Story and photos by John Lamkin
While some Latin American markets experienced a drop when the U.S. housing market tanked, stable Belize barely saw a blip. With a Caribbean diving location and easy access from the U.S. or Yucatan, Ambergris Caye is a favorite for North American vacationers and retirees.
"Like when I was a child—unsupervised—no danger." says expat RE/MAX, realtor, John Turley, referring to his kids riding their bikes to and from school. "It's 100% the best place to raise a family." We are on Ambergris Caye (pronounced key), a beautiful, tropical island just off the coast of Belize, Central America. Turley is explaining why Ambergris is becoming such a hot real estate market. Belize is an English-speaking country, with a stable currency that has tied to the U.S. Dollar at 2:1 for years, and has no capital gains tax.
Ambergris is sort of an anomaly in regards to real estate. Its only experience of the market drop in 2008 was that it took twice as long to sell. Prices did not drop. Also, bank foreclosures were almost nonexistentï¿½the banks would not drop the property price and would just wait a little longer to sell. Since bank financing interest rates are high at around 10% in Belize, most transactions are cash or owner-financed. It's a very stable market.
Kyle Thomas, also an expat and the local Coldwell Banker realtor, agrees with Turley, "Low violence, low crime...you can walk the beach at night." According to Thomas the market had completely recouped by 2010. About 75% of transactions are in cash. Most sellers come away with a 10 to 15% return.
I asked Thomas why I saw so many for sale signs as I drove my golf cart (the main form of transport here, along with boats) down the road to meet with him. He explained that many people would put property back on the market as soon as they bought, with no rush to sell, knowing that they would resell for at least a 10% gain eventually. He said that the best deals are in beachfront lots, running around $350,000 to $400,000 USD for 100 foot frontage on the water. Next best are condos.
Belize Incentives for Expatriates
Some definite advantages to buying in Belize are very low property taxes (figure on $100 per year), high growth potential, no capital gains tax, and no U.S. tax if you keep the money in Belize. It is also relatively easy to set up a business here and acquire legal residency. Publications like International Living, EscapeArtist.com, and Money magazine have all at times praised the country with descriptions like "The Best Deal in Central America" and "the Caribbean at a discount."
Ambergris Caye is the most popular Belize destination. It is the largest island in the country. The second largest barrier reef in the world is located just a mile from Ambergris' shore, making it one of the premier dive destinations in the world. The reefs here teem with tropical fish of every size, color, and description, along with exotic corals, sponges, and sea fans. Windsurfing, sea kayaking, catamaran sailing, jet skiing, parasailing, and kite boarding are among some of the water sports available on the island, but if you think this is just a Caribbean diving and snorkeling destination, think again. The traditional Maya communities and ancient archaeological sites that have been uncovered in its dense, lush jungles of the Belizian mainland should also be on your "must-see" lists.
The mainland is only an hour away from Ambergris Caye by boat, 15 minutes by plane. Many seldom-crowded Mayan sites including Altun Ha, Cahal Pech, Caracol, El Pilar, Lamani, and Xunantunich can be found there. (Just try to avoid cruise ship docking days.) The world famous Mayan city of Tikal can be found just over the border in Guatemala. Exploring these sites and taking in the views from atop are extraordinary experiences.
Adventurous types find plenty to thrill them in Belize, activities like cave tubing, river canoeing, caving, hiking, zip lining, and horseback riding. The Belize Zoo is a great place to see native animals in a natural setting. The zoo is located 30 miles from Belize City.
You can also reach Ambergris Caye from Mexico (Chetumal, Quintana Roo) by a 1-1/2 hour water taxi ride.
Although slow in pace, as is the case with most of the Caribbean, San Pedro, the island's only town—with a population of about 15,000--offers many restaurants, artisan shops and supermarkets as well as outdoor fruit and vegetable stands, coffee shops and bakeries, a wonderful wine shop and a growing fair trade chocolate business. Locals and tourists mix freely with a wonderful feeling of openness and warmth. The island and some of the resorts appear frequently on TV shows, from trashy reality shows to upscale travel round-ups.
Several of the expats I met on the island are successful entrepreneurs. Kelly McDermott, whose family is from Texas, was raised on the island. Along with her husband, Mukul, and a friend she has the Phoenix Resort, three restaurants (Caliente, Blue Water Grill and Red Ginger), a wine shop, and wine distribution business. Kelly's philosophy is, "Leave the world a little better than you found it." She says that she wouldn't live any place else.