Giving Up the Script: Selling our House to become Digital Nomads

We were done living lives crowded into the corners of Saturdays and Sundays. But how exactly were we going to disentangle ourselves from the script and become digital nomads? What kind of effort was it going to take write our own plot line through long term travel?

Between September 2014 and September 2015, we sued someone to get our money back, sold our house and almost all of our worldly possessions, and left South Africa to travel the world. Here’s what we’ve learned in the process:

There are digital nomads of all ages, but it was easier for us to leave with a decade of savings and work experience under our belts

Because we had good jobs and were ambitious/lucky through our twenties, we have some savings. We lost a substantial portion of those savings when we bought a house (see learning #3), but we still have enough now to live comfortably in low cost countries for three years without making a dime. Minimizing stress goes a long way toward making the digital nomad lifestyle work long term. It’s stressful enough just to plan the logistics of travel without being under the incredible pressure of earning money now. Having a longer financial runway is allowing us to focus on the work rather than the ticking clock.

A lot of people freelance to fund their travels, and while this works for some, this recent Forbes article on digital nomads points out that the unpredictability of income from small-medium freelance jobs can be draining and cause nomads to eventually give up and go back home if they weren’t already successful freelancers before they went nomadic.

Instead of freelancing, we’re launching a business. Ours happens to be in online retail, the sector in which we have the most experience. We don’t expect to get rich as lifestyle bloggers or life coaches; we’re sticking with what we know. With enough runway we can invest a lot of effort in the beginning to build a streamlined income that is automated wherever possible. This is the whole idea of The Four Hour Work Week, right? Wind it up, watch it go.

Gear for Digital Nomads

The start of something great!

We plan to launch our first product on Amazon in April, so we’ll let you know how this pans out 🙂

Rebelling well takes practice, especially for people from conventional, externally motivated backgrounds

Let’s forget money for a minute. You can start out with nothing and make it work. (Good tips from Nomadic Matt on this) I wasn’t mentally ready to do it until now, after two years of training in internal motivation, i.e., doing what you know is important and sticking with it even when it sucks and no one is paying attention.

I have always done well in a very conventional success framework (turn in homework assignments, get participation points, hit straight As, go to college, get a job!) Some people question authority. I find it comforting. Some people are naturally motivated. I miss smiley faces and check pluses. It’s just who I am. My natural inclination is to tow the line and avoid confrontation.

Right before I resigned at Amazon, I had my annual review. It was okay. I thought I’d done an amazing job that year: I’d been promoted, made several efficiency gains, launched new programs. It took me weeks of anger and frustration to get over that mediocre review. I had confused Amazon’s promotion strategy (bell curve) with my own self-value. It wasn’t just that I thought I’d done a good job, because to be honest the constructive criticism I received was fair. I thought I deserved a good review in part because I had done a good job at something boring while being isolated in a satellite location from the rest of my team. In other words, I thought I deserved praise for doing the work at all. If I’d loved what I was doing, a mediocre review wouldn’t have mattered. I would have been happy just to do the work.

It took time and a complete rearrangement of my superego to become the sole, fair judge (along with David) of what kind of work is important enough to do every day, to decide for myself where I was doing well, and where I could improve with no outside encouragement or feedback. The first step was to have a baby and discover that while being a good parent is a very hard job that I now care more about than anything else, no one was going to give me any medals for it. Then in 2015, my job was to sell our house, everything we owned, be a mother and wife, hire contractors, and sue someone. Each of these tasks were launch requirements for our new life but they weren’t rewarding in the short term. Even if I had sued well (sued well?) and I didn’t, I still would have been unfulfilled and feeling sorry for myself at the end of the day. It took a lot of time and self-pity to reset my internal achievement gauge and get on with it.

If the work is critical to you, it doesn’t matter whether anyone else thinks you’re doing a good job. You’ll ensure that you’re doing a good job because you care about it so much. What’s important is that you’re doing it day in and day out and getting better: building a lifelong habit rather than setting one goal (Mark Manson’s great post on this), focusing on the work itself rather than the promotion it does or doesn’t get you, and getting through the crappy stuff without accolades because you know how much it matters. I stuck with the loathsome work of selling a house and now get to hang out with my son all day while David launches the business, and I still have time to write, read, and explore. Essentially, I’m in heaven.

It’s also easier since we’ve had a kid, believe it or not. I used to screw off all the time on the weekends before Spencer was born. I would spend an hour creating a Pinterest board of art I wanted to buy someday, or watching Colbert, or sleeping off a hangover. None of these are bad things once in a while, but my achievement role models tend to have simple, focused lives and a toddler certainly simplifies things. He goes down for a nap and I’m immediately either reading, writing, communing with enriching people, or going to the gym, because he could wake up any second and presto chango, me time is gone. I really should go to the gym today but Thailand is so hot! As you can see I have room for improvement, but I no longer have room for aimlessness.

Keep your savings in a strong currency (or gold investments), and if you must purchase a house, GET IT INSPECTED FIRST

We learned so much from buying and selling a house in South Africa. Here follows the saga, in case you’re interested.

In March of 2015 we had two big problems: 1) we had lost about 30% of our savings as the South African Rand sunk lower and lower in comparison to the dollar, and 2) our remaining savings were now tied up in a house that was also sinking, albeit in a more literal sense. If we hadn’t wanted a house we could have kept our money in US banks, but we had wanted the house.

We’d been approved for a 50% mortgage at 10% interest in May 2012. We moved into a pristine house in June, were dusted with plaster by the end of August (our house became a conduit for the winter rains and revealed what that sweet elderly couple had hidden), and by September I had taken photos of the water seeping through from the roof and paid the retainer for an attorney I’d found in a search for consumer law advocates online. The house had looked perfect. We should have had it inspected anyway.

south african home

The notorious leaking third floor with disarming views.

Under South African consumer law, real estate agencies are liable for misrepresenting properties to buyers. Most agencies transfer this liability to the seller by having the seller sign an affidavit attesting to the condition of the house. This had been done in our case, so we had to go after the seller or no one to try and get back the now $5,000? $10,000? $15,000? it was going to cost to fix. It was going to be an uphill battle to get our money out in tact and become long term travelers.

$5,000 to $20,000 was the price range of the estimates from the five contractors I called to assess the roof and write statements as to the cause of the damage, which they unilaterally agreed was latent (existing beforehand but not evident), and not patent (something that should be obvious to the lay buyer upon first inspection). They also unilaterally agreed that it would cost us a pretty penny, the prettiness corresponding to the finality of the fix. Some neighbors suggested we do a quick $2,000 re-torch and tile job, re-plaster the walls, enjoy our cocktails and the view of the ocean, and get ready to do it all again in two years.

Now that we wanted to put the house on the market, we didn’t want to worry about what would await our prospective buyers in the next rainy season. For some reason, blocky flat patio-roof concrete houses were fashionable in the early 90s when our complex of 26 houses was built. At our first homeowner’s meeting in September 2013, we learned that every house in the complex had water damage problems at some point due to the poor design of the flat roofs that guaranteed water collection, after which it became a matter of time until gravity found a way through the concrete slabs that flexed and cracked over time.

How could we have failed to notice that the paint in the corners of the now cracking and bubbling walls was a slightly different shade of white than the paint on the undamaged walls, meaning they’d certainly covered up old damage? Why would that sweet 75-year-old lady have risked a lawsuit by totally lying to us about the state of her house? How long was this process going to take? Should we fix the damage first, and then list the house for sale? That could take a year, if not longer. Should we list the house for sale now and point out the damage, hoping that if the price was right someone would be willing to fix it themselves?

Assuming it could take some time to sell the house, we wanted to do the expensive proper fix, and we’d have to sue the previous owners to pay for it. This brings me to our next learning, which is:

Do everything in your power to never sue someone

By September I’d been in South Africa for ten months and had acquired the expat’s skeptical judgment of character. I was now used to being a rip-off target for my foreign accent and my gender, and so when our prospective attorney, his office, his assistants, his explanation of the law, struck me as encouragingly professional, I was relieved. The attorney sent an engineer from a local firm out to our house to take pictures and write the $1,000 expert report that would show in engineering terms at a court hearing what David and I had known to be true for months: we’d been hoodwinked.

David was anxious to get out as quickly as possible. Both internal and external businesses were recruiting aggressively from his team, which was in a steady growth phase, so his work promised to get more and not less stressful in the near future. We had sent a letter of demand to the previous owners in October, and by December they had denied any wrongdoing. The legal process would be drawn out and painful.

In January, I received a strange call from my attorney. He discovered that the son of the people we were suing happened not only to be a fellow attorney, but an old friend of his. He promised to either move forward with the lawsuit if it didn’t cause a problem with his friend, or transfer us to another attorney in his firm. We didn’t hear from him again for months. I emailed every week, and when it became clear that I wouldn’t receive a response, I began calling. The attorney was out of the office whenever I called, and his assistant fed me a stream of assiduous promises that he would call me back. After yet another flabbergasting call to the attorney’s office in February, I leaned back in my chair and looked out the window. It was a typically gorgeous sunny day. The mountain was a bright red rock, the sun had faded the sky to a light light blue, and the ocean had again become a bathtub of broken glass. Is this real life? I wondered.

I realized that I couldn’t relegate South Africa’s way of life to handicraft markets and interpersonal exchanges in which language difference, poverty, and security all contributed to an altered mode of existence and interaction. I couldn’t sue someone, or buy a house, or pay a contractor to fix it, without South Africa’s bullshit reaching its long fingers in to complicate things. My very American sense of professionalism was irrelevant here, where loyalty was more powerful than contractual agreement, where problems were put off, forgotten about, foisted onto someone else according to some complex decision web that was completely opaque to me.

When I was done philosophizing my self-pity, we decided to list the house for sale and continue to dog the attorney, but hope that if we could just sell the house as is for what we paid, (it had an incredible view and wonderful layout for someone who was willing to put in the time and work), we could extricate ourselves with a minimal of hassle and further entanglement in the South African version of the script.

We were not going to use a real estate agent unless we had to. David often said he felt like we were bleeding money, and I agreed. If standard procedure was subjective in South Africa, then at least in this way the subjectivity would be to our advantage. We took pictures of the house and listed it on Gumtree, South Africa’s version of Craigslist.

Our decision to forego an estate agent paid off when a lovely young family of four saw and liked the house at the end of April. We agreed on the price we’d bought the house for, which meant that other than the money we’d lost in the rand’s inflation, we’d only lose the hefty sales tax we paid to buy the house a year earlier. Bleeding somewhat staunched.

We’d already paid the deposit for a roofing contractor, and surprise surprise, he didn’t want to return the deposit even though it was still six weeks in advance when we let him know about the sale. Luckily, the new owners agreed to use him in exchange for a discount, and give the discount back to us. One less person to sue. If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from our time in SA it’s to go over any contract with a magnifying glass beforehand and even then not to do business with anyone emitting remotely sleazy vibes, because suing someone is a pain I never want to experience again.

To this day, I still haven’t heard back from the attorney. At least he hasn’t been brash enough to send me a bill for the work he did at the beginning. Our last task was to sell everything we could do without and ship the rest back to the States in a container. Since this would be prohibitively expensive, we were essentially limited to mementos and art.

Read our other installments of Giving Up the Script:

i. Intro
ii. The Lead Up
iii. Selling Our House to Become Digital Nomads
iv. Selling Everything to Become Digital Nomads: Intro

6 Comments

  • Danyell says:

    I haven’t read this yet, but as soon as the boys leave I shall begin… I’m so excited! I can’t wait! If only you would write a book..
    Thank you for your quick comeback,
    Your sis Danyell

    • Sarah B says:

      I was thinking a lot about you as I wrote this, since talking to you on Christmas. We love you very much, give yourself and Kayne and Cory hugs from us and a sloppy kiss from Spencer 🙂

  • Rudi says:

    Great that you share this very personal part of your life along with the interesting learning you got on the way.
    I thought that SA was a smooth ride but after all these ups and downs your perception on material possessions and matter the most must have changed drastically.

    Keep on sharing your stories guys.

    I like your writing style btw Sarah. You got me hooked on the story.

    Rudi

    • Sarah B says:

      Hi Rudi, I’m glad you’re enjoying the read and thank you for the share. Yes, our perceptions did change and are continuing to change quite a bit after living in peaceful Luxembourg 🙂 We miss our dinners with you; please give Marjorie, Ava, and Theo big hugs from us! Sarah

  • Sounds like you’ve got some crazy times ahead too! My wife and I (plus our new twins) are doing similar things from a slightly different angle: owning a small rural homestead in the US, doing odd jobs for money, and living simply enough to be able to travel. We were in South Africa for a month in 2015 and really loved it, despite the madness of the place. We’ve got nine weeks in Italy lined up for this year – our first travelling with the kiddies out of the womb. If you’re committed to living simply you can get around and have quite a bit of fun doing it.

    • Sarah B says:

      Hi John, great to hear from you and congratulations on the twins. Wonderful that you’re traveling with them! We found that the easiest time to travel with our son was when he was youngest, hope it’s a breeze for you even though you’ve got double duty. Really interested to hear about how your version of the script works out, will follow you and if we’re ever in the same part of the world at the same time, let us know. Nice to meet other traveling families. 🙂

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