If you’re from the US, Canada or western Europe, you’re used to a highly organized real estate market. You have agencies to help with buying, selling and renting. In the US, multiple listing services are the norm where you can deal with any agent and have access to the full spectrum of available property for sale.
Not so much in Latin America.
So how do you find a place to live when you’ve landed in Panama, Uruguay, Mexico or another Latin American country?
Word of Mouth
Unless you want to pay inflated, gringo prices, word of mouth is your best option for finding a home.
Talk to everyone — taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, hotel clerks, restaurant servers all come in contact with a lot of people every day. When I was looking for a rental house here in Las Tablas, Panama, I latched onto anyone I heard speaking English and introduced myself.
It was a bit more difficult with Spanish speakers, but I learned the basic phrases I needed: “I’m looking for a furnished house to rent in Las Tablas” was the one I used most often.
Once you’ve spoken with a few people, you’ll start to get a general sense of pricing for the area.
If you find a neighborhood you like, go door to door! I didn’t have to do it, fortunately, but I know people who have. And, in fact, one afternoon when I was out in front of the house a young woman stopped to ask me if I knew of any houses to rent in the neighborhood.
Be aware that the nice guy who takes you to his cousin’s house might be expecting payment for his helpfulness, or might have an arrangement with the cousin to collect a finder’s fee. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can add to the price you pay.
Outside of grocery stores and other high-traffic areas you’ll often find bulletin boards with all sorts of notices. Check these for rental properties, or consider putting up a notice of your own.
Classified ads in local papers or Spanish-language websites are geared toward the local population, and you’ll find your best prospects there. If your Spanish isn’t up to it, find someone who can help you — even if you have to pay them, what you’ll save on your ongoing rental will be worth it.
Again, try to stick to the Spanish-language sites. If you’re looking at English sites, you’ll pay gringo prices, guaranteed.
In Panama, Encuentra24 is very popular. So is Craigslist.
Other options include forums for the country or city, like Expat Blog classifieds or Panama Forum.
Or check out this website I just found. At Paradise Hunter they feature properties for sale and vacation homes (in other words, places that are completely furnished), for rent. If you’re in a part of the world they cover, they might have some leads for you.
Real Estate Professionals
Depending on where you’re looking, you may or may not find real estate agents or property managers.
Keep in mind that pretty much anybody can set him- or herself up as a real estate professional with no training, licensing or oversight. You’re more likely to find reputable agents in larger population areas or in places with a lot of expats. I have yet to find one in our little town, although down the road in Pedasi — a tourist destination — there are several.
If you do find an agent, don’t assume he’s working for you! Unlike in the US where an agent has a contractual obligation to a buyer or seller, agents in Latin America don’t.
Since there’s no MLS, if you want to see all the listed property in the area you’ll have to patronize several agents. Don’t be surprised if you are shown the same house three times, and the quoted price is different each time!
Think of the real estate market as an untamed frontier and keep your wits about you.
Regardless of whether you find your new home by word of mouth or through an agent, get your agreements in writing and have a competent professional who speaks the language check everything for you.