By Danielle Hyams
Angie Mclean has been traveling all over looking for a place to call home once her kids have grown up. First she visited American expat favorite, Cuenca, in Ecuador. Nice, she said, but she didn’t fall in love. Costa Rica? Too played out. Thailand? Her dream, but too far from the kids. Mexico? Nope. And Panama, it turns out, wasn’t her place either. Then one morning following some sleep-induced Web browsing, and apparently ticket buying at a steal, when she woke up, there was an email reading “Congratulations, you’re going to Belize.”
In recent years, the Central American country — and more specifically Ambergris Caye, a tiny sliver of Caribbean island — has been growing in popularity. Retirees, investors, vacationers and digital nomads have been coming in droves, drawn not just by the country’s natural beauty — it boasts a barrier reef second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia — but by the low cost of land and ample investment opportunities. English is also the official language. That being said, the local population of Belize is incredibly diverse, made up of people of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, English, Mennonite, Lebanese, Chinese, and South Asian descent.
“If you’re looking at Belize, we’re kind of like the Bahamas or Cayman Islands 30 years ago, Ambergris Caye at least,” said Dustin Rennie, a real estate agent with RE/MAX in Belize. “It’s been crazy, when I first started coming down here, nobody knew where Belize was. Now all of the sudden it’s on the world’s radar. We are finally just getting international brands here, and when you have brands like Hilton and Marriott starting to come in here, their marketing dollars are really fueling a lot of our tourism and a lot of our growth. So I think we are at a tipping point.”
Within 10 minutes of arriving in Ambergris Caye, Mclean knew she had found her place.
“Everything about it was just in sync. It has the perfect amount of fruit stands where you can go and get a smoothie, the perfect amount of partying where it’s not loud or raves all night but people have a good time sitting around listening to some live music, the weather is nice, the people sort of mind their own business, it’s not too American where you are shuffled around in a Planet Hollywood setting. It’s the perfect amount of island, it’s safe, it’s clean, the locals are friendly. I just fell in love with everything about it.”
Mahogany Bay. Photo: @mahoganybaybelize
Mclean purchased side-by-side plots in a development called Mahogany Bay, where she plans to build two homes, one will be a long-term rental and the other will be her second home until she retires and moves there full time. Land in Mahogany Bay, which is owned by Hilton, starts at $150,000. She also purchased an off-grid plot at Secret Beach, plus another plot where she is building a property she plans to use as an Airbnb on the neighboring island, Caye Caulker.
“There’s huge potential to grow and I feel like it’s a very safe investment,” Mclean said. “Everywhere I went, at every restaurant, on the airplane, any place I sat in the park, anywhere, I would hear other investors talking about the opportunities, saying ‘Oh my God.’ ”
For people looking at second homes, the greatest opportunity is in buying land and building.
“There is scarcity, there are not a lot of single-family homes available,” Rennie said. “We do have a big gap in the market for three-plus bedrooms. Eighty-two percent of our lodging inventory is made up of studios or one bedrooms. This market is very unique in that if you are buying land and building, you see almost immediate appreciation in a completed build.”
One thing that makes Belize so attractive to people who want to buy property is that its legal system is based on English Common Law. It gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981.
“It’s very easy for a foreigner to come here and buy property,” Rennie said. You have the exact same ownership rights as a local. It’s very easy to start a business.”
Property taxes are also incredibly low — between 1 and 1.5% of the value of the undeveloped land — making it easy to buy land and hold it. Belize has no capital gain or estate taxes.
“It’s cheaper to hold property in Belize than to have a bank account, so you’re able to have an asset that’s hedged against inflation,” he added. “We are seeing a lot of people that are doing it as a safe investment.”
Belize also offers major incentives to retirees through its Qualified Retirement Program, which allows people 45 and older who are able to show a monthly income of at least $2,000 USD through a pension or annuity generated outside of the country to live in Belize indefinitely, and to bring their personal and household effects, one personal boat, one personal aircraft and one motor vehicle into the country tax and duty free. Without the exemption, those items would be taxed at a rate between 25 and 40%.
Ray Nelson, a former Las Vegas firefighter, is in the process of building a compound in Ambergris Caye for himself and his parents; they will be moving there through the Qualified Retirement Program.
In addition to the program’s perks —he’s an avid boater and his family plans on bringing a couple — Nelson was drawn to Belize because of its excellent fishing and scuba diving opportunities.
“I plan on catching fish to eat every morning,” he said. “Belize is an absolutely superb place to put down some roots.”
Like Mclean, Nelson also purchased some undeveloped off-grid lots — at $35,000 each — to hold as investments.
“I think that area is going to explode when they finally get utilities in there,” he said. “Perhaps in 10 years I can turn them around at a profit or put an Airbnb in there.”
Also in Belize’s favor, Rennie says, is that it isn’t overdeveloped…yet.
“One thing I like about Belize — we go to the Bahamas, we go to Tulum, to the Cayman Islands, we go to these places and you can take something that worked there and you can apply it here and chances are it will be successful,” Rennie said. Investing in Belize is kind of like investing with a time machine. You don’t have to be a genius to be successful in this market.”