’m going to be presenting at the Families in Global Transition conference in March, and I don’t know a soul there. Enter Social Media – in my case Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, and the miracle that is the search feature. I still haven’t met any of my new friends face to face, but instead of quietly dreading the event, I now have a list of people that I really, really want to meet.

The same strategies that I used are just as helpful when you are relocating across the city, the country or the world, and frankly, if I can manage it, anyone can. There will be hoards of you out there who are far better at this than I (hints and tips in the comments section are gratefully received!), but for those of us not so technically gifted, here’s the Defining Moves guide to Social Media and Relocating.

The two most useful for the accompanying partner are:

Facebook. There are 517,760,460 Facebook users – about 7% of the world’s population – and all of them are using it to connect with others.. So if you don’t currently have a Facebook page, now’s the time to start one. Here’s a great how-to link, and here’s our online security guide.

Twitter defines itself as “a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent messages. People write short updates, often called “Tweets” of 140 characters or fewer. These messages are posted to your profile or your blog, sent to your followers, and are searchable on Twitter search.” If, like me, it’s all very new, check out their FAQ page for more details.

Once you have an account, make it expat network friendly:

Post an appropriate photo of yourself. People feel more comfortable connecting with someone they can see, but make sure it is one you would be happy for your mother / employer / youngest child to see. Social media is all about sharing, remember..

Safeguard your personal information. Avoid entering very personal information such as contact details, religious and political philosophies, family member details and personal photos. There are control buttons to the left of all the information boxes which allow you to decide who can access your information, but it’s better not to enter it at all – accounts can and do get hacked.

Watch your Wall. The incoming information on your Facebook page is referred to as your ‘Wall’, and any of your friends can post something on it. As many have found to their cost, this is not always a good thing. Before you explore new networks, consider ‘hiding’ posts that may cause offense (there’s an X to the top right of each post), or where you have repeat offenders, an entire newsfeed. With Twitter, it’s called a Timeline, and you only have the option to block ‘tweets’ by specific people, but the same rule applies – carefully choose the company you keep, and if you inadvertently post something offensive, delete it immediately.

Use the Search and Hashtag (#) options. These are invaluable to relocating expats; searches involving ‘expat’, your location, and any hobbies or interests will quickly give you a list of people and groups who are delighted to hear from you. If you want to keep track of ongoing responses to a search term, a (free!) service like Hootsuite will allow you to have all your Social Media accounts and searches in one place, and update them for you. Be warned – it’s a little overwhelming at first, but is seriously useful if you want a constantly updated list of potential new friends.

Reach out. It’s not just enough to simply lurk in the background – you have to make contact with people. The best piece of relocation advice I was ever given related to making new friends; “it’s a numbers game”. The huge advantage with social media is that you have millions to choose from, so reach out to anyone with whom you may have something in common and introduce yourself. Not everyone will respond, but on the whole, if they exist on social media, it’s because they want to be social..

Network. Don’t limit yourself to the contacts found by your search terms – look at the groups they are involved with, their contacts etc. Just to start you off, here’s Defining Moves on Facebook and Twitter – feel free to Like and Follow. See? It’s working already!