Moving to Mexico: Chapter 4 (Part 3)

Mistakes No. 7 and 8

When we bought our place, it was on a whim. Many people have a few drinks and get talked into buying a timeshare. We had friends tempt us to invest in their island, and after a few…it seemed like a good idea. Again, it was 100% our fault because we really did not plan our Belizean purchase. Belize works out very well for many, just not for us. That’s why we really blew it by not thoroughly test-driving the island first.

It’s obvious the island was not a fit for our personal tastes. At least it could be an investment property. We never even thought about renting the condo out until a local agent approached us. Renting seemed like a good idea, as it would not only generate a little money, it would ensure the place was being looked after. We were warned that the contents of homes that were not occupied soon became the contents of someone else’s home.

Mistake #7: The Reality of International Rentals

“Little money” is a good way to describe the rents. We had a brand new, 1,600-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, fully furnished condo that was smack dab on the beach and had a tough time getting $1,200 per month in rent. Deduct 20% for the property manager, the monthly HOA fees, the local “hotel” taxes, and insurance and you’re left with a couple of hundred dollars profit which you get to pay income tax on back home.  

Then, your tenant breaks his lease. It happens a lot because people go to Ambergris Caye with a business plan or dream that does not work out. They simply leave the island with debts unpaid and agreements broken. They decided not to pay their rent the last month and, since it takes 30 days to evict a tenant, they were smart to do this. They got their last month’s lodging for free, did not pay the power bill, the cable/Internet, etc.

“Don’t worry,” Your property manager tells you. “We can pay those bills using their security deposit.”

“Not great, but I guess that’s better than coming out of pocket,” You reply. “By the way, did they leave the condo in good condition?”

“That’s what I need to talk to you about,” She says and promises to email you a list of damages with a proposal for repairs. “I’m going to need you to send some money to cover the overage.”

Then a storm comes. Most people don’t realize that the Caribbean hurricane season is six months of the year. While Ambergris Caye does not suffer terribly from really bad storms that often, they happen – and even the smaller ones cause incredible damage on an island that is sixteen feet above sea level at its highest point. We became very familiar with the term “special assessment,” which is the HOA’s way of spreading the pain of needed repairs among all the owners of the property. Storms, along with regular repairs and improvements, pushed our balance sheet into the red every year.

We heard these stories again and again. We decided to pass on renting our place.

Mistake #8:  

Okay, island life is not perfect. And you’re not going to get rich renting your condo, but it’s an asset that should increase in value over time, so the tiny bit of rental profit offsetting the costs of maintenance and repair can be ignored by keeping the big picture in focus. The population on the island was exploding, so the interest in the island should have driven prices up, right? Not exactly.

We bought our place in 2003 and sold in 2017. The “interest” in the island resulted in a condo-building boom. Competition for buyers drove prices to stagnate a bit and then most people preferred to pay a little more for a new condo, further driving prices of existing homes down. We finally sold for $325,000, less costs (agent, government taxes and fees, lawyer, etc.), so after 14 years our profit was only about $35,000. Hardly a boon for our portfolio.

“Yeah, but you got to use the condo for a long time!” My agent tried to console me. “Great memories, right? Can’t put a price on those.”

Again, not so much. Flights from San Francisco to Ambergris Caye are very expensive, and it’s a full day of travel. A coach seat will run you about $700, and then you need to buy the island-hopper ticket for another $180 roundtrip.

*Remember, Ambergris Caye is an island, so you must take a local plane from the mainland, and this is a separate cost. For our family of three with the cost of the airfare and taxis to and from the airport (on both sides of the trip), we were spending about three grand just to get there and back.

There were no direct flights to Belize City, so we would fly from San Francisco to Houston and then to Belize City, where we would wait for an hour or so before we could board a 12-passenger, single-prop plane for the fifteen-minute jaunt to the island. Door-to-door, without delays, the trip took over twelve hours. It began with the 4 AM wake-up call in California and ended with the 6 PM dinner bell in Belize.

Balancing the cost and the travel time, I’m guessing we visited our condo on Ambergris Caye less than ten times in 14 years. Looking back, we could have invested the $265,000, and in 14 years it would have more than doubled, even with the 2008 meltdown. That would have afforded a lot of first class trips to Belize, or anywhere else for that matter.  

Summary:

I can already hear the backlash from people who live on or profit from businesses on Ambergris Caye, but they cannot tell me anything I do know already know.

The truth is, living on a small Belizean island takes patience. You will learn things slowly and by touch, not word. Experience must be gained. Investing on a small Belizean island takes work. We screwed up and we own that fact. But our experiences were real, and we hope others can learn from our mistakes.  

*Did I mention that our builder used drywall in place of metal HVAC for the ductwork in our air conditioning system? I’m still not sure how we could have avoided that.  

We owned our place there for almost 14 years and when we balanced the good with the bad, we decided to sell. The scales of keeping the condo tipped in the direction of a bailout. We decided to pull the ripcord.

It was our fault. We did not do the work up front, so we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. Belize is a wonderful place full of history, charm, and opportunity. I don’t blame anyone for our mistakes or our experience. I wish the people of Ambergris Caye nothing but the best, but I doubt I’ll ever visit the island again. It’s a beautiful place, but it just reminds me of how stupid I could be. Lesson learned. It’s also very tiny. We’ve seen everything Ambergris had to offer.

I am reminding myself of this experience because we are now considering leasing our home in California instead of selling. One reason is the projected direction of the local market in the next decade is up, up, and up. Online research shows that prices in our area have gone up 2.2% in the last 30 days which makes sense as summer tends to be the peak buying season.  

*May is reported to be the best month to list a home in our area. The one-year forecast predicts a 5% increase in local values, the two-year forecast more than doubles that figure, and from there the trend continues upwards. Perhaps, keeping our home in California would be a good investment vehicle for a couple of years and then we could sell it for even more money.

But then I remembered the beach condo we had in the Bahamas. That’s another story.

To read the previous article in this series, click here!