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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Shipping Your Belongings Versus Buying New In Panama

The question comes up often, “Should I pay to have everything shipped to Panama? Or should I just ditch it all and start over fresh?”

In this article, I’ll try to help you answer that question as it was honestly one that drove us nuts when we started planning for our move to Panama. Marlene wanted to take everything with us. We had tons of baby stuff (the boys were just starting to crawl), furniture we loved, and other things we weren’t sure we were ready to part with. I considered just having a few things shipped, like my DVD collection. So we explored all options and several different angles. We considered shipping just a few boxes, we considered renting space in a container, and we checked into the costs of loading a full container. In the end, we decided to ship it all and it was a decision that twisted my stomach into knots throughout the move. Should we have really spent the $7,000 (or around that) to ship a full 30-foot container?

Trust me, when you have to fork over $7,000, it seems like a bad decision. That’s a lot of cash to hand someone, just to move stuff that already belongs to you. Then, I have to admit, once I was in Panama, and I was waiting for our container to arrive, I was satisfied that we’d made the right decision. I couldn’t wait to relax in my comfy king-size bed, or chill out on the sofa in front of my surround-sound system. These were the ;ott;e treats I was used to, like comfort food, and living without them made me stir crazy. Now, nearly 5 years later, I’m back to thinking it might’ve made more sense to just scrap it all and start over from scratch. Over the course of this half-decade, we’ve gotten rid of most of what we brought with us. Some of it we gave to family and friends, some we donated, and some of it just broke down so we junked it.  So, with all this in mind, I set out to investigate some of the stores in Panama City, to find out if I’d made a good investment.  Should I have saved my money and bought here in Panama?

Teaser alert! You’re going to see lots of photos coming up with prices on items, to give you an idea of what it would cost to buy everything here. So if that bores you, and you have no interest in seeing the current prices of furniture and appliances in Panama, skip to the bottom where I get back to the subject of shipping your belongings or buying new.

First, let’s discuss furniture. Furniture is not low cost in Panama. It just isn’t. Overall, furniture is quite expensive here, and most of the time the quality isn’t going to be what you’re used to buying. Don’t get me wrong, you can find some affordable bachelor pad style shelving in places like the Costo furniture store in Metromall, but to buy anything of decent quality, you’re going to spend a little bit. 

Now, I know, you're probably thinking, "Can't you just buy handmade furniture from a local artisan?" Sure, you can, sometimes, if you can find what you're looking for, but even that isn't going to be super cheap. For this article, I'm going to stick with the stores.

I’ve been to many stores that sell furniture, like Conway, which is probably one of the best furniture stores here, but for research purposes for this article, just to give you some photos and ideas of what you’ll be dealing with, I visited the Furniture City in Costa del Este and Econo Precios at Los Pueblos.

Furniture City has some decent furniture, brands you’ll be familiar with, like Ashley. It’s definitely not bargain shopping though, at least not what I’d consider super affordable. I saw the table in this photo (which was one of the least expensive), with six chairs, going for $999.

This sofa and love seat set was priced at $1,149.

This queen-size bedroom set (headboard, footboard, rails, and 2 nightstands) was priced at $1,199.

And lastly, this bookshelf was priced at  $849.

At Los Pueblos, the outdoor shopping center I mention often, EP Furniture (Econoprecios Furniture) is one of the best bargain furniture stores you’ll find. There is a store on Via EspaƱa in Obarrio, for anyone in that area. Ericka Phillips, who assisted me at EP, is someone you should seek out if you happen to stop by the store. She spoke English and was very nice.

Econoprecios has three floors and you’ll find all sorts of goodies in there. Where Furniture City had better quality furniture, EP had more variety and some unique items. Plus, the prices didn’t scare me so much. I found furniture like this shelving unit for only $179.95.

I noticed they had some pricier stuff, on par with the costs at Furniture City, but they also had a lot of lower priced items that would be better for those shopping on a tighter budget. Here’s an example of one of the more costly items. This bedroom set, which consists of the headboard and two nightstands costs $1,299.

This dresser with the mirror costs $695.

Back to the tighter budget items, this full-size bed (the one on the left, which is just the headboard and rails) was priced at $295.

If you're moving to Panama with an infant, you'll be happy to know this crib was only $175.

The prices on tables and sofas were similar to those at Furniture City. Maybe a little less. This fancy table with six chairs was on the costly end at $1,895.

I like this one, with six chairs, for $1,195.

This cool little dinette set was only $250.

If you decided to leave your sofa and pick up a new one in Panama, you could get this sofa set with the end tables and coffee table for $1,395.

Sometimes you’ll find good deals at the member shopping store, PriceSmart. I found this really cool bunk bed set, with a 3rd bed hidden underneath, for only $479.99.

Moving on to appliances, one thing you need to know about Panama, is that most homes will not come with them. When we bought our house in Ohio, it came with the kitchen completely ready and a brand new washer and dryer on the second floor. For the most part, it’s not like that here. Sure, you’ll find some fully furnished homes for rent/sale, and in some of the newer developments you’ll probably find some units with a fridge, stove, etc., but if you move into any home that’s not brand spanking new, chances are, you’re going to have to bring in your own appliances.

When we moved to Panama, and I had our container packed up, I didn’t bring the appliances. I just figured it would be easier to sell the house without gaping holes in the kitchen. So, when we rented our first house here, we had not a single appliance. I had to go out and buy a washer, a dryer, a refrigerator, a stove, and a microwave. Dishwashers aren’t common here, so that’s something else you’ll need to get used to or have someone set up the connections for you.

So, considering you’ll probably need to buy appliances, let’s talk about the costs associated with that. Most people use gas stoves and dryers here. You can find electric, but your options will be much more limited and your electric bill will be quite a bit higher, so I definitely recommend you go with gas. Plus, when the power goes out, which it sometimes does here, you’ll be glad you went with gas.

To start my appliance prices search, I stopped by Rodelag at Los Pueblos. Rodelag isn’t the cheapest place in Panama, but it’s probably a good place to get a fair estimate. Security was on to me quickly, so I was only able to snap a few photos there. Here’s what I found. This Mabe brand, six-burner gas stove was going for $384.99.

If you’re wondering how much an air conditioner will run you in Panama, remember that most homes won’t have central air. So, if you’re looking to pick up a split unit, which will only cool one room in your house, here’s a photo showing you the costs of the Panasonic units at Rodelag.

You'll notice the prices rise with the sizes, and the larger the room you're trying to cool, the larger the unit you'll need. Here are some Sankey ones on sale.

One place I definitely recommend checking out is called Centro de Agencias. You’ve probably never heard of it and it can be easy to miss. It’s located on Ave. Domingo Diaz (Via Tocumen), near the entrance to San Antonio (on the right hand side just past Los Pueblos if you’re coming from Panama City and headed toward Tocumen).

For anyone who has lived in Panama for awhile, but doesn't know where it is, it's right where all of the smoothie (batido) shacks used to be. They're not there anymore, but right in front of this store was the long line of fruit and veggie shacks. Right now there's a lot of construction going on in front of the store. 

This is the best place I know of (other than buying from someone selling their stuff in a Facebook group or other online garage sale) to pick up lower cost appliances. Centro de Agencias sells new and refurbished appliances. Oftentimes, you’ll notice the cost of an appliance is lower just because it has a scratch or dent it it, like the dent you see at the top corner and lower side of this $235 deep freeze.

What’s great is that the refurbished appliances are marked on the price sticker and inside the appliance you’ll find a form listing exactly what parts were replaced. An assistant at the store showed me that the thermostat on one freezer had been replaced.

This four-burner, Mabe brand, gas stove was priced at only $189. It’s a smaller stove though, great for a small apartment.

This six-burner, Nisato brand, gas stove was $175. I don't know anything about Nisato, but you could buy four of these things for the price of one stove at PriceSmart.

This tiny stove was only $79. Stoves like this are perfect for some of the really small apartments in and around Panama City. Probably not the best stove for making your Thanksgiving Day turkey, but good enough for the daily grind. 

If you need something a little more modern and sleek, this one’s going for $480.

These brand new, Frigidaire brand, 30lb. washer and dryers were priced at $499.95 each. 

So you have something to compare this with, at PriceSmart, a similar new washer, Whirlpool brand, was going for $429, so it seems that the real deals at Centro de Agencias are on the refurbished appliances. The combo unit you see below costs $879 at Centro de Agencias.  

The Whirlpool combo unit you see below was at PriceSmart, priced at $1099.99, so about a $200 difference between it and the one from Centro de Agencias. I don't know all the specs on the Whirlpool unit. Maybe it was larger or had more bells and whistles. 

This regular, Mabe brand, refrigerator was $349 at Centro de Agencias. Similar ones at PriceSmart, Frigidaire brand, were going for a little over $500. I'd never heard of Mabe brand until I moved to Panama, but I've had a Mabe gas stove for over four years now and it still works great.

This bigger one with an ice maker was priced at $899.95.

And they even had mini-supermarket style refrigerators, great for businesses, repaired (or refurbished), going for $660.

I bought a deep freeze from this place when I first moved to Panama and it worked great. The only drawback was the store’s lack of deliverymen. Instead of having an actual delivery service, you either have to haul the appliance off yourself, or sometimes there will conveniently be a guy right outside who will take cash payments to load your appliance in the back of his pickup and take it to your house. That’s what we did.

What’s the verdict? Is it better to ship your belongings or buy everything new in Panama? 

Looking at the prices I’ve listed, I honestly don’t know what's the best decision. I think it depends on the person. It depends on you and what your personal needs are. You could buy the sofa and love seat set at Furniture City for just over $1,000, then go get the full-size headboard and rail set at EP for just under $300, find a cheap mattress, then head over to PriceSmart and get the $500 bunk bed set for the kids. You’re probably just over $2,000 with the mattresses. You get the point. You’d have to shop very wisely though, to replace everything in your home, for under the $7,000(ish) shipping costs.

Plus, one other thing you have to keep in mind, if you're planning to buy a bunch of expensive items in Panama, is the international transaction fee your credit/debit card might carry with it. There are banks out there with no, or very low international fees. When I moved here, I was paying 5% for every transaction. That adds up. So make sure you know what you'll be charged before you start racking up the fees. 

I think the real question is, do you have things in your home now that you absolutely cannot live without in Panama? If you bought an amazing credenza at an auction, chances are, that won’t be replaceable here.  If you’re someone who furnished your home with Ikea stuff (like we did in our tiny apartment in Chicago), you could probably just ditch it and buy everything again when you get here.

It’s the stuff that hits close to the heart you won’t be able to replace, like heirlooms passed down through the generations, boxes of family photos, and old high school trophies. So maybe the decision can be a happy medium. Maybe you ship some of your stuff, packed in with other shipments (share a container), and sell or donate the rest.

Some people have nothing they care to keep. The kids are grown and out of the house, or they’ve just lost most of the important stuff over the years…whatever the reason, they have no desire to bring a bunch of clutter. Getting on a plane with nothing but your suitcase can be an invigorating experience. With no weight on your shoulders, nothing tying you down, you can truly start anew. Some people desire exactly this.

Whatever you do, make sure you shop around, get several estimates from moving companies, and research your insurance options before moving anything. The moving company I went with tried to convince me to go with the 40-foot container, and I was convinced everything would fit in the 30-foot. I can’t remember what the difference was in cost, but I know it was pretty substantial. In the end, I stuck with my gut and went with the 30-foot and it all fit, saving me a couple grand at least.

I hope that seeing and reading about the costs associated with buying everything new, and comparing it with what the shipping companies give you as an estimate, will help you make an informed decision about which route is best for you. Good luck. And thanks for reading. 


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