Building And Retiring In Belize: Technology Is Still A Problem
We are in the process of building a home in Belize, first as both a vacation home and hedge against an economic collapse here and second as a place to retire to. We are now a year into the project and working on house plans but there are a number of things we’ve learned and some resources we’ve found that have helped along the way.
I figured I’d capture some of that learning with this post.
While we wanted to live overseas in a place where living costs were lower, we didn’t want to completely relearn a language or a legal system and, if we were concerned with the U.S. Government, we didn’t want a place that was either too close or too opposed to our home. In addition we didn’t want a place where the political structure appeared fragile and close to break down or one that had high levels of crime or violence.
We looked at Costa Rica and Panama first, but both countries speak Spanish as their national language and, as with most South American countries, the legal system was based on Napoleonic law. This is kind of a guilty until proven innocent system designed to expedite legal process and if you are really good at contracts and making the right kind of friends it can work for you. Not knowing the language very well, however, makes both of this initially risky and once you learn how a legal system works unlearning it can be a serious problem.
For instance, if you miss a payment on something you are purchasing, even if it is the last payment, you’ll likely lose the property and not get anything back (unless that is in the contract which, apparently, it often isn’t). And one blogger who spoke poorly of his bank in Panama, I was told, had his entire $10 million account seized and it took him 10 years to get it back. Let’s just say outspoken bloggers either should consider living someplace else or just avoid talking about anyone in country like the plague.
Belize, which used to be called British Honduras, has English as a national language and has a legal system based on England just as ours is. There are differences but relatively minor ones. A lot of folks do speak Spanish but given English is the national language most folks speak it. Belize is just south of Mexico and, at least for the moment, doesn’t appear to have many issues with drug cartels or smuggling because there doesn’t seem to be much point in moving this stuff through the country since it doesn’t border the U.S. and other countries are more strategically located. It is also protected by a huge barrier reef which protects the coast from storms (it is in a hurricane zone).
Finally, Belize is a country that is focused on being “green,” so the roads are clean, pollution is low, and the government and locals appear to want to keep them that way. It costs about the same to build and power a house in Belize but other living costs are very low. Tied to the U.S. dollar the Belizean dollar is worth exactly 50 cents and everyone seems to trade with U.S. dollars, even though prices are generally in the local currency. A live in housekeeper/cook typically costs under $150 U.S. a week. Food is mostly organic and raised locally and a fraction of U.S. prices.
Here is where it is currently dicey. Belize has DSL but it isn’t always easy to get, service isn’t that reliable and data speeds are relatively slow particularly against European standards. Phone calls to the U.S. can be expensive on U.S. cellular plans (cell phones work even miles out into the ocean) but cellular data doesn’t seem to be turned on. Wi-Fi is prevalent but there is no Wi-Max or LTE currently deployed, at least not down south where we are building.
Expectations are this will improve greatly over the next two years, but with several of us wanting to work from the location using conferencing this will be a problem. However, while Skype is currently blocked, FaceTime with full video worked surprisingly well, suggesting that even though bandwidth is limited they aren’t throttling it so you are getting all you paid for.
If you want U.S. TV, folks buy a Dish subscription in the U.S. and then ship the equipment to their place in Belize. There are a number of folks that can install it there. I think IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative would have a field day here and I’m hoping to see some progress on that front shortly.
We are building in Sanctuary Belize. They have a program where you can explore the location and country for a reasonable rate. We actually bought before we traveled because there was a lot my wife didn’t want to lose to someone else. Over the last year, since we started this project, we have met many of the co-owners (there will be 1,500 when this is done) the vast majority of which are U.S. professionals, including doctors, lawyers, retired military officers and executives. On the last trip a group began work on what will likely be a local business micro-incubator as there are a lot of craftsmen who only need a few hundred dollars to get a business up and running and a lot of ex-executives who know how to distribute and sell unique handmade products.
In the end what makes Sanctuary Belize cool is that in the same massive development you have water front homes, savanna homes, homes with hangers (connected to an airport), equestrian homes (close to a huge stable with grazing land) and Jaguar Preserve homes in the mountains. Local attractions include zip lines, cave and river tubing, scuba diving, jet skis and deep sea fishing. A a culinary academy is opening soon. They even have a private island home owners can share (the video on the Sanctuary Belize link is taken from the island).
Current status is they are about 6 months out from finishing the country club pool and about a year away from finalizing the marina and docks. Folks have started building and there are 4 houses complete and another 5 or so under construction so we are still in the early phases.
Best advice so far is realize that things happen slowly in countries like Belize and that making sure you always have an expert with you when making a major decision or you’ll likely get an expensive lesson.
Wrapping Up: Building Our House and Piece of Mind
The house we are building is 3 stories; it will have a garage that will hold 3 cars (though we’ll likely just have one and some runabouts). We’ll also have a boat garage as we are on the water and can actually run a slip under the house. That is on the first floor. Second floor will be the guest rooms, office and pet room (our pets are our kids). And the third floor will have the master bedroom and a rooftop cabana. There will also be a slide into the infinity pool from the master bedroom and an elevator to anticipate problems with aging guests – or residents.
Before we start building we’ll have full plans and a virtual 3D walk through because my goal is no change orders. I’ll share the 3D walkthrough once it is done.
This is turning into a fun project and having someplace out of the U.S. as a fall back plan is also giving me increasing peace of mind.