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Lower Living Cost, Beauty Lure Americans Overseas
Washington Post September 12, 2007 By Lisa Bonos
With careful planning and lots of passion, some baby boomers are turning a dream of an overseas retirement into reality.

They're lured to distant climes on the promise of a higher quality of life. Often they discover a lower cost of living, stunning natural beauty and a sense of community.

But relocating overseas isn't all fun in the sun, retirees and experts caution. A weakening dollar, the obstacles of a foreign language and culture, and disconnection from family and friends can intrude on paradise. The Internet helps, however. Ubiquitous Web access aids planning and lets expatriates stay in touch with loved ones and up on current events.

It's difficult to know how many U.S. retirees seek new lives overseas. Neither the Census Bureau nor the State Department break out numbers on such people. That makes Social Security figures the closest estimate. According to the Social Security Administration, 441,693 beneficiaries, or about 1 percent of those in the system, received benefits while abroad as of the end of 2005. The AARP points out, however, that these numbers do not take into account people who may live abroad but collect Social Security payments at a U.S. address.

The overseas dream takes many shapes. Here are three experiences in Panama, the Philippines and Britain. No Problema Mary Strociek, 49, and her husband Matt, 67, had their hearts set on retiring to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. They bought a condo there in the late 1980s, "when it was a quiet, sleepy village," Mary Strociek said. But then others discovered the beauty of the area and the place boomed. "We decided to get out of there," she said.

Avid sailors, they hopped on a friend's 50-foot boat and cruised the Caribbean. They checked out all of the Virgin Islands, St. Martin and St. Bart, and yet were drawn back to Mexico. Then they discovered Panama.

The Strocieks were overwhelmed by the breathtaking sights. "It's one of the few places I can see the curvature of the Earth," Mary Strociek said of the view from her property, which she says looks out on nearly 300 miles of coastline. Won over, the Strocieks sold their Chicago home and built a house near the mountain town of El Valle, where they now live, Mary explained in a phone interview from her pool.

Two years ago, it cost the couple about $150,000 to buy their land and build a house, pool and bohio -- a type of tropical gazebo. They're now living debt-free and enjoying the perk of a newly built Panamanian abode: no property tax for 20 years.

The Strocieks are among many Americans who have settled in Panama for their retirement years.

The Migration Policy Institute, a District think tank, said in a report last year that the number of U.S. citizens receiving the kind of Panamanian visas most often used by retirees more than tripled between 2003 and 2005. The number issued in the first quarter of 2006 almost equals those given in all of 2003, said the report, which cited Panamanian statistics. The institute found in focus groups with U.S. seniors in Mexico and Panama that the lower cost of living was among the most attractive features for Americans. The natural beauty and a sense of community also ranked high. "People felt like they had more interaction with people in their daily life than in the U.S," said Julia Gelatt, a research assistant who worked on the study. Both the institute's report and its interviews with retirees highlighted the importance of the Internet to seniors living abroad.

Mary Strociek said she is constantly linked in thanks to the Web. She orders products online and regularly talks with family members, including the couple's children and grandchildren, over the Internet. "With that access, there's nothing that I miss about the United States. . . . I don't miss the weather or the traffic," she said.

The Strocieks also have tried to absorb themselves in the local community. They volunteer with Educacion Primero, a local nonprofit group whose work ranges from distributing donated shoes to teachers and hospital staff, to bringing in dentists to teach kids about dental hygiene, to installing fans and building a lunchroom for a school.

The main obstacles of life in Panama, Mary Strociek said, are the bureaucracy and the banking system. She said it took her a year and a half to get license plates for the car she brought from the States. She added, however, that she knows others who didn't have difficulties.

She noted that although she lacks health insurance, the cost of medical care and prescriptions in Panama is a fraction what she paid in the United States.

For the Strocieks, culture shock came as more of a light jolt. Mary speaks a little Spanish and says Matt speaks none, but that's no problema.

The couple maintains a Web site, http://www.whypanama.com, which chronicles the construction of their house and offers tips for would-be expats. Mary Strociek says that some American visitors to their Web site have bought land and are building homes in Panama.

Do the Strocieks think of transforming their online advice site into a profit-making business? "We're retired," Mary Strociek said. "We do this for fun."

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