|Swiss-born Chris is no stranger to expat life, having lived in countries such as Senegal and the USA prior to moving to Panama, where he now lives with his wife. There he wields his prowess in the real estate industry, and tells us why Panama is presently a buyer's market. He also shares some of the things he likes about living and working in Panama.
-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
Republic of Panama, Panama City.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
With my wife.
-How long have you been living in Panama?
Initially 11 years, in the early Eighties. Then I moved to the US. Miami and Manhattan. Two years ago, I moved to Panama.
-What is your age?
Mentally and physically 30, but my passport says 60. Must be a typo.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Panama?
I guess you could call my Panamanian wife an important factor!
-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?
It was not.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
I kept a fantastic Swiss medical insurance until I arrived in Panama. I got a local insurance that covers me worldwide. Very affordable, but I selected the highest possible deductible. I am blessed with perfect health and (because?) I have never taken any prescription medicine (I never asked "my" doctor if Dumbex is right for me) and I stay as far away from doctors as I can. The way I see it, medical insurance is just for extreme emergencies: "I have bad news and good news... Bad news, you've got cancer. Good news, it's good for my bottom line!"
-How do you make your living in Panama? Do you have any type of income generated?
I was a real estate broker in Miami, first with EWM.com then with Prudential Realty and I had a very bad feeling about the market (which dropped 40% after my departure, but that's not related). I did a lot of research, online and word of mouth, to identify the best real estate company in Panama.
My criteria were simple... I had heard too many horror stories about how real estate was conducted in Panama, where a majority of "agents" operate illegally (which would be a felony in Florida, carrying a jail sentence) and I wanted to work for an American style company with a high sense of ethics. I contacted Century 21 and was hired immediately, based on my US broker licenses. I am happy with that choice.
-Do you speak Spanish and do you think it's important to speak the local language? (please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs).
I speak Spanish perfectly, albeit with an accent but that doesn't matter. It took me three months to be able to speak, read and write, but I was determined to do it. I speak other languages so it was not too difficult, although I had budgeted one month... I was rather motivated, as my employer (International Committee of the Red Cross) had sent me to Argentina by mistake, although I did not speak a single word of Spanish.
It was a huge mistake, taking into account that I had been very thoroughly vetted and was submitted to extensive examinations for every language I spoke. I guessed someone put an X in the wrong column. It was a bit foolish from my part to accept the assignment which involved interviewing political detainees and reporting on their condition, but it was not MY mistake and I always loved a challenge. As it turned out, no one ever found out my secret, which I shared only with the prisoners of a female facility. They had few opportunities to laugh...
In Panama, you can certainly get by with English only, but it is not as widely spoken as you would think. Do yourself a favor and learn the language. It's good for your aging brain. Panamanians are basically a welcoming people and they have an excellent attitude towards the Gringos, which they somewhat regard as superior beings. Gringo is not a bad name, by the way, and I use it freely. This may not be case in other parts of Latin America.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favorite recreational activities there or those that are available.
One of my sons lives in Miami, and most of my family, including my parents, live in Switzerland, and of course I would want to see more of them. I am however a professional expat, I've lived in lots of places, so home is where I lay my hat. Nice beaches are one hour away, but the truly spectacular ones are on the Atlantic side.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I plan to be an active Realtor for the next 25 years. Travel plans are limited to visiting family and friends.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Right now, Panama is definitely a buyer's market. Apartments cost around $150 to $200 per square foot in the capital, and much less in the "interior" provinces. New apartments currently benefit from a 20 year property tax exemption.
-What is the cost of living in Panama?
Not as cheap as you would think, but less than in Florida for example. If you are retired, you get all kind of discounts, in restaurant meals (good food!), prescription, travel and entertainment. How does a movies ticket for $2.00 sound? That's for an original English soundtrack (Spanish subtitles) for a recent movie in an American style movie place. And if you choose to pay a tad more, they have VIP screening rooms with leather recliners, where your food is served by waiters.
-What do you think about the locals?
Panamanians are great people. Very welcoming. If you consider yourself a VIP and expect the reverence due to your superior status, then stay home. You are not going to get it here. The word here is IGUALADO, meaning that they see you at their level and not as a superior being. I find their familiarity quite refreshing. They need to work a bit on the customer service thing. They will get there...
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Panama?
The positive aspects overshadow the negative. I like to have US Dollars in my wallet (the ONLY local currency) instead of useless banknotes printed on demand. No hurricane season, for one thing. By the way, the Central American country whose economy is the least affected by the world's financial turmoil. Panamanians do not feel compelled to reply to their email messages ASAP. They frequently treat it as snail mail... but that may change, given the current Blackberry invasion. (I am an iPhone guy!).
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Panama?
Come spend a few weeks to test the waters. You may want to rent an apartment at first until you find the neighborhood that best suits you. If you see cheap rentals on the Internet, take into account that leases are for one year. You can find short term but there is less to choose from. If they don't advertise short term, then it's for 12 months and that explains why they won't bother responding to your inquiries.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Panama?
I need to update my own site, but I would recommend the website of my company, as it provides a good snapshot of the current market. By the way, many real estate websites are not reliable at all. One simple reason: many of my colleagues advertise properties they do not represent, just to hook a prospect... (Sorry, that apartment just sold yesterday, but I'll be happy to help you find you another one!).
On occasion, competitors copy and paste the descriptions and the photos from my listings then post them, without changing a comma, on their own sites - at a lower price! (I am not getting upset anymore...). There's another factor: expired listings stay posted for years, because no one bothers to remove them. That might give you a false idea of the market.
So here's Century 21's website: http://www.semusarealty.com/
If you need a reliable Interior Designer, my wife Rita will be happy to answer your questions. She is an ASID allied member: http://www.interiordesignpanama.com/ If you have a question, I'll be happy to help.
Take care, and thank you Lizza and Victor for providing this interesting forum!