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Why the Alentejo is where you should be looking to invest in Real Estate

Our family spent a few weeks in Portugal looking at real estate this summer — and while we did not end up making an offer on a house — we learned a great deal. The trend of foreigners moving to Portugal has exploded in recent years — with thousands of Americans looking at Portugal as a place to retire, live and invest. There are now dozens of Facebook groups helping Americans get their paperwork in order and offering advice. A few dozen YouTube channels have popped up too. 

Portugal looks the perfect place to retire to, move to, or just spend part of the year.  The reasons are many: Portugal is the closest nation in Europe to the US.  It has a very good medical system, with very affordable private insurance. The cost of living is quite affordable, and the crime rate is exceptionally low. Infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, road and rail and food standards exceed those in the US. And, the Portuguese are very welcoming of foreigners.

But, the rush to Portugal has had some impact too: Prices in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve have shot up. And, that’s why it is a good idea to look around. You see, retiring to Portugal is rather simple; you can go to the consulate to apply for residency. North Americans can get a temporary residence permit for five years; after this, you are free to apply for permanent residence.

So, the first place to start is with the differences in the market: There is no MLS system in Portugal, and the biggest real estate website, Idealista is often short on info, and offers up multiple listings for the same properties. And, the prices tend to be above market, aimed at foreign buyers. Also, agents too are not as in North America. They tend to focus on their own listings, and sometimes have a hard time grasping the need of a foreign buyer.

There are always pitfalls. Debt is passed along to the new owner. Buyers who fail to check the title or local regulations may be in trouble. 

So why look to the Alentejo?  Stretching from the banks of the Tejo River to the mountains that surround the Algarve, this is the heartland of Portugal. The name of the Alentejo comes from the Portuguese "Além” and "Tejo,” or beyond the River Tejo. Go beyond expectations, and discover a whole other world, just 1 hour from Lisbon.
The Alentejo has inspired adventures featuring Moors, Romans, Phoenicians and Celts, each leaving their mark on the local culture. A land with distinct flavors of wine and a local cuisine that is unlike anything else, and as fresh and as local as the land it comes from. A place where you can enjoy life, surrounded by rolling plains and mountains, blue rivers, pristine beaches, and villages painted in white and blue. The sunlight is warm and the summers dry. The ‘montados’ are the cork forests of the Alentejo, home to countless rare species of plants and animals, and the largest forests in Southern Europe. The cork oak, or sobreiro, is the soul of the Alentejo, a living landscape that can only be found around the Mediterranean basin. The cork trees extend for miles and each tree plays an essential role in this ecosystem.

Just south of Lisbon, the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve features grassy dunes, brackish pools and the home of many species and diverse flora. By the Sado River’s mouth, you can hear and see a community of dolphins swimming freely. This is one of the few places in the world where the species lives in a freshwater habitat.  The Alentejo is home to Portugal’s most conserved Atlantic coastline with miles of wild and often secluded beaches carved into the cliffs. The Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park cover more than 60 miles of protected land and shore, stretching from Sao Torpes near Sines to Cape St. Vincent, Europe’s most south westerly point. This protected area has 35 certified habitats housing more than 100 rare species of plants, and the cliffs hide nests of white storks. Flowing along the border with Spain to the East, the Guadiana River is a wild and lovely river with a green valley. It is just east of Castro Verde, classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve set in the heart of the "White Plains” (Campo Branco), which is the name given to the extension of land that takes on a white-ish color during the summer and hosts a variety of bird species. Rising above the plains, and the new Great Lake, where the typical landscape featuring rolling plains is replaced by a mountain range with a very diverse fauna and flora, only made possible due to the more humid microclimate that is observed at a higher altitude. The Serra de São Mamede Natural Park is home to a forest of oaks, chestnuts, olive trees and more than 800 species of plants that share their habitat with reptiles and birds.
So, this vast region has a lot of advantages. The climate is warm and dry in the summer. Rain is quite rare in the summer months. Winters are milder, with some rain — so you get golden plains in the summer, and green plains in the winter.
Good infrastructure, easy driving, and no crowds. The region also has a lower cost of living than the bigger cities — with easy access to beaches, rivers, cycling, hiking and the outdoors. The Alentejo offers great options such as a townhouse or a rural farm. The options run from a sweet little house in the center of a historic town or walled village, to a Monte, a traditional farm, set in the middle of cork forest and with a pool.

Break things down this way: The Alentejo has 5 main districts. Each one’s main city has all you need in terms of healthcare, shopping and culture. They are Portalegre, Evora, Beja, Santarém and part of Setúbal. When searching for a house, start on the direct level.  Most are accessed by new highways, and rail. These sites can make a good base to explore, and often have good roads, bus and rail connections to Lisbon.

Speaking of rail, currently there are four main lines to the Alentejo, connecting to Évora, Beja and Santarém as well as Portalegre. But, new plans call for expansion of rail service to Estremoz and Elvas, with an eventual link to Seville, Spain.

Healthcare is a big point for many, with Portugal’s excellent national health service open to all. While hospitals are only found in main cities, clinics are in smaller towns, including a lot of new private clinics and pharmacies offering affordable services.  

The internet can be easy to access, with fiber networks reaching rural places with fast affordable service.   

Online, numerous Facebook groups are there to offer advice. Obviously, some of the advice may be a bit off, but many have files with answers to the most common of relaxation questions. One of the most encouraging qualities in Portugal is that there are no restrictions for foreigners who want to buy a home in the country.

Get legal help. Portugal’s laws are quite different in terms of real estate, and a good Portuguese attorney will not only save you money, but help avoid problems in advance. Ask another expat for a referral, and get the input to help you through the process. To buy a property in Portugal, as a resident or non-resident, you will need a Portuguese tax (fiscal) number which can be obtained at the local Finanças office. You will need to provide proof of identity as well as proof of address.

Agents are often hard to read. Many agents will only show what their agency has to offer. But, that is not all. Start with an international firm that has local offices, as the level of service may be closer to what you expect at home. Don’t be afraid to do your own research, have a list of questions ready to be answered, and be persistent. Ask about zoning, water, electric and gas — and be sure that there are no restrictions on the property from a local historic district or natural park.  Remember, that prices online are often above the market prices, and an offer is just that-the start of negotiation.

Get a construction quote in advance. While building costs can be lower in Portugal, they also have aspects that are different from wooden houses. Most homes are stone, concrete and tile, and the costs and complexities are different. 

Don’t forget, it is possible to run a project by a town to get an early approval. And, beware of "ruins” and non-residential buildings.  Ruined buildings often have no electric, sewer, or water — and getting those systems up and running can be very expensive. Building zones for agriculture or industry will need special permission for a town to redevelop-- and that is not guaranteed. 

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