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Islands and Other Property : Belize Beckons Robinson Crusoes

November 16, 1986|KURT LIEPMAN | Liepman is a Times copy editor. and

For those who have dreamed of owning a tropical island, Belize (rhymes with freeze) might just be the place to look. Within the last month, three were available at prices well below those of most homes in Southern California.

But if life surrounded by water is not your thing, farms, home sites and commercial/industrial land is for sale in the small (about 8,900-square-mile) Central American country where English is the official language, and the government seeks to spur economic development through foreign investors.

But back to the islands for a minute. Recently, two couples from Michigan who were interested in buying an island were in Belize, formerly British Honduras, to inspect three such properties, ranging in size from six to eight acres and priced from $65,000 to $95,000.

They had chartered a sailboat for two weeks so they could reach the islands, called cays (pronounced keys), which dot the waters between the mainland and the world's second longest barrier reef (after Australia's). Scuba divers and snorkelers have come to Belize in increasing numbers for underwater exploration.

Plans for Retirement

What would the folks from Michigan do with an island if they decide to buy it? One of the couples was near retirement and said they planned to bring their own sailboat from Michigan and live aboard while constructing rental houses and perhaps operate a dive shop and beach bar.

Since none of the three low-lying cays they were interested in had water, they planned to build a rainwater catchment system and perhaps a seawater conversion plant. Electricity could be produced by a windmill with a back-up generator, they said.

"I hope they talk to some old-timers before buying," said Mick Fleming, who with his wife Lucy, runs the Chaa Creek Cottage resort along the Macal River near the Guatemalan border, but who had lived on the coast. "The old-timers can tell you if the island has ever been under water during a storm."

English-born Fleming and his American wife bought their 160-acre farm a decade ago, and shortly afterward decided they preferred sheltering and feeding guests to tilling the soil.

Hurricane Damage

They built several thatch-roof cottages and a restaurant and lead tours to jungles and caves and the nearby Maya ruins at Xunantunich in Belize and Tikal in Guatemala.

Fleming's caution about flooding is well taken. Storms, some of hurricane force, can lash the coast and the many low-lying islands during the annual hurricane season--June through November.

Belize City, the country's largest city and former capital where almost one-third of the nation's estimated 150,000 population lives, was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hattie in October, 1961, and hit hard again in 1978 by Hurricane Greta.

It is because of danger of floods that most homes on the Belize coast and its cays are built, raised from the ground, usually atop eight-foot-high wooden or concrete pylons.

Investments Encouraged

Foreigners, including Americans, have bought land in Belize, whose government seeks investment by foreigners, particularly in agriculture, industry and tourism.

Tax concessions and other incentives are offered to encourage development and diversification of manufacturing industries, which include clothing and textiles, plywood, matches, beer, rum and drinks, furniture, boat building and battery assembly.

Large tracts have been sold for citrus, coconut and cacao production and livestock raising and smaller parcels for hotels and resorts. Individuals have bought lots for houses on the mainland and on the islands .

Probably best known of these is 25-mile-long Ambergris Caye, just south of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. In San Pedro, its only town, two full-timers and probably half a dozen part-timers are engaged in the real estate business.

Most Sold for Cash

Transfer of real estate is handled somewhat differently than in the United States, explained Oregon-born Lester Langdon, a resident of San Pedro who has been selling real estate in Belize since 1981, the year the country attained independence from Great Britain.

For example, he said, there is no title insurance or escrow service. Most property is sold for cash, although more recently some sellers have been willing to carry paper.

Langdon explained how he sells property:

After a potential buyer who has seen an advertisement in a U. S. newspaper comes to Belize, Langdon will arrange for a site inspection, usually by air or boat. The cost for chartering planes or boats is borne by the prospective buyer.

Furnish Clear Title

"If I didn't do it that way, I'd be nothing but a tour guide," Langdon said. But if the deal goes through, he credits the inspection outlay, he said.

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