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Brett Arends's ROI: Hot springs in January, no traffic, and universal healthcare. The best retirement escape you’ve never heard of

Money manager Matt Patsky stood at the window of his hotel on the Portuguese island of Sao Miguel in March last year, looking out over the Atlantic, and thought: I’m not sure we can retire here after all.

He told his husband, “I don’t know [if] we could live here. It looks like the people are crazy. There are people going in the water, swimming in the ocean. How crazy do you have to be to go swimming in the Atlantic in March?”

Patsky, 56, mentioned this to a local real-estate agent later the day. The man didn’t understand the issue. The water, he said, was probably no colder than 65 degrees.

How these Americans save money in retirement: They live in Spain

As Boston-based Patsky adds: In New England you’re lucky if the water gets that high in August.

It’s “one of the great selling points of the Azores,” he says. “It is rarely below 60. It is rarely above 80. And the water temperature tends to be steady between 65 and 75 degrees.”

Patsky says he and his husband, a retired businessman age 66, are “80%” sure they are going to live outside the United States when they retire. They are tired especially of the politics and the racial tensions.

The number one thing that attracted them to the Azores wasn’t the weather.

It was the emigration.

Portugal, they discovered, offers the all-round fastest, cheapest, easiest way to get a so-called “golden visa,” meaning a fast track to permanent residence and citizenship.

You have to have means, but this is not purely for Rockefellers. If you want to get Portuguese residency, and a passport, you need to buy a home in the country and spend at least some money fixing it up, and spend at least seven days a year in the country for the next five years.

After six months you get a residency card. After five years, a passport.

The threshold prices vary, depending on the type of home you buy and where you buy it, but they start at 280,000 euros (About $310,000).

As part of the deal, says Patsky, you have to buy the home with cash. You can’t take out a Portuguese mortgage. But you can always raise the cash by remortgaging your U.S. home. The money thresholds are lower than in many other countries. And the seven-day requirement lets Patsky continue his job in Boston, as the CEO of socially responsible investing company Trillium, during the five years.

A small but growing number of Americans are choosing to retire abroad—some because it’s cheaper, some because they have family or roots there, and some because of the lifestyle, culture or ambience. The numbers receiving Social Security checks overseas has risenby a third in 10 years, and that doesn’t count all the “retirement refugees” who get their benefits deposited in a bank here in the U.S.

Europe is by far the most popular destination by continent, with about a quarter of a million U.S. retirees based on Social Security direct deposits. That includes nearly 13,000 in Portugal.

“Portugal has been so welcoming to the LGBT community, that you are seeing a huge number of LGBT couples looking at Portugal,” Patsky. On their trips to the Azores, Patsky says he and his husband have been bumping into other LGBT couples from the U.S. looking at golden visas as well.

On a recent trip they overheard four American women at the next table in the restaurant. It was “two lesbian couples from Philadelphia, looking at the ‘golden visa’ and looking at property in the Azores. We ended up sitting with them with my iPad open looking at property.”

You can see the islands’ attraction. There are regular flights from various North American and European cities, he says. “It’s a 4½ hour flight from Boston, and because of our large Azorean population there are actually daily flights,” he says.

Pretty much everyone on the island speaks English, which is taught in schools as a compulsory second language.

“It’s like living in a Portuguese fishing village,” Patsky says of Ponta Delgada, the city on Sao Miguel. “It has a lot of the same feel as Provincetown (in Massachusetts) in terms of being a fishing village. It’s quaint.” The population is about 70,000. “It’s a good size, and it’s got a very vibrant economy.”

Thanks to some spectacular cliffs, it’s also hosted the Red Bull World Cliff Diving World Series on several occasions, including last year.

He and his husband love the island’s natural beauty as well. “January, we were swimming, we were at the hot springs. Incredible. This really is nice weather year round. There is no traffic. There is no rush hour.” The longest distance you could drive on the island, from one point to another, would take you an hour, he says.

And unlike in Boston, he adds with a laugh, you don’t see snow.

Patsky says recent political developments make them both want to retire abroad, to flee America’s rising racial tension and politics. Last year his husband, who originally came from the Philippines, was run over on a pedestrian road crossing in Boston. He was left lying on the pedestrian crossing with multiple fractures. When the policeman arrived at the scene… he asked the prone 65-year old for his Social Security number to see if he was here illegally, Patsky says.

“My husband and I want to make sure that our retirement is spent in a country that respects the dignity of every person,” Patsky says, “and that treats access to health care as a human right.” Portugal has a public health service, modeled after Britain’s National Health Service, which is available to all residents.

The couple had started talking about an “exit plan” right after the 2016 presidential election. Research led them to Portugal, and the Azores.

They are hardly alone in looking at the Azores. This is starting to turn into an established exit route. “There are hotel chains that are selling villas at exactly the price point you need to get the golden visa,” Patsky says. They’ll even rent the villa out for you to tourists, to generate income, and say they’ll buy it back again after the five years.

They won’t be moving for at least five years. Patsky’s remaining at the helm of Trillium following its takeover by Australia’s Perpetual Limited. He says one of the key appeals of Portugal’s visa program is that he can carry on working full time in the U.S. while at the same time completing the process needed to get his passport.

Naturally there are forms to fill out. You’ll need the usual financial and employment records. You’ll also need an FBI report to prove you have a clean rap sheet. (Pro tip from Patsky: Don’t get your fingerprints done at the police station on card. Get them done electronically at the post office and apply online. It will save you weeks).

And what about that major retirement headache, health care?

You will need to prove you have health insurance in your home country every year during the initial five years, Patsky says. Medicare will count.

And when you finally retire to the country full time? After your five year period you’ll have a Portuguese passport. And that means an EU passport. And so you can move anywhere in the EU, including those places with the most lavish, generous public health insurance.

“You can pick wherever you want to retire because it’s the EU,” he says.

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