For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the allure of tropical climates can be enticing, especially in these winter months.
Many people long for the option to move to warmer regions like Florida or Mexico, but property prices there are rising and foreigners are prohibited from buying property in tourist regions of Mexico. That’s causing some people to look further afield.
Michelle Lyons of Belize Sotheby's International Realty is one of those people. She and her husband had always dreamed of moving to Mexico from their home in Idaho but were deterred by the idea of learning Spanish. But seven years ago they discovered Belize, just south of Mexico, where the language barrier wouldn't be a problem.
It took a while to convince me that English was really the national language, and that made so much more sense than Mexico.
The couple made the move seven years ago, and both stayed in the same line of work they were doing in the United States, him as a general contractor and her in real estate. "We just do it without any snow," she jokes.
There are a few differences between buying a home in Canada and Belize.
For one, attorneys handle the closing by doing the title search and facilitating the transfer of ownership. But that means the initial purchase documents are simple, says Lyons. All the real estate agent does is connect the buyer with the seller, facilitate a meeting of minds on the property’s price, and set a closing date.
Canadian buyers will likely also be struck by the closing cost. As Lyons points out, property taxes in Belize are one of the biggest differences. Where in Canada, homeowners pay a monthly tax, in Belize they collect what is called a "stamp tax" or "stamp duty." The stamp tax is about eight per cent of the home and land value and is collected up front. After that is paid, the cost of owning property falls to about US$50 per year, Lyons explains.
So if you look at the upfront cost of buying property, it’s completely offset by 30 years of next-to-nothing in taxes.
Another big difference in Belize is that you don’t necessarily have to pay all cash up front. Lyons explains that many sellers today originally purchased their homes in the 80s and 90s, so the place has been completely paid off.
Purchasers can offer a 20 or 30 per cent down payment, and pay the rest off monthly directly to the owner. The sale is registered through an attorney and with the government as a legal transaction, so buyers don’t need to be concerned with the property being sold out from under them. However, an important thing to know if you want o buy a property in Belize is that the ownership doesn’t transfer until the home is paid off, so the seller is protected as well. This gives the seller a guaranteed income, while also giving new residents a little more money to get situated with.
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A Good Investment?
Many signs point toward Belizian property as a good investment. Some professionals say property prices rose 30-to-40 per cent between 2015 and 2017, but it can be a difficult number to nail down as there are no official house price figures. The region was hit hard by the global economic crisis, with values falling by as much as 30 percent, but 2012 saw a rebound that continues today.
A recent tour boom, coupled with the passage of the Retired Person Incentive Act in 1999 has been drumming up more buyer interest in the country. According to GlobalPropertyGuide.com, prices along coastal and tourist areas rose by as much as 30 per cent annually, while inland prices rose by about 15 per cent annually.
These days, in the more expensive regions like Belize’s famous islands or in the Placencia region, it’s not uncommon to spend a million dollars on a home. But if you’re content with something more off the beaten path, there are great deals to be had says Lyons.
People are usually really pleasantly surprised. Especially on the mainland. You can get 30 acres with three houses and a thousand coconut trees for US$230,000.
The jungle and mountain areas are even more affordable, where fifty acres of farmland with two houses, a stream, and a cenote can be had for $500,000.
So you can get a bit more bang for your buck on the mainland as opposed to venturing out onto an island.
And if you’re looking to make a little extra cash, you can always rent out part of your property on Airbnb. There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions against using the service in Belize.
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There are some things that folks from Canada might not be used to. For instance, because of the way property taxes are collected, the roads aren’t maintained as well.
It can also be difficult to find some American or Canadian products, but Lyons says that’s one of the main reasons people live in the Caribbean—to escape the consumerism. Part of the draw is to have a simpler life. "If you can’t find it here you probably don’t need it or there’s a substitute for it," she says.
But in a country where the average coastal temperature ranges between 24°C to 27°C, giving up a few creature comforts can seem worth it.
"Even when it rains it’s not cold, it’s just wet," says Lyons. "Leaving the snow behind was our big draw."
Lyons suggests that people be open-minded about where they live. Many people are fixated on buying on an island, but there are many other options and climates, including islands, beaches, mountains, and jungle.
Don’t listen to other expats because each person that you talk to will try to convince you that the area that they live in is the very best. So you may come here thinking that you need to live in a beach community because that’s what someone told you, then you realize that you’re much more suited to the climate in the jungle areas.
Of course, there are some things to keep an eye out for.
For one, buyers should be extra careful choosing an agent since there's no licensing requirement to sell real estate in Belize.
If you’re interested in buying a condo rather than a house, it’s usually better to deal with an owner-owned condo association rather than an outside management company, according to this New York Times piece. Management companies often take a hands-off approach to the property, but when the condo owners handle things themselves they tend to handle them with more care.
Safety concerns are natural when moving to a place like Belize. Certain areas are more dangerous than others. As the United States Overseas Security Advisory Council says, "there is no indication that foreigners are broadly targeted, although tourists can be easy targets when not displaying situational awareness." It is recommended that people exercise extreme caution when visiting Belize City.
As we’ve seen just in the last year, hurricanes are a major concern in the region around Belize. Since 1930 there have been 16 hurricanes in Belize, eight of them major. The deadliest occurred in 1931, killing 2,500 people. Most storms hit Belize in the months of September and October, but you’re less likely to see the effects of a hurricane in Belize than you are in certain regions of the US. According to the Belize Magazine, the odds of a hurricane landing in Belize in a given year is just 17 per cent, while in Florida the odds are 68 per cent.
Still, storms in that part of the world appear to be getting worse with each year, so buying insurance is highly recommended. Coverage can be bought—known as "all peril" insurance—that ensures against storms, hurricanes, fire, and more.
Lyons says you should contact a local realtor if you’re interested in buying in Belize. The realtor can send links and pictures of properties while the buyer is still in Canada. In fact, there are a number of Belizean properties already listed on the Torontoism website.
Realtors can help out with a rental car and lodgings when they come down to look at potential properties. The realtor will set up the initial offer and then introduce them to an attorney. Those attorneys can also help with importing pets or setting up a business in Belize.
The only requirement is that you have a valid passport and a downpayment to buy property in Belize. The closing can be done as quickly as 60 days or set for six months while the buyer gets their affairs in order back home.
Belize is an untapped resource for many people looking to buy a home in warmer climates. It’s a safe and secure option, but also offers a bit of adventure.
"Like my mom told me, if you go down there and decide it isn’t for you it’s not like we’re going to close the door, says Lyons. "You can always come back home but at least you will have tried."