Saturday, June 22, 2013

The only Americans in Hawke's Bay

I was recently asked by a NZ Immigration website that I sometimes frequent to contribute something about the experience of moving to/living in New Zealand from an American perspective. Here's what I've come up with:

I get asked a lot why we decided to move to NZ (Both in NZ and in the US). I don't have a great answer...or rather, I don't have a short answer. Nobody here can believe that I don't have a Kiwi partner or some other family already here. My title exaggerates a little; we are not the only Americans in Hawke's Bay. There are something like 300 of us, but I have yet to meet any who are here "permanently" that are not married to locals.

So the short answer: There is no voice of reason in my marriage. I can come up with something crazy (like let's move to New Zealand), and my wife says: "Why not"? We were both getting a little tired of California; we had been living in Newport Beach, California (one of the most expensive cities in the United States) for the past 8 a tiny condo. We thought about getting something bigger, but that would have meant moving further away from the Ocean. California was in a bit of a budget crisis, and my wife (a public school teacher) was constantly being threatened with down sizing. I had been planning a move to Hawaii in my head for a few years, and even went so far as getting licensed to work in the state (I am a pharmacist), but we never got past the dreaming stage. In 2009, we took a (well supported, luxurious) tandem bicycle tour of New Zealand. Everything was beautiful and green, people were remarkably friendly, and at $1 (US) to $2 (NZ) we could buy a 6 bedroom house on the Queen Charlotte Sound for $300,000 (US).

And so one year to the day after that tandem bicycle trip, we found ourselves again landing in Auckland, buying a car at a Turners Auction, and checking into a hotel room. I had not imagined how quick/easy it would be to buy a car, otherwise we would have driven to Hawke's Bay that day. I won't bore anyone with the details of the immigration process up to that point; unless you are a pharmacist, your experiences would be different anyway. The very brief summary: we took a reconnaissance trip in June 2009 as I had to take a exam (offered 4 times a year in Auckland, London, or any city in Australia); I also wanted to look into job prospects and to scope out places to live (during winter). The trip was successful: I passed the exam, and ended up with two firm job offers and one: "Call us when you have a more definite time table". I did not take any of those offers for a variety of reasons: Two were in Auckland, which seemed overwhelmingly expensive relative to the income offered, and one was in Wellington, where we would not have minded living, but the job seemed like much more work than I was currently doing in the US. I suppose I should mention: Pharmacists in New Zealand make a ridiculously small amount of money compared to pharmacists in the US. It is not an unreasonable salary for New Zealand, and as NZ pharmacy school only takes four years it is really not a valid comparison to the US (where most pharmacists do 8 years at University). All the same, I was embarrassed to tell my (American) coworkers about the pay cut I would be taking.

We had not visited Hawke's Bay on either of our first two trips to NZ. I had seen a job posting online, and ended up getting an offer through email and a phone interview. The area looked very good online: the climate is supposed to be Mediterranean, with a climate warm enough to grown red wine; there is sailing, bicycling, and did I mention wine? Also, houses seemed to be cheaper than anywhere else on the North Island. My employer was kind enough to hold the job open for six months while we applied for/waited for residency.

Our condo in Newport Beach sold too quickly; I was tied up at work for a couple more months, so we had a few garage sales and had everything else packed into a container for storage/shipping. We rented a tiny furnished studio, and slowly said goodbye to everyone and everything. On the day before we flew out, my wife dropped my car off at the Port of Los Angeles for shipping (it was considerably cheaper to ship separately from our other belongings).  Note: The law changed while the car was in transit--a left hand drive vehicle can no longer be registered in NZ, in most cases. The container ended up beating us by a couple of weeks (read: large storage bill at the port); the car took months and months, and even more months to get it registered (see law change above).

February is not the best time to look for a place to live in Hawke's Bay. Everything is full of holiday goers and migrant farm/vineyard workers. We ended up using a rental agent who showed us one house in Havelock North, which we took. A little about renting a house in NZ: 1) If you use an agent, they charge you a "letting fee", which corresponded to one week's rent + GST. 2) Your dealing with said rental agent might be the first time you notice that a lot of Kiwis do not have an American work ethic. 3) The rental agent will want references; I ended up using my boss (I had not met him yet) and the two people we had met on our previous trips 4) Your rental will not be very clean when you move in, but you will still be charged a cleaning fee if it is not very clean when you move out. The house was nothing special, but the back yard looked out onto a reserve, and it was a short walk to town. The house was heated by a wood burning stove and a chipper (which is a small wood burner). There was no insulation, and it was unbearably cold in winter. We bought a humidifier, and it pulled gallons of water out of the air every day.

To get out of the cold house, we spent nearly every weekend going to open homes. I still don't understand the real estate buying process here, and I suspect most Americans will also find it odd. There are no "buyers" agents. You can find an agent who will take you around to look at houses, but depending on how the property is listed (e.g. who gets paid a commission), you may only be taken to homes with that agent's company. It is made very clear that all agents are representing the seller, and that they are required to get him/her as much money as possible. The law requires real estate agents to "treat the buyer fairly". So I did most of the searching myself. We ended up bidding on a house at auction--we were the highest bidders in the room by $100,000, and still did not get the house. We later put in an even higher offer, and the seller responded by taking the house off the market. We put in a couple of offers on a lifestyle property (with a restored 100 year old home on 3 acres); the amount of money separating us from the seller was very small, especially in US dollars. I think we found something off putting about the real estate agent constantly calling to get a little more money out of us. We finally ended up purchasing one of the first houses we had looked at...after 4 or 5 months of sitting empty it had gotten cheap enough that we could afford it. The house was actually under contract with another buyer, but they had been unable to sell there own home. We were able to purchase it for even less as we had a "cash" offer. We felt a little bad about stealing the house from some other family who had their heart set on it, and I kept thinking that this would be the stuff of lawsuits in the US. We now live in an Art Deco home in the Art Deco Capital of the southern hemisphere. I was not particularly familiar with the style before moving here; my wife has most definitely embraced the movement. If you should find yourselves in Napier during Art Deco weekend, we'll be the very well dressed family at the Gatsby Picnic.

Shortly thereafter, the house started feeling too thing I knew we had a daughter...and then the next thing I knew, there was another one along the way. Children never seemed affordable in the US. How could we possibly survive if my wife was not working? Here I make somewhere between a half and a third (depending on the exchange rate) of what I made in the US, and my wife has so far decided to be a stay at home mom, yet somehow we are able to mange. I should reiterate that we came from a very expensive part of the US and moved to a moderately inexpensive part of New Zealand. I imagine that if we had come from Ohio the sticker shock of houses could have been unbearable. Aside from houses, there are a few things that  are cheaper in New Zealand (child birth, auto insurance, earthquake insurance), but not very many. When people ask about our standard of living, I usually tell them that we live in a house that we never could have afforded in California, we drink cheaper wine, and we don't eat in restaurants (well, very often). I usually leave off that, aside from Kiwisaver, we don't save for retirement anymore.There are a lot of 70 year olds at my work, and I do not want to be one of them. I would feel worse about not saving, but 10 years of 401k contributions have left me in much better shape than any Kiwis I know.

Housing revisited: With the baby, we needed to make the house warmer. We put insulation in the roof (Government rebate!), the previous owners had already done the floor. Heating is by two fireplaces (one is enclosed, and the other is an enclosed pellet burner). I felt like a real Kiwi when a coworker's partner took me out to a recently cut forest to collect firewood. I am not sure free firewood is worth it when you consider the labor involved, but it is nice to have the next two winters taken care of. Note: In attempting to buy firewood, you may once again observe that Kiwis do not have an American work ethic. Note 2: Pellets are unfortunately not free, but they are very easy to order/have delivered to your home making for a very convenient heating source. Note 3: The parts of our house that are not served by the fireplaces (the bedrooms) are terribly cold in winter. We run electric heaters in them, and suffer from huge electric bills ($300 this month, and we're only part way through June).

Back to my title: as there are so few Americans in Hawke's Bay, we were forced to make friends with the locals (and non-American immigrants). The British friends we have made think it is much easier to make friends with other Brits. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I think not having a clique to fall back on makes for a better transition. My coworkers were all very thoughtful at including us in things. Before the baby was born, we were probably more sociable here than we were in the US. If you don't like your coworkers, there are clubs for everything in Hawke's Bay. I showed up at the sailing club shortly after we moved here, got put on a boat for a race that day, and ended up crewing on the boat for the next year. (I then bought a boat, another item that seemed unaffordable in the US.) There is an absence of phoniness in people that still shocks me; if someone says: "we should have you over for dinner sometime", they actually mean to invite you over for dinner.

I could write pages about culture shock, minor annoyances, and major annoyances. I've alluded to a lack of work ethic a couple of times, and it is probably the biggest irritant for me. Example: Someone drove through a section of our fence last year. We submitted an insurance claim, and the insurance company needed us to get a quote before they would pay. After calling everyone in the phone book, a few people eventually showed up to look at it; most of them never got back to us, even after several follow up calls/emails. The one or two that eventually did provide quotes never showed up to do any work. After nearly a year went by, a friend came over and helped me do a very Kiwi repair (or actually, I bought materials, and he did the repair).    I have had similar experiences with tree trimmers, roofers, painters, mechanics. One of the things I love about New Zealand is that it is so relaxed...but sometimes it would be nice if it were not so difficult to get things fixed.

All in all, we are very happy we made the move. We are just getting into winter, so we are starting to think we would rather be somewhere warm, or at least somewhere with first world heating, but that will go away in September. I don't know if we'll be here forever, and if we ever do move it will most likely be for financial reasons. Not that we're struggling here at all, but at a certain point, someone in my situation is bound to start thinking: "I could retire a lot earlier if I were in the US".