Forging A New Life Abroad: Rich Holman

At 63, Rich Holman decided to uproot his life in Naples, Florida, and move to Medellin, Colombia, to start a real estate business. He’d never worked in real estate before, and barely spoke Spanish.

Holman is now 69 and says his business, Lifeafar, has more than 30 employees who oversee rentals, sell properties and help other English-speakers make the sort of overseas leap he did. Edited excerpts of his conversation with Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman:

I’ve had several careers. I helped start a publishing company. At one time, my stake was worth more than $10 million, but less than two years after that we had to file for bankruptcy and I received nothing. Then I went into investment banking and got caught in the Nasdaq collapse in 2002 and lost half my net worth, about $500,000. My last career was in mortgage banking.

I first came to Medellin in August 2006. I thought, “This is the world’s best-kept secret.” On the second trip I switched from relaxation mode to thinking, “I have to consider buying something here.” I told my Dad. He said, “What? Are you crazy?”

The perception of Colombia is very different from the reality. The big change in the country was in 2002, when Alvaro Uribe came into office as president. The security improved and overnight this country started changing. You could see it in the real estate prices starting to go up. I’ve been offered more drugs in the states than I have in Colombia.

I really wanted to move. I lost my father in 2007 and moved here the next month. Starting the business was a tremendous amount of work, though my initial out-of-pocket expense was less than $10,000. This will give you an idea of the cost to live here: Because I purchased my own place, I could literally quit working and live off my Social Security of $1,800 per month. For a frugal lifestyle, my monthly costs would be $1,500. So it’s always been nice to know I have a backup in case the company never worked out.

As it stands now the company is doing well. I’m down to 50-hour workweeks, we are profitable and I am about ready to start drawing my first paycheck. It’s fun and it’s all starting to come to fruition. I think it’s critical that you keep track of your stress, and that you let it be positive stress and not negative stress.

When it comes to moving abroad, it’s not as hard as you think. The thing that holds back a lot of Americans is that they get entrenched with family stuff. That’s one thing that you really can’t change. I’ve been trying to get my brother to come down here since I moved here. My son has been here a couple times.

I only had some high school Spanish when I arrived. I can converse in Spanish pretty well right now. I love trying to fit into this place. I’m single and my social life has never been better. There’s no age discrimination here – it’s an advantage to be older.

When I was 63 in Florida, it felt like people were looking at me like I should be getting ready for the nursing home. It was like, “I’m done, it’s over.” Here, the last quarter of my life is the best quarter of my life. I see guys my age coming down and they look like they’ve got one foot in the grave. I see them six months later and they look like different people. They’re living again.

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