Miami resident Cheryl Andrews calls her getaway house on the island of Nevis "3.5 Seasons." As in, it's not quite the Four Seasons, but almost. What does she love about it? The main house and guest cottage are "600 feet above the sea … with great views, a swimming pool, no neighbors, and lots of mango and other tropical fruit trees set on nearly three acres."
Popularized by TV shows about home-buying in the islands, and driven by those considering retiring overseas, more people are considering owning a home or apartment in the Caribbean instead of renting every time they visit.
Everyone has his or her own idea of what constitutes a dream getaway. "Some people want golf, or the beach, or a marina," says Evaristo Gonzalez Aponte, Broker-Owner of RE/MAX-Metro in Puerto Rico. Other buyers solely care about having a warm, sunny place for family gatherings.
But with so many islands, so much variation, and so much complexity to the purchase process, how do you decide if a home in the Caribbean is right for you? Before you buy your great escape, ask yourself these questions to help decide.
Why not just rent?
James Bovell, Broker-Owner of RE/MAX Cayman Islands, says that it's often people who've been visiting the Caymans for three to five years as renters who are ready to make the decision to buy. At that point, they've experienced the island multiple times and developed a pattern and feel like their money is better spent on a purchase than on rent year-in and year-out.
That doesn't mean, however, that homeownership should be viewed as a money-making investment, especially if you're buying in order to use it yourself. The real estate markets in many Caribbean islands are not necessarily as consistent as you may find in the U.S., where, aside from cyclical downturns, residential property has generally appreciated over time.
Depending on how you want to use a property in the Caribbean, though, there are ways you can defray the cost of home ownership that may help you make the rent vs. buy decision.
According to Denise Douglas, Office Manager and Marketing Officer for Turks & Caicos Sotheby's International Realty, "Approximately 80% of condo owners and 60% of villa owners short-term let their vacation homes." Rental income varies based upon the quality and location of the condo or villa, but Douglas adds that higher end properties generally perform better from a rental perspective for their owners.
If your heart is set on one specific island, make sure you take a thorough look at all the inventory and don't get caught up in price averages.
How expensive are island properties?
Several websites monitor real estate markets worldwide and use a variety of metrics that may help you understand real estate values on each island. Some islands tend to be costlier than others; GlobalPropertyGuide.com reports that vacation homes in Bermuda cost about seven times more per square meter than those in Puerto Rico, for example.
However, there's plenty of range on most islands — Turks & Caicos Sotheby's, a firm specializing in luxury properties located on an island that is more expensive than most, has recent listings ranging from $1.65 million to $25 million. So if your heart is set on one specific island, make sure you take a thorough look at all the inventory and don't get caught up in price averages.
It's important to note that none of the online guides are perfect. Much of the data are supplied by competing governments, some of it is out of date, and the sites may or may not capture critical numbers such as taxes on capital gains and rental income, which run the gamut among the 28 separate countries and provinces in the region. Residency requirements and property rights laws for each island vary, too.
Which island suits your tastes?
Certainly, the financial and legal details matter, but so does your ease of getting there, so it may be worth noting which islands have frequent nonstop flights from your home airport. Thanks to the recent expansion of Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and even Norwegian airlines in the Caribbean, the choices of accessible islands have multiplied.
In addition, understand that "each Caribbean island is unique in its history, culture, geography, and resort environment," says Randy Chavers, Managing Director of Coldwell Banker Island Affiliates. Even parts of the same country, such as Punta Cana and the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic, may offer starkly different physical, cultural, and recreational environments.
Vacation home shoppers for whom beaches are important might consider Anguilla, Antigua, the Bahamas Out Islands, Punta Cana, Grand Cayman Island, or Turks and Caicos. Avid golfers may be more interested in properties on Barbados, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, or Jamaica because of the quality and quantity of the courses. By contrast, golfers should not opt for the British Virgin Islands — which should, however, be a target for anyone who's into boating. If you want verdant, tropical beauty, you'll love Saint Lucia or Jamaica's Blue Mountains, but if you'd willingly trade in waterfalls and orchids for a more arid setting with nonstop sunny days, you might prefer Aruba. For homeowners whose guests won't all have passports, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have an edge. And so on.
What medical services are available?
Douglas, in Turks & Caicos, says she encourages her clients to ask about health care, because owning a home, even a part-time home, is not the same as spending one week of your life someplace. Make sure that as you ask questions you're getting answers about the quality of care available to you, and not just going by rankings such as those from the World Health Organization. That's because those rankings may be based on local access to medical care, and some islands, such as Grand Cayman, may not rank well in that criteria, but do have award-winning medical tourism businesses.
Next step: the buying process
Once you've made the decision to buy in the Caribbean and have a good idea of which island(s) would be best for you, how do you find the right home — and overcome the many financial and legal hurdles? Conversations will cover that in a second part of this story.