With so many people planning to move to Panama and looking for a rental, I thought you could use some advise from a pro! So, I asked my friend Elaine Hayes to write an article about renting in Panama. She has lived in Panama five years and moved TEN times. She’s uniquely qualified to advise you about what to do and what not to do too. She and her husband Don have made every mistake in the book. Read this article and follow her advise to avoid making costly mistakes.
Hello! Let me introduce myself. My name is Elaine and my husband Don and I decided to retire in Panama in 2015. Before I begin, I want to stress to you that we will always live in Panama. For us, it is the best place on earth and there are wonderful places to live where you will be so happy and retire in paradise! But this article is letting you know the mistakes we have made, so hopefully we can prevent others from making the same. I have lived in some great places and made a lot of mistakes! Don and I have moved 10 times in 5 years. We are pro’s at moving! So here is my story:
I always prided myself on doing my research. I researched the entire world when it came to deciding where to retire. I researched where other expats lived, the money exchange, the crime, the weather, the language. We picked Panama because it checked out all the boxes and we have never regretted our decision. But one thing I did not research was how to go about renting a place in a foreign country. It’s something so new to most expats. For instance, most of the rental places for expats here are furnished. Completely furnished, with everything you will need just to move in with your clothes. A rental will come with kitchen appliances; pots, pans, silverware, plates, bowls. It will be equipped with towels and bedding. You will have a TV and may have a washer and dryer included. Most of us have owned homes in the countries that we have lived in, or if we have rented, we knew the ins and outs of what to do and not to do. But doing all of that in another country is different. So, I am here to gladly tell you my story. I can help you with your research. Panama is a wonderful country to live in, and renting is definitely the key. You can always buy a house or apartment once you get the lay of the land. But renting is the only way to go when you first arrive. So here are some “dos and don’ts” that I have learned from experience! I will give you a list first, and then explain in the next paragraphs some of our specific experiences!
-GO AND INSPECT THE PLACE THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE LIVING. INSPECT EVERYTHING YOURSELF, DO NOT RELY ON THE LANDLORD TO TELL YOU THINGS ABOUT THE HOUSE (DO NOT ASSUME ANYTHING). DON’T RENT A PLACE BY JUST RELYING ON THE INTERNET PHOTOS.
–ASK AND VERIFY – MAKE A LIST OF WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU – HOT WATER IN THE KITCHEN, WASHER AND OR DRYER, HOT WATER ON DEMAND. ALSO DECIDE WHAT YOU CONSIDER YOUR “DEAL BREAKERS”. VIEWS, WALKING DISTANCE TO STORES AND RESTAURANTS? YOU NEED TO PERSONALLY CHECK THE HOUSE AND THE SURROUNDINGS OUT FOR YOURSELF!).
–CHECK OUT THE NEIGHBORHOOD – (ARE THERE BARKING DOGS AND CHICKENS CLOSE BY? IS THERE TIMES WHERE THE AREA YOU LIVE IN ARE GOING TO BE LOUDER AT TIMES THAN OTHERS?)
–DOES A GARDNER COME WITH THE RENTAL? HOW OFTEN DOES HE COME – (SOME PLACES HAVE SOMEONE COME A FEW TIMES A MONTH, AND SOME COME A FEW TIMES A YEAR.)
–WHAT UTILITIES ARE INCLUDED IN THE RENT, AND WHAT TV/INTERNET SERVICE IS AVAILABLE IN THE RENTAL?
–TALK TO NEIGHBORS. SEE HOW THEY LIKE THE NEIGHBORHOOD. GET THEIR ADVICE.
-DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU CHOOSE TO LIVE IN PANAMA, THE LOCATION OF THE SUNRISE/SUNSET MAY BE VERY IMPORTANT. LIVING ON THE OCEAN IS WONDERFUL, BUT BE AWARE WHERE THE AFTERNOON SUN WILL BE IN YOUR RENTAL. DO YOU WANT THE SUN TO BE BEATING DOWN IN YOUR LIVING ROOM? ARE THERE BLACK OUT CURTAINS THAT YOU CAN SHUT WHEN THE SUN IS AT ITS HOTTEST? WHEN YOUR LIVING ROOM GETS TO BE A SAUNA, WHERE THE SUN IS LOCATED AT WHAT TIME BECOMES VERY IMPORTANT.
–REALIZE WHEN YOU BUY SOMETHING, YOU WILL HAVE TO MOVE IT. BUYING AN OUTDOOR GRILL IS WONDERFUL. BUT JUST KNOW THAT WHEN YOU HAVE TO MOVE, YOU WILL HAVE TO MOVE YOUR GRILL AS WELL. YOU WILL BE SURPRISED HOW MUCH YOU ACCUMULATE.
Don’t Do This!
Now for the story of what Don and I did when we were still in the States. I was scrolling the internet and saw a cute house that was close to the town we wanted to live in. The pictures looked so nice, and the location seemed perfect! It was a fellow expat that owned it, so naturally I trusted him with no questions asked. He wanted first month, last month rent with a security deposit. He was willing to sign a 3-month lease. That appealed to my husband and I. If we didn’t like it, we had 3 months to find another house or apartment! We sent him the money using a wire transfer, and we were set! We sold everything we owned, kept 5 suitcases and a chihuahua to take with us, and off we went to start our new adventure!
Once we got into town and found our “dream home” we quickly realized that the pictures shown on the internet was taken about 10 years ago. The furniture wasn’t even the same. There was no leather recliner chair, no cushy couch, no king size bed. The 600-gallon water tank leaked, so the adorable back patio that were in the pictures was a wet wasteland of standing water. Although the water worked the first day we were there when the landlord showed us around, we realized that it was only because it had recently rained, and the tank had not leaked enough. So, for the most part when we were there, my husband had to walk up a hill to bring us back water for the house that he had bought in a store. The water had also been leaking under the house so we saw fuzzy mold every day near the back door and into the kitchen. (This rental will forever be known as “The Fuzzy House”!) We were shocked when the landlord also told us that our TV service had to be bought by days. We had to go into town to the TV service store, wait in line and buy “cards’ to keep the service on. (For instance, you could buy one day, 3 days, 1 week etc.) And the channels were in Spanish! Side Note: We have since learned that this is the only rental property that used this method of TV service. In the 5 years of renting other places and the countless expat friends that we have had, no one have ever done it this way.
The quaint location also turned out that it was right across the street from the fairgrounds. We arrived on November 2nd, so we found out that the fairgrounds had bands that would play very loud music until 5 am the entire time that the celebrations were going on. So, lesson Number One has several things to learn. NEVER rely on the internet. You MUST go and see the rental properties in person. Ask and verify. As they say when you are buying a car, “kick the tires”. Turn on the water to assure there is hot water where they say there is hot water. Many homes in Panama only have hot water in the shower, and not the kitchen. If that is important to you, verify. Love the couch? Sit on it. Sit on the bed, check out the mattress. Make sure there is adequate water supply. Panama has a rainy season and a dry season. It is important to make sure you have a water supply tank for your rental. Many times, at the end of the dry season, certain places will have to rely on the water reserve tank.
Never EVER rent a house without seeing it first!
After a drunk party goer decided to use our front yard to help him relieve all the beer he drank, he got confused and tried to open our door, thinking that is where the party was. We stayed in that house for 2 weeks. We knew that we were going to forfeit the last month’s rent and our security deposit, and the rest of our first month’s rent. But being brand new in an unfamiliar country, we chose to not stay. Once we started to have property managers take us to show us other rentals, we found out that although all the payments we made were very common in the United States, it was unheard of in Panama. In Panama it is customary when you sign a lease, you only pay a security deposit and first month’s rent. Refuse any rental that asks you to pay first, last and security at the same time! Another lesson learned! Turned out after getting to know several expats in the area, that house is known for “newbies” like us! That’s how the owner made his money, capitalizing on new people like us! That’s why he did the TV the way he did it, he is used to the house being vacant!
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Other lessons learned: We found a place once that was $300.00 a month less than all the other rentals. It was beautiful also! We moved in and then realized that nothing was included. We did not do our homework by asking beforehand, we just assumed. Tv, Internet and electricity was not included. It was in a part of Panama that was very warm, so we had to use the air conditioner all the time. Our electric bill was quite a bit! So, when we started to add up the rent plus all the utilities, we were paying the range of what every other rental of that size home was paying! We thought we had found a real deal! So, don’t assume anything. Ask, Ask, Ask! One other thing about that rental. When we first saw the house, we told them we had a small dog. The wife of the couple that were the owners said that was no problem, they lived next door and they had a dog as well. The day we moved in the husband told us to not let our dog out without letting them know first. Their dog was as big as a Great Dane, and was very territorial, and had killed several dogs in the past. The wife had said nothing about that. Not being allowed to let our dog outside without planning it with our landlord would have been a good thing to know!
MICRO CLIMATE = DRAMATIC CHANGES
One place we rented was beautiful! Great house, great porch, spectacular view. We enjoyed it immensely during the rainy season. Then when the dry season started, the winds pick up. Where the house was situated, it overlooked a canyon, and the area became one giant wind tunnel. The wind was so bad it would move the patio furniture! And then black mold started appearing in the walls inside the house. This is a lesson not so much on the mistakes we made by renting the home. There was no way for us to know what would change when the season changed. But it is a huge lesson to learn if you are thinking of buying the house that you are renting. If you are thinking of doing that, it is important that you live in the house for an entire year. Get to know what the weather is like there during the rainy season and the dry season. Certain areas have many “micro-climates”. It may not sound that important, but it could be very important. You don’t want to commit to buy or renting a home that you may be miserable in for ½ the year! It’s better to sign a short term lease so you can leave it the weather or other conditions are unbearable. Other factors that could force you to move are road not passable in the rainy season, neighbors dogs barking, water, electric or internet problems.
EAST, WEST, NORTH, SOUTH – IT MATTERS
One of the points I had mentioned was be aware if your rental is facing east or west. In the mountains, that is normally not a problem at all. But at times, we have lived on the beach. The first condo we rented we were awestruck at the beauty of being able to see the ocean out our living area and our patio. The property manager was telling us how wonderful it was that we would be able to sit on our patio and enjoy the sunset every day. We did not notice that the only curtains that were in that area were white shears. She showed us the condo in the morning when the sun was still above the building. Once we moved in, we realized that when the sun was at it’s hottest, it was beating into our windows, and we only had the shears to shield us from the heat. Our living room would at times get up to 97 degrees at the hottest part of the day! We had a short-term lease, so after the 3 months were up, we moved to the other side of the building. It was a dream! We stayed in that apartment for a year and ½ and loved every second of it! That apartment had black out curtains in every room of the house. But with having the morning sun instead of the afternoon sun, we hardly ever used them!
TALK TO THE OWNER DIRECTLY
Insist on talking to the owner yourself. Many owners will use a property manager and/or realtors to handle the rentals of their properties. I was shown the same property once by 2 different realtors, and received 2 different monthly rental prices! Ever since that happened, I try my best to speak to the owner on my own, and have them tell me how much their rental is per month. The rental price also may change depending on how long the lease is for. A year long lease will be less expensive per month than a 3-month rental. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. When we first moved here, we didn’t realize that we could negotiate the price! Look at it this way, the worse word you could hear when you ask for a lesser price is no! Unfortunately, there are some dishonest real estate agents who will rent a house house for more than the owner is asking for rent so they can make an extra profit. And sadly, sometimes you run in to scam artists who are renting a house without the owner’s permission. It’s important to talk to the owner directly. Ask a lot of questions that only the owner would know.
CAN BE PARADISE
Now that I have told you how often we have moved and the mistakes we have made (so you don’t make the same mistakes), I must tell you another side to our story. Most times that we have moved was by choice. We love to live in different places, and we have wanted to experience all that Panama has to offer. We have lived in some great places and enjoyed some beautiful views! We have lived in the jungles of Panama by the Costa Rica border where the howler monkeys woke us up every morning; lived right on the water overlooking the Pacific Ocean where flocks of parakeets fly by squawking their afternoon song; and in the highlands of the mountains, even living on the side of a volcano! We have met such wonderful people both visitors of this country as well as the Panamanians who have welcomed us with open arms. Every rental that we have been in has had positive things about it. Even the first rental that we have dubbed “The Fuzzy House” taught us many things. It taught us a lot of “what not to do”! And it enabled us to make the decision to move from Alabama to Panama. That is the best decision we have made in our lives! In retrospect, it would have been much better and a lot cheaper to have moved here and gotten a motel room to see the rentals for ourselves. But if we would have done that, I would not have been able to help tell my story, so you don’t make the same mistakes I have made!
So, in closing, enjoy Panama for all it has to offer. The people living here are some of the kindest, most gentle people in the world, and the beauty of the land is spectacular. Welcome to Panama, paradise on earth!
Thanks for the observations and the great advice!
Laurie Lemmlie-Leung says
Thank you Elaine! Taking notes as we get ready to start renting!
Kristi N Lyman says
Wonderful information and right on the money. The first place I ever lived in Panama was in the 80’s and it was beautiful, right on the bay just outside of Colon. The house was amazing, it was up on stilts, a wonderful breeze blew in from french windows. Then came the rainy season and we discovered that we were in a sort of bowl and the only way to get out of the driveway to the store was by canoe.
Thanks so much, we have friends near Bocas. They are off the grid not for me but, they bought the property without a title, that is not something I would trust. So for so good for them! We are coming in February for a few weeks. Thanks for your priceless info.
Jackie Lange says
I would not buy real estate that was not titled yet.
Cristi Cooke says
Wonderful article, thank you!
Tom Keys says
When is the best time to rent for price and availibility. In the Baru areas!
Jackie Lange says
Do not rent between November and April. That is when the snowbirds come to Panama and landlords/agents jack up their rents. Best time to rent is mid-April to the end of October