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Logistics - part 1
by Pamela Blalock and John Bayley
How it all started
A few years ago, John and I were browsing through a gift shop one day, when we picked up a book, called The Grown-up's Guide to Running Away from Home, by Roseanne Knorr. The fact that it had a caricature of a bike on the front, and was published by Ten Speed Press just added to the good karma! The book contained lots of practical advice for packing it all in, and moving abroad. Not long afterwards, John ordered Classic Mountain Bike Rides by the Kennett Brothers. He spent hours and hours reading through this book, dreaming of epic rides in a faraway land. These two books lived on our kitchen table, scattered among cycling magazines and National Geographic Magazines. To digress, our kitchen was really more of a reading/living room than our living room. With couple of big comfy chairs (rather than the typical kitchen chairs), and the table in front of the fireplace, we'd often sit down to dinner, start reading, and get up in time to go to bed. These two books were read cover to cover several times in this environment! Later in the process, we picked up a couple of more books which also provided lots of useful info: Living and Working in New Zealand, a Survival Handbook, by Mark Hempshell, and Buying a Home Abroad, by David Hampshire. Both of these books and many more related to moving abroad are available from Bergli Books.
Looking back now, we haven't actually determined when the tide changed from a planned visit to New Zealand to a planned move, but sometime in October-December of 2001, it started to take root. We had talked for years about taking an extended holiday in between jobs. After a while, we came to realise that if we both found ourselves in between jobs at the same time, that we probably couldn't pay the mortgage. There was also the issue of the cats. Our wonderful companions have not proven so popular among any friends that we could find a home for them for several months. So the only real solution was to sell the house, eliminating that whole mortgage issue, and also freeing up funds for an extended trip, and pack up bikes, cats, furniture and all, and just simply move to New Zealand.
In addition to time spent reading the above mentioned books, we spent lots of time perusing various websites. The one we visited the most often in those months was New Zealand Immigration. Unlike the US, New Zealand seemed to encourage immigration, and puts all the info one needs to know in one convenient place on this website. When John moved to the US from Ireland, trying to find info on immigration to the US was not nearly so easy. In fact, it seemed they made it rather hard to find any information! (This does seem to have improved a bit now).
Of course we still had the issue of the cats. I asked my mom if she and dad would take them permanently, but her response was that she would not make it easy for me to move 2/3 of the way around the world! To be fair, they had lost two cats in recent years and just didn't feel they could face the heartbreak of getting attached to any more that would die soon. They are 14 and 15 years old, and do have kidney disease, so it is a heartbreak that will happen sooner rather than later. But just when we were thinking we'd probably have to wait a few years, we found all the info on importing cats into New Zealand. We were under the mistaken belief that the cats would require 6 months of quarantine, but in actual fact, it is only 1 month. Six months would have been intolerable for them and us. They just wouldn't come out the same. But 1 month wouldn't be so bad. So we started making real plans to move.
We continued to do research on cost of living, jobs and housing, as well as all the issues of acquiring residency. We had gone through the preliminary self tests to be sure we'd have enough points to qualify, and had determined we would. So we started gathering together all the documents and such that we would need. We also started doing what was required for the cats. Our time line would, in part, be dictated by theirs. The first requirement was a rabies test and microchip ID implant at least 6 months prior to departure. So I made the appointment with our vet. Now if you are going to do something similar yourself, make sure your vet has USDA certification for animal export. For us, this issue was brought up a month before we were due to leave, when we found out our vet did not actually have this certification! Fortunately another vet in the same practice (who had seen the cats quite a bit) was authored to do the paperwork. I can't tell you what my blood pressure was the day all this came up, but it wasn't in the healthy range!
The next step for me was to interview Real Estate agents. I contacted several, and three came out to the house, and gave the pitch. One I had found on the Internet, and offered the lowest commission rate. She suggested a pretty high price for the house, but gave no evidence to back it up. The second was an agent I had worked with before when I helped a friend sell a condo. She was very good, but Chelmsford was slightly out of her local area. It's highly unlikely that the listing agent will bring the buyers, but I still felt like the more local agent would have a bit of extra insight into the market in our town. The third agent was actually the one who sold us the house initially! She and her partner did loads of market research and brought us an almost overwhelming amount of documentation on similar houses in the area and what they were selling for. When they suggested a price, it seemed quite reasonable based on comparable houses. We talked about what work we might need to prepare for selling, and I started arranging contractors. We had three big issues. One was the side garden. We'd had a bunch of trees taken out a few years ago and had cleared an area for a detached garage, but had not built it yet. We decided against building the garage, but needed to clean up and seed the cleared area. We also had some rotten steps out front. Shortly after moving in 7 years prior, I was leaning on the railing, when it gave way. The wooden railing was rotten, so rather than risk a guest using it for support, we took it down. Well the steps had a few bits of rot as well. We had planned to replace them with granite, but hadn't gotten around to it. When I got estimates for building new wood steps, it was almost as much as the granite, so we had granite steps installed. These actually added quite a bit of curb appeal, and most potential buyers recognised this was a good no-maintenance solution! We had also recently put on a new roof and painted, so the place looked really nice and didn't need any more exterior work.
The final issue was heat. When we bought the house, it had a 50 year old oil burner. The duct work was tiny, and the outlets were all along centre walls, as was the return. The heat just didn't get out into the rooms at all and the house was just cold. We looked into a new furnace, and after quite a bit of research, decided to go with several thermostatically controlled freestanding gas fires - one in the living room, one in the kitchen and one in the basement. The upstairs had electric baseboards, but we never used them. Heat rises, and often the upstairs would be much warmer than down. We usually kept a window open slightly in the bedroom to keep it from getting too hot! So basically every room in the house, except one, had it's own heat source and control. But the downstairs bedroom had no heat source of its own. It was our guestroom and was really only used in warmer months. But we felt it needed heat to sell, so we had another gas fire installed. It was a very energy efficient system. You didn't have to heat the entire house, just what you used. (Of course you could set the thermostat to 68F everywhere - and forget about it too) We'd turn up the heat in the basement when we were working there, but otherwise kept it low. The same for the livingroom - we lived in the kitchen afterall. The guest room was usually closed off. The fires provide great atmosphere and a truly warming heat. (Standing in front of the fire after coming in from the cold works much better than standing by a radiator!) But apparently New Englanders are quite traditional when it comes to heat, and it took some explaining. (It should either be oil or gas, and forced hot air or forced hot water - everything else is unconventional!) So I wrote up a little FAQ to go with the listing sheet. We had a few couples who didn't like the heat, with one going so far as to make an insulting offer, including a letter, saying they'd have to rip it all out since it posed a danger to their unborn future children. Personally I felt that if they didn't like the house, they shouldn't buy it! It's funny writing this here (in NZ) and now, since 1) most houses here don't even have a permanent source of heat, and 2) there are grills for putting around wood and gas stoves, available everywhere the stoves are sold, to keep toddlers away from the hot surfaces. I had suggested something like this for anyone with small children, but it seemed alien to them! Anyway, we found a buyer who appreciated both the efficiency and warmth of the system.
Ah but I have gotten ahead of myself! We selected the Karen Stewart as our Realtor, and started doing the prep work for the sale. Karen arranged for a couple of open houses, and we had three or more showings a day during the week, and more than I could count on weekends. We accepted an offer two weeks after putting the house on the market. I think Karen did a very good job in suggesting a good price, as well as her marketing. So here's a recommendation for a Chelmsford Real Estate agent!
We also continued to do stuff for our application for residency. We needed to get medical exams, and found out we'd need to get a Hepatitis B vaccine. This is actually a series of shots over 6 months time. Fortunately we discovered this fairly early on in the process. (Also we found out after the fact that there is an accelerated series of shots that takes less than 6 months!) All the other vaccines were ones we had received as children, and if we were younger, we would have had the Hep-B vaccine since it is now a new baby shot! As part of the exam, we had to get chest x-rays to show we did not have tuberculosis. It was interesting to find out in this process that I had fractured a rib at some point in my life. Now I'm not sure why the x-ray technician felt the need to make note of it on the report for my TB test, and the NZ authorities also wanted to know its significance as well. So I had to get a letter stating their was no significance!
FBI and other documents
We also needed to get fingerprints and FBI reports stating that we weren't criminals. We went to the police station in nearby Concord for our fingerprints. When John was going through the whole process for US residency, we had gotten the fingerprints done in Concord. It turns out that technically, we should have gone to the police station in Chelmsford, but the folks in Concord took us anyway. After taking our fingerprints and other pertinent info, they ran a background check (on the spot). We then sent the fingerprints off to the FBI and very quickly got back letters stating no criminal history.
John also needed to get reports from Ireland. This took a while because for some reason they mailed the report back surface rather than airmail! Of course this came faster than my birth certificate. I thought I had a certified copy, but when I went to check it, it was just a regular copy. I'd likely sent my last certified copy off with John's green card application. Anyway, I started trying to get a certified copy, and discovered this can be an ordeal, or at least take a long time. I sent a check off to the proper state authorities with a request, and after a month had not received anything. I then found a resource on the web that claimed to expedite the process, and gave them a credit card number and authorisation to charge an exorbitant fee, only to find that it could still take 6 weeks. Eventually I called the county where I was born, and they posted out a certified copy the next day. I now have 6 certified copies of my birth certificate!
Work and education history
John was the primary applicant and I was simply listed as the spouse. Partly due to experience with getting the US green card. John has meticulous records. He has practically every pay stub he's ever received, so was able to document his work history quite well - using first and last pay stubs from his three employers. I've had many more employers, some of whom no longer exist, and would have had a hard time providing all the documentation. I have social security statements, and tax records going back 10 years, but didn't have everything. I'm not sure how particular they might be with this, but they did actually deduct three months of work experience from John's total for the three months after he came to the US and didn't work while the green card processing was taking place. So they did look very carefully at everything he provided! (They were actually quite particular that everything be filled out precisely, but they were quite nice about providing a detailed list of what was needed, and unlike the INS, they did not return the entire packet because one thing was missing!)
Fortunately as spouse, I only needed a copy of my University diploma or so we thought. We did get a response back asking to see transcripts so I sent off requests for those too. Of course it couldn't be simple, since I had credits from three different schools! (Of course, John had copies of his transcripts already.)
So my advice if you are considering a move like this is to get certified copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates (divorce decrees if applicable), college transcripts, and any evidence or work history that you can come up with. The medical exam and x-rays need to be within a short time before the application, but if you need any vaccines, look into that early. Finally, find one of the passport photo places that use a digital camera and include lots of pictures. You will need lots.
One of the things you can get points for is money. It's a max of 2 points for 200,000 NZ$, so you can't buy your way in, but you do need to show where the money is coming from, and transfer it to a New Zealand Bank before getting final approval. I found a list of Banks, and was able to open an account via mail, sending a personal check for the opening balance. Once the house sold, we did a wire transfer to meet the requirement. In US banks, foreign currency is treated as ... well alien. For non-American tourists in the US, it must be a real pain trying to find places to change currencies. Our own bank, which was not a small one would not change currency on the spot. Here and everywhere I've travelled in Europe, all banks do currencies conversions! But the truly pleasant surprise was that I could also write a personal US check to move money over!