House Hunters International Goes to Porto
While many of my fellow YA writers follow TV series such as Game of Thrones (which probably puts them more in line with popular tastes than I am), I clear my late evening schedule for the HGTV program House Hunters International. For those not familiar with this long running — and, yes, decently popular — show, it involves individuals, couples, and/or families seeking new homes outside the United States and Canada. Destinations range from beach resorts to corporate postings in East Asia, from off-base housing near military installations to dream homes for retirees and prospective innkeepers in Europe, from young people teaching English in the developing world to international couples reuniting with families abroad.
The house hunters and real estate agents are likable and often funny, occasionally spoiled, and prone to repeat the following three clichés: 1) “fell in love” with a place, 2) wanted “the slower lifestyle” (once in a while, someone wants a faster lifestyle), and/or 3) wanted to give children “the international experience.” (Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy goal.)
Last Thursday evening I had a literary reading at McNally Jackson penciled into my calendar, but when I discovered that House Hunters International that night would be in Porto, Portugal, I reached for my eraser. In 2015 I asked the question, “Is Porto the next hipster destination?” and from what I’ve gathered, the answer is a resounding YES.
The house hunting couple, Glenn and Jeff, had decided to move from San Francisco to Porto to be nearer the working spouse’s corporate clients and to obtain more space for their money once he retires in a few years. San Francisco is one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. Porto is still relatively inexpensive. The couple had a budget of $700,000 US.
When I heard the number $700,000, I immediately knew why. Portugal has one of the most generous and well-established “golden visa” programs, a fact that the show covered in its second segment. Non-EU citizens can obtain residency visas for the entire household by buying property worth at least 600,000 euros. (Citizens of other EU countries, like my husband and two children, do not need residency visas to live in Portugal.) And 600,000 euros comes to approximately 700,000 US dollars.
Glenn and Jeff wanted to live in Porto’s “first row,” in other words, in a building right next to the Douro River. This is the iconic view to which the episode kept returning. (Other iconic sights included the City Hall building from the turn of the twentieth century, the Livraria Lello that inspired J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, and the inside of a port wine cave.) They also wanted three bedrooms and a home office. Like many house hunters, they expected a flood of visitors from back home.
It became clear, however, that Glenn and Jeff were not interested in any of the restored older buildings but rather brand new high-rise construction that appeared to be designed expressly for golden visa applicants. All were quite modern, inside and out. They could have been built in any city. Two of the three were in high-rise complexes with views of the Atlantic Ocean — in a more recently developed area of Porto — or with distant views of the Douro. One of those was exactly on budget; the other sold for $650,000. The apartment for $650,000 was the first one cut, I suspect because it came in just a shade under the amount needed to qualify for the visa.
In the end, Glenn and Jeff chose to sacrifice one bedroom and home office space for a front row view and proximity to the old city. And their choice had spectacular views and an equally spectacular private roof deck, which in Porto one can actually use for much of the year. Unfortunately, its decor was strictly corporate office, unadorned and soulless, with furnishings that looked as though they belonged in a conference room.
I happen to have done some research on buying property in Portugal for the golden visa, and it turns out that the 600,000 euro minimum is only for modern or recently restored properties. Those who buy properties more than 30 years old or in specific restoration zones need only spend 350,000 euros, but, of course, there will be additional expenses to return those homes to their former grandeur. Many people have taken on these reconstruction projects, so much so that the old city of Porto that was abandoned and close to ruin when we first visited in 2012 is now gleaming, with hotels, shops, and upscale apartments taking over block by block. I hope that a future House Hunters International features buyers interested in the restoration of Porto and shows the process by which it is done.
Update 11/23: As of October 2023, the Golden Visa program for real estate purchases in Portugal is no longer available. Portugal’s parliament ended the program, with exceptions for investment in scientific, cultural and artistic, and job creation endeavors, because it led to massive real estate inflation that prevented Portuguese people from buying homes. Those who live outside the EU can still buy property in neighboring Spain for 500,000 euros and receive a residence visa.