Category Archives: Your New Home

the expat relocation home inventory. Defining moves - information, inspiration and resources for the expat accompanying partner. aka the trailing spouse

Expat Essentials: Do a Home Inventory

the expat relocation home inventory. Defining moves - information, inspiration and resources for the expat accompanying partner. aka the trailing spouse
And you are insuring these??

It’s got to be one of the most loathed tasks of any move, expat relocation or not: the home inventory. Many of us choose to do a low key ‘only mention the really big things’ effort, while some of us avoid it for ever. But your home inventory is one of the tasks that can make or break a move, especially one overseas, because it provides a clear, legal record of what exactly you own, what it’s worth, and what insurance you need.

The excellent news is that once it is done, it is very easy to update – especially if you use a spreadsheet format. There are many free online versions available – Google Docs is a popular one – that also allow you to save (incredibly helpful if you are traveling and don’t want to be carrying vast folders of paperwork everywhere) and share it with others (if you want to share the workload or have a moving company facilitating the move).

As someone who is on her fifth move (who has also done 3 commercial store inventories), I have now got this whole thing  down to a fine art – and less than 2 hours. Which is not a bad return on investment when at the end you will have a (hopefully) decluttered home, an accurate assessment of your home contents for insurance purposes, and a document that you can use, amend and share forever. So here, with no further ado, is our very own expat guide to completing your home inventory without ruining your day, your relationship or your chances of being voted “Most Cheerful 2012”.

 

1. Assemble your home inventory resources.

 

  • Packing supplies – preferably commercial packing boxes (they are regularly sized, strong and easy to stack) in a range of sizes, packing tape, labels and a permanent marker.
  • Method of recording inventory – either a printed paper version or by creating your own Excel / Google Docs / Pages spreadsheet. For a copy of our printable template, click here.
  • Colored stickers – one color per category (see Clear the Decks, below)
  • Camera
  • Envelope / Scanner for storing receipts.
  • Rubbish / Trash bags
  • Children / handy helper. The jury is still out on whether or not it’s a good idea for children to help – I personally get mine working – opening cupboards, counting etc. The downside is that they become distracted by finding old toys, picture etc far too easily, so it’s a good idea to do their rooms and any playrooms when they are absent..

 

2. Home Contents Inventory Criteria – Ship / Store /Sell / Donate?

 

There will be a number of different outcomes for your home contents, so plan now for easier decisions later. Categories include

  • Air Shipment
  • Sea Shipment
  • Checked baggage
  • Hand luggage
  • Store
  • Sell
  • Donate
  • Junk

Items that you are still using can be marked with different color stickers for easier packing later, whereas those for selling, donating and junk can be packed in labelled boxes. Even though you don’t intend to keep them, make sure you still include everything but the ‘junk’ as part of your inventory.

Remember fixtures and fittings that you would want to take with you when you leave – curtains, curtain rails, specialized light fittings, period fixtures etc., or that require individual care and attention for shipping insurance purposes.

 

Create Your Home Inventory Checklist

 

This is probably easiest to do as you go along, but decide what your categories and criteria are in advance will save you a lot of time and confusion. If you are using our template as a guide, you will see that we have a number of columns:

  1. Item – a brief description of what it is – either single item or group of X
  2. Quantity
  3. Brand
  4. Destination (Ship / Store / Sell / Donate)**
  5. Total value – new / as-is dependent on insurance criteria. Denote currency.
  6. Receipt / valuation (required for high value items, helpful on others)
  7. Insured
  8. Description (required for difficult to replace, high value or antique items)
Feel free to add your own columns – I’ve added specific ones related to the shipping of household goods, but other uses include cleaning, maintenance and repair, inheritors, owners, rental period etc. Make sure you record the date, for tax, insurance and shipping purposes – you need to to be able to show that your list and value is both recent and accurate.

 

the expat relocation home inventory. Defining moves - information, inspiration and resources for the expat accompanying partner. aka the trailing spouseIf you are relocating as part of an expat overseas assignment, check customs rules on what you can import – there are many exclusions, some of which may surprise you. Pickled eggs, for instance..

 

 

Start Recording

 

Taking it room by room is the easiest, most effective way to home inventory because it lets you take it in stages and (providing you are not in the middle of a remodel or one of those people who is continually redecorating for the current season) lets you spread it over days or even weeks – perfect if you want to deal will the junk and donations categories as you go along.

Concentrate on listing every item or group (e.g. soft toys, board games, DVDs) with enough detail to recognize and value them later – columns 1, 2 and 3 in our template. If you are clear on the destination of items, apply the colored sticker (just not to valuable antiques or things with delicate surfaces, please!!) or pack into a box, list it on your inventory and take a photograph of the item /contents of the box for your records. This will be important later if you need to prove existence and value of items for insurance or tax purposes.

Don’t forget to include everything on your property – it may say ‘home contents’ on your insurance policy, but that term also covers possessions in the garage, any sheds and outbuildings, garden ornaments and potted plants.

 

Fill in the blanks

 

The remaining information is what determines loss / damage value, so you need to complete it as soon as possible and provide supporting evidence. Very few people are properly insured, and many of us have pulled an approximate figure out of the air when it comes to assessing home contents, only to find that replacing clothes is far more expensive than we realized and we have been overpaying for the horrific dinner service we inherited from Great Aunt Nellie..

Points to consider include:

  • Does your insurance reimburse cost of new replacement or current value?  Use Ebay, Amazon and online stores for a quick and easy way to accurately assess these, and give you a total value for insurance purposes. The results may surprise you..
  • Do you actually want to replace it? If the answer is no, consider selling it, or at least excluding it from your home contents insurance.

Some items can be easily bought used, but you might prefer to buy others new. Used might include sporting equipment, tools, furniture and dinnerware, whereas clothes, shoes, electric appliances and toys are more likely to be purchased new. Insure accordingly, because clothes especially are expensive to replace..

Don’s spend hours agonizing over every last item – your home inventory is a dynamic document, so you can change your mind about whether to ship, store or sell at any point until the assessors / buyers arrive.

 

Keep a Back Up

 

Now that you’ve done the hard part, make sure you keep a duplicate, either online in a free storage service like Evernote or Dropbox, or as a photocopy in your files. If possible, store it in a variety of formats (Excel, Numbers) to allow easy sharing.

I prefer not to use discs and flash drives because of their easy loss or damage, but if you have a less destructive way with hardware, they are small, portable and convenient. Note, however, that more and more devices no longer have a CD drive, so a flash drive is more universally useable.

 

Get Rid of the Boxes.

 

This is my favorite bit – I find the removal of boxes and boxes of unwanted clutter incredibly cathartic. Don’t just remove them to the garage or garden shed, where they will stay for next three years; get rid of them immediately. And then sit down and enjoy your newfound space..

It’s Zen and the Art of the Home Inventory.. Bliss.

 

** Many countries, including the US, allow a tax deduction for donation of items to charities, so record the donations and keep the receipt from the drop off centre. If your area doesn’t have this  policy, there is no need to record donated items on your inventory.

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

 

 

Expat Housing - Renting a Home. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation

The Golden Rules of Expat Housing – Renting a Home

Expat Housing - Renting a Home. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation
Make sure that everyone involved understands your housing needs.

It’s a time of turmoil in the Defining Moves household. After 14 years, we are finally selling our family home in Wales and transferring our home status to the US. It’s a funny feeling – despite living in six different homes since leaving, the process of finding and buying a new home away from “home’ is daunting.

The summer vacation is the peak time for family relocation; it’s the end of the school year, so educational transitions are easier, and you have more time to accomplish the endless tasks that moving yourself, your life and your family requires. With this in mind, I’ve put together a collection of golden rules garnered from international expats (I hesitate to use the term experts when there are quite this many blunders involved.) across the globe. Every one represents one of us learning the hard (and usually expensive and/or stressful) way, so take note. Today we feature renting properties – on Saturday, it’s the turn of the homebuyers..

N.B. If you are relocating with children over the summer, read this first.

Do your research.

Even if you have a Destination Service provider or relocation counselor assisting you with your search, don’t hand over all responsibility to them. Check out online rental listings, contact local realtors and ask amongst the expat community, international school networks and amongst work colleagues – often property owners use word of mouth or private advertising to find tenants independently, and you will get a much better idea of what is available and what you can expect to pay if you do a thorough search.

Understand what is both usual and available in your host location. In the US, for example, for a room to qualify as a bedroom it must contain a closet. In Europe, there is no such rule, and storage tends to be more limited, en suite bathrooms far less common and kitchens more basic. You are also more likely to be doing the yard work yourself, so be warned.

Check the standard of construction, even in newer housing, especially in less developed countries. While the houses may seem new and shiny with every modern amenity, leaky roofs, substandard electrics and insufficient water supply are very, very common. Where the local infrastructure is poor, ask to see the water supply and storage system (and whether it is mains, brought in by tanker, from a bore hole etc.) and how it is pumped into the main house. For electrics, ask to see previous bills, note whether there is a generator and look at the quality of installation. Is the property on mains sewerage or a septic tank, and when was it last emptied? And finally, from bitter experience, check for stains on the ceiling and around the floors to see what happens when the rains come..

Look at lots of properties and meet either the landlord or the property manager in person. If you don’t feel comfortable with them now, imagine calling them when the toilet backs up at 10pm.. Reputable landlords will be happy to supply references from former tenants (it’s even better if the former tenant is showing you the property), so don’t be shy about asking for them.

 

Get your finances in order

Most landlords will run a credit check, and it’s easy when transitioning between countries to lose track of payment due dates, utility fees – even medical bills. Once a bill falls 30 days past due (and sometimes even earlier) it shows up on your credit report and can negatively affect your credit rating, score, interest rate qualification criteria, home insurance rates and how you are viewed as a potential tenant.

Safeguard your international credit score before you leave your home location, by clearing any outstanding debts and payments, and set up direct debits or standing orders for ongoing recurring payments. When you arrive in your new location, get a secure PO box for mail forwarding rather than using the interim housing one – one glance in ‘your’ mailbox will tell you how many former tenants have been through and are still getting mail to that address. Then consider taking out a secured credit card, cell phone contract or other available credit to get your score started as early as possible. Take professional advice before taking out any credit – even a store or fuel card – if you plan on applying for a home loan. Every credit check, successful or not, has a negative impact on your short term score, which pushes up your available interest rates ..

 

Lifestyle Priorities

One of my wise friends gave me the advice to ‘shop for neighborhoods, not homes’, so spend some time working out what your priorities are before you sign on a six month tenancy agreement. For those of you with children, schools will almost certainly be at the top of the list, but also consider what will be beneficial or frustrating in day-to-day life. Parking, low traffic, good local amenities, parks, access to of leash dog trails, a diverse community with local events, libraries and good food are all on my list, but you may be looking for sports facilities, a supportive expat community and nearby shopping. The choice is yours, but make it before you drive the realtor mad, hey?

If you are staying in the same location for an extended period of time, consider the longer term costs. Many expats transfer to local payroll while still overseas, and allowances for private schooling, airfares and housing change. Will your income support private schooling long term – and if not, what are the local schools like? What college fees will you pay? Recent studies have shown that many expats’ current lifestyles are affecting their long term financial health, so don’t fall into the trap of living beyond your actual income and relying on expat allowances for the rest of your working life.

 

Consider the costs.

I love cathedral ceilings and picture windows. After two years in the East Bay area, with it’s 90 degree summers and breezy winters, I’m very, very glad that utilities are included as part of the tenancy agreement – especially when you have 79 internal light fixtures, not including lamps. Seriously.

There are the obvious costs, like transport into town or school, availability of public transport, memberships and maintenance fees, but there are also the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ costs that sneak in. The more affluent the community, the greater pressure there is to maintain the same standard of living, entertainment tends to cost more, and the local services, stores and amenities will cater to a higher disposable income. You have been warned..

 

Paperwork

Read the contract, and get professional advice about the local rules for both tenants and landlords. In many cases, the contract is difficult to enforce without a lengthy and costly legal battle, but it does serve as an early warning system of how experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy your landlord is. A basic contract should include at the very least a name and address for both parties and the home for rent, the rental sum (and what it includes in the way of utilities, furnishings and any other applicable fees), the duration of the tenancy, the responsibilities of the landlord and tenant (garden maintenance, gutters, etc), any rules the landlord may have regarding treatment of the property (picture hanging, use of candles, parties etc) and an inventory of condition and contents of the property.

Before you sign, check whether the property is in financial good standing (your realtor or destination service provider should be able to help you with this) – tenant evictions because the house is being repossessed by the lender are increasing, and you have both the inconvenience of an unscheduled move and a lost deposit.

Do a move-in walk through with the property manager or landlord before your household goods arrive, and take lots of pictures, especially of any wear and tear or damage. And finally, get a receipt for each and every payment (especially the deposit) or at the very least, have a clear official record of the transaction.

 

Security

It’s our final piece of advice, informed by the experience of a friend of a previous tenant walking in unannounced at 7 am. Ask the landlord to change the locks. Establish who else has a key or access to the property – cleaners, gardeners, property managers, landlords – and what are the rules for permission of entry. Our front doors are the most basic form of security, and yet it’s the one thing that we all forget or take for granted. If you have an alarm, get instructions on how to change the code, and do it the day you move in. And then don’t do as a friend of ours once did and write the code on a Post It note next to the keypad. Hmmm.

 

 

Essential Expat Information - The Hidden Costs of Relocation - Defining Moves, the Art of Successful Relocation

The Hidden Costs of Relocation (and how to reduce them)

Essential Expat Information - The Hidden Costs of Relocation - Defining Moves, the Art of Successful RelocationWe never manage to move cheaply. We’re on our seventh home in 11 years and currently looking for our eighth, so you would think we would be experts by now. But relocation is an expensive business – the packing, shipping, storage, tax filing, document preparation and transportation are just the tip of the iceberg.

We get wooed by the mouthwatering figures presented in the relocation package, and at that point, grown adults start confusing their employer with Santa Claus. They’re not – those figures have been created by a calculator loving accountant somewhere, and have not been put together with the sole purpose of making you happy. Quite the opposite, in fact – they reflect the minimum sum that the company feels is appropriate to get you established wherever it is you are going. And by established, they are not referring to the new Laura Ashley room set that you have been drooling over.

So, after reviewing three years of detailed accounts from the Defining Moves household, here are our top ‘hidden’ costs of relocation, and what you can do to reduce them.

 

Paying off past credit.

It’s money that you have already spent, but it’s still a cost to consider as part of your relocation package, because I’m pretty sure that if you read the small print, you will discover that credit companies take a dim view of you leaving the country.. When you took out that kitchen / bathroom / Laura Ashley credit agreement, the three years interest free credit seemed like a good idea. Now you are stuck with a hefty bill and maple cabinetry 3000 miles away..

What you can do. If you are even thinking of relocating, don’t take out loans without having the money to pay them off immediately. Your loan contract will almost certainly include a residence clause, you will need money to relocate to your own new home, and if you are planning on renting out your house, you are going to need an emergency fund if your home is empty, damaged by tenants or requires emergency repairs.

If you think you need to spend money on your home before selling or renting it, consult a property professional before you actually get out your wallet, and consider carefully the return on any financial investment.

Interim cost of living.

Most assignments allow for 4-6 weeks of interim living allowances, but it’s easy to go over budget once you are there. Typically, you are spending time looking for more permanent accommodation, finding your way around and getting established and you don’t have the time, the facilities and the storage space to cook for yourself. Your entertainment tends to be outside the home (i.e. cinemas, restaurants, shopping malls) and costly, and you are potentially paying for storage of your household possessions.

What you can do. Try and find interim accommodation with a kitchen and enough food storage to avoid daily trips to the grocery stores. Consider taking packed meals with you on days out (yes, I know I sound like my mother, but has anyone else ever noticed that when hunger strikes, the nearest cheap and healthy eatery is 25 miles away / back at the previous freeway exit?). If you are going to be eating out for at least one meal, make it lunch – typically you pay between 25 – 35% less for a similar meal at lunchtime, and portions are often smaller. Your wallet and your waistline will thank you.

Find your local library and parks, so when you are desperate to escape the confines of the generic wall color and furniture, you don’t need to pay for it. Consider joining a class, club or volunteer group so that you are meeting people – anything that gets you out without a price tag attached.

The Cost of No Credit.

You would think that in the world of the internet, email and instant access, business and financial services would be able to establish your creditworthiness over a wider geographical range. But no, while hackers in China can access your accounts and make merry with your credit cards, the financial establishment can only judge you on your local credit history. Which, bearing in mind you have just walked off the plane, is precisely zero.

This has a huge impact on your local expenditure. In the short term, you will be putting down hefty deposits for everything from cell phones to utility services, will struggle to get any sort of credit card, and will be paying international fees for any transactions using your home country bank account or credit card.

In the longer term, any loans that you try to take out will be at a higher interest rate, and will usually require a large deposit to qualify.

What you can do. Many banks now offer global accounts, so if you are going to be paid in your home country currency, consider applying  – especially if you will be transferring money regularly. If not, there are many reputable online Foreign Exchange providers who offer far better rates and easy to use systems. Test them out with small amounts first so that if something goes wrong, you haven’t lost an entire month’s salary.

If you are planning on using your existing account for international transfers, negotiate rates and ask about rate thresholds – often there are better rates for larger amounts.

 

Home Furnishings.

Anyone who has relocated before will tell you that for the first 3-6 months, their living expenses skyrocket. Setting up a home is expensive – which is why we have bridal showers, baby showers and wedding gift registries for newly weds. If you are lucky, you have the slightly less exciting interim allowance, which covers the basic cost of reestablishing residence, but doesn’t allow for the cost of making it into a home. It also does’t allow for the considerable time pressure, which is why when we move we tend to head for the nearest department store and get furnishings that ‘will do for now’, with the intention of replacing them later. Not only do we end up paying full price, we end up paying out twice.

What you can do. Research home stores before you go, and if you can see that items are expensive or difficult to find, consider adding them to your household goods shipment. Avoid shipping things that require specialized parts / care / refills unless you have regular visitors from home who are willing to act as couriers.  Find out where locals buy home furnishings and when the sales are on. Consider outlet malls, consignment stores and borrowing items for the short term. Look on local noticeboards for “Moving Sales”.

Brand Awareness.

When you live somewhere, you develop a store / cost hierarchy, which assigns quality and cost to items sold in a store. If we want something cheap that may not last, we head to Walmart. If we are willing to pay more for something more permanent, it might be Pottery Barn, Marks & Spencer’s or a local department store. If alcohol is involved, we may find ourselves in Restoration Hardware.. Whatever your home location, you have preferred stores that carry the brands and products you want at a price that you are willing to pay, and you can set your budget accordingly. When you move, all this goes out of the window and you find yourself spending a fortune in fuel driving around trying to locate bed linen, laundry detergent and a pair of pink tights for the school play – all of which you end up paying full price for, because you have yet to discover where the deals are.

Waste.

Not only do you not know where to buy things, you don’t know what to buy. You would think a move between countries speaking the same language would make this easier, but the marketing departments have ruined it by changing the names on even the most familiar products. For the first year in the US, every contact I had with a British expat included discussion about laundry detergent, and the choice thereof.

The same applies to foods, clothing, furnishings, electronic appliances and even services – you don’t know where to go and what an acceptable price range is, and you end up paying for brand names that you know – the ones, inevitably are more highly priced. You buy a car from a large dealership rather than from a small used car lot, you get it serviced there because you don’t know any reliable local mechanics. You buy your furnishings at full price because you didn’t know about half price Wednesdays, and you have no idea what you should be paying for   bread.. So you waste money on a higher quality than you might need, and you waste foods

What you can do. Ask for recommendations, samples and referrals. When you meet people with children of similar ages, ask about anything relocated to children. Receptionists everywhere from schools to doctors offices are a mine of useful information, and once you have found one good provider, ask them for the names and numbers of their favorites. If you have managed to find yourself a mentor, download our mentor checklist and ask them for their help. I am notorious for stopping people in stores and asking them everything form where they get their hair done, to how they get their child’s karate kit to stay so white. Most people are delighted with the compliment, and are very happy to share the information.

Check out the manufacturers. The names and packaging are all designed to appeal to a local audience, but many big manufacturers have a global presence. To help you narrow your choices, start with products by the same company and work from there.

If you have a realtor, consider asking them for a list of their preferred providers – they will not only have a list of reliable and reasonable tradespeople, but if they are involved in staging homes for sale, will also know where to buy attractive, inexpensive home furnishings (they will also now the more expensive places too!), and can give you an overview of the different price ranges of the various stores and businesses in the local area.

 

If there is one thing I have learned over the past 11 years, it’s that it is impossible to predict your true costs up front – but they will happen, no matter how frugal you are. Our solution is to start a moving fund before we go, keep a close eye on our spending and to travel as lightly as possible. Now it’s your turn – what are yours?

Packin’ Up? Some tips for surviving the chaos

How I wish I had put my camera in my handbag and not in some box during our last move. When we rode behind the truck with our belongings, our view was of one of the back doors of the truck open, showing one of the packers sitting on our table (at the very edge of the truck, with his leg swinging out of the truck!), cradling our microwave in his arms! We (and he) rode the 10 minute distance like that!

I have had the not-so-great pleasure of moving four times (so far) within Nairobi in the 6.5 years we have been living here. Believe it or not, this is not what I usually do; we spent our almost five years in NYC in the same apartment. But, when your landlord decides to sell the house you are in, and the new owners want to buy the house only, without the paraphernalia that is you, you really don’t have much choice.

Moving is always a HUGE hassle and an immense stress generating event. Moving countries, of course, involves SEVERAL additional stresses but moving within a city is also cause for tremendous anguish and sleepless nights!

Here are a few hints to help a little, but nothing can make it smooth sailing! As a child, I used to hope and pray that, during my lifetime, science would advance to the level where we could use the ‘beam me up, Scotty’ means of transportation from Star Trek. Even now, my heart skips a beat when I think of it! But, alas, we are nowhere near that happening (I think?!)! So, we have to rely on bubble-wrap and cartons and movers.

In an ideal world, the packers should unpack for you when your container arrives at your new premises (provided you have found a home before your container arrives!) or the truck reaches your new abode, and the number of rooms, cupboards, shelves, etc in your current and future dwelling correspond! But, just in case, you, like myself, don’t live in a perfect world, the following might be helpful.

Packers will at times number the cartons or sometimes they write vague labels like ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Living Room’. Now you may end up with 20 cartons with the same label. So, how do you start looking for that red and blue mug that your 3 year old still remembers having even three months later (which you thought you would carry with you but forgot to remove it from the shelf before the packers got to it) and cries for every morning? How do you know which carton contains the crockery for everyday use?

If the packers are friendly, smiling and relaxed people, you could go around with a permanent marker and ‘excuse me, excuse me’ your way through them and write on the carton itself the details of what they are putting inside. If, somehow, they don’t want you all over the place (I can’t imagine why though!) while they do their job, keep a paper and pen handy and write down the details of what is going in the carton and have the numbers/titles in your list correspond to what they write on the box. The packers might write only ‘Kitchen’ or ‘China’ or ‘Glasses’, but you could write ‘everyday china’ or ‘blue dinner-set’, etc.

You may not be able to get every detail down, but it will help you locate things faster when you are in your new dwelling.

Advice from a friend (thank you, Teresa) has helped me a lot. Before the packers arrive, make sure to label your rooms as well! Write down the name of the room on a paper and tape it to the door of the room. The dining room, kitchen etc. might be obvious but the “Child A’s” room, “Child Z’s room” may not be so apparent. The packers will then know what to write on the carton and which box belongs to which room. Doing the same in the new place you are moving to will save the hassle and time of repeatedly telling the movers what goes where, especially if your language/accent doesn’t correspond to theirs!

How I wish I was one of those people who clean out their cupboards on a regular basis! That really would be very helpful, especially for those who never know when they may have to move. Some of us get a months notice, or less, to pack up and leave! With other matters that need to be dealt with, having fewer belongings to go through will require less sorting out.

So, I had better go clean out my cupboard now and, before my next move, I would love to get your tips and pointers about packing up and moving.

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

 

Vintage photo of five girls on a horse

Essential Expat – Negotiating your International Assignment Contract

Vintage photo of five girls on a horse
Photo courtesy of the State Library of Queensland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to international assignments, relocation policy is not just a ‘one-size-fits-all’ affair. Not only is there flexibility to cater for specific individual needs within the various policies in use, there are also plenty of potential pitfalls to consider too. So what are the main areas that you need to understand when negotiating your expat assignment contract?

Home or Away. There are now a number of different types of contracts being used by the HR and relocation companies to manage your assignment. The two most common are local (including local plus)  and international. Local means that you will be temporarily governed by the employment pay and conditions of the host country, and aims to ensure parity among employees within a specific location for the duration of your contract. It can mean a increase in salary for more expensive regions, but a decrease for less expensive, and can significantly affect annual vacation entitlement. Local plus provides for additional needs or expenses incurred because of your temporary expat status, such as international school fees and trips home.

An international contract means you continue to work under the terms and conditions of your home location, regardless of the salary and benefit entitlements in your host location. As a comparison, European employees on an international assignment in the US would probably be entitled  to more annual leave days than their American counterparts, whereas US employees heading to Europe would find the opposite was true.

Matching Up. Once you have established what type of contract you will be working under, you need to look carefully at the terms and conditions of that contract, most specifically with regard to equalization. You need to be sure that the package provided gives you the same (or better) standard of living as you would have in your home location. It is more than just the immediate basic requirements – housing, healthcare, schooling, transportation, financial and legal status – you also need to consider the longer term: school planning, college eligibility and fees, provision for dependents becoming legally adult, access to legal services should you need them, long term medical and social care, financial planning, tax implications and superannuation (company pension plan). You will need to do detailed research in advance with reference to your specific individual and family needs, and if you have a preliminary visit, try and talk to resident expats to get a realistic picture of what the cost of living in your host location might be, and what challenges to expect. Don’t assume that the information given by the relocation management company is accurate – they use a generic formula that may have little relevance to your situation and needs. There are plenty of resources available to help you – Living Abroad, the ExpatInfoDesk , Journeywoman and Expatwomen all have country specific information and contacts that can help you understand what you are getting into.

Homeward Bound

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

What happens when your contracted assignment is over? In an ideal world, there is a clear progression that goes beyond your repatriation, and provides for a smooth transition back to your home location.  Even with successful international assignments, many people have discovered that repatriation is as hard as expatriation, and there is an increasing awareness that companies need to provide similar support services to move employees back to their former home successfully. And finally, ensure that you are supported should the assignment not go to plan, and either the whole family or the dependents need to repatriate early. If the situation is serious enough to make you leave, the last thing you need is to have to manage and fund your own return journey..

Additional resources:

Expat Info Desk – Negotiating your contract

ExpatArrivals – Expat contract negotiation

BritishExpat – Negotiating the expat contract

 

The Top 10 concerns of Expats #2 – Defining Moves Version

5) The Relocation Process

The trouble with the Relocation Process is that there very rarely is one. Anyone experienced in relocating will tell you that by the time you know you are really going, life becomes a maelstrom of moving trucks, school searches and house hunting, all against a backdrop of a disappearing spouse desperately trying to get to grips with a new role. Focus is inevitably placed on a checklist generated by a Human Resources intern somewhere who has decided that all you need for life fulfillment is a house to live in, a school for your children and a myriad of boxes to unpack. If only they had read Maslow’s ‘Heirarchy of Needs”, this would all be so much easier. Thankfully, there are plenty of people, communities and resources to help you achieve the life you want, so with a little research, some thought, and advance planning, you can get to the good stuff quickly.

As  a rough guide, these are my recommended steps to take.

Assessment. The shortest step, but by far the most important. This is where you need to identify what is most important to you, what you want from life, and whether relocating will actually meet those needs… It’s also the time to discover whether your relocation package is all it’s reported to be, and whether your expectations have anything in common with the company’s.. You may be entitled to cultural orientation training, and if so, wonderful. But don’t assume that it will cover your own particular needs, so try to find time to do your own research and use online resources like expat websites, Facebook and Twitter to connect with people who have experienced your new location firsthand. Expatwomen and ExpatBlog both have location specific resource groups, and most expat bloggers will be only too happy to answer questions.

Planning. The nitty gritty of relocation; a seemingly endless cascade of paperwork, documents, internet searches and phone calls. Assuming that you have a source of income in place, key areas to focus on are documentation and finance, schools, neighborhoods, health issues, transportation to and in location, and finding a social network. A pre-assignment visit is by far the best way to make sure that your planning is effective, and that you have realistic expectations, but make sure that you have done background research before you go, or you will come home with more questions than answers. Don’t spend all your time answering the ‘where’ questions, remember to ask ‘how much’ and ‘how long’ too – many an expat has found life far more expensive or far less relaxing than they had expected.

Implementation. If your planning has been effective, at this stage it should just be a case of carrying out your plans, and getting the basics established in location.  Expect this stage to take up to six months, and in many cases to be an emotional roller-coaster. Ironically, your new social network will be most valuable at this point, both in terms of cultural and destination orientation, and for emotional support. It’s worth spending time on some of the excellent expat forums online and using social media like Facebook and Twitter to discover already established expat networks that you can tap in to.

Evaluation. At some point, you will begin to get a true picture of your new reality. You have all the essentials in place, you have established a day to day routine, and  you have a social network (however small) to smooth the inevitable bumps. Now you can make informed decisions about life in location, and think about what you personally want from it. Up until now, your time is consumed by the practical details, but once those are out of the way, it’s common to feel a sense of loss and a lack of purpose, both for you and your family. Now’s the time to start adding that purpose and quality to your life, whether exploring the local area, starting a new hobby, finding work, whatever floats your boat. Try as much as you can, expect to hate a lot of it, but take pride in the knowledge that you’re getting out there and living life to the full. And don’t forget to take notes – whether photographic, a blog, a diary, whatever. A, inspired friend today confessed that she has a Tumblr account to which she loads a single picture every day, and even after three months, she enjoys looking back and relieving those moments. Chronicling the highs and lows helps to put experiences in perspective, and is a clear reminder of what’s important your own, personal expat life..

Taking your iPhone Abroad – How to avoid expensive data roaming charges?

I recently went back to the UK for a seasonal family visit, and have just received my Christmas gift from AT&T, my cellphone carrier here in the US. It’s a bill for $286. I would never previously have described myself as innocent, but obviously in matters of data roaming charges, I am, because this bill rather took me by surprise.

You see, I have a UK cellphone, so calls and texts were made on that, and I stayed at my sister’s house which has wifi, so email checking, skyping and internet use were carried out at home. There were only two days when I was at our old home in Wales, and on those days I checked my email (twice), checked on the website (twice) and searched for a location (once). And for that privilege, I paid through the nose.

So, since I have returned I have been searching for alternatives, and I may have come up with a solution in the name of iPhone dual sim adapters. As those of you who follow my ramblings know, I adore my iPhone, and generally run my entire life though it. Judging by the comments on the latest Techcrunch article on dual sim phones, I am not alone.

Currently, when in the UK I use an unlocked phone with a local sim to make calls and send texts, but when I need to send emails, I either have to be somewhere with Wifi access or pay what I now know to be exorbitant international data roaming charges. The downside is that because we are doing a lot of traveling, access to Wifi is unpredictable, and I would really like to be able to use Google maps to navigate with.

There are a number of dual sim adapters out there, ranging from $20 -$120 with corresponding quality levels, all of which do basically the same thing – connect the existing sim in the sim card tray to an additional sim (see picture on right). But where the previous multiple sim adapters only allow you to switch between sims with only one active sim at a time, the latest – Vooma – allows you to actually keep both numbers on at the same time. And there appears to be no cutting of sims or poking of slots required – a definite plus when you have my history with electronic gadgetry disasters..

For me, this is heaven. With this latest release, I should be able to simply buy a local pay as you go sim with data and use just one phone to do everything. It’s world domination on a cellular scale. And it’s not just expats and global nomads that stand to benefit – for those of you who live in areas with spotty cellphone reception or who want to use an additional cheap rate phone and data package like GiffGaff, this allows you to do just that.

There is bad news, however. Firstly, the Vooma has yet to be released, although I have signed up to be first in line when they do go on sale. Secondly, they require that your iPhone is jailbroken, and while this is now legal, taking that step is a leap of faith.

I’ll let you know how it goes..

 

 

Double Life

We’ve just arrived back in the US, after spending Thanksgiving in the UK. And it’s very very strange. For one thing, the word ‘home’ is forever used in inverted commas, because it’s never really clear where home is. The old adage “Home is where the heart is” is absolutely no help whatsoever, because there are people I love and memories I treasure everywhere we have lived, with the small exception of a two bedroom apartment in Playa Del Ray.

This one was a tough visit. It seems we will be transferred to the US on a more permanent basis, and so our home in Wales is now on the market and our whistlestop visit there was eaten up with the practicalities of what to take and what to leave, and trying to capture all the happy memories on camera before we leave for good. The Less Wiggy One pointed out that everywhere we go, we just “get rid of everything”, which in material terms, is startlingly accurate. And while I don’t miss many of the ‘things’, we are in danger of losing the memories that come with them.

Yet again, our family and friends saved the day. A chance Facebook message from a cousin who my children don’t even remember meeting morphed in to a mammoth tea and tale telling afternoon, full of laughter and stories from three generations of people who are an integral, if no longer immediate, part of our lives, but who between them can paint hilarious pictures of our family foibles for seventy years. My sister pulled out all the old, out-of-focus photos from our childhood, inciting two days worth of retelling of adventures in early parenting, while my mother had the black and white proof that yes, indeed, being un-photogenic was a family trait. And an evening with my brother and his family, where we picked up our stories exactly where we left off a year ago, without so much as a pause for thought, was a timely reminder to the children that it’s the people that are the custodians of our memories, not the bricks and mortar. Unless you count Julian and Gill, who have the children’s handprints immortalized in cement on the floor or their greenhouse, another discovery that the rest of us had forgotten.

Relocating is a double edged sword. You experience new places, and meet people that you now can’t imagine not being part of your life, but you also leave behind those very people with every move. We are really lucky that we have friends and family who are incredibly tolerant of our nomadic ways, who regardless of how long or how many visits it has been since we have seen them, still stay in touch. We didn’t get to see most of people that we wanted to see this time, but there is something incredibly humbling about having messages left on a phone that is used for one week a year, or Facebook messages or emails, that offer a welcome, a bed, a meal, or most importantly, security of knowing that we may be gone, but not forgotten.