Future Expat's rental casaWhen last seen, Future Expat was grumpy. Tired of living in a hotel and having to go out for every meal, tired of not having a place to call her own. . . just tired.

There were even a few tearful phones calls with my husband back home, running along the lines of, “I don’t think I can do this.”

Fortunately, I’m happy — no, ecstatic — to report that I’ve found a home! And, naturally, I’ve learned some lessons about navigating this local rental market that I’m happy to pass along.

I’ll be uploading some pictures as soon as I have my own internet connection. Hopefully that’ll be next week.

Since I last updated you, I looked at several more houses.

One was a referral from a member of a Panama forum. Another was the result of a conversation with my hotel’s manager. A third was through a friend of a friend.

Remember, when you’re scouting for a house in this part of the world — especially if you’re on a tight budget — there’s no organized real estate or rental market the way we know it in North America. You need to talk to people because your success is all based on who you know.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Talk to everyone. Hotel clerks, supermarket cashiers, restaurant servers, taxi drivers. Let them know what you’re looking for. If your Spanish isn’t up to the task, find someone who can provide you with a few basic phrases to describe your needs.
  2. Scan the local bulletin boards. Here, people post notices outside the grocery stores.
  3. Search out other expats and talk to them. This may place you in a “gringo” instead of a local market, but do it anyway. At worst you might pay inflated prices for the first few months while you look for something that fits your budget longer term.
  4. If you can, scan the local newspapers.
  5. Sometimes Panama Craigslist has good deals, but as with anything you find online, be extra cautious.
  6. Walk or drive around neighborhoods looking for signs reading “Casa en alquiler” or something similar, then knock on the door or call the listed phone number.
  7. Follow up. Often. Be the squeaky wheel. In person is better than phone or email.
  8. Be prepared for the snowball effect. My search started slowly because it took a while for word to filter down. When my deal happened, it happened fast.
  9. Remember that everything here happens with cash, not checks or credit cards. I had to learn to be comfortable walking around with wads of cash zipped into a money belt I wore under my clothes. (I used a Rick Steves Silk Money Belt.) It’s very different from whipping out a credit or debit card at every turn.

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  1. Congratulations Susanna ! What a great example of tenacity and resilience! I know the feeling you described “I am not going to make it” it is such a nerve racking period when you start you new life in a foreign country no matter how much prepared you are. You are really brave and I hope you will enjoy soon your new place and relax ! Good luck-Anne

      1. well done anne. im coming over from london england. may we meet up for a chat when im there? kind regards, john

        1. Well, I’m Susanna not Anne, but sure. Let me know when you’re in the area and we’ll see what we can work out.

          1. Hi Suzanne, my husband and I are coming to Las Tablas, and your sharing helped me feel more at ease. Can you tell me if there are any other homes in your housing project available? I am from Alaska and can’t wait to come to Panama, I am sure there will be challenges, but I must say people like you make me feel much more at ease. Thank you, Margie

  2. You know a great deal of what you have written is also pertinent when it comes to real estate investing in Panama (and elsewhere in the region for the matter). The lack of a regulated marketplace, official stats or an MLS means you have to do quite a lot of the legwork yourself. Booking multiple viewings with multiple real estate “actors” is just the start…

  3. Just checking back. Hoping to come either at Christmas 2013 or in the spring and wanted to try to secure a place for a few months to decide what we are doing. Thank you Margie

  4. Suzanne, I read what you wrote, and feel dumb asking without being there, I guess I am afraid of getting there and then not having a place to lay my head. Is there a hotel and a bank in Las Tablas? Thank you Margie

    1. Haha, Margie, relax. It’s a small town, but there are several hotels AND banks here. And Chitre, half an hour north of us, is a good-sized city with even more. 🙂

      I recommend the Hotel Don Jesus. Clean, friendly staff, reasonable rates, and you can usually negotiate a discount if you’re staying for more than a few days. It’s just a few blocks from the center of town.

      Banks include HSBC, Banco General and Multibank, along with several others.

      1. I so remember being at the other side of this coin, living at the northern most village in North America, with people wanting to pick your brain, and how they could find housing and this that and the other. I do appreciate you and feel like you and I might be friends. We love different, we are a bit concerned over my husbands health as he h the person that offers the as diabetes, an his insulin and all is so important. Health care seems to be good there and that is good. No Medicare, I understand, a bit scary for him. Anyway, thank you and do you know of a forum of expats for Las Tables or near? Margie

        1. Margie, there aren’t enough expats in Las Tablas for us to have our own forum, LOL. Americans in Panama on Yahoo is a good one.

  5. Helllo Suzanne Thank you so much for all the information. We are coming in December. Could we meet with you… We will buy you dinner in exchange for a friendly face and conversation??

    1. Gary, I love to meet up with Future Expats. Email me when you have your details set up and we’ll work something out 🙂

      1. OK wonderful thank you. I will be emailing you soon with lots of questions. I sure hope this works out well. By the way is the picture of the house on your site is that your home for $400?

  6. Just a quick question, out of curiosity, the house in the picture is that the one you live in for $400 a month in Las Tablas? That seems great!

  7. To All, I am currently living in the Las Tablas area and am building a 2 bedroom 1 bath house that I would like to rent out when it is completed. It should be finished in a month or so. It is a Panamanian style block construction house. Simple but functional. Maybe 800 square feet or so inside on a nice lot in Loma Bonita which is 6 Kms from the Super Carne grocery store. Very quiet area. There is bus service there. If I cannot rent this house unfurnished I will furnish it as I can and then rent it out. Unfurnished it will be 250 or so per month for the right person. Thanx, Glen blueyes997 At live dot com

  8. Thanks for sharing this advice on finding a good long term accommodation! It really is important to ask locals, especially if they have lived in the area for a long time. They know about all of the different quirks of the city that you may not. Plus, it’s better to know as much as you can about the area you want to live in- you don’t want to have too many surprises!

  9. Hi Susanna,
    I just found your website…. I had no idea there were such nice places in Panama. We are “future expats” be definition and also have been expats several times in our lives. We currently live in Florida and planned to move to Costa Rica.

    After two lengthy stays there we are not sure if that’s the right choice for us. Housing is a LOT more expensive than we thought, in our price range it either has to be a fortress with barbed wire, or a condo with shared walls, and stairs. It’s true that you don’t need heating or air conditioning, but the humidity is high this time of year – even clothes get moldy.

    We didn’t look into Panama before because we are not interested in big city living, or having to drive way out there over the mountains. It seems that Las Tablas is a nice place to live without a car (?). If we decide to move there, we would like to rent an unfurnished house. Our first concern (next to price range) would be security, break-ins, vandalism etc.

    What is your experience? Do you feel ok to leave your home for a few days or weeks?
    The second question: We are pretty healthy, but is there a hospital nearby for an emergency?

    Thank you so much

    1. Hi Hildie,

      Las Tablas is a lovely place to live. While not as affordable today as when we first moved there, it’s still a lot less expensive than Florida or Costa Rica.

      There is a small, very affordable hospital in Las Tablas, but for serious conditions you would need to go into Panama City.

      As to crime, there are certainly crimes of opportunity – burglary, etc. Use common sense. Don’t flaunt expensive stuff, and if you’re going away for a period of time get a housesitter or at least have someone check on the house regularly during your absence. For what it’s worth, we had no such problems during our time there.

  10. Not sure where it would be yet in Panama. Ideal of course would be: gated (security) , internet/cable, reasonable access to Panama City, medical services, beaches would be ideal, transportation, etc. I will need a furnished apt and would pay upwards of $1,000 a month (maybe more all things considered) ,Where do I start? I’m looking at Oct 2017. ☺☺

    1. Hi Erik,

      You’re not going to find any gated communities in Las Tablas. There are some gated communities around Pedasi, but not in that price range.

      You didn’t say what you consider to be “reasonable access” to Panama City. An hour? Two? Three? Finding a furnished apartment or house for $1,000 a month is very doable almost anywhere, but it won’t likely be on the beach. Nor will you find it online, where anything you see will be priced for visiting Gringos.

      Your best bet is to get boots on the ground. Find an inexpensive hotel or hostel and start exploring. Start with Coronado, and work your way west. Talk to everyone you meet and tell them what you’re looking for. Get familiar with several different areas so you know what a reasonable rent is in that location before you make any deals. Take the bus so you can learn how to navigate Panama’s surprisingly comprehensive public transportation system.

      And let me know how you make out.

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