Visit Live and Invest Overseas at www.liveandinvestoverseas.com.
Lief Simon has lived and worked in seven countries on five continents and has traveled to more than 50 countries. His real estate investing experience began nearly 20 years ago with a multi-unit building in Chicago. After selling that building for a total return of more than 1,800 percent in just 30 months, Lief began to diversify internationally.
In the decades since, Lief has personally bought and sold property in 21 countries. He has managed multi-million-dollar developments, multi-million-dollar property portfolios and more than two dozen rental properties. Over the years that Lief has been living overseas, he has also been actively engaged in doing business. He has launched and managed business ventures in 10 countries, including local businesses, web-based businesses and international franchises. Lief has spent more than three weeks out of four on the road for the better part of the past two decades, traveling almost constantly in search of the world’s top emerging real estate opportunities. In recent years, Lief has also turned readers on to targeted investments suitable for the individual investor in Mexico, Nicaragua, Romania, Panama, Belize, the Philippines and most recently, Colombia and Brazil.
He has been quoted in articles on international real estate in Live and Invest Overseas, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, USA Today, and Outdoor Magazine.
Check out this episode!
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the JetSetter Show, where we explore lifestyle-friendly destinations worldwide. Enjoy and learn from a variety of experts on topics ranging from upscale travel at wholesale prices, to retiring overseas, to global real estate and business opportunities, to tax havens and expatriate opportunities. You’ll get great ideas on unique cultures, causes, and cruise vacations. Whether you’re wealthy or just want to live a wealthy lifestyle, the JetSetter Show is for you. Here’s your host, Jason Hartman.
JASON HARTMAN: Welcome to the JetSetter Show! This is Jason Hartman, your host, where we explore lifestyle-friendly destinations worldwide. I think you’ll enjoy the interview we have for you today, and we will be back with that, in less than 60 seconds, here on the JetSetter Show.
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JASON HARTMAN: It’s my pleasure to welcome Lief Simon back to the show! He is the cofounder of Live and Invest Overseas, and we’re going to be talking about some overseas real estate opportunities, some business opportunities, and of course, the problem and the backdrop and the context as to why someone would want to consider any of these things. Lief, welcome back. How are you?
LIEF SIMON: I’m great. Thanks for having me, Jason.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, yeah. Well, the pleasure is all mine. You know, first of all, and obviously the listeners are interested in this topic because that’s why they’re listening, but just give a brief outline as to your view of the world now. I assume most of your clientele is probably American, or at least North American? Would that be a fair assumption?
LIEF SIMON: Yeah, I’d say probably 80, 85% of our readers are from North America. And the rest may be from North America but living in different parts of the world, but they’re all English speaking. And from a why go overseas perspective, why would you buy property in another country? For me, I guess there’s a couple aspects. One, you could just do it for the pure adventure. If you wanted to have a vacation home on the beach, you could buy a cheaper home, beach condo, in Panama, for example, than you could in, you know, Santa Monica. But for me as an investor, it’s about diversification. And you know, in 2008, when the world real estate market collapsed, they all didn’t collapse at the same rate. You know, Ireland and Spain went down as low as 50, 60% from their peaks, but Panama, for example, went down slowly, and maybe dropped 20-25% over the course of a few years after the main markets collapsed. And it’s mostly bounced back at this point, whereas, again, to use Ireland and Spain as an example, most of those local markets are still down, although Dublin has recovered a bit. So, diversification, both in markets, but also in currencies. So, I’ve invested in places like Brazil, and Europe, to get some currency diversification and some cash flow in the local currencies. Sometimes, you know, for the purpose of having cash flow in a country that I like to travel to.
JASON HARTMAN: And when you do that, talk a little bit about how you structure that. I mean, for example, you mentioned Brazil. So, you buy a property in Brazil, say the property has cash flow, which is great, you open a Brazilian bank account? Do you form a Brazilian entity or just buy it in your personal name? I said you open a bank account. Assuming you do. In Brazil, I don’t know if you do. Just kind of give a little backdrop as to how you structure the whole thing.
LIEF SIMON: Sure. And really, it’s gonna depend country by country, and also, person by person. But the country is gonna be the key factor to start with. In some countries, for example, they don’t charge capital gains tax on real estate profits if you hold the property in your own name. So, in Croatia, for example, if you own the property for more than three years, and it’s held in your own name, there’s no capital gains tax. So in that case you’re gonna put it in your own name, even though you might prefer to put it into some kind of structure for probate purposes or asset protection. In Brazil, you essentially put it in your own name, because putting it into a local corporation has high administrative complexities and costs, and even trying to register a foreign corporation has similar complexities and costs. So it’s just easier, in the case of Brazil. In a place like Panama, almost all locals hold their property in a local corporation for asset protection purposes, and historically, also for tax purposes, because there was no capital gains tax in Panama on shares of a corporation years ago. That’s changed since, so fewer people are forcing themselves into that corporation holding. And then the main thing I think about is probate. I own property I think at this point in 12 countries still. I bought property over the years in 21. And, so, for my kids, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, you don’t want them having to go through probate in a dozen countries just to get access to the assets. So, having a central structure for most people will make sense. You know, set up a [unintelligible] LLC, or a Belize LLC, and use that to hold the bulk of your properties, and then, when there’s an exception, like maybe you have in Brazil or Croatia, you work with that exception, but try and consolidate as much as you can.
JASON HARTMAN: And, one of the challenges is, setting up that foreign bank account. So let me just kind of understand a couple things. Are you an American citizen?
LIEF SIMON: I am, yes.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay. And, where do you actually live? Where’s your residence?
LIEF SIMON: At the moment I’m in Panama, but I’ve—
JASON HARTMAN: That’s what’s funny about this new class of—and you’re not exactly new to this, but there’s sort of this fairly new class. I think a lot of it was inspired by, oh, Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Workweek, and this geoarbitrage concept—that’s what my show is about here to a large extent. But you know, there’s this new class of people like, that say where do you live, right now I’m in Panama [LAUGHTER]. You know, that’s not the way we used to answer that question, Lief. We used to say, oh, I live in the Socialist Republic of California. And that was the answer. So, you’re not gonna be there that long? Or, what?
LIEF SIMON: We’re in Panama; this is where we started our publishing company, and Panama’s a good location to run a business and find English speaking employees and all that stuff. Previous to that we were in France, and we were working for another publishing company as employees, at that point my wife and I, but when we left and wanted to start our own thing, we knew France wasn’t the place to do that, between the cost of taxes and cost of labor and the hassle of labor there; we looked around the world, and we know the world fairly well, and considered both Uruguay and Panama. Ended up in Panama for lots of reasons, one of which also is because I have a real estate project here, so obviously being in Panama was more conducive to that than being in Uruguay. And long term, once we get the business set here with some local middle management, our intention is to go back to Paris, an in fact we already have a plan for that for our son to finish high school.
JASON HARTMAN: So, you’re planning to go back to Paris. Now, that’s kind of interesting, because France, of course, is so, so socialist, and so business-unfriendly. Of course the famous story that was in the media last, I think it was last year, the actor Jean Depardieu, I think that’s how you say his name—you know, he became a Russian citizen for the 13% tax rather than the, what is it, 75% tax? So, the war on wealth is going on. It’s raging in France, even worse than it is in the States, or any other westernized country. So, now, how would you go back there and pull that off? What would be the plan to do that?
LIEF SIMON: Well, from a tax perspective, we’re structured to minimize the taxes. With the reality check, part of my background is as a tax accountant, and so I understand taxes in the US. But also in the places where we’ve lived, and where we talk about. And France has high tax bands, and that 75% tax band, I don’t think ever kicked in, but if it did, it would have kicked in for people at a million Euro mark. So, the 75% band would be on everything you earned over a million Euros.
JASON HARTMAN: So that’s an income tax.
LIEF SIMON: It’s an income tax.
JASON HARTMAN: And—
LIEF SIMON: But France—
JASON HARTMAN: And obviously, I think most of my listeners get this without me saying it, but when you’re looking for a jurisdiction, whether it be a state by state within the US, or whether it be a territory, like Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, or it be outside of the United States, you know, you’ve gotta look at many types of taxes. So, you know, for my mom, for example, who is reasonably wealthy, and she moved from Los Angeles in the Socialist Republic of California where I grew up, and she, rather shockingly, moved to Alabama. And I kept trying to convince her to move to Texas. And she’s retired; she’s got a lot of real estate holdings that she earns income from those, but she says, Jason, I just don’t want to pay the property taxes in Texas. And I said, yeah, but there’s no income tax! And she says, well, I don’t really have that—income is not my big problem. It’s—I can keep my income sheltered pretty well with my real estate, because it’s the most tax-favored asset in America, it’s got the depreciation, etcetera. But she wants to have her cost of living be low. So you know, I mean, she’s got probably, I don’t know, a two and a half million dollar property there, and taxes—property taxes are super low! And then you’ve gotta think, of course, well, there’s a state tax, there’s sales tax, there’s different types of taxes. So, if you’re an asset holder, but not a huge income earner, you know, if you can structure it that way, and hopefully you’re both, but maybe you can structure it so that the income doesn’t show up, if you will—then maybe a place like France could actually work, right?
LIEF SIMON: Exactly. You’ve gotta analyze everything when you’re looking at where you’re gonna live. And our case for France—we won’t be considered tax residents, because we won’t be there full time. We’ll go back and forth between Paris and Panama. But our son will be there so he can finish school. So, that’s—not being a tax resident in any one place is one easy way to avoid the situation in many countries.
JASON HARTMAN: Right. And now we have to mention with that, it doesn’t help you very much if you’re a US citizen, because no matter what you’ve gotta declare all worldwide income, except when you live overseas you get some exemptions. So. A friend of mine who’s married, and he’s got a couple of kids, and he lives in Eastern Europe, but he’s American—you know, he shelters about a first 230 grand. He’s figured out how to do that.
LIEF SIMON: Right. Right. That’s for the foreign earned income exclusion, which is, I think, $97,600 for 2013, and $99,200 is indexed, I forget the exact number, for 2014. And that’s for both spouses. So, if both spouses are working, it has to be earned income, so it doesn’t work if you’re managing a passive real estate portfolio. But earned income, and then on top of that, if you’re renting, you can get a housing exclusion as well for as much as 16% of the foreign earned income exclusion. So that $230,000 figure is right on the target.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, okay. Okay, good. Okay, so, back to what we were saying—so, anything more about tax jurisdiction? Well, you know, here’s a question for you. I mean, what I kind of have a tough time with as I talk to you and Kathleen and the other guests I’ve had on the show—I’m sure you’ve considered it, but what are the thoughts on just relinquishing citizenship and then not having to deal with the IRS at all?
LIEF SIMON: Right, and that comes up a lot with our readers and at our conferences, and people ask us why we haven’t, because we do have dual citizenship. We lived in Ireland long enough to obtain naturalization there. And so—
JASON HARTMAN: With no Irish heritage?
LIEF SIMON: No. Our first move together overseas, Kathy and I, was to Ireland. And so, we lived there seven years, and so, after five years of reckonable residency, is the Irish term they like to use—
JASON HARTMAN: Reckonable?
LIEF SIMON: Reckonable, yeah. We can have a discussion about that term later. But yeah, as long as you’re a legal resident for five years, you can apply for naturalization. And so we did, and we have passports, our son was born there, so he has Irish citizenship. And so people say, why don’t you just give up your US citizenship? Well, for us, we’re structured so we pay with the foreign earned income exclusion, and the way our businesses are structured, we pay very little tax. It’s either excluded or it’s deferred, at this point. And long term we’ll have more taxes to pay. At the moment, there’s no tax advantage. And frankly, I like to keep my options open. So, if the rest of the world went to where everybody thinks the US is going, then we have that option to go back to the US, and I mean, I could make a living in the US if I showed up tomorrow. Even just preparing people’s taxes, if nothing else. So—
JASON HARTMAN: Defending them against their own government.
LIEF SIMON: Yeah. What makes me consider giving the citizenship up, isn’t paying taxes. It’s the damn filing the forms. And so, I have the privilege of sending in 100 pages to the IRS each year to tell them that I owe them little to nothing.
JASON HARTMAN: That’s all? Mine’s longer than that. I can’t believe that.
LIEF SIMON: If I had more rental properties. But yeah, it’s stressful, and frustrating, because it is a lot of paperwork, and it’s a lot of administration, and to literally tell them, I don’t owe you anything.
JASON HARTMAN: Okay, well very interesting. So, do you want to mention—we kind of got off track there a little bit, but I really appreciate it, I thought that was a spirited discussion, and I think the listeners learned a lot from that. So, just any more on the backdrop of what’s going on, and why to do this? And then let’s leave that subject and talk about some specific opportunities and things that you’re working on.
LIEF SIMON: Sure. Well, I would just say, historically there are better opportunities in different countries at different times. So, back to that diversification thought—if you’re looking for really low-cost properties with eventually potential capital gains appreciation, you know, Ireland and Spain are places to look at probably later this year, in certain markets. So, which the US had its fall, and its markets are coming back, if you have all of your eggs in one basket in the US, you’re just at risk for even a localized economic drop in a particular state.
JASON HARTMAN: Right. But the only thing, in fairness to the US—I mean, the US is not one housing market or one real estate market. It’s about 400 markets. I mean, it’s a huge, diverse country. So, what happens in California is completely different than what happens in Texas, you know?
LIEF SIMON: Exactly, but you’re still all in dollars, so the currency side—
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, still the currency thing. But you know, you can buy houses with Bitcoin. And you know, maybe I should start having my tenants pay me in gold or Bitcoin or something, I don’t know.
LIEF SIMON: Might be an option.
JASON HARTMAN: I’m kind of joking. So, very interesting. And—so, Spain? I don’t know much about the Irish market. But I was in Spain last year. I was in Croatia last year, last summer. And, how close do you think we are to the bottom in Spain, for example? I mean, there’s been a lot written about Spain. I’m reading your stuff about it. Where do you think that market is?
LIEF SIMON: Well, and again, Spain isn’t just one market either. And so, the place to look in Spain right now, according to all of our contacts on the ground that know Spain better than I do at this point, is—it’s not the costa, not where you’re gonna find the cookie cutter homes that there’s a thousand of that’s been repossessed. Personally I like Barcelona, and I would focus on Barcelona, or any other place that has some cache. And so, Barcelona, prices came down. Not as much as some of the costa, but you can get a decent rental yield in Barcelona, and get better prices today than you could a few years ago.
JASON HARTMAN: Is it time to pull the trigger there yet? Or you want to wait a little longer?
LIEF SIMON: It seems like it’s getting close, according to what everybody is saying. And so, you know, I would say Barcelona, sooner rather than later, because that market’s gonna come back faster than other places. If you want something on the costa—Costa del Sol, or Costa del Luz—buy on the beach. Don’t buy two blocks back. Buy on the beach, because those properties will always have better value and better appreciation than something that’s not sitting on the water.
JASON HARTMAN: So, Lief, can I share my thoughts about Barcelona? It was kind of interesting for me to go there. You know, I was there for a while last maybe August, September, and I was not impressed. That was my second trip there; I did look at real estate there. I looked at two markets; I looked in Barcelona, and then I went much further south, to where the Saudis seem to be buying up the country. And it’s extremely expensive, but I thought it was quite a bit nicer. But like, Barcelona now—at first, the first impression I had of the Spaniards is they just don’t want to work! I mean, this whole concept of siestas—very, very lazy. I’m sorry to offend, if I’m offending. Maybe they’re proud of that. But man, they are living la dolce vita. Not the Italians. I mean, they just—I don’t know how that economy’s gonna come back, except for possibly tourism, but I can’t say if they’re bending over backwards for tourism. They’re just about as haughty as the French. And the city is covered with graffiti. I mean, there’s lots of litter, there’s lots of crime. I don’t know. You know, I just—I was—I thought that place had gone downhill since my prior visit. But feel free to disagree with me.
LIEF SIMON: That’s interesting, and I can’t disagree completely, because I was there last summer, but just for a day, because it was a—the end port for a cruise that we were on. And so, we were just along the Las Ramblas and the Malecon, you know, along the water. And it was just Barcelona and those areas—it was lots of tourists, and none of what you were talking about. I didn’t get into some of the other areas where one might buy a short term rental apartment. The market in Barcelona, you’re right; it’s gonna be more and more tourism, and that’s—I wish I had bought there—
JASON HARTMAN: It’s tourism like nightclub tourism. It’s like, young people that are drinking a lot, partying a lot, there’s a lot of that tourism there, and I just—I just was struck by the graffiti and the—it just seemed like a very economically devastated place.
LIEF SIMON: Right. Well, I mean, I guess my opinion, having lived in Europe, and lived in Paris, is, everybody has different perspectives, even on Paris. They either love it or they hate it. But for Barcelona, it’s kind of a—it’s a classic destination that is growing from a tourism perspective over the last, say, 15 years. And with better access, especially to Northern Europe, with the TGV coming down now. So I think yields, and long term stability of prices, if not outright appreciation, should be okay. But right, when you’re buying overseas, you want to buy in a place that you like going to. So, even if the numbers are great, and you don’t like going there, you’re better off not buying, because you’re not gonna want to go there to manage it or deal with anything.
JASON HARTMAN: Right, right. And then, the other issue you’ve got is the larger geopolitical issue of, you know, look at Greece has basically collapsed, Spain, Portugal, Italy, are next in line, maybe Ireland. What do you think about that, just about the general issue of total country problems? You know, not specific areas.
LIEF SIMON: Right. Well, yeah, Europe has similar economic issues as the US. I mean, you could—each country is, you could relate to a state in the US. And certainly, I was in Greece last summer as well, and I wouldn’t touch real estate in Greece with a ten foot pole, because I don’t see any compelling reason why you could get a decent yield or see capital appreciation in the bulk of that country. Maybe on some of the high end tourist islands you might find something that’s worthwhile. And so, it’s country by country, area within country, you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on. But you—the bottom line is, anywhere in the world, at any point in time, you or I could go show up and find a really great investment if you put enough time in. But that doesn’t mean that the overall economics of the area make sense long term to take that risk, even though you’re getting a great deal on the specific property.
JASON HARTMAN: Sure. Sure. So, speaking of great deals—what are you working on personally? You’re developing in Panama, I believe, right?
LIEF SIMON: I am, I am developing in Panama. That’s more of a residential community on the coast. The Azuero Peninsula. And so, it’s less for investment and more for second home and retiree type of people. From the investment side of things, what I’ve been looking at for the last three or four years intently since capital appreciation is in the wind in most places, is anything that can generate a yield. So, maybe that’s a rental property in Medellin, Colombia; we bought a property there ourselves, and know lots of people who’ve bought properties there over the last few years. And three years ago you could get even as high as a 20% yield on a short term rental property there. prices have gone up and rentals have come down, but you’re still in that 5-8% net range, which isn’t too bad. And to have some capital appreciation expectation in Medellin. And then turnkey and agricultural projects is really where I’m focusing, trying to find things for our readers, and the one that’s at the forefront right now is a mango plantation opportunity here in Panama, where the developer finds the land, plants the mango trees, and then manages the plantation as a whole, but each individual investor owns their own titled plot of land with their own trees on it. So you have the security of owning the property, but don’t have the hassle of having to actually farm or manage the trees yourself.
JASON HARTMAN: And what kind of yields are investors getting on something like that? I mean, are those—and is any of this real estate leveragable, or is it all, you know, just pay 100% cash?
LIEF SIMON: I’ll answer the second part first, because it’s shorter, I think. In most countries you’re not going to be able to get financing as a non-resident foreigner. Panama it’s possible if you put down 40, 50, 60%. So you could buy a rental apartment in Panama, put 50% down, and get a local bank loan if you qualify otherwise. The standard debt to income ratios and all that. Europe, you used to be able to get financing as a non-resident foreigner a little easier. Obviously with the collapse and banking issues there, it’s harder. In fact, I’m in the process of buying another apartment in Paris right now, and I’ve been trying to get financing for, say, 50%, just because I think the Euro’s too high right now, and I’d rather borrow Euros than transfer dollars into Euros. But, none of the banks—not one bank that we’ve found would do a non-resident loan. But they—well, not for me, because I work for my own company. If I worked for somebody else, they would have given me the loan.
JASON HARTMAN: So Lief, what kind of yields can investors expect on the mango farm, for example?
LIEF SIMON: Well, it’s all new planting. So, the yields’ll start once the trees start producing, and they start producing in year three, and then full production in year four. And so, the annual cash returns in year four are in the 25-26% range. But obviously you’ve gotta back out the years that you’re not getting anything. So an annualized using a 15-year time period is like in the 16% range. And they feel those numbers are fairly conservative, because the prices that they’re putting in for mangoes is the very low end of today’s market, and the interesting thing in Panama is that Panama grows mangoes, but they—the processing plants here actually import 80% of what they process from other countries. Ecuador, Brazil, or wherever—because there’s not enough mangoes growing in Panama, so they feel that the sales side of the equation is very strong.
JASON HARTMAN: So, you know, I’ve had promoters that are selling, you know, coffee plantations in Colombia and so forth, approach me and talk to me about it. And I’m kind of wondering, why is it that the person owns the real estate rather than just investing in the business?
LIEF SIMON: Well, there’s a couple things. One, there’s—if selling shares of a company to Americans, you have SEC requirements, you’d have to file a Reg D documentation and all of that, and then you could only bring in accredited investors. But the other part of it, at least for our readers, is they want to hold the hard asset, right? So, if the management company managing the plantation goes bust, or gets hit by a bus, or whatever, you still own your own piece of property, and can do something with that. So I think that just gives people a better feeling, that they have a hard asset, especially out of their home jurisdiction, that Uncle Sam can’t come and just pluck out of their bank account.
JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, yeah. I agree. And what—I mean, how do you know that the manager is really gonna manage it, really gonna stick with it, do a good job? I mean, is there enough money in it for them as a renewing, you know, accruing type of income that just sort of becomes an annuity for them, or are they just sort of like, they do the real estate deal, and that’s their big windfall, and then after that, you know, they’re gonna lose interest?
LIEF SIMON: Well, it depends. Yeah, it depends on how they structure it. But you want them to structure it in a way that their interests are aligned with yours. And so, the groups that we deal with, that’s what they do. So in the case of the mango plantation, on the income from the produce that’s harvested, the investor gets 70%, and they get 30% for doing the management and all the work and everything. And so, that’s a pretty nice chunk of change once you get up to several hundred or a thousand hectares that they’re managing. It turns into a real business for them, that they want to maintain.
JASON HARTMAN: Anything else you want to mention in closing, that I maybe forgot to ask, or just any other items?
LIEF SIMON: Oh, there’s lots of things we could talk about it seems like, but just—if you don’t mind, I can mention, we have a real estate conference coming up here in Panama in April, and we’ll be having a lot of the investment opportunities that we write about, there in person, plus a lot of the residential opportunities in the various countries as well, and we’ll have some sessions that are more kind of real estate off shore 101 sessions, so it’ll be a good learning experience for people.
JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Give out your website, if you would.
LIEF SIMON: Sure. It’s www.liveandinvestoverseas.com, and we also have free e-letters that people can sign up for if they just want to learn a little bit more about what we talked about.
JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Well, Lief Simon, thank you so much for joining us today, and happy investing!
LIEF SIMON: Great. Thank you, Jason. I appreciate it.
ANNOUNCER: This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company. All rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com, or email [email protected]. Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate, or business professional for any individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively.
Transcribed by David