In 2015, my wife Noki, daughter Evie and I took a vacation to Lisbon, Portugal. We immediately fell in love with the beautiful weather, the rattle of cable cars, and the most welcoming people that we’d ever met while traveling.
At the time, we were living near Washington D.C. I’d retired early in my 40s from a legal career, and while Noki worked as a nurse, we also had an investment portfolio that paid out enough dividends to live on.
That meant we could afford to take a sabbatical — and Lisbon seemed like a promising possibility.
How we found our apartment in Lisbon, Portugal
Just two days into our vacation, we started making plans to move. The owner of our Airbnb connected us with a real estate agent, and we booked a few apartment to tour during our trip.
After looking at a few spaces, we decided we wanted a fixer-upper to get more square footage for our money. We were only planning to live in Portugal for about two years, so finding the “perfect” home wasn’t that important to us.
We must have looked at more than 100 apartments online. When Noki and Evie returned to the U.S., I stayed behind to view more places in person.
The search finally ended with a two-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot apartment in Barrio Alto, a neighborhood known for its great nightlife. As I left the place, I noticed a tile on the wall with an engraved quote from Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet, that read: “I know not what tomorrow will bring.”
Those words felt like an invitation welcoming me and my family with open arms to a new adventure.
My realtor and I sat at a cafe and negotiated back and forth with the owner via text message. When the deal was done, we landed on a purchase price of a $533,554 (not including brokerage commission and taxes).
We wired the first 10% down payment to the owner, which was a bit unnerving because there were no credit checks and limited due diligence. Everything was agreed via handshake.
We took out a new loan on our Washington, D.C. home that gave us $600,000, and paid for the rest of the Lisbon apartment in cash.
We kept our U.S. home fully furnished and rented it out to subsidize our housing costs in both countries. And after Evie finished middle school in 2015, we moved to Portugal with six checked bags and a blank slate.
Currently, our monthly housing costs in Lisbon are:
- Property taxes: $50
- Maintenance fees: $400
- Electricity: $225
- Water: $23
- Wi-Fi and cell phones: $91
Living in history: Inside our Lisbon apartment
Our apartment is located in one of the oldest intact buildings in Lisbon: the Convento dos Inglesinhos, a walled complex of gardens, a church, and converted cloisters.
Inside the 400-year-old building are common areas covered in historic blue and white tiles that date back 100 years.
When you walk into our apartment, you can immediately appreciate why our building was able to survive Lisbon’s great earthquake of 1755. The solid stone walls are nearly four feet thick in some places!
The loft-like living and dining room space is where we spend most of our time drinking coffee, taking online classes and eating meals together. The windows look down onto a walled courtyard with olive trees.
We keep the space sparsely finished. After moving from a large house to an apartment, we discovered that we only need a small amount of furniture to feel comfortable.
At one end of the main room is the kitchen, which we renovated in 2017 to add cabinetry and a push-door refrigerator that our two 20-pound cats can’t open. Running the length of our kitchen wall is a long spice rack, which helps us cook across different cuisines.
We spent roughly $200,000 over the past seven years on renovations, redoing our floors, and installing cabinetry and closets throughout the apartment.
At the other end of the apartment is our bedroom. We share the bathroom down the hall, which has a washer and dryer, with our daughter Evie.
And further on is her bedroom.
Finding a community in Portugal
On paper, this apartment wouldn’t have been my first choice. I didn’t know the country or the neighborhood well, and refinancing our home in the U.S. to buy an apartment in a foreign country was a risky step for us.
But I’ve learned that taking the leap for something that brings you joy, even if it feels uncertain, is worth it.
My father and stepmother passed away during my first year of law school.
Since then, I’ve always tried to recognize how life sometimes places wondrous opportunities in your path, and that it’s good to keep an open mind — especially because we often don’t get second chances in life.
What I love most about Portugal is its welcoming and gentle culture. Every night, Noki and I head to the communal garden for a glass of wine with our neighbors. As we enjoy the cool breezes and watch the sun set, I am reminded of how blessed and fortunate we are.
Now that we’ve attained dual Portuguese citizenship, we have no plans to leave.
*Prices in this story are calculated based on conversion rates between the U.S. dollar and Euro.
Alex Trias is a retired attorney. He and his wife and daughter have lived in Portugal since 2015. He is the author of the “Investment Pancake” series on SeekingAlpha.com, where he writes about tax planning, investing, early retirement, and where to find the best meals in Lisbon.