Picture yourself strolling along a cobblestone street lined with centuries-old architecture and views of the sea in the distance. Only you’re not on vacation or in a dream—this is your home. (And it didn’t cost you a fortune.)
If you’ve ever dreamed of buying an affordable house in a foreign country and moving there to live the expat life, 2023 is a great time to buy cheap real estate around the world, according to Ronan McMahon, an expert in international real estate.
“There’s a growing scarcity of quality real estate in highly desirable locations—but in the meantime, demand is surging,” McMahon told me in an interview. “We can still buy at a big discount to comparable destinations and real estate in the U.S.—but that window is set to close.”
With over two decades of experience and more than $2 billion in real estate transactions under his belt, McMahon knows the pulse of the global real estate market like no other. He’s the editor of Real Estate Trend Alert (a publication that tracks the best places in the world to invest in real estate), a trusted contributor to International Living and the author of three books on international real estate.
At the recent International Living conference, McMahon unveiled his new special report, The Best Places to Buy Real Estate in the World 2023, where he shared his top global real estate picks for 2023.
According to McMahon, when it comes to buying real estate abroad, there’s no magic formula. “There’s no magic trick to finding profitable real estate opportunities. It takes countless hours of research, lots of travel to check out new locations, strategic thinking and a strong knowledge of different real estate markets,” says McMahon. “Each country has its own unique market conditions, so it’s crucial to conduct thorough due diligence before making an investment.”
So what’s so great about buying real estate abroad—and living abroad? “For me this is the perfect path to freedom, both financial and personal,” says McMahon. “The freedom to go where you want, when you want. Freedom from worry and stress, to not to care what happens in the stock market or what’s happening in the 24-hour news cycle.”
Here, McMahon shares his picks for the five best places to buy cheap real estate around the world right now. “Whether you are a complete beginner or an investor with some real estate experience under your belt, finding the right place to buy is the first step in what could be a life-changing journey,” says McMahon.
The Location: “On the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, Europe’s Dalmatian Coast is an extraordinary island-speckled coastline that stretches from the Croatian town of Zadar to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro,” says McMahon. “It’s one of Europe’s most dramatic landscapes, encompassing enchanting cities such as Split, Sibenik and Dubrovnik.”
In the early 2000s, real estate buyers flocked to Croatia, snapping up ground floor opportunities in historic Dubrovnik and Split. “Today, the opportunity in Croatia has passed. Real estate prices have converged with other Mediterranean destinations,” says McMahon. “However, in the southern Dalmatian Coast, things are different. Montenegro is every bit as beautiful as Croatia, but, because it hasn’t yet entered the European Union, it hasn’t prospered like Croatia and real estate prices are still relatively low.”
The Scoop: In Croatia, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the equivalent of €100,000 bought you a condo with water views. “Today, you need to figure on paying multiples more. Yet, in Montenegro, homes with views of the county’s prettiest bay can still be got for €100,000,” says McMahon.
McMahon sees Montenegro right now as a land banking play. “The cost of developable land around the Bay of Kotor is still extremely low by international standards,” he says. “Figure on spending as little as €80 to €100 per square meter (or about $8 to $10 per square foot) for developable land with great views, 15 minutes’ drive from Kotor town. Then you sit and wait as development rolls in and prices rise.”
Insider Tip: It’s rumored that Montenegro will join the European Union by 2025—which makes for an interesting investment proposition. “If Montenegro enters the EU, you could see strong appreciation,” says McMahon. “I believe you have the chance to perhaps triple your money or more in five to ten years.”
Silver Coast, Portugal
The Location: Set between Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s Silver Coast stretches about 150 miles from Santa Cruz to Espinho. It’s lined with small towns and beautiful beaches—and it’s a great place to invest right now. “Portugal’s Silver Coast is a fantastic lifestyle buy. It’s not as crazy with tourists as Lisbon or the Algarve,” says McMahon. “Its beaches are pristine, there’s a treasury of stunning historic towns and fishing villages to explore, great seafood, golf, entertainment. And the people are friendly and easy going.”
The Silver Coast is home to Portugal’s only marine nature reserve and a mecca for surfers and golfing enthusiasts from around the world. “The beaches are wild, open, and sandy, ideal for long walks.
The Scoop: The value is hard to beat, too, with “prices significantly lower than Lisbon or prime spots on the Algarve,” says McMahon, who bought an ocean-view condo in a beach and golf resort in October 2020. “The total monthly payments (including mortgage, taxes, HOA fees and golf club dues on two great courses) came in at just under €1,110 (about $1,175).”
Mind you, if you’re looking for overseas real estate as a straight-up investment play, McMahon says you’ll do much better in Portugal’s Algarve. “However, if you’re looking for a deep-value lifestyle play, the Silver Coast should feature high on your shortlist. And you can generate some rental income,” says McMahon. “The Silver Coast attracts a lot of vacationers from Northern Europe during peak season and has a strong shoulder season due to its reputation among golfers.”
Insider Tip: “You don’t need to pay cash,” says McMahon. “Banks in Portugal will lend to foreign real estate buyers, as in Spain.”
Southern Zone, Costa Rica
The Location: Costa Rica’s Southern Zone stretches three hours south of the capital city of San José, encompassing towns like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal. “The Southern Zone offers what most tourists and second home buyers want in Costa Rica,” says McMahon. “It boasts unspoiled beaches, sharp mountains covered in forest, national parks and wildlife on your doorstep—and the opportunity for all kinds of outdoor activities (sea kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, wildlife watching).”
For decades this area was passed over in favor of other Costa Rican destinations that were easier to reach. “New highways have opened it up to the mainstream,” says McMahon. “But it’s still low key and boutique. You’ll find international cuisine and an active expat scene. You won’t find vast malls, drive though fast-food joints, or urban sprawl.
The Scoop: “Savvy buyers have been purchasing homes here to ride out the cold winter months in North America,” says McMahon. “And, some have bought for investment, generating an income stream.”
According to McMahon, a mountain-view lot in the Southern Zone will start around $40,000. With $150,000 to $200,000 you can buy a two- or three-bedroom home with a pool. In the $250,000 to $300,000 bracket, there’s a choice of homes, from modern eco designs to two-story homes with swimming pools.
Insider Tip: “The government plans to keep this gorgeous spot unspoiled. And, it can be tricky to find developable land and to get permits. So, you should look for an established developer with a track record of delivering quality homes,” says McMahon. “Building a custom home means you can get exactly what you want and will have maximum appeal for vacation renters. A nicely kitted out home with a pool here can make good rental income, thanks to strong demand and a lack of competition from big hotel chains.”
Costa del Sol, Spain
The Location: The Costa del Sol has long been one of Europe’s top tourist destinations—and it’s a great place to buy cheap real estate right now and enjoy a lower cost of living. “This strip of stunning coast ticks a lot of boxes. The weather is amazing, with 320 sunny days a year. It’s easy to get to, a short hop from most European cities, with an excellent airport at Malaga,” says McMahon. “And, it has something for everyone: top-notch golf, marinas, historic towns, museums and shopping, dining and nightlife.”
And it’s becoming more and more desirable. “It’s seen a rise in folks coming for longer stays, combining a vacation with work from home. And there’s been a surge in North Americans buying second homes here, making this coast truly international,” says McMahon.
The Scoop: “There’s a variety of real estate for sale, whether you want a bijou studio, a condo with golf or ocean views or a luxe beachside villa,” says McMahon. Here, you can buy a move-in ready one-bedroom apartment with a sea view on the Costa del Sol for as little as €99,000 (about $104,694). For €185,000 (about $195,642), you can get an apartment in a beachfront complex, with beach and sea views from the apartment.
In addition to low-cost real estate, Spain is also one of the few overseas destinations where it’s easy for a foreign buyer to get a bank mortgage. “The banks are open for business and happy to lend,” says McMahon, who points out in his report that interest rates are still relatively low—with variable rate mortgages from 3.2% (2.7% for the first year) and fixed rates from 3.9% to 4.7%.
Insider Tip: Prices are set to rise, since finance and tech firms are setting up offices here and transforming it into the new “Silicon Valley” of the Mediterranean. “This is huge for a coast that’s already seeing high interest from international buyers,” says McMahon.
Los Cabos, Mexico
The Location: “Los Cabos has emerged as one of the world’s hottest luxury destinations—2023 has already seen another record smashed for visitor numbers,” says McMahon. “Cabo attracts Hollywood celebrities, tourists, the work from home set and those looking for a slice of southern California without the crazy-high real estate prices.”
The area is anchored by the twin towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, and there’s a lot of potential in and beyond these tourist hubs, including places like the East Cape, Todos Santos, La Paz and Loreto. “Everywhere I’ve scouted in all directions from Los Cabos, the path of progress is exploding,” says McMahon. “Cabo and the Baja [Peninsula] is the perfect place for folks like us to figure out where and how to be ahead, do deals and make smart investments.”
The Scoop: There are deals all over the area, but one place that really excites McMahon is La Paz, the capital of the state of Baja California Sur. Set on the Sea of Cortez, it’s a two-hour drive from Los Cabos and is becoming increasingly chic. “La Paz is a very special place where your real estate dollars can stretch far. I’m talking about a nice home for under $100,000, a great sea-view home for under $300,000 and everything in between,” says McMahon.
But even in Cabo, where it’s more expensive than La Paz, the prices are still reasonable when you stack them up against what you’d pay in the U.S. Figure on spending $300,000 to $400,000, which will buy a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in a community with a good location, and high-end amenities, perhaps with golf or ocean views. “The median home price in California is close to $800,000 statewide; it has crested $1 million in Orange County and $1.4 million in the Bay Area,” says McMahon. “To these folks a half-million-dollar condo is a real bargain. That bodes well for re-sales and is a big factor on the inventory squeeze in Cabo (both for real estate sales and rentals).” It’s also appealing to renters (both long- and short-term) who are looking to generate an income stream.
Insider Tip: “I think we’re just at the beginning of Cabo’s full potential. The transformation taking place here (which I first predicted in 2014), that is turning this into the ultimate high-end destination, will run for the next 30 years,” says McMahon. “But simply being in Cabo isn’t enough. You need to invest in communities created at the highest standards in prime locations, places that will be very attractive on the re-sale market and will be on the radar of potential short-term and long-term renters.”