When it comes to retirement, the world has never been bigger.

Porto, Portugal 

No matter how fulfilling a career, there comes a time when all of us choose to retire. With people retiring at younger ages each passing year, retirement communities and properties targeted at so-called “active retirees” — usually healthy former professionals in their 50s — have proliferated around the world. And even without retirement-specific real estate to invest in, many of us have opted to move abroad for better a lifestyle, health care resources and travel connections.

Assuming an investor’s financial goals have been achieved and some form of income has been planned, property investment has never been more welcome by governments, and so choices have never been more varied. Nonetheless, retiring overseas, like any investment, can be a case of buyer beware, especially for investors buying now for the future. “Everything is important, so a buyer must have a good team — a good realtor, a good lawyer and a good property manager are all very important,” notes Antonis Antoniou, founder and CEO of the Athens-based Calithenean Organization. “Greece has bureaucracy that is getting better with the new government, but final execution of property transactions sometimes need patience.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a dent into short-term rentals in traditional vacation spots, but most expect the hospitality industry to adapt and rebound by 2021. As such there’s still room to look for a retirement property now, for later. “Properties managed by us had a 16% to 17% [rental] drop in 2019, and now with the virus it’s bottomed out and many units are exiting the Airbnb market and heading back to long-term rentals,” says Antoniou. “So now is a good entry point for new units for the long run.”

The favourites

Many Hongkongers that already own property in the UK, the US, Canada or Australia — often for children in school — could easily turn around and use the same properties for themselves in retirement. For those who already possess residency or citizenship in those countries, the option is always there, and requires no real work. Of course, those countries also have some of the highest costs of living in the world (admittedly, as well as the highest standards of living), and for retirees often on a budget, that can be an issue. Additionally, parts of Canada and the US are environmentally unfriendly come winter, and its poor response to COVID is taking the shine off the US.

At the top of the list for myriad reasons are Thailand, Malaysia, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta. Factors for their preferred position vary from place to place, but can include proximity to home in Hong Kong (Thailand), residency-incentivised investment (Malaysia, Cyprus, Portugal), EU accessibility (Cyprus, Portugal, Malta), excellent healthcare, favourable taxation schemes, and warm, sunny weather (all five). Special residency (not citizenship) programmes in Portugal and Malaysia predicated on property purchases have made them prime locations, and Greece has thrown its hat into the ring. It has the added bonuses of being reasonably priced, a growing economy after a decade of recession, thousands of islands to choose from, appealing Mediterranean food, culture and lifestyle, and a new tax law favourable to foreign nationals similar to Italy’s “nom-dom” (non-domiciled) Retirees Regime programme. Using Greece as a tax domicile, investors can exempt overseas income tax (which can be as high as 54% in upper tax brackets) and pay a flat annual fee regardless of income origin (in Italy it’s 7%). Greek properties range from €100,000 (approx. HK$862,671) urban apartments to luxury €15 million (approx. HK$129 million) coastal states. Portugal offers a similar tax exemption and has a well-documented high standard of living.

Staying in Asia tends to make Thailand and Malaysia the frontrunners. Malaysia’s MM2H is entrenched now, but “Thailand also has one of the best healthcare systems in Asia … and the cost of living is among the lowest when it comes to the top retirement locations,” points out RE/MAX All Stars partner Samson Cheung. “Dozens of food, travel, adventurous destinations within Thailand also incentivise people to retire there.”

The up-and-comers

Aside from stalwarts like Thailand, Malaysia and mature markets in Europe, North America and Oceania, there are several locations across the globe that offer retirees and semi-retirees competitive resources, services and lifestyles. At the top of the list is Central and South America, and locations such as Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama.

The most curious of the lot could be Colombia, known to most investors more for its drug cartels and kidnappings than retirement living. Residency in Colombia — rated one of the world’s 10 most affordable countries for travellers — is relatively easy to obtain, and colonial cities like the Medellín are among the world’s most progressive. Colombia is in the midst of shaking its violent past and now has few reasons to be avoided. Best of all, properties range from US$100,000 to US$1 million (approx. HK$ 77K to 7.7M). The same can be said for Ecuador (where real estate is extremely affordable), Costa Rica, Panama — and Belize, which is officially English-speaking. Belize also boasts a tax-free Qualified Retired Persons (QRP) and is a banking haven. “These South American up-and comers are also known for their friendliness, low cost to move around country-to-country, beautiful scenery and a perfect climate,” adds Cheung. “One thing that Colombia might stand out from other South America countries is their inexpensive yet top-notched healthcare system.”

As appealing as the up-and-comers may be, there are other reasons specific locations rank higher on preferred lists than others, which go beyond reputation and cost. Despite Colombia’s many pros, it has cons that could be deal breakers for Hongkongers: it’s a 30-hour flight away, speaking Spanish is an advantage, sales tax is high and crime can still be an issue. Belize is an English language jurisdiction, but it ranks low on major International retailer radar and the country of just 350,000 is thin on the infrastructure Hongkongers are accustomed to.