Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Retiring in Serbia - Yes, No, Maybe?

A reader just emailed me to ask about retiring in Serbia. I'm not retired yet, but definitely considering things. Plenty of expat Serbs do retire in Serbia now, and that number will increase phenomenally if/when EU ties are on the horizon. Some considerations:

o Cheap living -- Belgrade is pretty pricey (although not compared to London, New York or Boston), but other places, such as my part-time hometown of Sombor Serbia are remarkably cheap. You can buy or build a house for very little, perhaps 100k Euros for a nice house in the best part of town. Locally grown food at the greenmarket is inexpensive too. Imported stuff gets pricey.

o Bring your car -- Cars, even used ones, are really expensive. If you're coming from the US or Canada where cars are cheaper, then import your own vehicle. (Each Serb citizen gets to import one car free from customs tax per lifetime. I think the car must be less than 5 years old.) Shipping to German ports is up to 2/3 cheaper than shipping to Croatia. You can keep your US plates for a fairly long time.

o Don't move to a village or a fairly small town (unless you are from there.) Serbian villages can get incredibly claustrophobic, even for returnees. That's why we like Sombor, it's big enough to have a mix of people and not everyone is watching what you do all the time.

o Keep an 'escape hatch' outside Serbia -- Even if you sell your house outside Serbia, you might want to hang on to a cheap apartment or small condo in your old country just as someplace to go when you need some fresh air, especially in the winter when the coal-smoke from your neighbors' household heating gets too hard to breath (loads of people have respiratory problems in Sombor in the Winter) and/or when you just need to return to the thinking-cap of the wider world. Serbia can feel too parochial sometimes if you've lived elsewhere.

Some people I know consider buying a tiny condo in Belgrade as their escape hatch when they move back to smaller Serbian towns... I bet that would work for expanding your mindset somewhat, but Belgrade air quality isn't great in winter either.

o Medical and dental care isn't that bad -- My husband regularly has his dental work which would cost thousands in the US, taken care of by our dentist in Sombor for much less. I get my prescription glasses made up there. Great, fashionable frame selection and the cost is very reasonable. We've heard good things about heart surgeons in Novi Sad. You have to check through the grape vine about quality of medical care, but it's generally not bad.

o Buy clothing overseas or have it made there -- Off the rack clothing costs way too much in Serbia and there are no "outlet malls" or places like TJ Max. I've seen low-quality outfits (the sort that fall apart when you wash them a few times) selling in Belgrade malls for $400 or more. My sister in law who is planning to retire to Belgrade next year also plans annual clothing shopping trips to the US. Plus, she buys fabric and has local Serb tailors make outfits for her at very reasonable costs.

BTW: No size 10 women's shoes in Serbia (or Croatia) that I know of. If your feet are larger than US women's 9 1/2, you'll have to buy all your shoes somewhere else. It's also hard to find a large selection of books in English, so you'll need to ship them in.

o Add a guestroom -- the primary reaction of my whole circle of family and friends to our announcement that we were going to be living part-time in Serbia from now on was "When can I come visit?" We are now everyone's vacation destination - my brother plans to fish the Danube, my sister to go rug-shopping in Subotica, etc., etc.

o Visit in the wintertime - Don't base your decision to move to Serbia on a Summertime visit. August especially is very different from "regular" life, with all the ex-pat fatcats swanning around town showing off their German SUVs, fat wallets, and fatter waistlines. Come and stay for at least a few weeks in the off-season when you are the only ex-part visiting in town. See if you fit in as well, and if you like it. I loved Sombor in March, when practically no one else does, so I knew I'd be OK. But I am unusual.

o Build a silly house -- Maybe there's a law? :-) Returning expats often build houses that look nothing else in town. Either it's the house of their deeply-personal dreams, or a house that reminds them of "back home", or a house for nouveau-rich-style showing off. I've seen houses that looked like palaces, houses with only circular round windows, shocking pink houses, etc.

o Keep the bulk of your retirement funds outside Serbia -- As I mentioned in a past post, banks in Serbia are not very safe. Your deposit is only insured for a couple of thousand dollars. Even banks with famous Western European brand names, may be nothing more than Serb franchises and not as safe as their mother banks. The Serb stock market is worth playing a little, but it's so new I would not trust the bulk of my savings to it.

Have you retired or considered moving back to Serbia? Got any tips to add to this list? Please post them! Thanks.


G. Bruce Chapman said...

Hi Rosemary,
A few things to help Westerners...

Join the British Counsel. A few bucks a year and you get access to their library of books, videos and DVDs. Free Internet access on their computers too. They are located in downtown Belgrade, across from "Invest Import" on Knez Mihailo street.

Buying property? Make sure you get the true title to the land. Much is still in dispute going back generations.

Ask around and you'll find people who "import" clothing from Turkey. Turks make much of the expensive clothing for Euro designers. I got two Hugo Boss suits for less than 175 Euros.

Attila said...

G Bruce is right, check out the market in Subotica (buvjak) it has a great selection of turkish made clothing, much of better quality than what you can find in premier stores in belgrade.

Anonymous said...

Actually (and regrettably, for us in Belgrade), a comment concerning the British Council needs an update. The library has been displaced to Kragujevac and the video/DVD collection is now in... Novi Sad, I think. There is American Corner: http://www.ac-belgrade.net/, but in our opinion it might be somewhat better stocked.

Cheers, Ana