Monday, October 12, 2009

Transitioning from the expat contract

DSC08247 Okay, now that I’ve done it, I have to admit that I underestimated the difference.  I think it’s worth passing on: this reflection is “advice from lessons learned”, not meant to be a discouraging grumble.

At the outset, I had assumed that 75% of what I needed to transition to full-expat status in  the Netherlands was already done.  Cut off a few services, transfer a few agreements, and the work was complete.

In reality, I’d say that only 25% was done. The majority remained to be discovered only by doing it.

Looking back, the difference came from at least four different causes.

The first was Hidden Rules.  More was going on behind the scenes than I knew to establish my residency and working life here.  Health insurance is a good example: as a knowledge worker, I was able to use a (rare) exemption that kept me from having to buy a local policy.  As a self-employed expat, I needed to take full responsibility for finding and obtaining health insurance, and for justifying why I didn’t have it up to this point.  In this instance, as in many others, I’ve had to track down legacy paper trails to provide supplemental documentation. 

Allow a half-day per week for paperwork, applications, visits to offices, and requesting documents.

Then there are Hidden Costs.  As an example, realtors in Maastricht are paid a month’s rent for their services in helping locate an apartment.  This can run over 1000 euro, in addition to the two-month’s rent required for a security deposit. Even a simple contract reassignment can run 200 euros. Application fees and deposits for permits and services are routinely 100-300 euros. 

I kept a 5000 euro buffer against personal startup costs, and it wasn’t unreasonable.

A surprising number of things needed to be replaced, even though I downscaled where I could.  Trading the car for a bike and train pass was obvious, but credit cards and phone service also took weeks, not days, to set up.  There were a number of tax consultations to get the new payroll withholding right,  and endless e-mail contacts that had to be redirected away from the corporate address.

Allow an evening a week for the first few months to search out and reconnect the stray details of the old life that need to be attached to the new one.

Finally, there is the loss of on-call professional assistance.  These days, when there’s a question about visas, banking, or health care, I plunge into the appropriate offices, take a number, and work things through: hours in line instead of minutes on the phone.  Translation  is a big issue, I can read Dutch well enough to understand most of the notices but still set aside “mail-call” time with my bookkeeper to check my understanding.

Planning, patience, and methodical courage is all that will save you.

And, a final warning: I still don’t think I can calculate the full impact of losing exchange-rate protection and hypothetical-tax compensation.  I’ll just have to see how it plays out over the coming year.

DSC08248 I don’t think that this is unusual or atypical: three months after cutting the cord, there’s probably still a full day’s worth of time each week spent on overhead.  I really do expect it to diminish as I get settled, but if you’re moving off-contract, it’s all worth factoring in.

Today I needed to ship my computer back to the US for repairs.  So, research the best shipper, discover DHL charges 77 euro for an insured 2-day delivery vs. 5-day at 110 euro for FedEx or TNT.  Go buy a box, wrong size, second trip.  Bubble wrap - the postkantoor is out of it, so walk across town to the main post office.  Print and complete all necessary paperwork for customs and for the warranty repair  Be home for DHL to pick up package.  Total: 3 hours of an 8-hour workday (non-billable).

And, yes, it’s all (still) worth it: ‘good to be here and satisfaction from building and paddling my own ship.


Textual Healer said...

Yep - familiar story - I factor in a full half day a week for keeping on top of the administration.

Dave Hampton said...

I'm glad that my mileage is consistent with yours: I feel like you've got a stable baseline for runing a business, while mine is still evolving in that direction.