Back in the innocent days of the 1990s and 2000s, there was a discreet but active British migration boom. Retired and ‘pre-tired’ people headed en masse for the sun – Spain, France, Italy, Portugal. Bolstered by heart-warming books such as Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons and with Joanne Harris’s Chocolat crammed into their luggage – not to mention proper tea bags and Marmite – they made their way across Europe to run gîtes in the Dordogne, or move in to Eldorado-like urbanizaciones in Spain or white cubes in Portugal’s Algarve. In 2005, around 2,000 Brits a week were said to have moved abroad.
This created a large number of expats and the figure has grown, from about 4.1 million in 1990 to 5.5 million today – that’s getting on for a tenth of the UK population. And why not? The figures reflect greater mobility, more wealth and, as with America’s ‘sunbirds’ – those who move from the cold north to Florida at a certain life-stage – the eternal desire for a lotus-eating, stress-free, sunny lifestyle.
Many people benefited from housing equity windfalls and favourable exchange rates, not to mention cheaper properties and restaurant bills. What could possibly go wrong?
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The credit crunch and Brexit
Well, quite a lot. Latterly some of the shine has been taken off the expat boom. First came the credit crunch almost a decade ago, when property became a less certain bet and some found themselves in negative equity. And now, British expats are faced with the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, causing particularly serious wobbles in two of the biggest Brit communities in Europe: the 300,000 plus in Spain and around 200,000 in France.
Robert Hallums, founder of the online resource Experts for Expats says that he’s seen a steep rise in enquiries from expats who are concerned about their futures, particularly from people on a pension. ‘Their money doesn’t go as far as it used to,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of nervousness and there are plenty of people who would like to come back to the UK but they can’t afford property here anymore.’
It can be difficult for people to discuss – possibly they don’t want to lose face. So the picture has to be pieced together.
People are asking: is the grass really greener somewhere else?
‘We analysed the total amount Britons spent on European property and found that in 2015-2016 it had halved in a year,’ says David Lamb of foreign exchange specialist FEXCO. ‘The overseas property market is still quite buoyant, but the confidence of the 2000s is no longer there, and people tell us troubling thoughts about declining health, access to families, falling exchange rates and difficulties with pensions.’ And that’s before Brexit. As David observes: ‘People are asking: is the grass really greener somewhere else?’
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People often bought with their eyes closed in the past, Robert Hallums reckons. ‘They didn’t have a safety net in the UK in the form of a property, and weren’t always financially self-sufficient,’ he says. ‘Plus, they were sold a wonderful lifestyle by television programmes.’
And sure, those lifestyles do exist. In some parts of France you can swim and ski in the same day, then return to your pretty stone hilltop house for a glass of rosé. But no one really wants a permanent holiday, and long-term reality has been a big expat mood-changer.
‘Before, the British all wanted a pile of stones in a field that they could turn into a gîte,’ says Karen Booth, 58, a writer who has lived in the Charentes Maritime area in France for 15 years. ‘Now I’ve noticed they fantasise less and prefer towns and villages, with access to amenities.’ Those romantic piles of stones left many isolated, and can be hard to sell.
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‘Lots of Brits I meet are winging it,’ Karen adds. ‘For many, the “good life” has turned into the “struggle life”.’ And with Brexit adding another layer of uncertainty, many want to return, says Dave Spokes of lobbying group Expat Citizen Rights in EU (Ecreu). ‘It’s most difficult for those who are trapped in houses that aren’t worth as much as they paid for them, and they can’t sell.’
Expats often want to spend their final years in the UK.
There’s another human factor. Frankly, expats often want to spend their final years in the UK. ‘I hear that a lot. Going into hospital without the language is tough,’ says Karen Booth, citing a post-Brexit fear about healthcare, 70% of which was picked up by the UK Government and then topped up by the French insurance. ‘People here are now worried it’ll become all insurance, and they’ll pay thousands a year.’
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Moving back to the UK
So some of those expats are giving up and coming home. Carol Peett, a property finder at West Wales Property, says she’s had a surge of enquiries from people who want to move back. ‘Often they’ve had to accept a reduced price for their property,’ she says. ‘One client built a house himself, then sold for less than the build cost.’
Many UK citizens would want any negotiations to secure their continued right to work, reside and own property in other EU states, and to access public services.
You’d expect there to be uncertainty and to that end, earlier this year Prime Minister Theresa May proposed a bilateral solution, intended to mollify the fears of Brits in EU countries: whereby EU nationals could stay in the UK, provided UK expats could stay in their overseas homes. This ‘reciprocal’ arrangement aimed to guarantee their rights, but Ecreu’s Dave Spokes is unconvinced. ‘The whole negotiation has been led by the EU, rather than the other way round,’ he says. ‘It continues to be confusing.’
Citizenship is a big issue, and some expats are trying to gain nationality in their new homelands.
Then there’s a trail of nitty-gritty niggles such as car licensing, duty on imports, inheritance and money transfers. Citizenship is a big issue, and some expats are trying to gain nationality in their new homelands, while others are exercised by the possibility of being locked out of the British voting system: Ecreu is campaigning for ‘Votes for Life’ for UK expat citizens.
Some Brexit issues have already started. The phenomenon of ‘double taxation’ whereby citizens have incomes or pensions taxed in the UK and again in their destination countries is a particular problem in Spain.
As Dave Spokes says, much of these ideas remain conjecture, but it’s a likely scenario prior to the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU in 18 months’ time. So overseas Brits need to plan wisely but not panic: established expats are expected to maintain their rights – as long as they became expats before Brexit.
Stay in Europe or come back to the UK?
Of course, moving abroad is never plain sailing. There’s always been trouble in paradise. But for all that, some people have weighed up the risks and benefits, and decided to stay put. Vicky McLean, 57, a widowed mother and nurse who lives near Limoux in southern France was planning to move back to the UK last year but found it was going to be ‘too expensive’. It made her realise, however, that she actually loved France.
‘There are so many good things here,’ she says. ‘The sense of community, the local organic food, the eagles, orchids and river swimming spots.’ And she’s found the French healthcare to be ‘wonderful’.
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Spanish property still attractive
Some estate agents are finding that the perils of Brexit and financial uncertainty haven’t quelled demand, at least in Spain. ‘We’re receiving an average of 2,513,374 website searches for property there a month,’ says Christopher Please of agents Rightmove Overseas. ‘It’s an indication to us that many Britons still see a future in Spain – whether it’s to live there permanently, retire or use a property as an investment and holiday home.’
Many Britons still see a future in Spain – whether it’s to retire, or use a property as an investment and holiday home.
So a lot of us would still like to migrate to the sun. ‘On balance, in many areas of Europe, including Spain, it’s still very much a buyer’s market,’ says overseas estate agent Trevor Leggett. ‘We’ve been surprised by how little effect the Brexit uncertainty has had and our research shows the two main drivers are still climate and value for money.’
Perhaps there’ll always be a place in the sun for us, after all – albeit with a little more circumspection along with the tea, digestive biscuits and Marmite.
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Expat websites and more
Check out these websites if you're thinking of moving abroad – or already have.
Experts for Expats Links expats to independent consultants on matters such as tax and pensions 020 3239 0271
British Expats Articles on everything from mortgages to healthcare. Plus classified ads and discussion forum.
ECREU Lobbies for rights of UK expats in the EU and vice versa.
Angloinfo Focuses on services abroad. Features how-to guides, property for sale and directories of English-speaking businesses and services.
Expat Exchange Global expat forum for an international readership.
Expat Forum Aims to be the largest community of expats on the internet with more than 175,000 members of country-specific forums.
The Smart Expat Thinking of working abroad? This site has calculators to help you work out costings.
Britishexpat Lifestyle ‘magazine’ for people living and working abroad.
Expats Blog Hand-picked selection of global bloggers on one site.
Vivienne Parker, 67, lives near Figeac in the rural southwest of France and teaches English to adults.
‘I have often lived abroad and, when young, lived in the Middle East,’ says Vivienne, for whom an expat life has been the norm. ‘But in any case, I’m priced out of England. I love my house, and have been here for 18 years, but it would only fetch about €170,000, whereas in the Cotswolds a similar property would cost far more than that.’ But she wouldn’t move back even if she could.
‘There are lots of things I love about living here. I live in a great village. The people are lovely and I’m very integrated. There’s no traffic, so I can get to places on time. The crime rate is very low, there’s no stress or pollution and it’s friendly.
‘There are other British people around and some don’t integrate, partly because of the language factor. In fact, French friends have told me, “You Brits all stick together”.’
She’s also noticed that a lot arrive with romantic baggage. ‘That goes pretty quickly. It’s cold in winter. Then they want to move back to the UK, to see grandchildren grow up.’
Her British neighbours have become so concerned about Brexit that they’re applying for French nationality. ‘I’m not, as I think it’ll be a fudge.’
Are there any downsides? ‘The bureaucracy can be infuriating,’ says Vivienne. ‘I recently had to complete a form that almost made me cry with frustration. And the pension system is difficult.
‘But I’ve got a boyfriend nearby, and it’s bliss, really.’