Broken dreams: What happens when a new life abroad turns into a nightmare?
Saturday 26 September 2009
We have become a nation of nomads. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that over half a million UK citizens have emigrated since 2006, with 158,000 of us packing up last year alone. Should it continue, migration on this scale won't have been seen since the period after the First World War, when the British government assisted migration of its citizens to the countries of the Commonwealth.
Since then, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have consistently proved the most popular long-haul destinations, mainly because languages have never been our strong point, but also because a large number of people have family links there. However, France, Spain and Italy are close behind with vast numbers of Brits heading for the Mediterranean coast, the Alps and less expensive rural locations.
Even countries to which we would once never have considered moving, such as Turkey and North Africa, are now welcoming our exiles. We'll go anywhere, it would seem, guaranteed to have a bit of sun and where we can buy a seafront chalet or farmhouse for less than the price of a two-bedroom flat in almost any UK town.
So what's driving us away? A better quality of life is the reason most often given when people are surveyed on why they want to leave Britain, closely followed by more time with the family and having more freedom. Many people also cite the British weather as a prime motivator, not hard to believe after our recent miserable summers.
There is the sense that the grass may be greener overseas – that the locals of almost every other country live at a slower pace, with less crowding, more green space and a lower cost of living. And though the numbers of people leaving the country in 2008 were slightly down on previous years, the recession has caused many more people affected by unemployment this year to consider trying their luck elsewhere.
"Moving abroad has become increasingly economically viable," says Paul Owen of the Association of International Property Professionals, an independent body that advises people looking to purchase property overseas. "The ability to work remotely, the availability of budget travel, fast communications networks and simply aspects such as being able to draw your pension abroad have allowed people to consider moving further afield."
However, Owen says too many émigrés base their decision on little more than a particularly enjoyable two-week holiday. "People need to do proper research before they give up everything in Britain," he says. "I'm amazed by the number of Brits who want to relocate with no idea of what they are actually going to do once they get there."
Anecdotal evidence from property agents suggests the typical expat is no longer just the retiree seeking a quiet life by the sea; instead they are people in their thirties and forties, often with children. These families aren't so much looking for a way to wind down as a fresh start – and they often want to start a business, or to buy a property that offers some form of income. This comes with a new set of challenges of which many buyers are not even aware.
"As a sales agent I often had to talk someone out of buying a business," says Owen. "At one stage everyone wanted to buy a gîte in France, but many knew nothing about the local economy, had never run any kind of business and didn't even speak the language"
When planning their overseas escape, people also fail to take into account all the things that can go wrong. You might miss the support of friends and family, or struggle with the unfamiliar bureaucracy or the costs involved in moving your entire life elsewhere. Right now, the strong Euro is eating into pensions and nest eggs, and the rules governing what British citizens living overseas can claim in terms of benefits or tax relief are also subject to change.
Owen suggests people should draw up a checklist of issues that includes their long-term finances, medical care, language learning and whether they are really ready to give up everything in the UK. "Healthcare, for example, is something Brits take for granted because we have the NHS," he says, "but in other countries the care may be very good but you might need insurance to access it."
However, even the best prepared can come unstuck because life itself is unpredictable. The global recession of the past year has left many expats struggling to cope with financial difficulties. The catch is that unless they sell up, they have no way out – but in such a poor market, they're can't sell at a price that will leave them with any capital.
None of the stories highlighted here proves the dream isn't worth aiming for, but what they do illustrate is that hard work and good planning can't always guarantee success. The grass, it seems, may be the same colour wherever you live. As Paul Owen says: "Things in life aren't always better just because the sun is shining."
Stephanie and Mark Reed
"We're selling because we can't afford to stay," says Stephanie Reed, her tight laugh betraying the stress her family is living with. "All our savings have gone and all our assets sold to try to make our business better and, though we've actually done well this summer, it's too late."
The Reeds' situation is a far cry from where they started out in 2006, when Stephanie, 46, and Mark, 47, sold everything they had in Worthing, West Sussex, including a successful sales and lettings agency, to buy a holiday business in rural France. "We had always wanted to live in France," explains Stephanie. "We dreamed about doing it for years." The couple put their dream on hold while their son James, now 15, grew up, but in 2006 Mark was diagnosed with severe asthma and was medically retired from his job as a car paint sprayer. It was his need to slow down that prompted the family to make the move abroad. "We had no worries about doing it," explains Stephanie, "we were so wrapped up in wanting to leave England, we didn't think anything could go wrong."
Opting for a simpler way of life, they bought Le Petit Lion, a nine-acre campsite on the border of the beautiful Dordogne region, an area renowned for its rolling countryside and fields of sunflowers. However, the timing of the sale meant they arrived at the start of summer and were unable to capitalise on the camping season. "We should have arrived in winter and worked through, ready to open in summer," Stephanie says. "We lost a season and couldn't generate enough business."
The site had family accommodation and three gîtes but was so run-down the Reeds had to invest heavily to bring it up to standard. "We renovated the gîtes and upgraded the site facilities, the swimming pools, bar and restaurant," says Stephanie. "We made it really nice and had lots of plans for the future."
Despite the setbacks, the Reeds were ready for the following season and had started taking bookings. "We did better in 2007, especially with the gîtes, but the weather was bad, so a lot of people decided not to camp after all," says Stephanie. "Last summer was the same. Poor weather damaged business and, though we had a fabulous summer this year, no one came."
Stephanie blames the recession for the fact that many UK customers chose to stay home, coupled with a strong Euro and the Met Office's prediction of good weather for Britain. "We had people from elsewhere in Europe but we rely heavily on British tourists and they stayed away. Some people also tried to haggle down prices because the Euro is strong but my costs don't change, so it's out of the question." With funds getting tight, the Reeds were forced to compromise. Mark has taken a job at a local garage as a mechanic but is bringing in barely enough to pay the family's bills. With winter looming and expenses mounting, Stephanie says the couple had no option but to put the business on the market earlier this month for €595,000 (£528,000). "We have no choice, we have a mortgage and if we don't sell we may end up homeless."
Should the worst happen, the Reeds face the prospect of having to return to live with family in Britain, but they love France and are hoping, against the odds, to stay. "We don't want to leave. James is settled in school and I really believe we could have turned the business around next year," says Stephanie, who seems resigned rather than angry. "I try not to be upset but it is frustrating to know we've put our heart and soul into this business. We invested so much that I can't bear to think we'll end up with so little."
Kerry and Ben Mudditt
Until this summer, Ben and Kerry Mudditt had what seemed like an idyllic life as the owners of a successful surfer hostel in Portugal. However, family issues have forced them back to the UK and the recession means they must now sell their business at below market value.
In 2004, after several years backpacking the globe, the Mudditts felt the time was right to set down roots. "We couldn't keep travelling for ever," says Kerry, 36, "and we wanted a business that would provide a home and income while allowing us to keep the beach lifestyle we loved."
The couple had always dreamed of running a hostel and Ben, 27, also wanted to set up a surf school. Neither of them could bear the idea of coming back to Britain, so they settled on Portugal's west coast, where wild seas draw young surfers every summer. "Portugal offers a more relaxed lifestyle. It's friendly and has fabulous beaches and great weather," explains Kerry. "Property was also more affordable than elsewhere in Europe."
Despite their tight budget, the Mudditts found a three-storey building in the coastal town of Figueira da Foz. A former car paintshop, the property cost €160,000 (£142,500) but needed total renovation. They bought it in December 2005 and invested a further £80,000 turning it into comfortable accommodation for themselves and 22 guests. They called it the Paintshop Hostel.
The couple thought they'd considered every obstacle to opening a business but only two months into starting work on their venture, Kerry discovered that she was pregnant. "We hadn't planned on having children so soon," she explains, "but we carried on with our plans as I didn't anticipate any difficulties." The hostel opened for business in June 2006 and their son, Fin, was born the following October. "At that stage I genuinely thought I could manage a business and a new baby," says Kerry. "I hadn't realised how difficult it would be."
For the first two years they struggled on and succeeded in earning enough in the summer to fund their expenses in winter, when the hostel was empty, but they were becoming increasingly unhappy. The long hours looking after and entertaining groups of young people took its toll. "It wasn't an easy environment in which to have a toddler," Kerry recalls.
After much soul searching the Mudditts decided to return to the UK. They found jobs near Kerry's family in Cornwall and tried to keep the hostel going with the help of friends, but the global crisis stalled their plans. "Bookings are down," says Kerry, "yet we still have the overheads." In addition, the couple can't get a mortgage in the UK because banks have stopped lending to people without a deposit and won't accept the Portuguese property as collateral. Kerry's frustration is obvious. "We need to sell the hostel to be able to buy in Britain but because the market is so bad we're having to ask a price well below its actual worth."
The hostel has been on the market since the end of July and its price of £300,000, plus the business's goodwill, should ensure a sale – but Kerry says they've encountered another problem. "Prospective buyers can't get finance. They go away positive but don't come back. We're stuck."
Like thousands of overseas owners, the Mudditts feel trapped by the downturn. "Without selling the hostel, I don't see a way out," says Kerry. "I'll be sad to see it go but it's no longer an asset, just a millstone."
Tracy and Robert McVeigh
With their beautiful hotel and plenty of regular guests, Robert and Tracy McVeigh (pictured overleaf) were the epitome of successful British business owners, until a health scare forced them to rethink their future. They now have to sell their home to relocate to Britain.
The McVeighs always had itchy feet and moved from London to America, where they spent 10 years running a string of successful bars and restaurants. When American life could no longer satisfy them, they chose to return to Europe, opting to look for a suitable business in France. "I couldn't take the British weather," laughs Tracy, now 45, "but I wanted to be close enough to visit family in the UK."
In 2003 they found and fell in love with a ruined 17th-century château in the small town of Pezenas, near Montpellier in the Languedoc. After nine months and €200,000 (£178,214) of renovations it was reborn as Hotel de Vigniamont, a stylish five-bedroom B&B.
From the day they moved in, the McVeighs felt that they had found their home. Business was good from the start and they enjoyed the work, which earnt them both repeat visitors and rave reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor. "We've had a lovely lifestyle here in Languedoc, we work hard all summer but it's fun and we can take the whole of winter off," says Tracy. "And we have the best-quality bed and breakfast in town, a positive relationship with the locals and guests who come back year after year."
Though they admit that business has dropped off since the start of the recession, it was only the arrival of what Tracy calls their "wake-up call" that made the McVeighs rethink their future. In February this year, Robert, 59, had two heart attacks and was taken into Montpellier hospital to determine how serious his condition was.
There had been no prior indication that her husband was ill and, though Robert was in one of the best hospitals in France, Tracy admits she was frightened by what had happened. Having to deal with non-English-speaking medical staff only added to the trauma. "I speak French but not well enough to deal with complex medical issues," she says. "At one point I misunderstood the instructions regarding Robert's care and I wasn't always certain I knew what was happening to him. I felt completely out of my depth."
Though Robert made a good recovery, the couple were advised that his health was too fragile to withstand the rigours of running a business. This, coupled with the language barrier, made them discuss whether they should move back to the UK. "I was worried that if anything more serious was to happen to Robert, I wouldn't be able to deal with it in France as well as I could in England," adds Tracy. "I just think we need to sell up and move and everything will be OK."
Unfortunately, since putting Hotel de Vigniamont on the market in April, the property is yet to find a buyer. Tracy believes that the recession as well as the strength of the Euro against the pound have deterred many UK purchasers from looking overseas. The asking price of €750,000 (£668,568) is also possibly too high for many people in the current climate, even though it represents good value for a business of this size and quality. "Had we sold at the peak we may have sold more quickly or been able to ask more," Tracy says. "It's a bit galling, I admit."
If they fail to sell, the McVeighs have no option but to struggle on through winter, though Robert's condition is a real worry to Tracy, for whom the most important thing now is to remove as much stress as possible from his shoulders. "We love it here and didn't intend to sell up so soon, but we can't take a risk with Robert's health. It gets to a point when you have to ask yourself what price you're prepared to pay to hold on to a dream."
Kent and Michelle Benson
With no mortgage and many satisfied customers for their outdoor-pursuits business in the Italian Alps, Kent and Michelle Benson, both 43, saw no reason to worry about their future. However, since the crash of 2008 their business has "gone into freefall" and they have had to take other jobs just to make ends meet.
"Since the launch in 2004 we've been doing well," says Kent of their venture, Hannibal Cycling Tours, which runs skiing, cycling and walking trips in the mountains, as well as B&B accommodation. "But in November 2008 it slammed to a halt, like someone turned off the tap."
Kent is in no doubt that the recession is to blame, along with the fact that, as small business owners, the Bensons are unable to cut costs like bigger companies. "Big agencies can afford to offer ski packages for £300 with half-board and equipment hire – we can't do that."
In 2003, the Bensons moved with their son, George, from Hertfordshire to Chambons, a village near Turin. Kent had worked as an estate agent while Michelle had been in the hotel industry, but both yearned for the outdoors. They bought an old farmhouse, transforming it into a cosy home with three guest rooms. For a while life was ideal: they had freedom and enough income to live on. George settled well at school and became a local junior ski champion. "Life was good and we put everything into the business," says Kent. "We were never going to make millions but we had enough to live on. Now but it no longer covers our costs – so we have had to take other jobs and are working really hard just to stand still."
The couple both act as tour guides at a local site of historic importance. Michelle also teaches English, while Kent does stints at a local ski-hire shop. However, they are angry and frustrated that, despite all their hard work and through no fault of their own, they are suffering. "The financial crash has affected so many people who didn't deserve to be hit," says Kent. "I really feel like the bankers have been playing with people's lives."
The couple say that, no matter how hard it gets, there is no question they will return to the UK. "Even in the downturn, British property prices are so high that we couldn't afford it," explains Kent. "And in all honesty, we couldn't go back to the way of life we had before. We left corporate jobs for the open air and to be our own bosses."
He reflects on this and laughs. "Little did I know the corporate world would follow us to Italy. I'd just got to where I wanted to be in life only to find some banker in New York or London moved the goalposts."
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