The International Living Podcast

Episode 44: I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?

September 27, 2023 International Living
Episode 44: I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?
The International Living Podcast
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The International Living Podcast
Episode 44: I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?
Sep 27, 2023
International Living

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This week we chat to Suzan Haskins about a subject that comes up often in our mailbag, and at conferences. Understandably so. It’s one thing to pack a bag for a vacation—any fool knows how to do that—but it’s an altogether different prospect when you’re planning on moving abroad for months, years, or decades.

Read Suzan's full article in the September issue of the International Living Magazine: "I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?"

Suzan, and her husband, Dan Prescher, are experts on the business of moving overseas. They’ve lived in multiple countries, and made numerous moves. Sometimes they pack light, other times they take a more elaborate approach to transporting the possessions they can’t just throw into a backpack. Bear in mind that Dan’s a musician—he’s not going anywhere without at least a guitar. That’s a logistical challenge in itself, but it’s one that Suzan and he have risen to with experience and aplomb.

Shipping containers, transporting animals, hold baggage, import/export agents, paperwork, import duties, and U-Haul trucks…Suzan’s done it all. Over the years, she’s built up a wealth of knowledge, and more importantly, an address book full of contacts. Knowing who to speak to, and who to hire makes all the difference when it comes to big decisions such as whether to bring your own car abroad with you, or if you really need to ship your old bed to your new home.

But perhaps more important than any of the logistics, is Suzan’s underlying question: Do you really want to bring your old life with you when you start afresh overseas…or just the parts that mean the most to you?

Whether you’re someone who moves abroad with nothing more than what you can carry on your back, or whether you want to go the whole hog with a shipping container, Suzan Haskins is just the person to explain it all.

Join host, Jim Santos, as he meets her in the latest episode of The International Living Podcast.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Send us a Text Message.

This week we chat to Suzan Haskins about a subject that comes up often in our mailbag, and at conferences. Understandably so. It’s one thing to pack a bag for a vacation—any fool knows how to do that—but it’s an altogether different prospect when you’re planning on moving abroad for months, years, or decades.

Read Suzan's full article in the September issue of the International Living Magazine: "I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?"

Suzan, and her husband, Dan Prescher, are experts on the business of moving overseas. They’ve lived in multiple countries, and made numerous moves. Sometimes they pack light, other times they take a more elaborate approach to transporting the possessions they can’t just throw into a backpack. Bear in mind that Dan’s a musician—he’s not going anywhere without at least a guitar. That’s a logistical challenge in itself, but it’s one that Suzan and he have risen to with experience and aplomb.

Shipping containers, transporting animals, hold baggage, import/export agents, paperwork, import duties, and U-Haul trucks…Suzan’s done it all. Over the years, she’s built up a wealth of knowledge, and more importantly, an address book full of contacts. Knowing who to speak to, and who to hire makes all the difference when it comes to big decisions such as whether to bring your own car abroad with you, or if you really need to ship your old bed to your new home.

But perhaps more important than any of the logistics, is Suzan’s underlying question: Do you really want to bring your old life with you when you start afresh overseas…or just the parts that mean the most to you?

Whether you’re someone who moves abroad with nothing more than what you can carry on your back, or whether you want to go the whole hog with a shipping container, Suzan Haskins is just the person to explain it all.

Join host, Jim Santos, as he meets her in the latest episode of The International Living Podcast.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Jim Santos 00:09 
Hello, everybody, and welcome once again to Bigger, Better World. It's an exciting day for me as this is the last podcast I'll be recording before Rita and I start our COVID-delayed roving retirement with nine weeks exploring some of Europe. 

That's right, we practice what we podcast here at Bigger, Better World. Our next episode will take place in either Greece or Turkey as we live that international lifestyle that this show and International Living magazine touts. 

Since we'll be touring, we're traveling light. But if your plan is to relocate overseas to a new home, you face some pretty important packing and shipping considerations. How much you should take and how do you get it there to name just two. Well, our guest today is Suzan Haskins, senior editor at IL, and many of you met her at the recent Ultimate Go Overseas boot camp in Denver, Colorado.

Suzan wrote the article ‘I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?’ for the September 2023 issue of International Living magazine, and she's joining us now to discuss the shipping options. Suzan, welcome back once again to Bigger, Better World, and thanks for joining us today.

Suzan Haskins 01:44 
Thanks, Jim. Glad to be here.

Jim Santos 01:46 
I think your article that we're talking about here is really important because that's a step that's often overlooked when you're looking at moving overseas. I mean, it's all about getting yourself there, right? Getting your paperwork done and everything processed. But getting your stuff there can be just as difficult.

Suzan Haskins 02:05 
Well, that's true. I guess it all comes down to do you want to take your stuff? Do you want to start fresh and get new stuff, or do you want to have your old familiar stuff with you? There's arguments to be made both ways.

Jim Santos 02:22 
Yeah, I have met people who just sold everything and moved with just, like, two suitcases.

Suzan Haskins 02:28 
Well, you know, Dan and I have done both of those things, so I know it's a tough decision to make, but it is one that you have to think about as you start this process. Because are you going to shed all your stuff or are you going to put it in storage and come back and get it later, perhaps? Or are you just going to move it with you from the get go?

Jim Santos 02:52 
I think we ended up doing a combination of everything, sold some stuff, gave some stuff away, put some stuff in storage, shipped a container, and then we were constantly muling back and forth, too.

Suzan Haskins 03:04 
We did the same thing. We did the same thing. Our story is very similar.

Jim Santos 03:08 
Now, the couple you wrote the article about, Chris and Jasmine, how did they reach the decision that they were going to ship some items? 

Suzan Haskins 03:18 
I don't think they ever went through the decision of not deciding to bring their stuff. I think they were always going to do it once they decided that they were going to move. However, they did spend time in Costa Rica. They kicked around Uvita, which is where they were considering moving to, actually ended up moving to the Central Valley of Costa Rica once it was said and done. 

But their initial focus was on the small town of Uvita, southern Costa Rica. And so they spent some time there and they did some shopping, looked around and figured out that they couldn't replace all of their things without considerable cost and that some of the things that they wanted to bring either just weren't available or, again, very hard to source. 

And they had all of those sentimental things that they wanted. Chris was in the military, and he had his uniform and his gear, and he knew he wanted to start this home inspection construction business, and he knew it would be rather expensive to replace all of the tools that he'd already bought once. So I think they did this cost benefit analysis and decided that the price and the pain of packing all their stuff up and moving it was worth it for them.

Jim Santos 04:53 
Yeah, you raised a very important point there. It's really a good idea to go to your destination country first and visit all the stores and the hardware stores and check out not just the price of the items, but the quality.

Suzan Haskins 05:10 
You know, my friend Michael Harris that I also interviewed for this article, who also happens to live in Costa Rica, he told me know, the name brand tools are all available. And I know that from living in Panama and Mexico and Ecuador, I know that you can go into hardware stores and you can find Black and Decker and all of that kind of thing, but it's a little bit different in some of these stores. The Do It Center in Panama, you know, you have to be very careful. 
They do what's called proof of life. When you buy something, you probably encountered this where you plug something in in the store and make sure it works before you take it out because returns are not as ubiquitous and not as easy to do in some of these countries as they are in the US. So Michael decided that he wanted to bring all of his tools with him because the return policies in some of these countries is difficult, and he didn't feel the quality is quite as good for some of the appliances and the tools, especially that he knew he'd be using on a daily basis.

Jim Santos 06:16 
Right. I really enjoy cooking, and when I started looking at the cookware in Ecuador, the pots and pans are all very thin metal. I've seen someone bend a fork while they were trying to cut a steak. So, yeah, it is really important to check that out in advance.

Suzan Haskins 06:34 
Right? It's a brave new world out there. Every country is a little bit different. And if you want those good cooking tools, you can find them, but they're often quite a bit more expensive than we're used to here in the States. So if you have them, why not bring them? And in some cases, as you also know, you can bring things like that in your checked luggage, right? 

So you may not decide to bring all of your furniture and all of that, but if you do like to cook, you probably want to bring your pots and pans, your knives, and all of those things that you love to cook with on a daily basis. Put them in your checked luggage and bring them with you. And like you said, even if you go back and forth a few times and you wheel things down every time you make a trip to the US to see the grandkids or your family, pretty soon you'll have your stuff there.

Jim Santos 07:29 
Whenever we returned to the States to see the kids, we each had one suitcase inside of another suitcase. And then when we came back, we had four extremely full suitcases.

Suzan Haskins 07:40 
I have done that. In fact, I've done shopping trips to countries where I know I'm going to buy a lot of textiles or things that they make there, artisan goods where I put one suitcase inside of another one, an empty suitcase often, and bring them back stuff full of stuff. So now I have more stuff.

Jim Santos 07:59 
Well, there's some specialty things like spices that you can't necessarily find in one of the countries right now, once you've made the decision that you're going to ship a container and these are normally 20 foot long, I think they're about 8ft tall, 8ft wide, something like that. Once you decide you're going to do that, how do you go about arranging that? And how early should you start? How long does this process take?

Suzan Haskins 08:25 
Well, as soon as possible. I'd say as soon as you know for sure that you're going to be looking to move overseas. And as soon as you apply for that visa, find a shipping and customs agent in the country that you're moving to, because they will be your best friend when it comes to moving your stuff overseas. 

And it's all about trust. I think you have to find somebody who's good at this, somebody who has expertise and experience, who's done it many times, and who has a relationship with customs brokers in the country that you're moving to. I mean, we all know that most business everywhere is based on relationships. 

So I would say, as soon as you decide to apply for a visa and decide that you're moving to a country, reach out to a customs broker and get them on your side. Because as Pablo Arias, whom I interviewed in Costa Rica, he's the customs broker, the shipping relocation specialist in Costa Rica. As he told me, sometimes your visa determines what you can bring or what your process should be. In many countries, a retirement visa will allow you to bring your stuff in duty free.

So they kind of, at times, go hand in hand. Your visa and your shipping requirements, or the ability to bring your things in duty free. So I would say those things go hand in hand. So as soon as you decide to apply for the visa, reach out to the customs broker, ask your attorney to make sure that all of these little pieces of the puzzle are fitting together in the right way and move forward that way.

Jim Santos 10:24 
Yeah. I'd have to say that for this, it's very important that you have professionals and people who are in the country that you're going to who know the ins and outs and can get things through customs smoothly, know how to set it up correctly so it goes through the first time.

Suzan Haskins 10:39 
Absolutely. And a lot of times, if you do it correctly, you're going to have very little problem going through customs. If they know your shipping agent, they will approve your stuff, and it won't sit on the customs dock for a long time. But there can be instances where you don't fill out the paperwork correctly. I mean, this would be a place where I would never want to do this by myself because I would be so afraid of making a mistake and having my stuff sit on the shipping dock for a long time, which can incur a lot of additional costs.

Jim Santos 11:16 
Yeah, we've met people who ran into problems like that, and most of the time it was because they didn't follow the directions correctly.

Suzan Haskins 11:23 
Yes.

Jim Santos 11:24 
For example, when you're packing things, some countries will want you to have a box of men's clothing and you have a box of women's clothing, and you can't mix them. Right? You have a box of kitchen items, and you can't put anything else in there but kitchen items. And they were doing things like wrapping their kitchen items in their towels, which was what you would do if you were moving across the US. Or from one home to another. You would use your towels to pack your stuff. So also, there are some rules against shipping brand new appliances, for instance, so it can be worth your while to take them out of the new shipping boxes. If you decide to ship a new washing machine or a stove or even a small appliance, take them out of the original boxes and put them in a different box so that you don't incur a lot of customs fees.

Jim Santos 12:21 
Yeah, that's a very good point. Our shipper, for example, told us that there was a limit on the number of TVs that you could bring with you. And they suggested right.

Suzan Haskins 12:30 
Electronics. Yeah.

Jim Santos 12:31 
And they suggested the same thing, to open the box, take out the warranty information or the paperwork and everything like that, and to label the box not just TV, but living room TV and another one bedroom TV.

Suzan Haskins 12:46 
Good plan. I know. And every country is different, so that's why it's really important to have a local shipping and custom specialist, especially when the languages are different. That's another issue, because a lot of times your shipping documents, your list, needs to be translated into the language, whether it's Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, of the country you're moving to. So, again, that's where that shipping agent can really be worth their weight in gold.

Jim Santos 13:19 
Now, how would you go about finding the shipping agent? Say I'm moving to Portugal. Don't know anyone in Portugal. How would I go about finding a decent shipping agent there?

Suzan Haskins 13:29 
Well, this is where boots on the ground comes in. Again, when you are scouting the location where you will live, talk to the local expats that live there. Ask them who they used, if they did move their things. Eventually you'll find someone who did, and they'll give you a good recommendation or a bad recommendation, somebody to avoid. 

Another way to do this is through Facebook. Love it or hate it, there are Facebook expat groups for every single community, I think, out there that you might be interested in moving to. So search for those expat Facebook groups and ask your question there, and you will get a host of answers. And pretty soon, the same name will bubble to the top, and you'll find someone that you can reach out to and see if you have an affinity with. 

I mean, a lot of this is, like I said before, personal relationships. You have to have trust in the person that's helping you. So interview them, talk with them, see how you feel about working together, because this will be a long process. It will take several months, in likelihood, for your things to go from the United States or Canada to the place that you're thinking of moving to.

Jim Santos 14:54 
I know it took us weeks just to pack everything.

Suzan Haskins 14:57 
Yeah, right. It can be time consuming every step of the way, and you want to make sure that you're doing it right, like you said, putting the right things in the right boxes, labeling them correctly, et cetera.

Jim Santos 15:11 
And now, one of the things you recommended in the article was keeping an itemized list of what was in each box.

Suzan Haskins 15:17 
Yes. And like Chris and Jasmine did, they made three copies of that list. They put a plastic envelope, which I think this is great advice, adhered a plastic envelope to the outside of the box and put two copies of what was in each box into that envelope. And then they kept one and then labeled the boxes by numbers so that customs could easily remove one of those pieces of paper that had all of the itemized information on it and made the process very easy. 

And I'm sure this is the direction that Pablo gave. Again, you know, these are things you might not think about, but that will make the process easier for you.

Jim Santos 16:04 
Well, as you probably know, I'm a kind of geeky nerd. So we had an excel spreadsheet list.

Suzan Haskins 16:10 
I'm sure you did.

Jim Santos 16:11 
And put a number on each box and a number on the spreadsheet and the type of items, and then a list of all the items in it.

Suzan Haskins 16:17 
Right.

Jim Santos 16:18 
And approximate value. It's also important to know the approximate value of each box.

Suzan Haskins 16:22 
Exactly.

Jim Santos 16:24 
And what we found, though, that was really helpful, too. Once you arrive at your destination and you've got this pile of… I think we had 138 boxes or something… so they're all over the condo, and you need the frying pan. I could look on the spreadsheet list and say, okay, we're looking for box number 32.

Suzan Haskins 16:43 
Well, you're a special case, Jim.

Jim Santos 16:47 
That's probably the nicest way to put it. Yeah. Any other tips for packaging your goods?

Suzan Haskins 16:56 
I think you need to be careful that you don't overpack. Make sure they're not too heavy, just kind of common sense things. It's the same when you're shipping overseas as it is here. You don't want to make boxes so heavy that someone can't lift them and risks dropping them. Just use common sense and move forward.

Jim Santos 17:18 
Yeah. You also mentioned good quality packing tape as being essential. You don't want your bargain brand tape for an international ship.

Suzan Haskins 17:25 
Exactly. And buy that bubble wrap. Buy the good bubble wrap.

Jim Santos 17:31 
I also know that you don't have to. I mean, we're talking about 20-foot containers. It sounds like a lot of space, but once you start packing stuff, if you're shipping your whole household overseas, that's not a lot of space. What we did was marked out an area on the floor, approximate footprint of the cargo box, and then stacked our boxes in that space to make sure we had enough room.

Suzan Haskins 17:55 
That's a very good idea. And you know, Chris and Jasmine, they didn't, I don't think they moved an entire container. So there may be some instances, if you're not moving everything in your household, where you can share a container with someone who's doing the same. And, again, your shipping agent can help you there. They can find someone to help you split up the cost of that container, and you use half of it, and somebody else use the other half. So there are several ways to go about this and lots of avenues you can take.

Jim Santos 18:34 
Yeah, I've met people who just shipped a pallet of material, several boxes piled on a pallet, and shrink wrapped.

Suzan Haskins 18:39 
Right. And the first time we moved overseas, back in 2001, airlines were still allowing you to ship boxes full of stuff. So I think we had… I don't remember how many huge boxes we had. Plus we had our 90-pound chocolate lab with us, so we were able to move quite a lot of things. We even had a small television and pots and pans and stuff like that packed in our boxes that we sent by airplane. 

So you're not really able to do that as much anymore, but in some instances, you still can. So especially, I think one of the things I wrote about in the article is if you're not moving a lot of things, consider bumping yourself up to business class, first class, whatever you call it, and taking your limit in luggage. I think you can take a couple of suitcases of 70 pounds each, and that's quite a lot of stuff you can pack in those.

Jim Santos 19:45 
Yeah, we've done that before for exactly that reason, so we could move a little bit more. Yeah. Now, one of the things you mentioned that you might want to consider shipping are the personal items. Those are really helpful the first few months that you are living in a new culture, it's very common to get very homesick, right? And having some familiar items around. You can really help with that right there.

Suzan Haskins 20:08 
Right, There might be, you know, some framed family photos or, Dan and I each have a coffee mug that has been to I don't know how many countries with, you know, just having your favorite coffee mug. Something that means something to you, sitting on the table where you can look at it and go, okay, this is home. Even if it's a temporary home, that can really help. Especially, as you said, those first few months when you're sort of trying to find your way in this new place.

Jim Santos 20:44 
You and Dan have relocated several times. Do you have a preferred method?

Suzan Haskins 20:48 
Well, like I said, we've done this several different ways. When we first moved to Ecuador in 2001, we took nothing except those big boxes on the airplane that we could take with us at the time of our travel, and we put a lot of stuff in storage. Then about a year and a half later, we were living in Mexico, and we decided to ship a lot of our things to Mexico. So we did what Chris and Jasmine did. We loaded up a container ourselves, which it was called UPAC, and it was offered by U Haul. They took it to the border, and then our guy in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, drove up to the border, brought it across the border, our customs specialist, and then he drove it down to Mexico. 

When we unloaded it, we found that a lot of our household items had been made in Mexico. Anyway, our furniture, armoires and those kinds of things had been made in Mexico. And we thought, okay. So we imported them from Mexico to the US. When we originally bought them. Now we're re importing them to Mexico, so we never did that again.

Our next few moves, we sold our houses completely furnished and moved with simply our suitcases. And for us, there's something refreshing about doing this. As you know, Jim, my husband's a musician, so he does have guitars and saxophones and things like that, that he moves with him. But we typically each carry on one of his beloved instruments when we move. 
And then again, each time we go back, we mule something new down. So eventually our things all make it where we're going. But like I said, there's a host of ways to approach this idea of moving your things overseas, and it's all about your comfort level and what you want to have with you.

Jim Santos 23:03 
Yeah, I think probably the number one thing you can do. We talked about making an exploratory trip first to check out the stores and the condition of materials and things like that. But don't forget that you're also moving into a new place, and you got to make sure that your stuff will fit in that place.

Suzan Haskins 23:21 
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's a big mistake people make, because your overstuffed lazyboy isn't going to do well in a tropical climate. If you're moving to the beach, for instance, or even some of your wood items, they are not made for the tropics, and maybe they won't even look right in the place that you're moving into. 

So this may be the time again to start new, especially when it comes to big furniture items. Many of those you can typically buy overseas. It's just are you going to feel comfortable with them? And a lot of times the things that you buy are made locally by wonderful artisans, and that new stuff is going to fit in with your new home much better than your old stuff will.

Jim Santos 24:12 
Right. So you end up having stuff in two or three countries, I think.

Suzan Haskins 24:16 
Yeah. Well, that can happen, but it's part of the adventure, right?

Jim Santos 24:23 
Yeah, I think American bedrooms and living rooms tend to be bigger. American homes tend to have higher ceilings, too. So that beautiful bed that you love and the end tables just may not fit in your new bedroom. So you got to be careful to once you've bought a place or renting a place, you want to make sure you have good measurements of all of the rooms before you start loading that container, I think.

Suzan Haskins 24:46 
Yeah, that's a very good idea. I think, again, a lot of this goes hand in hand deciding where you're going to live, not just the location, but what kind of home or apartment you're going to live in. Getting your visa and getting the process of shipping in order all kind of go together.

Jim Santos 25:06 
And can you get it into your new home? I don't know how many times in Ecuador I saw somebody tying ropes to a large piece of furniture and trying to pull it up ten stories to bring it in through the balcony.

Suzan Haskins 25:19 
Yes, because as well as I do, those elevators are not the same size as the elevators in the States. They're typically far smaller.

Jim Santos 25:34 
Something that I always get asked at conferences and see emails about. People always want to know if they can ship their automobiles. I assume that's going to vary from country to country, what the rules are for that?

Suzan Haskins 25:48 
Yes, absolutely. Some countries you cannot ship your automobiles, and some you can. And after this article was published and went to print, in fact, Pablo Arias, who is the shipping expert in Costa Rica, texted me and said, oh, my goodness, I have just been the first shipping agent to import a vehicle into Costa Rica without paying customs duties on it. 

And he was very excited about that because that is a big deal. Anyone who lives in Costa Rica knows that you pay big customs duties on your vehicles. But because of COVID the government of Costa Rica instituted a new law for retirees and investors. I believe that they can bring vehicles into Costa Rica duty free, but no one had been able to actually make that process work yet. 

So Pablo was very proud to tell me that he has been the first shipper to actually do that under the new law. So that's a big feather in his cap. But like you said, some countries you can't. And if you do bring a vehicle into a know, there are lots of considerations. For instance, you know, Latin America, driving in many of these countries, you want to have a vehicle that's high off the road because there can be topos, which are like speed bumps or maybe potholes in some places, and you want to make sure that your car is capable of navigating those roads.

You want to make sure that it's a vehicle that's commonly sold and serviced in that country so that you can get parts for it if you need to do that, which you will need to eventually, and that you will be able to resell that car. You know, lots of considerations for bringing your car. And again, your shipping agent is a great source of information for all of that kind of thing.

Jim Santos 28:04 
We've been talking about shipping strategies with Suzan Haskins and her article on the September 2023 issue of International Living ‘I Want to Move Abroad, But What Do I Do With My Stuff?’. You can also read more about the move Rita and I made to Ecuador in the short story Shipper Mule, available in Kindle format. You can find it on JimSantos.net. 

Suzan, always a pleasure to have you on the show, and thanks for giving us such a moving podcast.

Suzan Haskins 28:27 
Well, thank you, Jim. It was a lot of fun.

Jim Santos 28:41 
The Bigger, Better World podcast is a production of International Living. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast. Please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. If you have an idea for an episode or a question you'd like us to answer, email us at mailbag@internationalliving.com. And don't forget to put podcast in the subject line of your email. That's mailbag@internationalliving.com. 

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Chris And Jasmine—How They Got Their Stuff to Costa Rica & What They Left Behind
Tools And Equipment—Perhaps it’s Better to Bring Them Than Buy New Ones
You Want to Ship A Container, How Do You Go About Doing That?
How to Find a Shipping Agent
Sharing a Container—A Good Way to Cut Costs
U-Haul to Mexico—A Destination You Can Drive to
Shipping/Importing Your Automobile, And Great New Laws in Costa Rica
Some Good Reasons Why You Might Not Want to Bring Your Car