Category Archives: Basics

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

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!

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partner

Keeping in Contact – The Essential Guide to Cheaper International Calling

When we first started gallivanting around the world, keeping in contact meant email and dial-up internet and very, very expensive bills. Thankfully for expats, global nomads, world travelers and their friends and family back home, things are now cheaper, quicker and far, far more convenient – provided you know what to use, where. By popular demand, here’s the Defining Moves guide to cheaper international communication. Complete with a lovingly handmade PDF cheat sheet. You’re spoiled, you really are…

 

If you are a landline lover (landlubber).

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partner

 

While most of us rely heavily on the internet for communicating, there are still plenty of places where the service is too slow / expensive / inconsistent to be reliable or who have loved ones back home who prefer a traditional handset. If so, you should be checking your provider for a reduced rate package that you can add to your plan – rather like the unarranged overdraft at the bank, spontaneous international calls are charged at prohibitive rates, while prepaid or pre-authorized ones are far cheaper.

If you can’t reduced rates, consider asking (and if necessary, paying for) family members to add international calls to their package at home and have pre-arranged call times – most landline calls are free to receive, regardless of whether they are local or international. Over the course of an overseas assignment, the savings will be significant, and you have the added advantage of guilt-free calls.

Combine this with a service from Rebtel, which offers cheap international calls from any phone, whether landline or mobile. It involves setting up an account online, entering the numbers you want to call, and then using the new local numbers that Rebtel gives you for each of your contacts.

It’s far less complicated than it sounds (especially when most phones allow you to store contact details) and Rebtel even offers you a free call to try it out. The even better news? It’s global, so you can use the new numbers anywhere in the world for local rate calls, and their website is incredibly clear and easy to use.

As a last resort, there are hundreds of international calling cards out there that in exchange for a prepaid card and a little inconvenience, offer a much lower rate. Try www.comfi.com for comparisons of rates – and again, don’t forget to check for connection fees…

 

If you have home internet but like to have a traditional phone and number.

 

It has to be Ooma. It’s a square device (about the size of an answering machine) that plugs into your internet router and allows you to connect a regular handset. The unit itself costs around $200, but allows you to make free domestic calls and very low-cost international calls while only paying applicable government taxes. What we like? You pay up front, all call costs, fees and taxes are clearly displayed and user reviews love it too. The bad news? It’s currently only available in the US. Sorry.

Alternatively, Skype offers a Skype To Go number to use with a handset – either buy one with Skype functionality installed, or use a phone adapter. You have to buy Skype credit online to both pay for the number and subscription/pay as you go credit, so if you are setting it up for your less tech savvy family members or friends, you might want to help them set up automated payments at the same time. In the interests of full disclosure, reviews were scathing, both about the call and product quality, and customer service. Eek.

 

If you have home internet and a computer / laptop / tablet with microphone and speakers.expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partner

The current market leader has to be Skype, who offer low cost calling, no set-up, cancellation or contract fees, and a variety of products and services to keep the most demanding amongst us happy. Calls can be made through most devices with a microphone and speakers – computers, laptops, tablets and even cellphones with wifi capability – and for those of us who prefer to use a regular handset, they sell those too.

Calls to other Skype users are free and if you have a webcam, this includes free video calls – fantastic for keeping track of growing children, changing hair colors or home improvement projects.  Not so good if you forget that you have video enabled and make calls in your pajamas.

The good news is that Skype is widely used, so you will be able to make free calls to most of your global network. The bad news is that you will need a high speed internet connection to avoid distortions and dropped calls and if you have a usage limit, you will quickly burn up a significant amount of data with video calls. It is also prohibitively expensive  to call cellphones, their calling rates are buried in the darkest corner of the website, and their customer service is run entirely via email and video chat. Hmm.

 

If you prefer to use your cellphone, but don’t have a data package.

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partnerEnter Rebtel again, the patron saint of cheap international cellphone to cellphone calls. Sure, you have to sign up online and set up payment plan, but once you have a) saved their Rebtel number in your phone and b) practiced a few times, you can get regular cellphone to cellphone calls for local rates with no data, no hassle and great signal quality.

 

If you have a smartphone, data / wi-fi access, and love to talk.

Here’s where it gets really, really good, especially if your friends have smartphones and data packages  (or wi-fi access) too, because there are some great products and apps out there. My personal favorite is Viber, which offers free cellphone-to-cellphone calls and texts to other Viber users. It integrates with your contact list so you can instantly see which friends and acquaintances have Viber, and offers you the option of free calls (for when you have plenty of data or a wi-fi connection) or a regular call for when you want to use your voice plan. We love its ease of use, the ability to easily invite others to join and the call and text reliability – but be warned; it looks very similar to your regular cellphone call application, so check twice before placing any international calls…

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partnerNext up is the Rebtel app – all the features of Rebtel, with the ease of an app. The calls are free to other Rebtel users and (Rebtel claims) 98% cheaper to non-users. We love the easy-to-use contact list, with clear labels about which calls are ‘free’, and which are ‘cheap’, and has the cost of each call displayed before you press ‘Call’.

Trailing in third place is Skype – the most well known (and widely available), but also the most clunky to use (you have to search for Skype user names or emails) and the least transparent in terms of cost. Like the previous two, calls are free to Skype users, and there is the added advantage of video calling for those of you with camera phones, the ability to using instant messaging and to send photos. The bad news is that video calling eats data, so make sure you either have unlimited data or are using wi-fi when making those calls, and that all of your Skype contacts are notified that your are ‘available’ unless you remember to change your settings. And its SMS feature is a pain to use, and at least in my experience, pretty unreliable.

For free international video calls, iPhone, iTouch, iPad and Mac users can benefit from Apple’s FaceTime application which again uses the internet to connect the call. For those of you using iPhones, be sure to click FaceTime rather than Call, unless, of course, you enjoy three figure phone bills…

 

 If u prfr the writn wrd… International text messaging for free.

Viber is still up there for its free global messaging to other Viber users, but in terms of functionality, WhatsApp has to win the international messaging prize. It uses your existing contacts list to find other WhatsApp users, who can then be bombarded with texts, images, videos and goodness knows what else, for free. For those of you with TCKs, CCKs, global tweens and teens, it’s your passport to peace, family harmony, international communication, financial sanity and probably, Repetitive Strain Injury. Four out of five ain’t bad.

As a final note to those of you who travel frequently – consider getting your phone unlocked. While all of these features will help you save hundreds on communication costs, the savings are quickly overtaken by overseas data charges, and free wi-fi access is not always easy to find. An unlocked phone allows you to buy a Pay As You Go local sim card (cut it down to micro-sim size if necessary – instructions here) and stay in close contact with your network for less.

It’s good to talk. Or, for the more musically inclined…

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.

 

 

3 Simple Strategies for More Effective International Relocation - Defining Moves

3 Simple Strategies for More Effective Global Transition

3 Simple Strategies for More Effective International Relocation - Defining Moves
We all need a little point in the right direction..

At Defining Moves we believe that the most crucial parts of successful global transition are a clear assessment of your situation and thoughtful planning. It seems self-evident, but in reality we are often working with inaccurate information, cross cultural confusion and an unrealistic expectations. With that in mind, here are our 3 essential strategies that will make any relocation far, far easier. And yes, you already know you need them, but how many of us take the time to actually DO them..?

 

1. Before You Go – Cultural Orientation

Many transferring companies provide some cultural orientation training, but it often focuses on the working environment rather than the living one. If you have the chance for professional help, take it, but don’t just stop there – there is a wealth of information out there that can help you better prepare and adapt to your new home.

Guides like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide both have excellent sections on the local environment, cultures and expected behaviours for visitors, along with a language starter guide. Remember that you are not on vacation, and many other guides assume that many of your basic daily needs will be met by a hotel, so opt for the backpacker and independent travel guides  – they are written for people who have greater contact with locals and are looking after their own living needs.

Blogs, expat websites, forums  and social media networks give you great insight into your new world through the eyes of an expat, and can offer a way to make contacts with like minded local residents without leaving your couch. It’s currently a hugely underutilized resource in terms of cultural orientation, possibly because of the sheer volume and varying quality.

I’ve listed some of my favorites at the bottom (feel free to suggest your own) – many offer local guides for a fee, and a listing of expat blogs by country. Contact the blog authors, read their articles and the comments of others, and build a picture of the day-to day challenges that expat family life will present.

Many expat groups have a Page on Facebook – simply searching the term ‘expat’ and your new location will generate listings. Doing the same search on Twitter will put you in touch with plenty of people willing to share (and probably a few oddballs, so brace yourself), and allows you a less formal method of contact than email. However, remember that with social media, you are also sharing a great deal of information about yourself, so read our guide to using social media before you start.

If you prefer to meet people face to face, Internations is another place to meet a huge variety of expats from across the globe, with monthly meetings in many cities. They also have an excellent online resource and community.

 

2. As Soon As You Arrive – Find a Mentor.

The Armed Forces, established experts at the task of relocating people, have long been advocates of mentors for transitioning individuals and families, but the corporate world has yet to catch up. The good news is that the expat community is a very supportive one that understands the challenges faced on international assignment, and is always ready to rally to the cause, so don’t be shy about asking for help and finding a mentor.

We’re not talking about finding a friend here –  you don’t even need to like your mentor, as long as you respect their opinion. You are looking for is someone who has a good working knowledge of your new location, has an enviable list of contacts, and has recommendations that they are willing to share. You don’t need to agree with their choices or follow all of their advice, but having a place to start will save you time, money and considerable frustration. It’s about getting the information to get things done in the most effective way possible.

Your mentor provides a number of functions – they can point you in the direction of essential goods and services, help you navigate your first weeks in your new environment, and provide an early warning system for problems that you might face.

Ask your transferring company whether they have anyone locally or in your host country who knows the ropes or look for spouses of work colleagues, PTA members or expat welcome groups. Your relationship might not extend beyond a shared coffee, a phone number and a list of people and places, so try to have a list of what you need already prepared. Here’s our Mentor Checklist to get you started.

 

Once The Dust Has Settled – Continued Cross Cultural Training / Support.

In her FIGT 2012 presentation, Philippa Erlank of Consider Culture pointed out that most cross cultural learning takes places between the 6th and 12th month of any assignment. Before that, the practicalities of establishing a home, school and work life take priority, and after a year, most people have settled into some sort of daily routine both in terms of tasks and behaviors.

Those who have been through expatriation before will tell you that most corporate cross-cultural provision happens either before the transfer or immediately after – both points at which you are distracted, bewildered and often struggling with the logistical arrangements of family life. By the time you realize that you need help, it has disappeared into the sunset with the rest of your expat life delusions.

There is good news, however. Most cross-cultural training is delivered by independent consultants, many of whom are happy to provide ongoing private services, both in person or via online coaching. They are familiar with the unique demands of temporary life overseas, and can provide a listening ear, sage counsel to help you with day-to-day dilemmas, and a compassionate shoulder if it all becomes too much. So if your relocation package provision has ended, or if you are relocating independently, it’s well worth exploring the idea of a intercultural or expat coach to help you gain understanding and get the answers to that most fundamental of questions..

Why?

 

Expat Arrivals

Expat Exchange

Expatica

BlogExpat

Expat Coach Directory

Essential backup of photos and documents for relocating expats

Memory loss.. 6 Easy Steps to Backing Up Your Financial, Personal, Professional and Family Life

Essential backup of photos and documents for relocating expats
You lost it??!!

I have recently had to produce my birth certificate, which proved rather a problem. You see, I had the shorter version, but US immigration required the more detailed one. Which no-one had seen for approximately 39 years and 12 moves.

Ah.

The good news was that the UK registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages had a very handy online site which allowed me to order certified copies that keep even the most nitpicky of authorities happy. On this I was lucky, but it made me realize just how much of my other paperwork would be far more difficult (or even impossible) to replace. While faking your family tree works up to a point, I would hate to lose the real pictures of my children, my childhood, and the Godawful family vacations. So here is the DefiningMoves essential guide to covering your (paper) assets.. 

With the advent of free or low cost online storage, portable hard drives, laptops and portable scanners, it’s not as hard as you might think.

You will need:

  1. Laptop computer. Yes, a desktop will work too, but it’s far easier to spread out on a large surface like a dining table, bed or the floor.
  2. Internet connection. You’ll be uploading to ‘cloud’ storage (formerly known as ‘online’ or ‘web’, but now rebranded to sound more sexy and mysterious) so the better your internet connection, the quicker the process will be.
  3. Fujitsu SCANSNAP S1100 . I am in love with this scanner, because it is:
    • small – so you can scan from wherever, whenever
    • powered from a USB port, so you don’t have a power cable issue
    • already set up with Evernote capability, which makes transferring online storage a snap (pun intended);
    • incredibly simple to use – plug it in, open the front, feed documents, follow onscreen prompts.
  4. External Hard Drive. Because you should already have your computer backed up, so while you are doing all this filing, you may as well kill two birds with one stone.
  5. Essential Documents 
  6. Priceless Photographs
  7. Digital Camera (optional)

 

Open an Evernote or Dropbox account.

These are both online storage services which allow you to make back-up copies by either dragging and dropping files, or clicking on an online icon. They also allow you access to these documents from any computer (and many other devices) by logging into a secure account, and you can search your files by keyword once they are uploaded. Oh, and Evernote has handwriting recognition too. Scary, huh?

 

Assemble all your essential documents

(see checklist), and divide into categories that make sense to you – either by person, alphabetical order or subject. Now do the same for your photographs..

 

Load the Scansnap software

if necessary (those of us with Macs are smugly just skipping to the next step..) and plug in the scanner. Feed through each category of document, photograph etc., and click the ‘finish scanning‘ button onscreen.

Essential backup of photos and documents for relocating expats

Save as ‘file‘, (blue file icon, top left) with a clear label that will make sense to you when you are looking for it later. (Hint – if you save it to desktop, it’s easier to find for the ‘drag and drop’ bit.

 

Essential backup of photos and documents for relocating expats

 

Plug in the portable hard drive.

This one you can figure out by yourself.. Once it’s plugged in, locate the icon for it on your desktop.

 

Create multiple backups.

First, copy each file and save the copy to your external (portable) hard drive by dragging and dropping each individual or group of files. (This gives you a back-up to keep somewhere safe should your computer die or you are unable to get internet access.) If you are using Evernote, open your account now and drag and drop the original file into the Evernote screen. For Dropbox, simply drag the file into the Dropbox icon.

 

Repeat with digital photo and documentation files.

Most of us now have a digital camera, and so our most recent pictures, along with plenty of important ‘paperwork’ are saved on our computers as digital files. So while you have your hard drive and online storage account easily accessible, back up these files too.

Should you now be bitten by the backup bug, now is also the time to get out the digital camera and make a photographic inventory of each room of your house for insurance and shipping purposes before the packers arrive. Unless they happen to be Brad Pitt / George Clooney / Ryan Gosling lookalikes, in which case, call me and I will be happy to do the honors for you..

P.s. Sadly, I don’t get paid for my merciless promotion of these products. However, for those of you who are now a little clearer on the importance and procedure for backing up your life’s work, next time we meet, coffee’s on you…

 

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? Essential documents that every expat should keep, copy and/or carry

We are in the process of applying for our Green Card, and it’s nothing like the film. For a start, we are legitimately married, and have been for so long that our vacation family photos usually just feature the Other Half and the kids, because having planned, packed and catered for a weeklong sojourn, there is no way I want my exhausted, disheveled state recorded for posterity. Anyone who wishes to verify that we are married just needs to spend half an hour in the same room and listen to a disjointed conversation that involves car pool commitments, emergency meal planning and a reminder of outstanding (not in the good way) household tasks..

However, back to the Green Card bit. So far, we have fallen foul of a lack of vaccination records for myself and the OH (resulting in a fresh round of childhood vaccines and a very sore arm), the inability to recall exact dates of employment from back when work meant I was actually paid, and an inadequate birth certificate. As our original posting was a year long temporary assignment, all our official documentation, wedding and baby photos, etc. etc. are safely in storage and completely inaccessible from sunny San Francisco. My latest interruption has been attempting to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from 4000 miles away – pausing only to pray to whatever God might be listening that my online order a) is not an elaborate scam, and b) gets here before next Christmas.

For those of you who like myself, had no idea what documentation might be needed over the course of your expat relocation adventures, I’ve prepared a checklist.

Essential Docs Checklist

It doesn’t just apply to relocating expats – it’s a good idea for everyone to have immediate access and back-up copies of the documents listed, so please feel free to share. Buy a scanner to make electronic copies of documents and store securely – you’ll be surprised how you need copies, and how useful it is to be able to email them  immediately. If nothing else, you will look and feel supremely organized. Unlike me..