Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
From hatched plan to landing on the island of Puerto Rico to buy a farm took us about a year. There was the usual tying up of loose ends in California that had to be done. A necessary first step was for us to decide what we had accumulated during the 10 years as a couple and 40+ years as individuals we would keep and what we would donate, sell on eBay, or leave with friends.
This took several months, which brought us to mid-January. In that 6-month period, we took several strolls through our neighborhood. So much had changed since we bought our home in the fall of 2001.
Children playing with their dogs and their neighbors’ kids, and grown-ups sitting on front porch rockers had been replaced with For Sale signs that sat for weeks and months. Once in a while, one would be swapped out for a Foreclosure sign.
Selling a House During the Great Recession
The excitement we had between the summer and fall of 2007 gave way to pessimism and even fear. As we accepted that we were amid the worst recession the U.S. and the world had seen since the Great Depression, our hopes of reinventing ourselves looked bleak.
I confided to one of our neighbors that we feared we’d be stuck in this home, jobs we no longer loved, the lifestyle we wanted desperately to escape because we’d never be able to sell our house. What I really feared was that if we didn’t leave, my doctor’s prediction that I wouldn’t live to see my 45th birthday would come to fruition.
My neighbor in turn revealed that she and her husband had quietly sold their house before a For Sale sign was ever placed on their front lawn.
She gave me the name of their real estate agent who’d successfully sold their house in less than a week. How could this be when there were houses in our neighborhood that sat on the market for weeks and in some cases months, as well as a few that had already foreclosed or were short sales?
I could barely get through the door before I told Paul about this discussion and he gave me the “yeah, right!” look, but agreed to call him.
The next day we took off from work to clean our house and tidy up. Things were in such disarray with boxes packed, color coded tags on everything that indicated its fate: to donate, to sell, leave with friends and the little that would come with us — assuming we could pull off a miracle.
At 5:00 that evening, Ray Galvez walked in our home and said he loved what he saw. We figured he told this to all his potential clients. We showed him around. He had a bunch of questions we hadn’t expected to be asked:
“Who did your tile work?”
“Who came up with the color scheme for your walls and who painted them?”
“Who designed your front and backyard?”
“Who does your landscaping?”
Expecting a different answer to each question, he was pretty surprised to hear the one word response for each one was the same: “We did.”
“I can’t make any promises but I think I could have your house sold pretty quickly.” I am from New York City and we’re famous for spotting scammers pretty quickly and calling them on it.
“Please don’t blow smoke up our butts. We’ve seen the numerous For Sale signs all over the place. What’s different between our house and all those that are sitting on the market with no end in sight?”
“That’s a good question. I already know that you owe considerably less on your home than it’s worth.” Paul and I looked at each other and then back at Ray. “It’s my job to do my homework before I consider whether a house can sell or not.”
“I can think of half a dozen people who will fall in love with your house and make an offer before the week is out.”
It was Wednesday. I gave him a raised eyebrow.
Maybe this guy was blowing smoke up our butts and maybe he wasn’t, but all we could do was think about our neighbors whose house he sold before a For Sale sign was put out.
We signed a contract and as he walked out the door, he called someone. “I found your dream house. Can you meet me tomorrow at 2:00?”
We hired Ray not just because he was a good great real estate agent—which he was and still is. As a pillar of the community in our small town of Fillmore, Ray spent years building relationships with Fillmorians long before he started selling homes. As a result, within 24 hours and before our house was even on the market—just like our neighbors’ home — we had three legitimate and respectable offers.
Paul and I owe a debt of gratitude to Ray Galvez. I would not be sitting here writing these blogs had he been unable to sell our home during a major recession.
6 Months to Spend With Family and Decompress
Rather than leave immediately for Puerto Rico, knowing it may be a while before we would see our families again, we spent six months on the east coast so we could be close to them. We rented a house in upstate New York (outside of Woodstock).
We lived half an hour of my brother and some of my cousins and within a five-hour drive of Paul’s sisters and their families. Although we were anxious to get started with our new life, we’ll never regret our time with family. And honestly it was nice to decompress.
20+ years in corporate America had taken physical and emotional tolls on us both. We couldn’t have just jumped in to our new life.
'Bienvenido a La Isla Del Encanto': Assimilating to a New Life in Puerto Rico
We arrived to Puerto Rico on September 17, 2008. We rented the same house we’d rented for 2 weeks during our last stay on the island. Our hope was to put in an offer within six months but not sooner. We needed to familiarize ourselves with the area first, integrate ourselves as quickly as possible and learn Spanish.
To the extent that two Americans who’d been in the corporate world forever, who spoke only ten words of Spanish between them, who moved to an area where there were very few English speakers (intentional for many reasons), whose fashion choices and mannerisms made them stand out like sore thumbs, we managed to make friends very quickly. We have always been quick to apologize for and poke fun at our “beautiful Spanish,” which was and still is disarming. It immediately drops people’s defenses and breaks down barriers.
Integrating ourselves as quickly as possible was critical for two reasons: Ex-pat depression is very real. Having known only a handful of people before we moved to Puerto Rico, we had to gain a foothold in our new community to avoid feeling isolated, which can lead to depression.
One of the biggest reasons people return home when relocating to a new country is that they set themselves apart from their neighbors (usually subconsciously). And let’s face it, that’s the easy thing to do. The language is different, customs are different, the food is different, the music is different, and so on. So many differences, it’s easy to allow those differences to convince people that it will never work. The older people are when they relocate, the risk of being unable to assimilate or at minimum integrate increases.
The other reason was that we wanted to let people know why we moved. Because we never allowed our differences to overshadow our similarities and our common goals, we made friends quickly (many of whom we have to this day) and people were happy to tell us about properties they knew might be for sale.
Learning a New Language in Your 40s
Ain’t easy! It has improved greatly from our first few months here but that’s not hard when we started from nothing. We continue to improve and moreover, we continue to make fun of ourselves and ensure people it’s our problem not theirs.
Within two months of arriving here, we saw a farm that we fell in love with. It turned out to be in what’s known as herencia (pronounced airenceea). This means the owner or owners have died and the property has been willed to the heirs. Unless all the heirs have agreed to sell the property, move on. It could be years, even decades, before that property will sell.
While we didn’t buy the farm from this family, we ended up adopting two of their German shepherd dogs.
We continued looking and while many were nice, they weren't for us. By February 2009, we found another (potentially) perfect piece of property, ironically the next farm over from the one that was in herencia.
Buying Land in Puerto Rico
15 acres on paper, but likely closer to 18, 1,500 feet up, the 750-square foot house was about 400 feet from the road. We made an offer and it was accepted.
Another reason we needed to integrate ourselves quickly is so people saw us as locals serious about buying a farm to work not as rich retirees who were unaware of property values.
The day we closed on the property and we took the keys, we drove up to see it. No sooner did we open the gate and right behind us was a census taker. We always wondered whether it was odd timing or if he had been sent there.
A complete OMG! moment! Nearly two years after we’d made the decision to change our lives and reinvent ourselves, Paul and I were the owners of a farm on Puerto Rico. The first order of business was to expand the house so we could live in it.
Sarah Ratliff and her husband, Paul, abruptly quit their jobs after 20 years into serving a lifetime sentence in corporate America, moved to the interior of Puerto Rico, and bought an 18-acre farm. The goal with their farm, which they namedMayani Farms after one of their two “starter” goats, is to be self-sustaining (versus selling anything). Sarah is a freelance writer who recently published the book Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide. Follow Sarah on Facebookand Twitter, and on her website, SarahRatliff.com. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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