I’ve watched it play out scores of times over the more than three decades I’ve been paying attention…
Demographics on the move.
First come the backpackers, surfers, or divers.
Followed by the speculators.
Followed by the investors. And the developers.
Followed, finally, by the retirees and the second-home buyers.
At every phase of this cycle, the face of the place being “discovered” changes.
Are these changes for the better? For the good? Depends who you ask and how you see things.
Take Ambergris Caye, Belize, for example.
I first traveled to this Caribbean island, just off the mainland Belize coast, in the late 1980s. San Pedro town, the only one on the island, was a fishing village home to maybe a couple of hundred souls. It had three dirt roads. No grocery store, no bank.
The best hotel in town (where I stayed) was run by a long-haired gringo who I never saw with shoes on his feet. The best restaurants served the fresh catch of the day… and rice. Bars served Belikin beer… and rum.
Anything you forgot to bring with you from the mainland, you did without.
I found the beaches beautiful, the town and the locals charming in a don’t-worry-be-happy kind of way, and the island as a whole full of potential.
I recommended to readers at the time that they think about investing in a little piece of Ambergris of their own. Back then, you could have bought a beachfront lot in the heart of San Pedro for less than US$10,000.
In the three decades since, I’ve returned to Ambergris dozens of times. With each visit, I notice more change…
More people, more roads, more golf carts (golf carts and your own two feet are the primary options for transportation), more houses on the beach.
New shops appeared… selling more than bikinis and flip-flops… and new restaurants with actual menus. New hotels with things like room service… then, eventually, bona-fide beach resorts. Followed by condos…
And, all the while, property prices increased. Those US$10,000 lots eventually sold for US$50,000… then for US$100,000… then, near town, as much as US$500,000…
Today, Ambergris Caye is a friendly, welcoming, established beach community that boasts all services, products, and infrastructure the would-be expat or retiree could hope for. Some of the roads have even been paved.
Quite a transformation, from fishing village that most of the world couldn’t place on a map to delightful, even affluent expat haven.
Has the change been good? Again, depends who you ask. I have friends living full-time on Ambergris. They’re delighted with their way of life and appreciate every one of this island’s current-day amenities, from the U.S.-standard fitness center with yoga and salsa classes to the gourmet deli where you can buy Veuve Clicquot champagne and imported cured hams.
I also know a number of people who made good money buying Ambergris low and selling it high. Those US$10,000 San Pedro beachfront lots I saw (and recommended to readers) some 30 years ago would sell today (if you could find one for sale) for US$500,000 or more.
On the other hand, I guess it’s possible that some of the divers who found their way to this outpost three-plus decades ago to enjoy its pristine beaches and near-empty dive spots might be unhappy about the “progress” of the intervening years.
Overseas property markets move through phases. Each phase attracts different kinds of buyers and different kinds of end-users and presents different levels of opportunity, as follows…
During this very early, pre-development stage, a market attracts adventure-seekers, backpackers, experienced world travelers, and men seeking women (think Asia and, closer to home, Colombia, for example).
During this phase, real estate prices are low and unmoving. To buy, you must penetrate to the local market, because no non-local market exists, and you must either have a strong tolerance for risk or just want to own something of your own in the place because you like spending time there.
If a place has merit and value, eventually word-of-mouth and personal referrals begin to drive traffic to it.
During this still pre-development stage, a market sees its first more mature couples, foreign retirees, virtual employees and entrepreneurs, early commercial and business inquiries, and speculators. A non-local market emerges, and values begin to appreciate, slowly.
When a market establishes a reputation for value and merit, speculators give way to investors and backpackers are overtaken by retirees and expat entrepreneurs. Institutional investors begin to move in, the second-tier (non-local) market becomes more sophisticated and more competitive, and second-home buyers begin shopping.
It is during this phase that a market sees its biggest rates of appreciation.
An established market with expanding pools of buyers and end-users and dramatic levels of appreciation draws wider interest. The international press begins coverage, fueling buying in all segments. Institutional and commercial buyers move in and move the market further. Rapid increases of real estate values continue.
This is the “Disney World Phase,” recognizable by full-scale international development and investment and big influxes of foreign expats, retirees, and second-home owners. Resorts are built, the major hotels move in, and value appreciation continues for a while further before topping out.
If you can identify a market in any stage of Phase III or in the early stages of Phase IV, you can buy almost anything in that location and do well. A market in these growth stages of development offers an “abundance of opportunity.”
In the golden era of global property investing (the decade leading up to 2008), many markets could be described as offering an abundance of opportunity.
Where qualifies today?
We’ll answer that question tomorrow. Stand by.