Free in the World

Michael Perry

YESTERDAY EVENING we went under contract to sell our home of the past 10 years, by far the longest I’ve ever lived in one place. In our neighborhood, the average time on the market is currently 33 days. We’d been on the market for one day and the offer was over asking. We credit this to taking good care of our home, and having a sharp listing agent and staging consultant.

This experience, and what we learned from it, could be its own article. But this one isn’t about real estate. As we’ve seen retirement approaching over the past few years, a constant topic of conversation between my wife and me is where we want to live.

Our Houston-area home has a lot going for it. It’s small, efficient, well-maintained, with good neighbors, in a low-cost-of-living area with no personal income tax, great medical facilities and a major airport. Until recently, we’d thought about keeping it as a base while we travel—as travel was always a major part of our retirement plans. While we like our house, it just isn’t located where we’d choose to spend a lot of time, with our biggest complaint being the climate.

We’d talked for years about buying something else but could never settle on one location. We’ve thought about lots of places—starting, of course, with places we like. We’ve considered the weather, cost of living and taxation. I’ve become conversant with various state tax regimes and the resident visa requirements for a few foreign countries.

At one point, my wife lamented that we couldn’t even settle on a continent. My response was there are only seven, and Antarctica is basically uninhabitable, so we can almost count our choices on one hand. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

What made choosing so hard is that there are lots of places where we could be happy and comfortable. We’re not the type of folks who have a single place they love and want to be, at least not yet. To such people I say, “Count your blessings.” If we knew of a single place we loved, all this would have been a lot simpler, and we’d be living there now.

All we knew is where we didn’t want to live, and we decided to act on that and take the rest as it comes. Market turmoil and rising mortgage rates have added complexity to relocation, but we decided we aren’t going to hunker down and wait for conditions to be perfect.

In August, we returned from three months in Europe, our second such trip since retiring last year. As soon as we were over the jet lag, we started serious downsizing. Despite all the pros of our home, we decided the pull wasn’t strong enough to make us stay. We didn’t know where we were going, or even if we would find a new home right away or just travel for a while. We only knew that we were going to sell.

We picked a realtor we liked and agreed to stage the house. That started us packing to get things out. My wife’s sister had scheduled a visit around this time. My wife called her the day before she flew in from Spain to say we were listing the house.

My sister-in-law and her husband have had their things mixed with ours while they’ve been living abroad, so the three of us spent some days sorting that out, removing some things to storage units, and prepping the house to show. We continued to downsize and pack, with the constraint of needing to keep certain things in the house to help it show well.

With the house ready for viewing by potential buyers and the storage unit half full, we headed to Kansas City to visit my wife’s parents. We had our first showings while we were on the road. We signed our sales contract yesterday evening, less than two months after returning to the U.S. from our extended vacation.

When we go back home next week, the packing will get serious—and come with some choices. We’re not packing and downsizing with the mindset of moving from point A to point B. Rather, we’re deciding what we value enough to store, and what basics we’ll need to live out of our suitcases for a year. I suspect this last part will be the harder decision.

Is this how we’ll live, as nomads free in the world? We don’t know. But we’ll make sure we’re prepared to do what we want, no matter where our travels take us.

In the near term, we have a short trip planned to Cabo with friends. After that, a visit to my parents is on the calendar. By that time, we should have closed on the sale of our home. Our next big decision: Will we head back across the pond—or another pond—right away, potentially for much longer than three months, or do we do something in the U.S. first?

It feels like this article should offer some things to think about if you’re in a similar situation. I’m visiting family, so I’ll keep this short.

Do it while you can. There’s likely to always be some reason not to set off on an adventure or make some big change you’ve wanted to make, whatever “it” is. We’re fortunate to have good health and mobility, and to not have family responsibilities that keep us tied to any geography. Indeed, our families enjoy seeing us, but they’re also happy we’re able to go and do what we want to do. While now isn’t necessarily the perfect time for various reasons, we recognize it’s pretty good, and maybe the best we’ll get.

Stay flexible. We hear how important it is to have a plan not just for getting to retirement, but how to spend one’s time in retirement, with some even advising not to retire until you know how you’ll spend each day. I think that’s taking it too far. There’s much to be said for being flexible and going with the flow when you have the freedom to do that. Doing some thinking about the possibilities—including the pros and cons—has enabled us to break free.

Have a buffer. We’re not charging headlong into the vast unknown. While we aren’t living by a schedule or a spreadsheet, we’ve researched our options and planned enough to have a sufficient level of comfort for us. We’ve included a margin of safety on the financial side, and aren’t bound to any one place or activity that we’ll be distraught not to have. We have some ideas, but they’re ideas we’re prepared to change.

My wife is already downstairs having coffee with her parents, so I’m going to head down, too. I’m not sure what’s happening beyond the next several weeks, but I’m excited to find out.

Michael Perry is a former career Army officer and external affairs executive for a Fortune 100 company. In addition to personal finance and investing, his interests include reading, traveling, being outdoors, strength training and coaching, and cocktails. Check out his earlier articles.

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