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Guatemala Real Estate

Pick up any magazine or newsletter about living abroad and you'll find plenty of articles and advertisements about buying a home in Mexico or Central America. There is seldom any mention of the closest Central American country to the U.S. or Canada: Guatemala.

Pick up any magazine or newsletter about living abroad and you'll find plenty of articles and advertisements about buying a home in Mexico or Central America. There is seldom any mention of the closest Central American country to the U.S. or Canada: Guatemala. Al Argueta corners Brian Wilson, president of Century 21 Antigua Fine Homes in Guatemala to get the story on opportunities in this fascinating destination.

It's no secret that the vast majority of Americans looking to purchase property abroad come to Central America in search of sun, sand and surf. These haven't traditionally been Guatemala's strongest offerings. How do you see Guatemala competing with its Central American neighbors in terms of its attractiveness to would-be real estate investors? Is there a market for the sand and surf crowd in Guatemala?

The climate is the big selling feature here: temperatures are ideal. Guatemala is really Central America's undiscovered jewel, though many people mistakenly think of the country as a backward "Banana Republic." This is soon dispelled once people spend a few weeks touring the country.

Sadly, the tourism office has a very limited budget for promoting the country abroad, so the news doesn't get out to potential investors or tourists, unlike Costa Rica. Guatemala has tremendous cultural offerings thanks to its Maya legacy. The other Central American countries are, in my opinion, little more than an extension of East L.A.; there is no distinct culture to speak of.

There are beaches here, but the sand is volcanic so they're not the typical white-sand beaches most visitors normally picture. The market here is for sport fishing, big business, and resorts.

What specifically attracts real estate investors to Antigua, Guatemala?

Great appreciation in real estate prices, the fact that it's a beautiful historic city, proximity to services such as health, an international airport and shopping. It's also a good market for rental property. Re-sales are very quick, so liquidity is not a big problem.

Antigua is obviously Guatemala's hottest real estate market, but what are some of the country's other real estate investment opportunities and what makes them attractive?

The Rio Dulce area is attractive for people who like boating and fishing. A few new high-end hotels are being built for weekend visitors from the capital and international tourism. Ecotourism is starting to catch on throughout Guatemala and Petén seems to be attracting some investment in this regard as well.

What are some of the hottest projects going on in Antigua and throughout Guatemala right now?

Close to Antigua, in neighboring Alotenango, La Reunión Antigua Golf Resort has been created around a Ken Dye-designed 18-hole PGA-rated golf course. The site offers golf course lots with a prestigious clubhouse and pro shop. The purchasers can develop their own unique housing designs. There is a big project in the Lake Atitlán area geared to foreign and local investors, complete with Helipad facilities and large recreation areas. On the Pacific coast, several new developments are in place catering to foreigners interested in deep-sea fishing, such as Marina Del Sur in the Puerto San José area, which is 45 minutes from Guatemala City and Antigua.

In the years you've been in business, what are some of the more recent trends you've noticed concerning foreigners' interest in acquiring property in Guatemala?

The main comments we receive concern the current U.S. political situation, plus the high cost of living and taxes. A lot of people are moving here because they can afford to live a comfortable lifestyle for 70 percent less than they are spending at home.

What are some of the unique challenges of investing in Guatemala? What should potential buyers be aware of?

Investors looking to build residential or commercial properties should be aware of numerous restrictions in the Antigua area. There are strict guidelines that need to be followed to ensure that anything being built adheres to architectural standards imposed by Antigua's cultural preservation laws. Finding available land to develop isn't an easy task, either. Many landowners don't want to sell.

Anyone buying property needs to have a reputable lawyer review all pertinent documents to be sure that the property is properly represented. Don't deal with people who are not part of the real estate chamber, as they may have a vested interest in selling the property they are representing.

[Editor's note: Foreigners are also restricted from owning property close to any waterfront, which includes the lakes.]

Are Americans buying property in Guatemala mostly as second homes or are you seeing an increase in people buying business property as well?

It's a 50/50 split as far as second homes go. Buyers who are still employed are buying second homes here, while retirees have increasingly become permanent residents. We haven't seen any real volume in terms of business buyers due to the high cost of land or existing buildings in areas that make the best business investments.

I recently read a story in a U.S. travel magazine about an investor who purchased property for cacao cultivation in the region of the Verapaces. Are American investors getting in on the local commodities markets such as coffee and cardamom (traditionally dominated by Guatemala's elite)?

Much of this activity pertains to programs of NGOs. Cacao is being re-introduced in several areas of Guatemala due to the high quality of the product, with NGOs setting up fair trade deals to help local farmers. Cattle and exotic fruits have also shown good growth. Guatemala is a great country for specialty farming, as land in agricultural areas can be quite inexpensive.

What services does Century 21 perform for foreign investors interested in Guatemala and what kinds of issues/problems are you set up to solve?

In a nutshell, we do it all. We have several people in place to handle any situation that may arise so that the investor can dictate his wishes and we can perform the required functions to make it work.

Interview conducted in December 2008 by Al Argueta, author of Moon Handbook Guatemala For sample real estate listings in Guatemala, see the Century 21 Antigua site.

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