From a private island dream to owning a tropical island in Belize
After our second visit to Petite St. Vincent we arrived home with a new determination to find our island. We need an island big enough to hold the facilities we envision. We want the resort to be in close proximity to excellent diving locations, yet within easy reach of the airport. The land needs to have fee simple title located in a country with a stable government and growing tourism industry. Most important, it needs to be affordable.
We searched the internet nearly every evening looking for something that fit our Caribbean dream. We were amazed at how many islands there actually were for sale. We found that the well-known destinations were considerably more expensive than those less traveled. Most of the islands that met our requirements, we simply could not afford. The search was a long and frustrating process made more difficult by the lack of up-to-date information. Most Caribbean real estate companies rarely update their websites and even more rarely answer an e-mail. The few times that we did receive a response, language barriers prevented detailed conversations.
Buying land in a foreign country was probably the most unnerving part of the plan. How do we know we own the property? How do we know the person who sold it to us actually owned it? How do we know the government won’t take it away someday? How do we know the government will still exist in the future? We don’t! We would need to complete extensive research before we would feel comfortable with any foreign purchase. We found it fairly easy to locate property ownership information for each country that we were considering. We learned that some countries have significant restrictions on foreign ownership while others don’t allow it at all. Many more countries only offer leasehold land. All of these limitations helped to narrow down our search areas.
One area where we consistently found islands for sale was in Belize. It also has a stable government, is an English-speaking country and is becoming well known as a vacation destination and scuba diving hot spot. But there is not an organized system of marketing real estate there. To gather information was labor intensive and tedious. We had to contact each person or brokerage individually and request information about the properties they had for sale. Most people never responded to our requests. The few who did were either too pushy or wrote in virtually unrecognizable English, or both. We often found the same parcel of land for sale with many different brokerages. Amusingly, each would have a different price, different description and even different acreage, but always the same pictures. Once a property is on the market, it appears that anyone can add the listing to their website and pretend it’s their own. Yet, when you ask for information about the property they don’t know anything. They haven’t even seen it! This made us extremely skeptical about any information we received. We would always ask, 'Is this your listing?' 'Have you talked to the Seller?' 'Have you ever personally visited this property?' It’s kind of a real estate free-for-all. It appeared that anyone who wants to be a real estate agent could just print some business cards, make a sign and voila! You’re an agent!
It was during this lengthy process, that we found Billy and began communicating with him. He was the only agent who consistently e-mailed us back and always in a timely fashion. We peppered him with the same questions we had asked numerous other agents. He answered all of them. We finally felt that we had found someone we wanted to work with. Now we just needed to find the property. We sent him a list of every island we had bookmarked, even though we’d already completed our own research on most of them. We requested that he get as much detail on each listing as possible. To this point, there had only been a couple of islands that really excited us. Unfortunately, both had already sold. This news, on one island in particular, was extremely disappointing to K.T. At nearly twenty acres, the island was the perfect size, close to the barrier reef and yet still minutes from the mainland and nearby airport. The price was right and it had the perfect name, Tranquility Caye.
Billy started his research on the list we had given him, which included this island. Over the next several weeks he e-mailed us information as he received it. Most of the updates we received from him were discouraging. Many more of the islands from our list had recently sold while others were either listed with brokerages that wouldn’t cooperate or they never bothered to respond at all.
Then, one day, we received an e-mail from Billy stating that Tranquility Caye (Caye is pronounced 'key') was still available. We were thrilled, but surprised. Why did the listing agent of the property tell us it was sold? After further inquiries over the next several days, Billy learned that it was in fact still under contract. This time K.T. was devastated. It was the only island that fit all of our needs. Nothing else we found was quite right. Had we set our expectations too high? Was our price tag too low? Would we ever realize our island dream? After the initial disappointment and a few days of depression subsided, we agreed that we definitely didn’t want to change our requirements or settle for anything less. So we kept looking!
Several months passed and it felt like we had exhausted every possibility. Then it happened! We received an e-mail from the listing agent of Tranquility Caye. Apparently, after learning that the government would not allow an airstrip on the island, the buyer had bailed. We immediately contacted Billy, since we wanted him to represent us on this purchase. He was able to negotiate a cooperation agreement with the listing agent and we made an offer to purchase the island, sight unseen.
We routinely purchase and sell property. Our offers are based solely on a financial decision, one without emotion. You’d think that signing a contract to purchase an island that you’ve never visited, in a foreign country nonetheless, would be downright terrifying. For us, the only scary part was the thought that we’d lose it again. After several agonizing days of negotiating with the seller, we finally agreed upon the terms and a contract was ratified. It was exhilarating! Until, that is, we had to send our good faith deposit. This was the greatest leap of faith we had ever made in our lives. We wired a large sum of money toward the purchase of an island that we’d only seen in pictures, to a bank account of the real estate company that we only hope existed. Somehow it just felt right and we knew that finally we were one step closer to realizing our dream.
We immediately booked our trip to Belize to see the island in person. In an effort to assure ourselves that this was the correct purchase, we arranged to see numerous other islands during our stay. When we arrived, Billy was at the airport to greet us. We then hopped on a plane we had chartered for a tour along the cayes of Belize. We hoped to get a better perspective of our island’s location in relation to the mainland and also take a peek at the other properties we’d be viewing the following days. It was amazing how many little islands there are in Belize. We knew immediately when we reached our island, since it has a very unique shape. Although we didn’t express it immediately, as we got closer we were both somewhat concerned and disappointed. From the air, the island looked like overgrown swampland. When we finished our aerial tour, Billy drove us to the resort where we were staying. We made plans to meet him the next morning, had some dinner then retired to our room, exhausted from our hectic day of travel. Neither of us slept well that night. Had we made a big mistake?
The next morning we jumped into a small boat with Billy and two boat captains, Kit and Frankie. We would be spending the next three days with them visiting various islands for sale. Our first stop was at Tranquility Caye. To our relief, it wasn’t as swampy as it had appeared from the air. It still needed to be filled in many areas, but had plenty of high and dry ground. Frankie pointed out the species of mangrove that only grows on solid ground. We couldn’t see very much of the island because the vegetation was thick and overgrown. We took some pictures then continued our tour of the nearby islands. We all had a great time. We fished and snorkeled between the islands, just shooting the breeze along the way. It’s amazing how much useful information you can pick up in casual conversation.
Once we had seen all of the available islands, we had some serious doubts about the decision we had made. Although many of the other islands we visited were smaller, they had more building sites. Our island had a lot of potential, but would require significant dredging and filling, which created more questions. What would that cost? Was the island stable enough to build on? Could we find a contractor willing to work on an island? Mainland property sure would be easier!
We left Belize without a clear picture of how to proceed. We could cancel our contract, receive a refund of our deposit and start the whole search all over again. We could buy one of the other smaller properties we had seen. Or, we could even buy an oceanfront parcel on the mainland. Although this trip was exhausting, more mentally than physically, it was also one of the best vacations we had ever experienced.
We had plenty of time on the plane ride home to discuss the pros and cons of each island we had visited. The smaller islands might be easier to build on but were much further from the mainland. The water around Tranquility was shallower than other islands which could limit its access at certain points. We finally agreed that even after taking into consideration all of its challenges, Tranquility still seemed to be the best option. Ultimately, we decided to try and re-negotiate our purchase price with the seller. Hopefully, the extra costs to prepare the island for building would be absorbed by the price reduction.
When we returned home, we shared our thoughts with Billy. With his help, we arrived at what we felt was a fair price. Billy then relayed our concerns to the seller and his agent along with our revised purchase price. The seller didn’t agree to reduce the price to the amount we had hoped. He did, thankfully, make a reasonable counter offer which we accepted. A couple of months later we closed the deal and we now own our very own piece of paradise!
Doug and K.T. Ingersoll - April 2005
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