Skip to Content

What It Takes to Purchase a Home in Europe as an Expat

Since relocating from the United States to Switzerland, I have been frequently asked by acquaintances back in my home country whether my daily life now resembles a picturesque montage of charming cafes, stunning architecture, and breathtaking natural landscapes worthy of featuring on shows like “House Hunters International.”

Even when I candidly share the unembellished reality—navigating through complex tax systems, encountering widespread store closures on Sundays, and meticulously sorting my household waste into a staggering seven distinct categories—I am met with nostalgic sighs, often followed by expressions of longing to experience European living firsthand.

I understand the allure. Despite the minor inconveniences, life in Switzerland is undeniably appealing. It’s easy to get swept away in the allure of browsing through dreamy real estate listings, much like one would in the United States. Platforms such as [mention websites] showcase enticing property options with attractive price points. However, the actual process of purchasing a property in Europe can swiftly become intricate. Here’s a primer on where to begin, as advised by experts in the field.

The initial reality check typically occurs at the immigration office. For Americans lacking dual citizenship in a European nation, the Schengen Area—which encompasses a majority of European countries—allows a maximum stay of 90 days within any 180-day period. Unless the intention is to acquire a vacation home exclusively, securing a visa becomes imperative.

Visa eligibility may stem from employment opportunities in another country, familial connections (as was my case through marriage), or specialized programs for skilled professionals, remote workers meeting income thresholds, or significant investors. However, nuances in laws and procedures vary across different countries. Zola Szerencses, head of the Certified International Property Specialists advisory group at the National Association of Realtors, emphasizes the diversity in visa types, durations, and eligibility criteria as you traverse borders. Certain countries may impose restrictions on property ownership for foreign nationals lacking specific visas.

While governmental agreements exist, the document submission deadlines remain a constant challenge. Depending on the visa category pursued, applicants may need to furnish a range of documents, including birth certificates, marriage certificates, employment contracts, and proof of a clean criminal record. Melissa Hughes, who purchased a property in Spain in 2019, highlights the arduous task of obtaining and certifying these documents from relevant authorities, underscoring the importance of preemptive preparation.

Engaging a Real Estate Agent for Expert Guidance

Given the increasing trend of Americans investing in European real estate, numerous agencies now offer comprehensive support on visa protocols, banking procedures, and other intricacies of the transaction.

Calum Neill, a manager at Leggett International Real Estate in France, notes the rising interest from American clients and the agency’s efforts to facilitate financial transactions, including liaising with institutions for currency transfers and potential mortgage arrangements. The National Association of Realtors provides a directory of agents categorized by location and areas of expertise, with Certified International Property Specialists (CIPS) designated for international transactions. Collaborating with a U.S.-based agent well-versed in the target country ensures a seamless experience akin to domestic property purchases, as emphasized by Szerencses.

Neill’s agency offers a platform where real estate professionals, local residents, and financial experts address queries from Americans contemplating a move to France, shedding light on various aspects of expat life. While virtual property viewings have become more accessible, an in-person visit is advisable to truly grasp the essence of a prospective purchase, given variations in staging practices and presentation standards across different markets.

Upon identifying a desirable property, the subsequent step typically involves financing arrangements. While cash transactions necessitate thorough research on property and wealth taxes in the new locale, mortgage options are prevalent for most buyers. In specific developments tailored for expatriates, developers may offer financing solutions. Generally, securing a mortgage involves engaging a broker and a local bank, akin to procedures in the United States. Neill highlights the significance of monthly income over total wealth in mortgage approval processes in France, cautioning against assumptions based solely on liquid assets.

Beyond financing considerations, legal formalities and additional fees come into play during the closing phase. Notaries often oversee property transactions in many countries, managing contracts and conducting lien checks. In France, for instance, Neill mentions that transaction costs can amount to approximately 7.5% of the sale price, encompassing relevant taxes. Detailed fee structures vary by jurisdiction and agency, underscoring the value of localized insights from agents to preempt unexpected financial obligations.

Addressing Post-Purchase Obligations and Considerations

Similar to the U.S. property ownership experience, ongoing responsibilities persist post-acquisition. Dual tax obligations, insurance prerequisites varying by region, and eligibility criteria for national healthcare systems necessitate careful consideration. Hiring maintenance personnel for property upkeep in the owner’s absence warrants scrutiny of labor costs, which can differ significantly from domestic norms. Prospective landlords should verify local regulations permitting rental activities before finalizing a purchase.

Prior to embarking on an international property investment journey, introspection is key. Catherine Severo, a seasoned homeowner in France and a valuable resource during my transition, advises prospective buyers to assess their intended usage of the property. Property ownership entails routine upkeep, financial management, and administrative obligations akin to domestic assets, underscoring the need for sustained commitment.

While the expat lifestyle may evoke idyllic imagery of adventure and cultural immersion, practical considerations such as household chores and administrative tasks are integral aspects of the experience. As Calum Neill aptly suggests, prospective buyers should consider an extended stay to gauge the compatibility of their aspirations with the day-to-day realities of international homeownership.