What started as a fun side project for Tommy Sikes has become a big part of his business.

With the youngest of his three children about to enter law school, Sikes began thinking about the next chapter for him and his wife — namely, the ever-more popular possibility of spending at least part of their retirement in Europe.

“We had this looming empty nest. We love Italy and France and started thinking, ‘What’s our next step?'” he tells CNBC Make It. “How can we make this more of a reality?”

Sikes started researching properties across the Atlantic, focusing on inexpensive locales away from the major cities where he and his wife could pursue their outdoorsy hobbies, such as hiking and kayaking.

When he began sharing the properties he found online, Sikes, a certified financial planner, found a new base of potential clients who were excited about the prospect of owning property abroad but unaware of how to go about it.

These days, Sikes sends properties to some 25,000 followers and subscribers across X, YouTube and via a weekly newsletter. He understands the allure of the lifestyle such homes can afford people.

“I started discovering these incredible properties that were for sale in smaller towns and villages for $50,000, $75,000, $100,000. And I was I was shocked,” he says. “Some of them are fixer uppers, but that’s the price of a new truck here in the United States.”

Still, Sikes is careful to warn subscribers and clients against buying such a property on a whim — even if they think they can afford it.

“There seems to be a gap in this kind of planning — specifically for Americans who need to do financial planning upfront to make sure this is feasible.”

Here are three steps Sikes says you need to take before you buy a property abroad.

1. Make a financial inventory

Sikes works with a wealth of clients who, like him, are thinking about what retirement could look like. And for them, life abroad can hold major financial appeal.

“I could run a simple financial plan for someone in the U.S. and run the same plan for one of those spots in France, and the cost of living is literally 50%,” he says. “That means, for the same planned assets and income, you could upgrade your lifestyle … or potentially retire years earlier.”

Before you begin dreaming about a fabulous Mediterranean retirement, though, you’ll need to take total stock of your financial life, says Sikes.

“You’ll need an inventory of your assets, your incomes. What’s your Social Security going to be? Do you have pensions? Are you maximizing your investments for retirement income? Those are the kind of traditional numbers,” he says.

You’d also be wise to work with a tax professional to determine how living on a retirement income might look in your country of choice.

“France and Italy both have tax treaties with the U.S., so you avoid double taxation,” Sikes says. “But they’re quite different as far as the way they treat retirement accounts like 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.”

2. Prepare for the homebuying process

The good news for those who want to snap up one of the properties that Sikes posts: There’s not much stopping you from doing it.

“There are zero restrictions on Americans buying property in Italy or France,” Sikes says. “You don’t have to be a citizen. You don’t even have to be a resident. You can literally buy something remotely.”

But even if that’s true about a country you’re looking at, you likely still have considerable work to do before you consider putting in an offer.

For one, you may have to be willing to put aside enough money to pay in cash. In France and Italy, for instance, mortgages for American citizens are rare unless they’ve lived in the country and established a relationship with a local lender, Sikes says.

And even if you’re willing to put in a cash offer, don’t expect a seamless process.

“The biggest issue I see is people trying to do it on their own. They don’t speak the language, and all the documents are going to be in Italian or French,” Sikes says. “People need to temper their expectations. A lot of times, you have to be able to call [the seller or agent.] I’ve had people tell me they’ve had to email the agent five times over three weeks and haven’t heard back.”

That’s why it pays, Sikes says, to partner with a planner who specializes in these areas and works with people on the ground.

Short of that, start taking language lessons, he says. “Not like 10 minutes a day on an app on your phone. Starting listening to music and news reports in French or Italian.”

3. Take a ‘test drive’

Even if you think you’ve spotted the house of your dreams on the French Riviera, your life there may look very different than what you’re currently picturing.

“People will fall in love with the property without realizing that it’s in a town with one restaurant and no bars, and you have to own a car because there’s no public transportation, and you have to drive an hour to get to a decent hospital,” Sikes says. “Always, always, always, the place is more important than the property itself.”

That’s why, no matter where you’re considering buying property, you’d be wise to rent for awhile first.

“I’d say for a minimum of two weeks to a month, plan a test drive — a kind of mini-retirement,” Sikes says. “Go to the grocery store, go to the market, go to town hall, see if you can meet some of the local people there, see if there’s an expat community.”

If you do find a place you’d like to live, Sikes suggests hiring someone local to be your proxy so you don’t have to spend thousands flying back and forth to meet with real estate agents. That person can act as your eyes and ears on the ground.

But make sure you’re absolutely in love with the place you’re looking to move, Sikes cautions. “If you don’t love it and it doesn’t have the amenities you need, it’s not going to work long term.”

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