Americans Head to Europe for the Good Life on the Cheap
March 17, 2023 Updated Fri., March 17, 2023 at 5:17 p.m.
Ben Mitas sipped Vinho Verde from a stemmed wineglass while he watched his daughter play on a swing one afternoon in January. He had bought the wine from a quiosque, the ubiquitous park kiosks, a luxury of living in Lisbon.
Mitas and his wife, Megan, moved to Portugal from Florida in 2019, renting a four-bedroom apartment for 2,500 euros (or about $2,700) a month in Campo de Ourique, a quiet neighborhood with small shops and restaurants. Last year, they bought a 19th-century house in Lapa, a historic neighborhood perched high above the river, with embassies and 18th-century palaces and mansions with tiled facades, that they will renovate into their “forever home,” said Megan Mitas, 31. Ben Mitas, 40, a mortgage broker, travels back to Florida frequently for work, but their life is in Lisbon where their two small children are in pre-K and day care.
The family fits right in. Here in the Portuguese capital, English speakers are seemingly everywhere. On the day Ben Mitas took his daughter to the park, two women sat on a nearby bench, strollers at their feet, as they chatted in English.
The previous afternoon, Rita Silva, a researcher at Habita!, a housing rights organization, leaned forward intently on a tattered red sofa, her elbows on her knees, surrounded by bookshelves and hand-painted banners inside the group’s storefront headquarters in the trendy Intendente neighborhood. She was preparing to meet with Lisbon residents facing eviction. Even Habita! is feeling the squeeze: The group’s landlord will not renew its lease, which expires next year. Lisbon “stopped being affordable for the people who live and work in this country,” Silva said.
Americans, unable to afford the kinds of homes they want in the kinds of domestic cities where they want to live, like San Francisco and New York, are moving to Southern Europe in significant numbers. Drawn to the region by its mild climate and low cost of living, made even more affordable by a strong dollar, many Americans gush about trading a car-dependent lifestyle for the chance to live in a vibrant, European city on the cheap.
What is cheap for these Americans is brutally expensive for southern Europeans, whose average wages are substantially lower than Americans’. Locals are competing for housing against wealthy foreigners in markets already distorted by Airbnbs and corporate real estate investment. The result is a generation failing to launch, with more than 90% of southern Europeans under 35 still living at home, rates that eclipse their American counterparts. Those who have apartments face evictions and unpredictable rent increases in cities with weak rental protections, like Lisbon, Barcelona and Athens.
“It’s soul-breaking,” said Alkis Kafetzis, 40, a project coordinator at Eteron Institute for Research and Social Change in Athens, which studies housing inequities.
The surge in foreign investment is no accident. Portugal, Spain and Greece have courted deep-pocketed foreigners and corporations, hoping to attract talent, bolster their economies and spur development. Portugal and Spain recently introduced digital nomad visas that allow remote workers to live in the country for an extended period of time, echoing a similar visa in Greece. In Spain, home sales to Americans jumped by 88% from the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2022. Americans were among those willing to spend the most per square meter, bested only by the Danes in how much they paid in the first half of 2022, according to Spanish government data.
By 2022, nearly 10,000 American citizens were living in Portugal, up 239% from 2017, according to data provided by the Portuguese government.
The Americans who are setting roots here are embracing a life where the weather is pleasant, the lunches are long and they can get by with translation apps and a handful of phrases. Americans say that even if they attempt to stumble through a conversation, locals quickly switch to English since the language is so prevalent in European cities. But their children arrive home from school bilingual, giving parents like Ben and Megan Mitas access to tiny translators to help them navigate the tricky moments when Google Translate isn’t sufficient.
“Their main concern is lifestyle migration. They really, truly want to live here and have a more cosmopolitan lifestyle,” said Luis Mendes, an urban geographer at the University of Lisbon.
Baptized in the Aegean
“The way you live is so much more free and enjoyable here,” said Christian, 17, as his 8-year-old sister, Evangelia, glided past him on roller skates on her way to take a spin around the dining room table. “Everyone’s calm, it’s not like, Do this, do this, do that.’ ”
The Mallios family is from Colts Neck, New Jersey, a rural community in central New Jersey with sprawling estates and horse farms, including one owned by Bruce Springsteen.
They arrived in Greece in July 2020, after Melissa and Demetrios Mallios bought a 350,000 euro house on Evia, an island near Athens. The purchase qualified for a golden visa, a residency program available in several European countries that gives homebuyers years of residency in exchange for spending a significant sum in cash on real estate.
The family spent the 2021 school year renting a house in Athens while their children attended an international school there. By 2022, Melissa and Demetrios Mallios put their New Jersey home on the market, and bought the 1.45 million euro condo in Kifissia, a northern Athens suburb with tree-lined streets and multimillion-euro villas hidden behind high stone walls. At almost 427 euros a square foot, high-end homes sell in Kifissia for about 44% more than comparable ones in the rest of Athens, according to RE/Max Europe.
On a Sunday evening, families were strolling around Kifissia’s downtown, which is full of upscale restaurants, cafes and boutiques – Bottega Veneta, Max Mara and Wolford, the Austrian lingerie brand.
The Mallios children attend a private virtual school, Pearson Online Academy, which allows them to shuttle between their homes in Athens and Evia, but hasn’t given Evangelia many opportunities to learn Greek and make local friends. “I miss New Jersey,” she said.
Her brother, however, has learned the language from his friends on the basketball team. Her father, Demetrios Mallios, 52, a venture capitalist of Greek descent, speaks the language.
In Athens, home prices were up 13% in the third quarter of 2022 compared to the same time a year earlier, according to the Bank of Greece. Americans are increasingly interested in Greece’s golden visa program, with applications up 740% from 2020 to 2021, according to Astons, an investment immigration firm.
Georg Petras, the chief executive of Engel & Völkers in Greece, said Americans flooded the Greek market in 2022, accounting for a quarter of his firm’s foreign transactions. If the trend continues, Americans will become the third largest group of foreign buyers that his company handles.
Tension is painted on the streets of Athens, where graffiti scrawled on the sides of buildings proclaims, “Athens is Not for Sale” and “No Airbnb.”
Greeks earn an average salary well below 20,000 euros a year in 2021, according to Eurostat, and have been battered by economic turmoil, austerity and inflation. Almost half of Greek renters are struggling to pay the rent, according to a 2022 survey by the Eteron Institute. “Being able to get a breath, to feel a little bit secure about the future is the exception, not the rule,” Kafetzis of the Eteron Institute said. “This generation is always thinking about the next month.”
At 30, Spiros Stamou owns the taxi he drives, but he still lives with his parents, as do his friends. Driving through central Athens, he lamented his lot.
“Some people tried to get their own apartment, but ended up going back home,” he said, frustrated that it felt impossible for someone earning 600 euros a month to afford an apartment that costs 400 euros a month. “The cost of life, everything is getting higher,” he said.
But for Melissa Mallios, Greece has been transformational.
“When I was back in the States, I felt so out of place,” she said. When friends and family asked her why she chose to leave her home country, she replied: “I went for a beautiful life.”
Last summer, Mallios, 38, converted to Greek Orthodox at a ceremony at their island house. Wearing a white dress, her blond hair braided atop her head wrapped in a gold-leaf tiara, she was baptized in the Aegean Sea.
On a lark
The sun was glistening on the Mediterranean Sea as Ryan Ward stood on a bedroom balcony of his house, nestled in the forest above the seaside village of Tossa de Mar, in Spain.
“Where I’m from in California, I could never afford a place like this,” said Ward, 37, who grew up in Orange County, California, where the average sales price is shy of $1 million.
Ward and his wife, Justyna Ward, bought the two-family home with a pool on the Costa Brava for 515,000 euros in February 2021. The couple lives with their infant and 2-year-old sons in the three-bedroom apartment on the upper level of the duplex. They rent the two-bedroom apartment on Airbnb, and the entire house while they travel during the summer, earning enough rental income to pay the mortgage.
The Wards came to Spain in 2016 on a lark – Ryan Ward’s employer, a marketing firm, offered him a six-month stint in Barcelona that turned into a permanent one. Once they started a family, moving back to the States didn’t make sense. California was too expensive and Chicago, where Justyna Ward, 36, grew up, was too cold. After living in Europe, they could no longer imagine relinquishing the Mediterranean lifestyle and cultural richness they’d come to cherish in Spain.
“What’s the point of moving back?” Justyna Ward said as she sat on her sofa, nursing her newborn son, taking in the breathtaking view of the sea.
Foreigners are plucking up homes along the Spanish Coast, from Costa Brava in the north to Andalusia in the south. Spain’s new digital nomad visa allows remote workers and freelancers to live in the country year round, as long as they earn most of their income outside of Spain and meet other requirements. Pay 500,000 euros in cash for property, and a foreigner can qualify for a golden visa. In the year since January 2022, the number of parents from the United States looking for schools on the International Schools Database, a website, doubled, with Spain topping the list of destinations.
“If you can make 100,000 euros a year, you will live very well here,” said Raf Jacobs, the founder of Inspire Property Experts, a real estate consultancy that helps foreigners settle in Spain.
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