Friday, September 7, 2012

The Wright Way of Buying a House in Belize

When our plane touched down at the Belize airport on March 1, we couldn’t wait to get through Customs and start the journey to the Corozal District, which is about a 1 ½  to two hour drive. 
After doing a bunch of reading and research on hotels in that area, I made reservations at the Corozal Bay Resort.  Frommer’s description of the Resort made it sound very appealing:

“Ten individual thatch-roof cabins are spread around the grounds of this seaside hotel. If you’re looking for amenities, this is the place to stay in Corozal. Amenities include restaurant, outdoor pool, in room A/C, TV hair dryer, minifridge, free Wi-Fi.”

Pictures found on various websites made it look like a romantic place with loads of charm. But about two months before we were to depart, I got a weird feeling about staying there. It was like a small voice in my head saying, “Warning! Warning, Will Robinson!” (Name that TV show).

I started digging deeper into the online reviews and found that a number of people had had some very negative experiences and the place wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Now granted everyone has their own expectations and perceptions about stuff like hotels and restaurants, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with the thought of staying at this resort for two weeks.

During more in-depth research, I found the Copa Banana, which looked like a far better alternative and was priced about the same as the Resort. Turns out that the Banana could accommodate us for all but the first night of our vacation. So without further ado, I contacted the Corozal Bay Resort, changed our reservations to a one-night stay, but opted to have their taxi service pick us up at the airport.

With luggage in hand and having passed through Customs without incident we hit the Nothern Highway for Corozal. There are only four highways in Belize and are the only paved driving surfaces. In between stretches of sugar cane fields and dense brush, there would be speed bumps to cross at each end of every little village. There’s not much traffic and few, if any, posted speed limits. Drivers pass with abandon should they feel you aren’t keeping up a decent speed.

Upon our arrival at the Corozal Bay Resort, it became quickly apparent that we made the right decision to spend only one night there. The place was deserted and in various stages of disrepair. 

The restaurant and bar were closed (which was never mentioned on their website or in any emails we had with the owner) and clearly hadn’t been operational for some time. The pool, while filled, was a murky green. 

After changing our clothes and touring the grounds, we strolled down the road to the Copa Banana to arrange our check-in time the following day. The owner, Connie, volunteered to swing by the next morning to pick us up.

With dinner at the Corozal Bay Resort being out of the equation, we went next door to Tony’s Inn and had a great meal, then counted the hours until we could check out of the Resort (minus $400 that happened to diapppear from our luggage while we were eating). 

When Connie checked us in at the Copa Banana the next day, it was clear that this was a perfect fit for us. The room we had at was bright, clean, and very comfortable. We could hang out on their manmade beach or lounge by the pool, use their free Wi-Fi, and generally feel right at home.

For the first few days at the Copa Banana, we got the lay of the land and made a number of walking and biking trips into town. It actually took me a few days to work up the courage to use one of the Banana’s complimentary bicycles. The first reason was that I’m a klutz. And while I know the old adage says that once you know how to ride a bike you never forget, well, it doesn’t mean I was the best cyclist even when I rode as a kid. The next reason was that getting into town meant riding down the dirt/gravel shoulder of the highway, after navigating the uneven marl roads (marl is limestone rock. Very slippery when wet and highly prone to developing massive potholes) to get to that point. And last but not least, the majority of bikes in Belize are old school in design. No hand brakes, no gears, no lightweight construction. 

But as biking was a faster and less hot method of making the downtown trek, I summoned up my courage and gave it a go. The first time was nerve racking, but my confidence kept growing with subsequent trips, and I somehow managed not to do physical harm to myself or others.

Around the fourth day of being at the Copa Banana, we met up with Connie’s significant other, Greg, who runs Belize North Real Estate. Our prime objective was to get a handle on what types of properties were available and their associated costs. 

Greg let us know that while there was quite a bit of land for sale, there weren’t many homes available. When asked what our “perfect house” would contain, we told him we would prefer:
  • Cement construction
  • 800 to 1,000 square feet, single level
  • A lot with some privacy features; no more than one acre, no less than half an acre
  • Open floor plan
  • Two bedrooms
  • A workshop area
  • Decent sized kitchen
  • Fenced in yard
  • Cable/internet access
  • Not right in town, but not in the middle of nowhere
  • Not necessarily on the water but somewhat close by
  • Air conditioning in the bedroom
Then we told him our dream price tag. After a moment or two of pondering, he let us know that he only knew of one house that might meet most of our criteria. From a binder containing his various listings, he handed us a flier for the house he had in mind. 

Both of us were momentarily dumbstruck. The listing was the same house we kept looking at online in the months before we got here. Seriously? What were the chances of that happening? Needless to say, we were on board when Greg suggested setting up an appointment to see the place. 

He told us the house had been on the market for about a year was in Ranchito, which didn’t mean much to us as we had no clue where Ranchito was located. Turns out it’s just on the outskirts of Corozal Town and about a three minute drive from the Copa Banana.

A short time later, we found ourselves in Greg’s car heading down an overgrown, bumpy lane off the Highway. When we pulled up in front of the house, we were struck by all of the mature fruit trees, tropical plants, and palm trees dotted all over the ¾ acre lot. 

We met the owners and got a tour of the place. Turns out they had built the house and outbuildings about 10 years earlier. They only lived there about six months a year, spending the remainder in the States and Holland. In addition to the house having two bedrooms and baths, it had the open floor plan we wanted, a separate workshop, fenced in yard, and the property was only a few minute drive from the bay.

Side view of the house

Just some of the tropical plants and trees

Back view of the workshop building

On the flip side, it was evident that while the grounds were in good condition, the buildings needed some TLC. It was like once everything was built, not much time or money had been spent on maintenance. But for the most part, the buildings seemed structurally sound and with some paint, creativity, a few upgrades, and time, the place could maybe be something special.

Upon returning to the Copa Banana, David and I grabbed ourselves a stiff drink and sat down to mull things over. It didn’t take long for us to come to a decision…we would put an offer in. But that was about par for the course, for us. We can spend weeks debating about what type of toaster oven to buy, but when it comes to purchasing big ticket items, like a house or a car, we don’t hesitate. Haven’t a clue why, but that’s just the way we are. 

Greg had told us beforehand that the owners had received offers on the property in the past, but were reluctant to sell and would, more than likely, be firm on the asking price. And, sure enough, they were. But after a counter offer or two later, we had a deal, which included us not only buying the property, but adopting their two dogs, keeping on the groundskeeper, Fernando, and getting their Isuzu Rodeo. 

Fernando inside the workshop

Meanwhile, the owners had been packing up for their annual six month sojourn to the States and Holland, and were due to leave in about four days. Now they needed the remaining time to do not only that, but to deal with all the other stuff they weren't leaving as part of the house sale. To eliminate the need to FedEx paperwork hither and yon once all of us were Stateside and Europe, all of the paperwork was done in a matter of a few days. No big hoops to jump through with any building officials, lawyers, or real estate agents.  It was official.

We bought a house. In Belize. In just four days of being there.  Now came the interesting part of breaking the news to family and friends back home. 

To be continued…

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