On becoming a Global Nomad


In 2007 my husband and I travelled through Southeast Asia and the Middle East for 9 months and blogged about our trip.  In 2009 on a beach in the Bahamas we decided to set a date to become global nomads – travelling the world, exploring cultures and people.  We agreed to April 1, 2018.

In the Fall of 2015 I read a book called Planet Boomer by two Canadians who compared life in Canada with life in Southeast Asia.  It spoke to exactly what we were looking to do.  I wrote an email to the authors with a suggestion for their second edition, and started an email correspondence letting them know that our plans were a couple of years out – but their book was helpful.

Well, fate has a way of just shaking you up!  A confluence of events meant that by January 1, 2016, we were determined to make our dream a reality – two years early.  We began the process of winding down here in Canada, selling our house and most of our worldly goods.  We applied for MM2H Visas for Malaysia through an agent, and lo and behold they came through.

By the mid-September 2016, we landed in Penang, Malaysia, found a place to live and are hanging out and exploring this part of the world. Why Penang?  The book makes some compelling arguments about the cost of living, health care, weather, food (my weak spot), language and the like.  From hubby’s perspective, there will be new birds to find and places to photograph and explore.  From my perspective, it will be an opportunity to learn a new language and try my hand at the local and diverse foods.  We loved SE Asia when we travelled the area back in 2007.  It is sufficiently different to make it an interesting challenge.

Penang reminds me every day –  lead with your sense of wonder!


New MM2H Information

There is a great magazine (now fully online) called ExpatGo that we enjoy here in Malaysia.  The folks there are regularly on the ball with the latest news about the MM2H Visa.  They recently did a survey and I found the information helpful and interesting which I thought I would share here!

Go to their article MM2H Survey Shows Visa Holders Happy from 2019 to read more!

Setting Realistic Expectations

One of the most important things when you decide to do a reconnaissance tour or move to another country as an expat is to set your expectations.

Many people are attracted to Penang because of the low cost of living, the sunny weather, the exotic food and festivals, and the ability to jump off and travel to interesting environs. And yet some can’t stop comparing it to “home” and citing ways that their country of origin is better, which can make for an unhappy life (not to mention insulting your host country and its proud citizens).

From a retirement perspective, we often want to leave our home country because it is just too expensive. Sure, it is cheaper to live in Penang, but it’s important for you to expect that Malaysia is different.  There may not necessarily be the bucolic open fields of quiet you enjoyed back home; the service levels in restaurants or with home repairs may not quite be what you are used to; the driving may not follow the rules of the road like you expect; and the noise and environmental stewardship might not follow your line of thinking.

While your “home” may do things differently or better, those standards come at a price, which is a much higher cost than you will find in Malaysia.

The best advice I hear from expats, and what has worked for us time and again is: “Go with the flow.”  We are the strangers in a strange land, and Malaysians are kind enough to allow us to live here.  Instead of criticizing the differences, it’s better to change how we react to living in a new environment. Sure, there are things we miss from back home, and we trade those things for the opportunity to explore wonderfully exotic places, to live in a vibrant culture that’s new to us, and to enjoy discovering Penang’s secret treasures.

My recommendation is simple: Embrace the adventure of new and different experiences, and look for beauty and joy instead of focusing on frustrations. And when things go sideways, do as the locals do: shrug your shoulders and say “Malaysia, lah!”

Penang Neighborhood Guide for Expats


My awesome friend and fellow expat Cimeron Morrissey has written this excellent neighbourhood guide where she quoted me for a few tips.  Cimeron has graciously given me her permission to post this here.  If you want – head on over to Cimeron’s blog OhMY Expat Life for some hilarious stories and a real taste of day to day living.

For spelling nerds – I am Canadian and Cimeron is American – hence the difference in our neighbourhood/neighborhood!

Choosing Where to Live in Penang – the Top 8 Locations

If you’re an expat planning to move to Penang, your future happiness may depend a lot on where you choose to live. But no pressure! 🙂 I put together this Penang neighborhood guide to help you find an area that suits your interests, personality and needs the best. And to highlight the unique flavor and special considerations for each neighborhood, I’ve enlisted the help of my close friend Sharon Giraud – she’s an expert on the subject and gives neighborhood tours to future expats to help them find the right rental properties. Here are the most popular residential areas for expats in Penang:

map v2

Batu Ferringhi

If you’ve dreamt of retiring to a tropical resort town by the beach, Batu Ferringhi might be the place for you. The long, lively beach is dotted with hotels, restaurants, jetskis, palm trees and happy vacationers from all over the world taking selfies in front of the ocean. There’s also the night market, which sells every knockoff you can imagine, plus the latest styles in hippie pants and burkinis. “Batu Ferringhi is a bit out there and a car may be essential to get to grocery stores and into town – because it may be a challenge to get a cab or Grab back and forth,” says Sharon. “However, this is a bird and monkey watchers paradise (and snakes and lizards).”

International schools:

Uplands, The International School of Penang


  • Very affordable rental properties – sometimes costing less than half of rentals in nearby Tanjung Bungah.
  • Flanked by jungle on one side, and the beach on the other.
  • Lively area with lots of restaurants, hawker stalls, and night market stalls.
  • If you like the outdoors, there are some nice hiking and running trails around the Batu Ferringhi aqueduct, and it’s just a 10-minute drive to Taman Nagara, the national park.


  • Limited high speed internet. You can get it in landed houses, but for condos/apartments, the building has to have it, or none of the units can get it – and some of the big developments in Batu Ferringhi still don’t have high speed internet.
  • No large grocery stores.
  • Truly awful traffic on weekends, school holidays and many nights.
  • Lots of tourists, so the area feels more transient than neighborhoody, and it can get crowded.
  • Quite a distance to other parts of Penang, which can feel isolating.
  • The beach is often quite littered with trash. And since raw sewage gets pumped out into the bay, the sea water quality may not be great for swimming.

Tanjung Bungah

Popular among expats and locals, Tanjung Bungah is a quiet neighborhood with a great wet market, a small array of restaurants – including several serving international food – a couple pretty beaches, and the monkey-studded Pearl Hill presiding over it all. There are apartments and landed homes, beachfront condos, and semi-detached homes available in the area. Says Sharon: “I am partial to this area because I live here – easy access to beaches and close to daily shopping as well as many of my friends. Lots of gorgeous high-rise condos with million dollar views.”

International schools: (Update 2019)



POWIS (Prince of Wales) opening a primary school in September 2019


  • Large selection of upscale condo developments and hillside villas with beautiful views of the sea and mountains.
  • Big expat community, with restaurants and shops catering to expats’ needs.
  • Great neighborhood feel, and quite safe.
  • Lots of classes are offered in the area, from yoga, dance and painting, to Tabata fitness and bootcamps.
  • Close enough to the malls and Georgetown to make them an easy trip, but far enough away to escape the heavy traffic and hustle-bustle.


  • The purchase and rental prices of properties here are some of the highest on the island.
  • A lot of trash washes up on Tanjung Bungah beach after storms, and it can get loud when people are setting off fireworks during festivals.
  • If you have to commute to the Free Trade Zone or Kulim, it can be a pretty long drive in rush hour.
  • Many condo construction projects create quite a bit of noise for neighbors.

Tanjung Tokong

The glitzy seafront retail marina, Straits Quay, and its surrounding condos and villas are the highlight of Tanjung Tokong. Built on landfill, the area has a very new and western feel, and western prices to go along with it. It’s a popular place for expat families to live. According to Sharon: “This is probably the most walkable neighbourhood in terms of access to the seafront walkway, as well as a gated community with landed properties (houses) with yards. Makes it great for families and people with dogs.”

International schools:

Pelita International School


  • Convenience is king here – restaurants and shops are all within walking distance, and it’s close to town.
  • Large and diverse expat community.
  • Lots of activities, classes and performances offered at Penang Pac, located within Straits Quay Mall.
  • It’s one of the only areas in Penang with long stretches of well-maintained sidewalks, which is great for running, walking, kids riding bikes, and dog walking.
  • Favorite place to live for many families with young kids.


  • Very expensive housing – the priciest on the island.
  • Large landfill and housing construction projects underway, which can be noisy and may block views.
  • Very westernized – it lacks Penang’s signature charm and unique feel.

Gurney Drive

With two huge fancy malls, a big hawker food center, sea views (kinda) and tons of high rise condos, Gurney is a popular and convenient pick for many expats. It’s always bustling here, and there’s always something to do, whether it’s a movie at the IMAX theater, a stroll along the boardwalk or dinner out with friends, Gurney is a hopping place. Sharon adds: “This is a buzzy area and if you have teenagers makes it perfect for them to just walk to the mall. If you don’t want a car, there is easy access to just about anything you need.”

International schools:



  • Tons within walking distance: grocery stores, hawker stalls, malls, restaurants.
  • Very close to Georgetown, and a fairly easy commute to the Free Trade Zone.
  • Large array of high rise condos to choose from.


  • Constant traffic along Gurney Drive.
  • Large landfill project underway just across the street, which is an eyesore.
  • Street noise and vehicle fumes can be an annoyance.

Pulau Tikus

Located just behind Gurney Drive is the vibrant neighborhood of Pulau Tikus. Old meets new in this centrally located neighborhood. All mixed together are fancy high rises, ancient local homes, mosques, Buddhist temples, hawker stalls, gigantic colonial homes surrounded by grand lawns and palm trees, a few shanty shacks, and the fantastic Pulau Tikus wet market.

International schools:

St. Christopher’s International Primary School

Universal Hua Xia International School


  • A true taste of Penang with locals and expats living side-by-side.
  • Affordable housing.
  • Close to Georgetown and not a bad commute to the Free Trade Zone.
  • Close to the Botanical Gardens, hospitals and Gurney Drive.


  • Mostly no views of mountains or sea.
  • Can be busy at all hours.
  • The mosque loudspeaker can be very loud with the call the prayer 5 times per day, plus sometimes lengthy reading of prayers over the loudspeaker.


To live in a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a rare opportunity! Georgetown is the beating heart of Penang, with festivals galore, street food hawkers, beautiful old architecture, old men on trishaws, stunning street art, and ornate temples, mosques, and Chinese clan houses. There are a few modern condos on offer, but most of the rentals are in traditional buildings. “You are going to get accommodation that is old shophouses rather than modern amenities,” says Sharon. “If you are OK with traffic noise and heat and don’t need fast internet, and walking to restaurants is important, then this is your scene.”

International schools:

Wesley Methodist School

St. Xavier’s Institution


  • Vibrant, historic location with loads of personality.
  • Wide range of world-class food options, from hawkers to high-end restaurants.
  • Unique housing – mostly old converted shop houses. There’s also a new condo development by the water, beside the historic E&O Hotel, and a few apartment buildings (mostly older).
  • A chance to live among true Penangites in a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


  • It’s always busy in Georgetown, so if crowds annoy you, it might not be right for you.
  • Expensive housing.
  • Lots of tourists, and not so many expats, so making friends can be a bit challenging.
  • Traffic can be utterly gridlocked, especially on weekends and during festivals
  • Poor internet connections.
  • Rats and heat. (The rats are HUGE).

Jelutong and Gelugor

Sandwiched between Georgetown, Green Lane and Bayan Lepas are the Jelutong and Gelugor areas, which are truly Malaysian neighborhoods. They lack the UNESCO architecture and charm of Georgetown, but it’s within close proximity. Newish apartments sit beside crumbling traditional Chinese and Malay homes, which gives expats a chance to live among true locals. “This is really a working persons neighbourhood and feels like it is the suburbs with a focus on getting the job done,” says Sharon. “Ideal for singles working in the area who just need to get to work fast.”

The Light Collection, a fancy new development, sits right beside the water and is attracting lots of interest from new expats. It’s very affordable and has a range of offerings, from high-rise condo living to seaside low-rise units. But at the moment, it’s not very populated so it lacks a community feel, which can make people feel a bit isolated there.

International schools:



  • Very affordable housing.
  • Close to Georgetown and also the Free Trade Zone.
  • A great chance to immerse yourself in local Penang culture.


  • Very crowded and lots of traffic.
  • Not very many expats.
  • Far from beaches, jungles and activities.

Bayan Lepas and Bayan Baru

These areas are not very popular among longterm expat families, in part because it’s so far away from everything (except the Free Trade Zone and the Penang bridges).  But if your top priority is being near the bridges or factories to keep your commute short, you may want to check out Bayan Lepas and Bayan Baru. Sharon says: “Not really an up and coming place to live as it is so isolated. Many new arrivals wonder if they should find a place near work, but the truth is that not many expat families live out here.” However, for young, single expats, it’s becoming more popular. “I find there are a lot of young-ish people in Bayan Baru/Relau area (likely due to cheaper rents and being close to work), and there actually are a lot of really good food spots in this area and even some bars,” says Lauren B., an expat who lives in the area. She adds that it’s a good option “for the mid-20s/30s crowd looking to balance having a good life and money.”

International schools:

Straits International School

Fairview International School


  • Very close to Free Trade Zone, bridges and the gigantic Queensbay Mall.
  • Pretty quiet neighborhoods.
  • Inexpensive housing.


  • Heavy, horrible rush-hour traffic.
  • Far from Georgetown, beaches, activities and nightlife.
  • Not many attractions here – not much to do.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea about which areas you may want to check out in person. To arrange a private neighborhood tour, you can contact Sharon at: giraudcan@gmail.com. And stay tuned – Sharon and I are working together to create an even more in-depth neighborhood guide for those who want more details about each location.

Happy home-hunting!





Penang Short-Term Tentals


So you may have discovered Penang as one of the top 10 places to retire in the world or you might have read Cimeron Morrissey’s blog Oh MY Expat Life and realized the cost of living in Penang is too hard to resist.

Whatever it is that brings you to Penang on a reconnaissance tour, you are going to need a place to stay.  Sure, you can check out the fancy hotels in downtown George Town which put you in the centre of it all (though typically expats don’t live here), or you can hang out in the backpacker hostels with the noise and the drinking.

You might also choose the trusty short-term hosted type of accommodation where you are taking a chance on what you are getting or may not realize that the condo you are entering has a strict no short-term rental policy which you don’t find out about until you arrive.

Chances are wherever you choose to stay – this will make a lasting impression on what you think of Penang and how well your experience goes.  I get it – I’ve been there!

I have been an Airbnb member since 2008 – that’s right, the year of their inception.  Always an early adopter I find it interesting to see how companies grow and get better, and how the properties and hosts have grown as well.  Instinctively I thought this was a great way to land in Penang, however, I chose an Airbnb property that did not quite live up to its billing.

As I look back on the experience I realize just how unprepared the hosts are in Penang versus North America, Australia and Europe.  I have always experienced lovely, involved hosts who take great pride in the comfort of their guests.  Let’s just say the ongoing noise (construction in the building was non-stop), the dodgy electrical, the leaking gas and water taps, and my efforts to communicate cordially with the absent owner were representative of a number of experiences I have heard about from others on the island.

In recent months, many condominiums have clamped down on short-term use, with signs on their guardhouses.  You will be asked to let the guards know you are “friends” or “family” of the owner of the unit.

All this to say, I have found some excellent LEGAL short-term serviced apartments for my clients well situated close to banks, grocery shopping and restaurants in the Tanjung Bungah area of Penang.  I have personally inspected each unit to ensure they are to Western standards and a place I would put my own family into.

Other bonuses:

  • Excellent management
  • Lovely infinity pool
  • Private balcony sea views
  • Linens, hair dryer, towels, soap, shampoo
  • Small kitchenettes if you want to cook your own food
  • High-speed WiFi (this is not an easy find!)
  • Flat screen TVs
  • Great gym
  • Parking
  • Terrific security
  • Modern tasteful furniture
  • 2x week cleaning

I have been able to negotiate preferred rates, as well as some preferential treatment for my clients (higher floors, extra dishes, English TV, etc.).  Guests can stay as long or as short as they wish – with better monthly rates.

Whether you are here on a reconnaissance tour, are staying in Penang for 3 months annually, or have landed and want to find a permanent lease but need somewhere to stay in the meantime – your comfort is of the utmost importance when you visit Penang.  You need to be able to return to your home away from home and rest your head after all the exciting sights and sounds and food you will experience.

Come to Penang – discover why it is in the top 10!


Accommodation Update

Well, we are almost at the end of our initial lease and have decided after much searching and viewing that we love our place.

We weighed the pros and cons of moving, looking for something more budget-friendly (read cheaper), changing locations, finding a newer building – all the considerations one makes when thinking about moving.  In the end, we decided we loved our place, our fast internet, our beach view, and the quiet building.

For the past two years we have had no direct contact with our landlord, but rather we were directed through his agent for any issues that arose.  The landlord was terrific, responsive and understood our desire to ensure his investment was well cared for.

Serendipitously, we had a water leak from the main pipe – and the contractor arrived to fix it.  Now you might think that a pipe leak would be a messy inconvenience, however, it offered me a few hours to chat with the contractor, establish a great relationship, and convey to him (to convey to the landlord) our desire to remain.  The following day, the landlord contacted me directly!

We chatted about the long term, and what it would take on both sides to continue our relationship.  Some give and take on both sides and we have secured a long-term lease that will commence when this one is up.

On the plus side, we were able to do this without agents, and with a fair amount of understanding and reasonableness on both sides during the negotiations.

In Penang, it is typical for Agents to charge a commission of 2 weeks rent for every year to the tenant.  This is the only place in Malaysia where this is done and generally, it is only charged to Westerners.  I have heard of very few agents in Penang who do not charge commissions to the tenant.  Agents are typically paid by the landlord.

In my prior blog about charges, I have outlined what you can expect at the outset for costs around your first rent.  This update illustrates that it is possible to simply renegotiate on your own behalf.

Food shopping is a treasure hunt

In Canada, we often take for granted just how convenient life is. Large grocery stores with just about anything you can imagine are generally found in most neighbourhoods. More urban centres have some sort of shopping area where you can find independent shops so you can wander from vendor to vendor in a logical manner and pick up what you might need to make a meal. And most of these places have the holy grail – consistency. Not so in Penang.

There are a couple of grocery stores here that seem to adhere to a more Western aesthetic, stocking Waitrose (a UK based brand) products as well as Australian and limited America brands.  But truly – that is an illusion.

The consistency of product stock and delivery is completely hit and miss.  A favourite yoghurt brand may be there one week and not there for three weeks after.  In addition, items are often stocked in the most bizarre areas of the store – with cough lozenges in the candy aisle but not anywhere near the cold medication.

One feels these little thrills of excitement when something you happen to love or use suddenly appears on a shelf.  And as you experience the highs and lows of product availability – a weird kind of insanity sets in.  Hoarding.

Recently I saw for the first time Mrs. Ball’s Chutney hidden on the lowest shelf in the condiment section (they got that one right).  My hand quivered as I reached out to grab a bottle.  Then my brain kicked in.  What if this is never here again?  What is the expiry date?  Maybe I ought to get a couple more – because well – it may not be here again!  So I bought three bottles.  I was quite chuffed with myself when the following week that same shelf was empty.  Good move I thought – I have outsmarted the grocery store pirates who stock this item.  Then the following week – the shelf was restocked and has been so for the past 5 months.

I am heartened, however, as a small community of us support one another as we see products come in we know others want.  Text messages go out “Bulla yoghurt in stock”, with immediate replies of “Get me two – I’ll pay you back!”

The only way I have found that I can cope with this is by following a few simple procedures:

  • Never go grocery shopping with your partner – you don’t want a full-on domestic in the middle of a grocery store.  Trust me on this.
  • Wander, scan and search for different or new products.  Read labels – google translate can sometimes provide instant hilarity on product names and wonky translations are worth the giggles.
  • Try to find something new to try every week (seaweed crackers called Wanna Wanna have become a big hit).
  • Randomly talk to strangers in shops to find out what they are buying and what they use the item for – though I still can’t get my head around dried squid jerky as a delicious snack food.
  • Get to know the shopkeepers.  My fish lady texts me with “salmon now come” and I can reserve some and pick up that day.  Given the aforementioned hoarding – this is a classic defence move to ensure you get what you need.
  • Plan dinner parties with at least three menus and be prepared to switch things up – because well – stock may be there or not!
  • Map the shops in your head so if you are in the area you can pick things up.  Conveniently our “nut lady” is located near the best pharmacy in town…and Baskin & Robbins.
  • Reward yourself with ice cream!  Food shopping is arduous work that may take all day – there needs to be an upside.
  • Be in the treasure hunt mindset.  Thrill in the victory of finding just what you need with a happy dance and don’t let the inability to find quinoa at three stores deter you from the ongoing hunt for it.
  • Live for the Happy Dance in grocery aisles!

Concierge Services

Navigating through Penang can be a challenge, and nothing makes you more comfortable than a local who knows the ins and outs while aligning Western expectations.

Medical Concierge

Interested in various medical procedures in Malaysia?

Concerned about the quality of medical care or specialists?

Need an emergency contact who can navigate the challenges during your stay?

On the ground experience in Penang ensures you are well taken care of.

Priority medical appointments can be arranged with qualified specialists for various procedures including:

  • Cosmetic Surgery
  • Dental
  • Dermatology
  • Ophthalmology
  • IVF
  • Orthopaedic
  • And more…

Personal Concierge

  • Short and long-term accommodation assistance
  • Relocation assistance
  • Reconnaissance advice and tours
  • MM2H support


‘Tis the season

Christmas is fast coming upon us.  As with many places around the world, lights and tinsel seem to be in full swing. I chuckle as I walk through shopping malls and watch young women in hijab taking photos of each other in front of large Christmas trees with their fingers flashing the peace sign. I desperately want to take a photo of them taking a photo. That is what it is all about. Peace, acceptance, tolerance. The spirit of the season.

I have been asked a few times what it is like to live in a Muslim country. I have to really think about the differences against a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Penang is probably the most diverse part of Malaysia – with many beliefs accepted.

According to Wikipedia:

“Malaysia is a multicultural and multi-confessional country. As of the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent Buddhism; 9.2 percent Christianity; 6.3 percent Hinduism; and 1.3 percent traditional Chinese religions.”

Fundamentally there is not really much of a change in our lives.  There are restaurants that don’t serve alcohol, some that are just vegetarian or don’t serve pork.  There is the sound of the call to prayer that I hear as an early riser with my windows open along with the chirping of a large flock of birds that wake up below my window.

As far as fashion, some women cover their heads and one very rarely sees a woman fully covered in a burka.  Unlike my experience in the UAE, we never see the men in thobes.  I have observed some more traditional Indian clothing as well – which looks far more comfortable in this hot climate that any Western clothing.

There are many holidays here – for all groups.  Diwali has just finished as we move into Christmas, and then Chinese New Year.  In between, we have had public holidays for Mawlid.  A public holiday just means more people on the roads, kids off school, and a plethora of fantastic decorations.  Fireworks are a thing – and they are seen and heard constantly.  When we first arrived I asked what they were for.  I was met with a shrug and an overall “holiday – someone celebrating”.  Seems one does not need too much of a reason to have sparkly lights and big bangs.

The overall feeling here is live and let live.  There is an interaction between all people and no real fuss.  What is evident is that there is always a reason for people to get together and celebrate life and love with one another.

And isn’t that the spirit of any season?

Finding a home in Penang

When making the decision to come to Penang, Malaysia on our MM2H Visa – it was important for us to understand what type of house was available and where we wanted to live. Travelling halfway around the world with little knowledge of where we were landing – the phrase “location, location, location” could not be more important. Many folks are looking for a “how to” – so here is our process.

1. Do your research (from abroad)

There are great property sites all over the world. I used PropertyGuru and iProperty and also jumped around to find other places.  This gave me an idea of condos and prices as a start.  They also included information about certain buildings (we were looking for a condo), and their various amenities.  Also listed were real estate agents…more on that later.

This first step is to really determine what you are looking for and where you want to live.

A word of caution.  You will see properties on sites that you fall in love with.  You will contact the agent to inquire.  They will tell you they have the property.  You will land here with the expectation to see the property and discover it was “just rented last week”.  Many photos (especially the good ones) are not that agents property or were never recently available.  Be aware of the come on – and be prepared to walk away from an agent who is misleading.


2.  Be clear on what you want and need

  • Sea view, mountain, city
  • Amenities like gyms or pools
  • close to schools
  • on the bus line
  • number of bedrooms
  • furnished or not
  • budget

All these will be factors in your decision and will also assist the agents in helping you find what you need.  Be aware that traffic in the region can be a challenge – and determine how far you want to be from amenities.

3.  Temporary Housing is as important as permanent

Let’s face it.  You are in a new place, you don’t know anyone, you have come off long flights and staying in a hotel is frankly too expensive long-term.  What to do?

We initially started out up island in Batu Ferringhi thinking it was more relaxed and remote.  We rented an Airbnb in the area while we were looking for places to stay.  We soon discovered that there was plenty of traffic and noise (especially on weekends and holidays), it was far from grocery stores and conveniences, and the clincher was that it was difficult to get a taxi from the area.  When we were able to get one – the cost was incrementally higher.  Given that we do not currently have a car (and are not sure we will get one) we decided it was not for us.

For a number of reasons (including an Airbnb that was nothing like the pictures) we moved.  We then spent two weeks renting a serviced apartment (contact me if you want some real estate connections).  The apartment is located in a larger mall area (think Queens Quay in Toronto) and that meant any groceries or restaurants were right there.  There was also the added bonus of a lovely boardwalk and the ability to head out and go to other places because Uber, Grab (Malaysian version) and traditional taxis were there in minutes.

As a result – we really got a good feeling of where we preferred to stay without the long-term commitment.  Sure we had to move our stuff and it was a bit of a hassle, but in the long run it was worth it.

4.  Choosing your Property Agent

Based on some help of people we “met” virtually and a bit of research, we discovered that most people engage multiple agents to look for properties and take them out.  This struck us as odd, since in North America you are typically with only one agent.  However, we soon discovered the following:

  • there is no MLS or database that shows all the properties available to everyone
  • properties are based on trust relationships and on networking
    • good agents with good reputations will tell other good agents about their properties
    • bad agents will be shut out by good agents
    • some agents will work cooperatively – others won’t
    • multiple agents will get you into different properties – then again – you may be shown the same thing twice

You will hear that there are thousands of vacancies in Penang.  This is true.  However, just because a place is vacant does not mean that the owner wants to rent.  Many simply don’t need to rent their properties, and finding the “right” tenant is of great importance.

We had three agents working for us.  Our preferred agent ended up being well connected and upfront about their fees.

5.  Understanding Property Fees

Theoretically, in Malaysia, the landlord is supposed to pay the fee for the rental and the agents split that fee.  However, in Penang, the trend is a bit different.  You can try and fight it or negotiate it.  We decided that we would pay the agents to ensure that they were working for us and that our needs were their priority.  Some will argue that agents are taking advantage of expats because we don’t know better.  Some are able to negotiate lower or no rates.  I leave that decision up to you.  Typical fees are as follows:

  •  one month commission (one month rent) for  2 years rental agreement
  • half month commission for one year rental agreement
  • Subsequently, if the tenancy agreement is renewed, then there’s a half month charge for renewal of the tenancy agreement (I am not keen on this one as that puts you in perpetuity with an agent – and by this time you should have a relationship with your landlord – however, if the agent works to negotiate something on your behalf or builds another tenancy agreement with the stamp fee – I can see this making sense)
  • Stamp duty (this is a fee charged by the government that is paid based on a sliding scale of the rental amount)
  • Tenancy fees (this is typically a deposit for electricity, water, sewer)

This is an important thing to understand and budget for because your initial outlay is going to be quite a bit.

As an example of what your fees might be:

RM 8,000 Rent

  • Two months rent due on signing (note this is the security deposit – NOT first and last months rent) – RM 16,000
  • First months rent also due – RM 8,000
  • Tenancy Fees deposit – RM 4,000
  • Stamp duty – RM 856
  • Property agent commission for two-year rental – RM 8,000

In simple terms, be prepared for some significant cash outlay.

6.  Viewing Properties

We were clear on our needs, but had to make adjustments as we saw buildings and amenities.  The key is to keep an open mind and know this is not “back home”.

We saw empty caverns, overcrowded furniture and stuff just not to our taste.  We kept an ongoing log in Microsoft OneNote of the good, bad and ugly.  It allowed us to review the properties at the end of the evening and begin eliminating buildings altogether.  It also meant that when other agents wanted to show us something we could tell them we already saw it – or we don’t like the building.  We sometimes took photos but always asked permission to do so (typically of places we really liked so we could remember them).

We were also candid and direct with the agents about what we liked and disliked.  We ruled out places because of size and cost to air condition, narrow balconies, too many kids, too close to the international schools, poor gym equipment, bad views, bad furniture, weird layouts etc.  This is a very subjective area, but do ensure that you and your partner are on the same page.

7.  Be prepared to be disappointed

We found a place we loved.  We put in an offer after discussions with our agent.  We were denied.  Why?  We were told that the landlord decided to continue to use it as a holiday home and have pulled it off the market.  The reality is that our offer was too low and no one wanted to lose face negotiating back or counteroffer.  It happens.  Just keep looking.

8.  Write a profile

We wanted the landlords (and their agents) to know us.  We provided profiles of who we were, our professional lives, our interests etc.  And we wrote it to the cultural values of the landlord.  Did it work?  We think so.  Certainly, on the apartment we lost – the agent on the other side then felt that we were great tenants and agreed to show us another one that had never been rented before.  She seemed to go the extra step to bring us into the building and find a way to make it work.

9.  The Paperwork

It takes longer than you think, and no one seems to mind.  Being someone who was diligent about contracts and paperwork in my professional life, this freaked me out.  I could not believe that we had transferred money to the trust account, signed the initial tenancy agreement and the night before move-in still did not have the final documents in hand.  In fact, 7 days after move in we still don’t.  Both parties have signed and the paperwork is now off to the government waiting for the stamp.

This part can be nerve-wracking  Should I move in?  Should I cancel my temporary accommodation or make alternative arrangements?  What do I do about deliveries?  Is this really happening or will the landlord pull out at the last minute?

It is a challenge.  But remember, this is a culture built on trust.  That is when having a good agent can reassure you, tell you what is going on, and allow you to vent your frustrations and allay your fears.

10.  The Last Word

  • Find a property agent (or two or three you like) and ensure they negotiate on your behalf
  • Be clear on your needs with your partner and your agents
  • Do some research ahead of time (websites, floor plans, buildings) so you can narrow the search
  • Get good temporary accommodation so you are comfortable
  • Make good notes of your viewings so you can eliminate quickly
  • Negotiate (within reason)
    • On this note we have heard that 20 per cent is possible, but found that was not entirely realistic

Above all – enjoy the process.  You decided to try this adventure warts and all – so embrace the differences, have a sense of humour and understand that it is not the same as back home!

UPDATE:  I am acquainted with a number of agents and property owners.  If you need assistance, do reach out and I am happy to help you navigate the process and refer trustworthy agents!

It’s the little things you notice

  • no towel bars
  • countertop heights are either for Peter Dinklage or Ian Whyte (GoT reference)
  • beds are so hard I suspect they are coconut shells
  • there are no top sheets – fitted and duvet – but you have to go out and find a top sheet
  • pillows are high
  • no point wearing nice shoes – you just have to take them off before you enter
  • even had to take shoes off to go to the second floor of a large shop
  • lines on the road are just decoration
  • signalling is optional
  • napkins are a box of tissues – if you get any – or you have to pay for them
  • toilet paper in public washrooms is scarce – bring your own
  • BYOB in restaurants just about anywhere
  • never ask “which dish is not spicy – no chilli” – because their version of spicy is very different from this wimpy girls version
  • you will always be asked “Where are you from” – always
  • dinner arrives when it arrives, not in any particular order, and not always at the same time (I suspect that is why family style makes the most sense)
  • laundry shops are called “Doby” which has me in the mind of a house elf franchise
  • when you get into a cab – you will be asked if you “had breakfast/lunch/dinner” – because food here is sacrosanct
  • you eat much slower with chopsticks
  • everyone has “got a guy” – and those connections will save you
  • language barriers are easily overcome with a smile and a laugh – and your miming skills will improve greatly
  • grocery shopping is an outing of discovery
  • banking takes much longer than you expect
  • appointments only tell people that you are coming – but it is first come first served when you get there
  • negotiating is a competitive sport – and you can do it well and respectfully