Moving to Portugal: Carol’s Experience

I have been thinking about leaving the UK for at least a couple of decades. Until recently, it was just a fantasy, a pipe dream, something other people did. Having spent many years holidaying in Turkey, and Greece, there was always that feeling, usually the day before returning home, of ‘how wonderful would it be to be able to live here all the time?’ Of course, the reality is never the same as the idyllic impression we have when we’re on holiday, but that feeling of wanting to go and live in a beautiful country with a warm climate never left me.

One particular thing that sticks in my memory, which is probably what planted the seed even deeper, was watching a programme on TV – probably Escape to the Sun or something of that kind. There was an amazing property in Faro, Portugal, which was called House on the Hill. This house was, to my mind anyway, a mansion. It had a swimming pool and an underground games room with a window that allowed you to see into the pool itself, with a cinema and a bar, and even had a secret room you entered from an office by pulling a book out of the bookcase. Yes, it was one of THOSE properties! And only 1.5 million. So, you see, only for people with tons of money, not for normal people like me.

However, I never forgot that house, or how beautiful Portugal was.

Why Portugal?

My dad worked in Portugal in the late 1970s. He and my mum had an apartment in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto. I stayed home in the UK and looked after the house (I was 19) and visited them. I can’t say I was particularly struck by Portugal back then, but I think that’s because Porto was hot, busy, loud, our apartment was very out of the way and we didn’t get to know much about the culture or the people. I do remember a very drunken afternoon visiting the port caves by the river Douro though – and still have the photograph to prove it (my eyes don’t look right at all!).

I didn’t holiday in Portugal, or ever visit again after visiting my dad’s place in the late 1970s. But my partner and I decided to have a holiday in Pombal in the summer of 2017, and that did it. We had friends who had recently moved out here, and we visited their home. They were literally the only people in their village. Their beautiful stone house is tucked into a hillside, and they live there perfectly happily with their daughter and four dogs. We got the bug. The house we stayed in in Pombal was also a stone cottage, beautifully renovated. It had a pool (right at the other end of the garden) and such a lot of outdoor space to roam around in. It was when I started looking at the property available and the prices that I realised this might actually be possible for us. So we started looking. Researching. Contacting property owners to try to arrange viewings. We returned to Portugal two months later and stayed with our friends for four days and viewed several properties. None of them were suitable, but at least we managed to get an idea of what kind of properties we could perhaps afford.

My UK house went on the market, but I got cold feet and took it off again. We did some work to the house to improve it a little and while I was thinking about putting it back on the market again, I had a call from the estate agent to say they had a couple actively looking on my road for a house and would I be interested in showing them round, even though it wasn’t officially on the market. I said yes, and to cut a long story short, they offered the full asking price, and it was all systems go from then.

House hunting in Portugal

We returned to Portugal during the week that my house sale was completing, once again to look for properties. We had a number of real potentials, and one in particular was a favourite. We liked that one so much we viewed it three times, and had a survey done. The day after the survey, the owner took it off the market. The estate agent was livid, and apologetic, and it turned out the seller had succumbed to pressure from his family not to sell. We were of course hugely disappointed. More than anything, he had wasted our time, and our money, both of which we could ill afford.

Things to bear in mind when buying property in Portugal: it’s not straightforward. Sellers are often not remotely interested in haggling on price. Sometimes, properties are owned by several family members, and if you get one that doesn’t want to sell, that can scupper things. Sometimes, properties don’t have all their documentation – more on that later. It’s very VERY important to have a good lawyer in place before you consider going through the process of purchasing in Portugal. But we were not there yet. We lost our dream home, and we were absolutely gutted. We had also cancelled several viewings, because we thought we were sorted, and we were going to have our second week here as a much-needed holiday. It wasn’t to be. We spent the second week frantically driving the length and breadth of central Portugal, once again searching. And we found our place. I’m very much of the opinion that if something is meant to be, it sorts things out for you, and this was very much the case with the house we finally bought. It had been on the market a very long time. Old, neglected, but utterly beautiful in so many ways, we fell in love with it the moment we drove the car up the drive. And we couldn’t – and still can’t – believe the price of it.

We had done absolutely no research into the area in which this house was located. We just went for it. We managed to haggle the price down a little, not as much as we would have liked, but it is still an absolute bargain compared to something of this type in the UK. The sale itself dragged on and on, unfortunately, because there was some paperwork missing that should have been provided. The owners wouldn’t do it retrospectively, so it was just left to us, and it’s something we may have to do in the future should we ever decide to sell, but for now, we’re leaving it, because this is what the Portuguese tend to do as well. The house has its habitation licence, which is the most important thing. However, this lack of documentation delayed the purchase considerably.

The move

The day we arrived to do the final signing of the paperwork was hugely tense. In Portugal, it’s all done in one office: the sellers meet the purchasers, the payment is made and keys handed over all in one go. We arrived in Portugal with a car load of items to keep us going in the house for three days until our belongings arrived by road. The whole thing was quite bizarre, and our first few nights in the house involved a blow-up mattress and sofa, and very little else.

When we moved in, we discovered that we had fallen extremely lucky in terms of area. Where we now live is only 20 minutes from pretty much everything we need. A maximum of 20 minutes in any direction will get us to all the large supermarkets and shops. Doctor, dentist, vet and other essentials are a mere five minutes away. We really couldn’t have been more lucky when it comes to that. In hindsight, I would say that could have worked the other way and been a total disaster. So I would say, even if you’re in a hurry (which we were at this point), do some research into the local area if you’re considering buying a home. One thing you are never prepared for in Portugal is the propensity of barking dogs – all hours of the day and night!

Moving to and living in Portugal is not a bed of roses by any means. However much you try to budget and plan for a move as monumental as this, and no matter how much of a contingency you build into your budget for it, there are always nasty surprises. Our first was the removals company. They quoted us for the move and then the actual amount we ended up paying was FOUR TIMES what they quoted. Yes, FOUR. There was nothing we could do. They had my entire house contents in storage, they had my partner’s house contents on a van, and they were bringing two van loads by road to our house three days after we moved in. We were over a barrel. So I would urge you, if you are looking to move all your belongings to Portugal, to do a lot more checking into your removal company than I did before you sign any paperwork. Having arrived here, we discovered a lot of people had been duped in this way. Whilst it’s kind of comforting to find you’re not the only ones, I really wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

A burning issue

Another issue was the previous owner had signed the papers to say the heating in the house was working. It wasn’t. He arranged for someone to get the boiler working, which he did, but it promptly broke down again. It took a while to get the part for it, but once we did and we were up and running we discovered another issue. Most villages in Portugal don’t have piped gas to the houses. If you have gas heating, it’s propane tanks. They are VERY expensive. We discovered that a tank that cost us 92 euros lasted approximately three days if we ran the heating and the hot water. So that was a total no-go. We had to change the heating system, and for a house the size of ours the best solution turned out to be a pellet boiler and silo. This was another massive expense we hadn’t bargained for. Pellet boilers are great, but physically having to go and get the pellets regularly, and put them into the silo, is pretty tough (they weigh 15kg each, and we need about 10 bags a week during the winter) and not something I relish doing into old age, to be quite honest. But this is what we have for now. It’s much cheaper when compared to propane gas, but it’ll take a good few years for the boiler to pay for itself.

So on the one hand, we have added value to the house, and on the other, that money could have bought us a car.

To matriculate, or not to matriculate

Speaking of cars…I decided to matriculate my car. This is a very personal decision I would never presume to advise people on. It boils down to how attached you are to the vehicle, if it will hold its value once you’ve done it, if you can afford to pay for the process, if you have the time and the patience for the process, and if you can find a decent agent to do it for you (you can do it yourself, but I wouldn’t recommend it). I did find a good agent, and the matter was all sorted within two months, but it was still a very scary thing, and it involved a drive to Lisbon, which I never want to repeat again. Cars in Portugal, even second-hand ones, are VERY expensive. We are still looking for another car to replace my husband’s as the MOT has now run out, and we are struggling with my little two-seater MX5 to get pellets for our heating and hot water.  Purchasing a vehicle is an absolute minefield. We asked our lovely plumber, who knows everything and everyone, about buying a car, and he told us pretty much all car sales people in Portugal are scam merchants. I won’t print the actual word he used – it’s very derogatory, verging on racist – but he was in no doubt that even he struggled to trust anyone when it came to buying a vehicle. So if you have a good car, and you don’t mind driving a right-hand drive car in Portugal, I’d say matriculation is not a bad idea overall.

Other things we were not prepared for – the weather. Rain, rain, rain, storms, more rain, more storms, rain like you wouldn’t believe. Even the Portuguese where we live said the winter we arrived was the worst they’d known in their entire lives. All the same, we have been told it rains way more than we had bargained for. We are just hoping our first summer in Portugal makes up for it, because we’re now constructing an in-ground pool.

Home sweet home

Much of what we had been warned about (dodgy builders) has not actually proven to be true. Either that, or we’ve just been lucky, but we have been put in touch with some lovely people, who have done our plumbing and electricity, knocked out walls and built our kitchen, and our pool (which, when we bought the house, was just a granite ‘lake’ in the middle of the garden) is currently being constructed by two of the loveliest young Portuguese men you could ever wish to meet.

We haven’t yet had a chance to integrate into our local community. We’re now in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and have been confined to our home for weeks. We are lucky in that we have a very large garden, and plenty to do inside the house, but it has hampered our language learning to some extent – it’s important to actually speak to people and listen and try to understand them. Learning the language will be a lifelong thing. I know people who have lived in Portugal over 13 years who still don’t consider themselves capable of holding a conversation. But if you can at least make yourself understood, that goes a long way.

When we are not locked in our homes, the social and cultural nature of Portugal is wonderful. Almost every weekend there is a Festa somewhere or other. There are so many places to visit, so many beautiful landscapes, river beaches, mountains and towns to explore. We felt this was our home from the moment we first arrived here for our holiday in Pombal. This has not changed. Even with the challenges we’ve faced, there hasn’t been a single moment of thinking ‘what the hell have we done?’ We haven’t looked back, and neither of us have any inclination to return to the UK, even for a visit. Portugal as a country is welcoming, kind, friendly and helpful. The handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been exemplary. Of course, there are some pitfalls – the lack of certain foods, the inability to get some things delivered by post due to customs issues and so on. But you adjust. You change your mindset. You prioritise differently. You gain a new perspective.

If you’re considering moving to Portugal, do tons of research, and then do more. For some, it just doesn’t work. Some return to the UK for health reasons, or because they miss their family etc. But for most of the people who embrace the country, the lifestyle, the culture and the people, and who are already reconciled to the fact that their family are a plane journey away, it’s paradise.

About the author

Carol Saxelby moved to Portugal in 2019

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