Portugal continues to be at the top of all the best-places-to-retire-abroad lists. This got my attention when I retired three years ago as a midlife woman of 59. I was intrigued by the thought of lowering my living expenses, and the possibility of being able to afford to live on the ocean as a single retiree. The month I spent living in Portugal at the start of my 70-day trip around the world as a first-time solo traveler in 2019 convinced me that it was the country for me to move to in retirement. After returning home, I planned to save money and move to Portugal at 65. But when my house sold unexpectedly late last year, I realized I could move this year, three years ahead of plan. Each month I will share a Midlife Expat Learning post here as I navigate the complex process of immigrating to Portugal.
Last month’s inaugural Midlife Expat Learning post was an overview of Portugal’s two-part D7 Residency Visa and Residency Permit process. This month I’m covering the ever-changing process of finding a place to live in Portugal, which must be done BEFORE you submit your visa application and is, by far, the most mercurial piece of the application process.
Many people do an interim scouting trip to Portugal before their move, to view and secure housing. I chose not to do a scouting trip since I know the area I want to live in from my earlier one-month stay there. I posted last month that I’d secured a six-month rental agreement for a beautiful oceanfront apartment. Yay!
Then, earlier this month, I received an email:
Bummer. I’m becoming a vexpat.
Back to the Drawing Board
My housing strategy had been to search US-based holiday/vacation rental sites for six-month listings with generous cancellation refund policies. This was a no-brainer, I thought, given COVID, potential immigration snafus, and possible war. Additionally, vacation rentals are always furnished and include all utilities – a huge bonus when you’re just landing in a foreign country. Another bonus is you can get a vacation rental agreement without needing to have a Portugal NIF identification number. Finally, renting through a large, well-known vacation rental company based in my home country gave me an added sense of security when paying thousands of dollars far in advance for a sight-unseen property.
My requirement to live on the ocean makes it virtually impossible to find a rental that isn’t a “vacation” property, and many of those won’t even do a rental agreement for longer than three months. I was thrilled to finally find a six-month holiday rental for a small waterfront flat with a terrace overlooking the sea.
I’m not giving up on this beauty yet, even though it is a refundable rental agreement and not a registered lease. Residency Visa requirements listed on Portugal’s official immigration and consulate websites are vague on housing requirements, stating only that an application must include “proof of accommodation.” What’s considered acceptable proof is inconsistent and can change suddenly without notice, depending on which consulate an applicant is using. I must apply through the Portuguese consulate in Washington, DC, as it has jurisdiction over my state in the US.
The Washington, DC, consulate contracts with VFS Global to process visa applications. The VFS Global website advises applicants that a six-month “hotel reservation” is acceptable proof of accommodation, but when I emailed the consulate directly for confirmation I received the above reply. Even VFS Global’s procedures in the US differ depending on the city. VFS Global San Francisco does things differently than VFS New York or Washington, DC, for example.
After VFS Global processes visa paperwork the applications still must be approved by Portuguese authorities, who have complete discretion on what is and isn’t acceptable. According to multiple experts within immigration consulting firms, decision-making authority rests entirely with the individual immigration officer handling an applicant’s paperwork and can vary from person to person, day to day. This “luck of the draw” isn’t surprising, of course, and happens all the time in many different settings and scenarios here in the US and abroad. The Internet is filled with accounts from American expats who got D7 Residency Visa approval with just a three-week hotel reservation or a three-month Airbnb…and those who had to get a one-year lease.
Because of this inconsistency and capriciousness, Portuguese immigration consultants are advising their clients to secure a one-year registered lease, non-refundable but ideally with a negotiated early-out clause, to ensure immigration approval.
One year??!! But my consulate said six months was OK. Yes, but…
1. It doesn’t matter what’s in writing on an email. The only thing that matters is what the immigration officer who gets my application decides that day.
2. Good luck finding a property landlord who will agree to a six-month registered lease. I’m finding nearly all want a minimum of one year for a registered lease, unlike vacation rental agreements.
3. A six-month lease could run out before the Residency Permit is issued in Portugal. The Residency Visa (good for four months) gets an applicant into Portugal, where an appointment must be made with a SEF immigration office to apply in person for the two-year, renewable Residency Permit. The Residency Visa is automatically extended to the date of the SEF appointment, as it can take longer than four months to get the appointment.
Cons and Pros
Unlike a vacation rental agreement, these property leases must be in Portuguese and must be registered with the Portugal Tax Authority. A tenant must have a NIF identification number to sign a lease. The good news is that the NIF is required for Residency Visa approval anyway, so I’ve got this!
Unlike my beachfront rental, these long-term leased properties are typically not oceanfront. Many are advertised as sea or ocean view, but you’d need to hang out of a bathroom window with your Spidey shoes and a drone to actually see the water. This is a deal-breaker for me and it’s hard to find the “pro” here. I’d hoped to have some good news in this regard before posting, but I’m not giving up. I’m holding onto my perfect Portugal pad on the beach and its six-month refundable rental agreement just in case. (Pivot, people, pivot!)
While my “vacation” rental was paid for through a large, US-based company, registered property leases require me to send money directly to an individual landlord in a foreign country, with little to no safeguards in place. I’d be more comfortable doing this in person, which is why I wanted to get
boots sandals on the ground in a temporary vacation rental before committing to signing long-term rental or purchase documents. The good news is there are independent franchises of large real estate companies I’m familiar with in Portugal – such as ReMax, Century 21, ERA, and Keller-Williams — and their professional agents will assist expats in finding, virtually viewing, and leasing properties. From the standpoint of immigration officials, a fully executed property lease of this type shows that an applicant is committed to living in Portugal and is financially self-sufficient.
Next Steps on the Pad Hunt
I will be moving this fall. It’s still early for fall property leases to be listed, but listing activity has picked up dramatically in just the last week. I’d been complaining that Portuguese real estate agents don’t respond to inquiries the way agents do here, but emails started coming in this week and I now have an agent sending me properties directly.
I’m continuing to scour listings online. Portugal does not have the equivalent of an MLS system for property listings, or any national board of standards for real estate agents. You can see any and everything listed online, and scams are a concern in Portugal just like here in the US. I’m avoiding private listings and listings by sole proprietors, just to be on the safe side. I’m using large, well-known international property listing sites, such as Idealista and Imovirtual. I get 20-30 property search results emailed to me from these sites daily. If any look interesting I forward them to the real estate agent with whom I’m working to show him what I’m looking for in a fall lease. Fingers crossed. Hope I didn’t xanifest this thing.
Tips to Keep in Mind
Properties that are fully furnished and include utilities are worth the extra cost for the initial convenience afforded when just arriving solo in a foreign country and not being fluent in the language. (That said, there’s always Ikea, which has stores all over Portugal and delivers to my desired area, and Amazon in Spain, which will deliver to Portugal.) If not included in the rent, all utilities will likely be shut off upon taking occupancy of a property. Getting water, electricity, gas, and Internet service turned on is as much of a pain in Portugal as it is here, with the bonus of being in a different language.
Of course, I’ve been watching YouTube videos about how to talk to Portuguese utility customer service workers. All I can remember is how to say, “Desculpe, mas eu nao entendo. Fala ingles? Nao? Eu so falo um pouco de portuguese. Pode voce ajudar-me para falar mais devagar por favor? Muito obrigada.” (“Sorry but I don’t understand. Do you speak English? No? I only speak a little Portuguese. Can you help me by speaking more slowly, please? Thank you very much.”) I typed this in Portuguese independently, without Google Translate, so there might be a few errors in syntax but I’m still frippin’ impressed with myself. Just saying.
If not provided in the listing, I always ask for the exact street address of the property in a listing so I can Google Maps the property’s Street View and Satellite View. This is critical. I was interested in a waterfront listing’s beautiful interior and balcony photos. The listing was outside of my target area and I wasn’t familiar with the location. When I panned out on the Street View on Google Maps I saw a graffiti-covered building, vacant lots, and a building with barbed wire fencing across the street from the back of the property in the listing. The listing itself was a stylish flat with a gorgeous view from its balcony. The neighborhood may be wonderful too, but I’m not there in person to check it out and I just didn’t like the look of what I saw on Google Maps.
Sleuth out property feedback and reviews. I try Googling a listing’s street address and/or building name. Sometimes I’ll find a property website or reviews. I also look on Google Maps for attractions in a listing’s neighborhood, then click on the attraction to open its Google Maps info, including reviews. Those reviews may mention complaints about the neighboring attraction’s location – such as traffic congestion, noise, parking, safety concerns, or even smells from nearby facilities – that could also impact the property listing I’m researching.
Know how to read property listings.
- Number of bedrooms is indicated with “T.” T1 is one bedroom; T2 is two bedrooms, and so on.
- Many listings have washing machines but most do not have dryers.
- Many buildings have no elevator or “lift.” Those that do highlight it in a listing.
- Homes are rarely insulated and listings must include an energy grade, from A-F. Many have a D grade.
- Many homes are not heated. Electricity is expensive, so a fireplace or wood stove is a desirable feature.
- Walking convenience is important for expats without cars. Proximity to public transportation and neighborhood shopping are key considerations.
- “Video tours” are usually just slide shows of the same photos in the listing. Requesting a live video walkthrough with a real estate agent via WhatsApp or Facetime will show the current state of a property in real time.
Consider paying for help when the stakes are high. There is no shortage of international relocation firms, immigration consultants, and attorneys that can help with the entire Residency Visa process – with fees of $3000 and up. I’m not going that route, but now that I’m looking at needing to sign a long-term non-refundable lease for a property sight unseen, it’s worth it for me to pay a vetted lawyer and/or real estate agent to work on my behalf to review the lease document.
Moving to another country is a complex process and requirements can change quickly and without notice. Everyone’s experience can be different. I’m remembering to take it all in stride, stay flexible, prepared, pivot-ready, and positive. Stay tuned. April’s Midlife Expat Learning will cover what I’ve learned about taxes, money, and banking in Portugal.
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