For John and Tara Newby, moving from the UK to Portugal was a happy accident.
What was meant to be a short holiday in Portugal during the pandemic turned into a month-long stay because of a change in travel rules that prevented them from going home without quarantining.
With all the extra time on their hands, the couple decided this would be the perfect opportunity for them to look for a house to buy in the countryside.
“We were looking at a lifestyle that would mean we could get out of the UK, spend more time outside, have a better climate, and space for our children to grow a bit more wild and free,” Tara, 35, told Insider.
They already knew what they wanted: a plot of land that they could turn into a homestead with a house that they could fix up with their own hands.
“We walked through the gates, and John’s amazing at seeing potential when other people don’t — me included,” Tara said. “He was like, ‘I think we could make this work.’ And that was it really.”
The property is located just outside of a small town called Amarante — about 220 miles north of Lisbon — in northern Portugal, and it came with three small stone buildings.
The couple — who were living and traveling around in a van at that time — bought the farm for 95,000 euros, or about $103,000.
“The first idea was a lifestyle business or a holiday home. We also thought about moving permanently, and when we came back out here, we fell in love with it more and more the longer we spent here,” Tara said.
Eventually, they decided they wanted to build a sustainable, off-grid homestead where they could raise their children. At that point in time, the couple already had their first son Crusoe, and Tara was pregnant with their second child, Sawyer.
“We wanted a life where they would have enough space to be outside a lot to explore, learn, and grow,” she said.
The couple sold their house in England when they became van-lifers during the pandemic.
“Prices over the last few years in Bristol had been going quite crazy, so we had a bunch of equity in that property that’s enough to buy the farm here,” John, 45, told Insider.
But the money was in a bank account, and the interest rates were low back then, he said.
“It wasn’t doing anything for us,” John added. “And then we came to Portugal and we thought, well, why not just buy a house here with the money that we’ve got in the bank?”
The couple employed a solicitor to assist them with the legal aspect of things and also to check that the property had all of the certifications required for renovations.
“So Portugal’s got a whole bunch of laws to do with the planning commission, and whether or not you can update properties,” John said.
While there are many abandoned properties available for sale in the country, not all of them have the necessary paperwork required for buyers to apply for habitation or renovation permits, he added.
Property buyers also need a taxpayer identification number, or NIF number, before they can enter a contract, John said.
“You need to make sure that you can prove where your finances come from, so that there are no money laundering questions,” he said.
The couple moved to the farm in May 2022.
After the Newbys moved in, the first thing they had to do was clear out all the items that the previous occupants had left behind.
“It literally looked like someone had walked out the door on your average Tuesday and just never came back,” Tara said. “There were biscuits in the cupboards, there were clothes in the cupboards, the beds were made up.”
She added that they spent about 10 days emptying all the rooms and giving the space a good clean.
“There was a lot to clear out, a lot to sort through. There were a lot of spiderwebs and dust covering every surface of the home,” she added.
Outside, nature had completely taken over large sections of their property, hiding outdoor stone tables and old staircases that the couple didn’t even know existed.
It was around this time when the couple started to get to know their Portuguese neighbors, and some of them even chipped in to help the couple with their project.
“We are so lucky with our neighbors who’ve just welcomed us with open arms,” Tara said. “Our Portuguese neighbors are unbelievably generous with their warmth, their time, and their advice.”
Their neighbors have also stepped in to help the couple navigate administrative matters.
“If we’ve needed to get certain bits of paperwork, they’ve been able to help us with that, because where we live, very few people speak English,” she added. “They’ve literally scooped us up. They’ve helped us with all the things that would make living here really difficult.”
Tara gave birth to Sawyer in September 2022, and the family of four returned to Portugal just a month later. They’ve been at the property ever since.
Once they returned, the couple ramped up their renovation progress — and their house started to take shape.
In the main house, the couple turned the first floor into a cozy, open-plan living room and kitchen space. Upstairs, the four of them sleep together in a single bedroom.
Some of the furniture and decor they have in their house is made from upcycled items, including a wooden table that John crafted from an old wine press they found on the property.
The couple has an off-grid water system as well as freshwater flowing into their property from a stream.
Although the farm draws electricity from the grid, the family does rely on solar energy as well. They are still in the midst of evaluating whether they should take their electricity completely off-grid in the future.
“Portugal actually has got really good renewable energy as part of the national grid. I think for a couple of months this year, a hundred percent of the electricity of the country has been supplied entirely by renewables,” John said.
That, by extension, also means that electricity prices in the country are generally pretty good, he said.
“We are weighing that opportunity cost of whether it’s important for us to go completely off-grid individually, or whether the Portuguese government’s doing a good enough job with the renewables,” he added.
The couple’s YouTube channel started back in 2020 when they were still living in the UK, and it was a way for them to keep in touch with family members overseas.
“It was just a hobby at first. We started off by posting a couple of videos for Tara’s parents, who were in Zimbabwe, to kind of keep them in the loop,” John said.
Before the pandemic, John and Tara had been working together at a travel agency and had a few exciting trips planned.
“Work was going to take us to Tanzania to see some chimpanzees. Then we were off to Antarctica to get married, and we were going to do some other bits of travel,” John said. “So we thought, you know what? We should just start filming it and putting together these compilations of travel videos.”
But as it happened, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the couple ended up quitting their jobs to travel around Europe in a van instead.
They filmed their lives on the road, and when they finally settled down on the Portuguese farm, they filmed that process too.
“We essentially have three full-time jobs. We are full-time parents, our kids don’t go to nursery or anything. Then we have our full-time YouTube business, making content. And we are full-time renovators trying to create a homestead at the same time,” Tara said.
Even though they love this lifestyle, the couple admits that the biggest challenge is managing their time.
“Trying to make all of those things marry up and work together is hard, especially because it’s usually dictated by two very small people who need us all the time,” she added.
To monetize their YouTube channel, they had to have a thousand subscribers and 4,000 watch hours, John said.
“So it took us about half a year to do that, to get 1,000 subscribers. And then at the end of the first year, we were at about 7,000 or 8,000 subscribers,” John said.
Now, their channel has over 144,000 subscribers, and their most popular video has been viewed over 1.5 million times.
“Alongside that, of course, we’ve got our Patreon accounts so we need to service that, and we are also working to get brand sponsorships,” John added.
“There are a whole bunch of English websites out there that will sometimes charge a premium on a property because they’re written in English,” John said.
Instead, the couple suggests browsing listings on local real-estate websites like Imovirtual.
“There are a couple of local Portuguese websites that Google does a really great job of translating now. So if you’re going to one of these local websites you’ll get the local prices,” he added.
“For me, a real thing about Portugal is that the people are incredible and they’re so family-oriented. It’s a really different feel from the UK and from other places in the world, and it’s something that we really love about being here,” Tara said.
Even though each day has its own challenges — be it a renovation problem or the stress of raising two young children alone in a foreign country — the couple says they’re glad to be able to have this lifestyle.
“Everything that we had expected and hoped for is happening. Like, it’s perfect,” John said. “We’ve got loads of space for our kids to grow, we’re growing our own food, we’re enjoying our days — there’s no disappointment.”