As with all aspects of living in Belize—including construction—choices about materials include different variables from what you might consider in the United States.
A major initial choice is whether to build your house entirely from concrete, entirely from wood, or from a combination of the two. A combination of the two can consist of concrete pillars supporting a second story that is entirely of wood, or of wood on a concrete floor. Most houses, even those built of concrete, will include some wood finish.
Concrete is probably the most popular option for those building houses, other than the smallest shacks in Belize. Belizeans are so skilled at concrete that they dominate concrete contracting in some areas of the States. Concrete can be the most impervious to hurricanes, which is more a factor on the coast than inland such as in the Cayo. It may be cheaper to build, due to the locals’ familiarity with building with it. Concrete is also lower maintenance because it does not appeal to termites or other pests.
One maintenance issue that occurs with concrete more than with wooden frames, however, is adjustments or repairs that are required to plumbing and wiring within the walls. One of my neighbors had to have a quarter of his roof removed on his new house as the builders tried to find the defect in the plumbing, which was encased in the concrete walls. Sheetrock walls on wooden studs are quicker and easier to cut into and repair—no jackhammers required.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of concrete is that it soaks up the heat and retains it. My husband and I lived in a wooden-frame house on a concrete slab covered with tile. It was certainly a low-maintenance option—but the passive solar effect was not one we enjoyed. That house radiated heat into the evening, when the neighboring wooden-frame house, which was built on pier blocks with a wooden floor, stayed significantly cooler in the evening.
When building with wood, native hardwoods or only softwood like pine, which is pressure treated, should be considered, unless you’d like to be rebuilding your house in very short order. Untreated pine can be invaded within a matter of months. The pressure treating of pine, which grows locally, can vary from supplier to supplier, so it’s a good idea to be aware of how thoroughly the wood has been treated.
One of the treats of building in Belize is the incredible variety of native hardwoods that are available. You can have an open beamed ceiling that shows off some of these woods in the beams against a sheetrock surface, or you can go for having the entire ceiling of hardwoods and left open. We chose this option, and it is so beautiful that I often sit in my hammock chair in the evening and admire the ceiling of our house.
Building with hardwoods—or any wood in Belize, for that matter—is very different from up north. The smooth finished lumber you can get at any Home Depot does not exist here. The wood will be cut to order, and it will be delivered green. You have to allow months for it to dry if you don’t wish to have some unsightly twisting and cracking. Some of the wood we used in our house was delivered so rough that we paid Belizeans to sand it. This process took weeks and weeks. Fortunately many Belizeans don’t mind such monotonous work, and labor is relatively cheap.
Another unique aspect of building in Belize is that your orders of wood will be taken literally. If you ask for a two-by-four, you will get a board that is exactly 2 inches by 4 inches—not the 1-7/8 inch by 3-3/4 inches that passes as a two-by-four in the States.
That hardwood ceiling or floor will be more labor intensive and hence more costly than a pine or sheetrock ceiling. You can’t just pound a nail into hardwood—every single joint must first be pre-drilled. Plan on going through more sawblades and drill bits than you imagined possible—these are usually an item in the luggage I bring back from my trips to the United States.
A significant aspect of the cost of your new house will go into the finish—not only appliances (which you can bring down in your QRP shipment if you like)—but other details like door handles, floor finishing, closet rails, ceiling fans, lamps, and lighting.
You can get most if not all of these things in Belize, but the selection will be more limited than you would expect, coming from the consumer wonderland of choice that is the United States. The search to find what is available can be time-consuming—as well as an adventure exploring your adopted country.
If you don’t travel to the States frequently enough, it is possible to get your items shipped. You may become more experienced at online shopping than you ever expected. Some suppliers will ship to Belize. If you have a mail-forwarding service, you can have items shipped there. U.S. Global Mail, our service in Houston, will.
Desiring to replicate the travertine floors we had in our house in California, we even looked at Home Depot in Chetumal, Mexico, across the border from northern Belize. Although we don’t speak Spanish, we translated the word for stone. We wanted tiles of stone, not porcelain or ceramic. Every time we said the word stone, we were directed to the garden area where small rocks for garden landscaping were sold.
Our desire for oiled bronze bathroom fixtures was hard to satisfy in Belize, resulting in many trips from the States with luggage full of fixtures that were not available in Belize. It’s difficult to get all of this included in QRP, so we ended up declaring and paying duty on much of this. The customs officials usually were quite reasonable. We’re still trying to figure out how to get oiled bronze hinges on our shower doors.