April 18, 2014 6:22 pm

Super-commuters: how to live and work in different continents

Problems include deciding whether to buy or rent properties in each part-time base, and how many mobile phones to carry
©James Fryer

Wolf and Kate Allisat were keen for their daughters’ names to be easily pronounceable around the world because, if their father’s lifestyle is anything to go by, hopping between countries would be all in a day’s work for Sophie, 10, and Connie, nine.

Allisat, 42, spends about half his time at the family home in the UK. The rest of the time he can usually be found in New York, and his transatlantic commute means he has racked up about 1.2m air miles with British Airways, as well as another million collected with other airlines.

The challenges faced by men and women who regularly span continents between their home and their office are both micro (how many mobile phones must they carry?) and macro (should they buy or rent properties in each of their part-time bases?). New research has found common threads among these international commuters. Analysis of the most common global “ownership axes” among ultra high net worth individuals – based on the property portfolios of 5,000 men and women worth $30m or more – shows that Europeans tend to combine a base in London with a home in Los Angeles.

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North Americans also value an LA base but prefer to minimise travelling by teaming it with a home in New York, according to research by Savills. Buyers from Oceania are likely to have a home base in Sydney as well as a second home in London.

Asian buyers’ favourite cities are Jakarta and Singapore. Alan Cheong, research director at Savills Singapore, suspects this trend is driven by Indonesians who want a base in their capital city but see Singapore as a safer place for their money and families.

“Many Indonesians have not only set up offices in Singapore, they also send their children here to study,” says Cheong. “For them, buying an expensive private home in Singapore is not merely just viewed as a safe haven investment, but also provides a home for their children.”

Yolande Barnes, director of residential research at Savills, says most transglobal ownership patterns are based on business. “If you take London and LA, while there will always be a lifestyle element in the choice of location, there is clearly a business link – most particularly in film, media and cultural businesses,” she says.

Barnes says US buyers are able to stay on home turf because “generally they can find something of everything within [North America]”. However, people whose home base is Oceania need a European toehold. “A shared language counts for a lot,” says Barnes. “And the timezone in London means that it is somewhere from which you can do business with almost everywhere else in the world in just one day. That makes it an incredibly powerful hub.”

©James Fryer

Allisat agrees that London is a crucial place to do business. The family base is a 15th-century farmhouse in East Sussex. The location means his daughters can enjoy a country childhood while he is within an hour of his office in central London, as well as Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

In New York, Allisat has opted for a rented apartment in midtown Manhattan because it is flexible and low maintenance, and this decision seems to have been a wise one. In March his tech company TagMan was taken over by the digital marketing company Ensighten. As senior vice-president (international), Allisat will now be spending less of his time in New York and more in locations across Europe and Asia.

Fortunately, he is well used to moving on. His father was a German diplomat and Allisat was born in Washington DC, before moving with his parents to Bucharest, Cairo and London. His first job was with Andersen Consulting in Hamburg, a role which saw him sent to Paris, Toronto and London. “I have moved 23 times in my life,” he says.

Keeping things simple is vital for an international commuter – until recently Allisat had five mobile phones, but recently traded them in for a single UK phone. This means he faces high roaming costs when outside Europe, but he feels the convenience is worth it.

Naoki Okamura, 51, also makes use of modern technology. He splits his time between three cities: London, where he works as chief strategy officer at Astellas Pharma Inc; Tokyo, which he considers home; and Chicago, where his wife, Miwa, 47, who also works for Astellas, is based.

“Until quite recently, it was hard to get Japanese books outside the country so I used to come back [from Tokyo] with a suitcase full every time,” says Okamura. “Now I only carry a small electronic device in which I can store hundreds of books.”

When the couple took on their separate overseas postings 18 months ago they decided to keep their Tokyo apartment (it is managed by a maintenance company) so that they could use it on their regular visits.

Okamura rents a two-bedroom flat in Ealing, west London. The couple are able to meet up every eight weeks or so. “It is not as bad as it seems because we have three base camps in different regions,” he says. “We are able to use each home as a base for travelling around, which is good.”

Bijan White, 46, is Emea head of digital at Maxus, a WPP media agency based in Copenhagen. He also qualifies as an international commuter since he visits “at least” one other European capital city each week.

For the past six years he and his family have lived in a seven-bedroom house, designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, in the Copenhagen suburb of Charlottenlund.

White’s three daughters attend the city’s international school. “We wanted the kids to have an education which was easily transferable,” he says. Before Copenhagen, White’s family was based in a three-bedroom house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London. This leafy, countrified area was laid out in the early 20th century as a model suburb.

When the family left London they decided to hold on to the house and become “double renters”: they let out their UK property and rent their Copenhagen house. “We saw London as a safe haven and a guaranteed long-term investment,” says White. “It is London’s international demand that drives its property values higher than other European capital cities, and we knew it would be hard to get back in if we sold up.”

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Visa and tax incentives

In a highly creative and seemingly successful attempt to attract investment into its troubled property market, the Portuguese government launched a “golden visa” scheme in 2012. It means any foreign buyers willing to invest at least €500,000 in a property in the country can claim a visa allowing them free entry into not only Portugal but all the Schengen nations.

This has proved a seductive offer for Chinese, Russian and South African buyers who can find it difficult to obtain European visas, according to Alison Buechner-Hojbjerg, co-founder of Quinta Properties, Savills’ affiliate agency in the Algarve. “After six years they can also apply for a Portuguese passport,” she says.

EU residents have no need for a golden visa so the Portuguese offer them a scheme known as the non habitual tax residency scheme. Anyone who spends at least 183 days per year in Portugal can benefit from a tax-free international income, including pension, while any income earned within Portugal attracts a 20 per cent tax rate.

This, says Buechner-Hojbjerg, has encouraged a number of British and Scandinavian nationals, concerned about high taxation levels at home, to relocate, and in many cases commute back home for work.

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