About that Caribbean dream home…

Property prices vary dramatically among Caribbean countries. Mark Wilson looks at what money will buy in four islands

Bethany. Photograph by Caribbean EstatesEnglishman’s Bay, Tobago. Photograph by Caribbean EstatesGrafton Ridge Dev. Photograph by Caribbean EstatesHouse at Bethany, Tobago. Photograph by Caribbean Estates

Got US$25m to spare this month? No? Then US$30,000 perhaps? Dream homes in the Caribbean come in all shapes and sizes, with price tags to suit, from the comfortably affluent to the super-rich. For the rest of us? A week or two of villa rental, maybe. Rents start at around US$100 a night for a one-bedroom in the summer season, up to US$10,000 for an eight-bedroom villa in Barbados. Can’t afford that, either? Then hang out in a high-end beach bar, cultivate some useful friends, and try to get yourself invited.

Some buyers are rich enough to buy a Caribbean second home without strain. But for the rest of us, there are several factors to include in the calculation before you jump into a purchase.

Asset value Property prices have soared since the mid-1990s on most islands. After a plateau this year, most expect a renewed upward trend. But Jamaica is a reminder that “onwards and upwards” carries no guarantee.

Running costs Some developments carry a monthly charge. And for all properties there are repairs, painting, cleaning. No frosts in the Caribbean, but salt air bites hard. And then there’s property tax. And hurricane insurance.

Rental income A nice softener. But after agents’ commission, wear and tear, and those long slack periods, you may not net as much income as you hope.

Currency shifts Buyers who sank pounds or euros into Caribbean property in 1998 have gained 15-25% from currency exchange movements. But there’s a downside risk too. Will the US$-linked Caribbean currencies stay this strong?

Resale costs Real estate agents may take 5% commissions — around four times the standard UK rate. There are lawyer’s fees, and on some islands some unexpected taxes, running up to 10% or more of the sale price.

Finding a new buyer Not so hard, probably, if you like a standard-issue property. But something quirky brings a higher risk — you have to wait for someone who shares your tastes. Or else, cut your price.

As always in the property market, what you get for your money depends very much on where you look. And as always, a brief summary doesn’t tell you about the design, condition or standard of construction. Comparing like with like isn’t easy.

Barbados

Barbados is top of the market. One real estate agent suggests that property prices have been increasing by between 7% and 10% a year since 1996. There are plenty of beaches, classy restaurants, and sports from golf to tennis, polo to horseracing and cricket, and non-stop flights to London and North America. The west coast is top of the top, the south coast more real-world; the east coast is windswept and wild. Inland, it’s golf, tennis, a pool — and on an island this size, just a short drive to the sea.

US$25 million, says agent Paul Altman, is the top price right now. But he’s shy with the details. On an inland site, Easy Hall plantation house is on the market for US$10 million. It has six acres of landscaped tropical grounds; besides the main house, there’s a carriage guest house and a gate house, each with two bedrooms. In St Peter, the Great House property, with 11 acres of beachfront land, four one-bedroom guest cottages, staff accommodation, an office and conference room, an aviary and a boathouse, is advertised fully furnished at US$14 million. Other plantation houses are on the market; Pollards Mill, with a separate two-bedroom guest house, an old sugar mill, and a pool, is advertised at US$1.5 million.

US$2million to US$5 million puts you on the Sandy Lane estate, next to the golf course, probably with a pool and a view of the Caribbean; it’s a few minutes walk to the sea.

US$1 million, with some small change over, buys a three-bedroom villa in the west coast Merlin Bay complex. There’s a big shared pool, and each unit has its own plunge pool. Away from the coast, the same money buys a recently-built villa with its own pool near the Royal Westmoreland golf course.

US$500,000 buys a four-bedroom house with a pool, on a breezy ridge with gardens, a short drive from the sea, with a view over the west coast. If you want to be right on the water, US$545,000 buys a pretty little two-bedroom right on the clifftop a few feet above the waves, at Batts Rock on the west coast.

US$250,000 is enough for a one-bedroom ground floor unit at Sugar Hill, the 50-acre David Lloyd resort, beautifully landscaped with tennis courts, fitness club and a pool, on a greenfield inland site with sea views. Two bedrooms, and you’re back up in half-million country; villas with their own pools are US$1.4 million and up. Not too many bargains, then.

Jamaica

While the Barbados luxury property market has soared, Jamaica’s has stagnated. All-inclusives still pull in plenty of tourists, but they cut into the market for villa rentals. Jamaica is still an amazingly beautiful island, with a rich culture. For those who are prepared to take the downside, the property market offers good value.

US$1.5 million buys a restored ten-bedroom plantation Great House at Oracabessa in St Mary on the north coast. Poolside bar, lily pond, twelve acres of land and trees dripping with oranges — keep it to yourself, or run it as a small hotel.

US$1 million buys a century-old four-bedroom villa on five acres, also in Oracabessa, with views along the north coast, a cliff-side waterfall and pool, and a path down to a private beach. There’s a separate two-bedroom guest cottage; and for those with an interest in 20th-century writers, Noël Coward’s house, Firefly, and Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye are a short walk away.

US$500,000 is enough for a three-bedroom house in excellent condition, right on the beach at Boscobel. Or else a 7-bedroom house-plus-cottage in Ocho Rios, with 200 feet of sea frontage, condition only moderate but ready for “creative renovations”.

US$250,000 still gives you four bedrooms, right on the beach, but on the less fashionable side of the island at Treasure Beach in the parish of St Elizabeth. A two-bedroom house, 20 years old, facing the beach and in good condition, recently changed hands for under US$100,000. There’s a wide dark-sand beach with waves for body surfing, and a fishing village nearby, with a small shop and a bakery. But don’t expect too much sophisticated nightlife; and it’s a long drive to the airport, two hours or more each way.

Tobago

Beautiful beaches, well-preserved rain forest, varied wildlife, perfect diving and snorkelling, some good hotels and restaurants. Tobago has plenty to offer. It’s less well-known than some of its neighbours, so property prices still give good value for money. But prices are rising fast. They’re up 50% in the past five years, says Brian Abraham, a real estate agent; and in up-and-coming areas like Bacolet Point, land prices have tripled since 1997. There are fewer direct international flights than some islands. But access through Trinidad via BWIA or Tobago Express is easy.

US$2 million buys a five-bedroom colonial style house on 45 acres, with a quarter-mile drive lined with royal palms, and views of Scarborough, Bacolet Bay and the blue Atlantic. There’s a 75-foot swimming pool, and two cottages in the grounds for your long-stay visitors.

US$1 million gets you five bedrooms, on just over half an acre, right next to the Mount Irvine golf course, and a ten-minute walk from Grange and Mount Irvine beaches. There’s a swimming pool, jacuzzi, gazebo and waterfall, plus self-contained staff quarters.

US$500,000, with a little change over, buys a four-bedroom house on half an acre, close to the Mount Irvine beach and not far from the golf course. There’s an internal swimming pool, and a barbeque area.

US$75,000 is still enough for a self-contained studio apartment overlooking Store Bay beach on the Caribbean coast. It’s inside the Crown Point hotel compound, so there’s 24-hour security, and use of the pool, restaurant and bar. The airport is a short walk away.

Trinidad

Trinidad is not a big beach-tourism island. But there are a few good waterfront properties, mostly on the north coast or on the little islands that dot the waters of the Bocas, between Trinidad and Venezuela. These change hands for a half-million US and up. The best don’t come on the market very often. But most Trinidad prices are much lower than on the more obvious tourist islands.

US$150,000 would set you up nicely on the Breezy Coast development at Blanchisseuse on the north coast. That’s around US$50,000 for a third of an acre of hillside land with a sea view. If you don’t want the hassle of building, the developers will build you a wooden house — US$100,000 will get you 2,000 square feet with a good-sized two to three bedrooms. The setting is hard to beat — the forested Northern Range sweeps down to the Caribbean, there’s beach and river bathing nearby, and a couple of small but well-run restaurants in the village. Sophisticated it isn’t, but Port of Spain is perhaps an hour away by car — just about manageable for a night out, if you don’t mind a twisty road in the dark.

US$140,000 buys a three-bedroom hideaway with its own 75-foot jetty on almost a quarter-acre on Gasparee Island, a five-minute boat ride from Chaguaramas on the western peninsula. A scatter of other holiday homes rings this little wooded island, also called Gaspar Grande and well-known for its caves. There’s rocky bathing, but no real beaches, and no roads. Life on a tiny island can be limiting. Chaguaramas has shops, banks, bars and restaurants, but you’ll probably want to spend another US$5,000 buying a small boat to reach them.

US$100,000 buys a recently renovated two-bedroom unit in the Bayview Beach Resort on the same island. There’s a small beach, and use of a pool. The resort runs its own ferry service, with eight to ten trips a day; residents pay US$50 a month for unlimited use. For the real bargain hunters, a one-bedroom unit still in need of renovation sets you back perhaps US$30,000. 

Details of properties were correct at the time of going to press, but provide only a general indication of what is likely to be available this summer. Prices in local currencies have been converted to US$ and rounded off for ease of comparison.

For Caribbean families struggling to pay the mortgage or trying to find decent rented accommodation to live in, properties like these are way out of reach. As they are for most tourists. Spiralling prices for prime real estate may, for locals, drive a dream home even further out of reach. But benefits from the real estate boom do feed through to the local economy. Construction and maintenance create both manual and professional employment. Foreign exchange is pumped in. Property owners who rent out their properties boost the stock of tourist accommodation — by around 20% on an island like Barbados. Villa owners make a serious commitment to the island where they buy. They are guaranteed long-stay repeat visitors, adding much-needed stability to the fickle tourist market.