“My husband Mike and I purchased our first property on Ambergris Caye, Belize, in February 1999,” writes Correspondent from that country Ann Kuffner. “This was the anxiety-ridden year preceding Y2K. Remember the intense media coverage suggesting a possible collapse of civilization on Jan. 1, 2000?
“By July 1999, construction of ‘Mi Casa,’ as we referred to our place, was under way. Mike had hired a local construction foreman and crew. He was determined to complete the first floor of Mi Casa before the end of 1999. If the world’s computers all crashed, as the media was predicting they would, and chaos ensued on Jan. 1, we’d just hang out at Mi Casa until sanity returned.
“Mike was to celebrate his 50th birthday on Dec. 30, 1999, the day before Y2K. He asked me to come to Belize for his birthday.
“By December, the ground floor of Mi Casa was complete, and we were able to spend the holidays and New Year’s in a small room there. We celebrated the next stage of our lives in our new Belizean home!
“Looking back, I’m amazed by what Mike was able to accomplish during his first few years in this country. His repressed architect was unleashed, and his enthusiasm for life and work returned. Mike had been burned out by his construction business in California, and I was delighted to see my husband reinvigorated at 50.
“In Belize, with both Mi Casa and all the projects we’ve undertaken since, Mike’s been able to do the design work himself, despite a lack of formal training as an architect. There is a required design review process in this country, but Mike’s designs have always passed muster.
“During the construction of our first house, Mike made regular trips back to the States. He wanted to check in at home, as I was still climbing the corporate ladder. But these were also buying trips. He’d come back to the States to purchase whatever he needed but couldn’t find in Belize.
“It wasn’t easy living apart during this time, but we agreed it was critical that Mike be in San Pedro full-time, to make sure that the construction work was done according to our plans.
“Made primarily of concrete block, Mi Casa is built to last. Its structure and integrity were tested early when Hurricane Keith swept through San Pedro in October 2001. Mike watched as a section of our not-yet-completed roof floated away down the street. The local insurance company paid up, quickly and efficiently. And, more important, of course, Mike came through without a scratch.
“One of my favorite design elements in the house is the spacious outdoor-living area. We have both front and back verandas. Verandas are an important part of a home in Belize. Ours provide the perfect place to relax in a hammock and enjoy the view of the Caribbean Sea to the east and of the peaceful lagoon to the west.
“Another important thing to remember when designing a home here is to position the structure, the windows, etc., to take advantage of the prevailing Caribbean breezes. Mi Casa’s windows and doorways allow the balmy breezes to provide natural ventilation.
“Beautiful woods are plentiful and reasonably priced in this part of the world. With the help of a Belizean friend, Mike was able to source hand-carved mahogany doors in Guatemala. He used a mix of Belizean hardwoods to add warmth and depth to the ceilings. Local craftsmen built most of the cabinets and furniture from local mahogany. The best part is that these custom-designed pieces cost much less than you’d pay for pre-fab wood furniture in the States.
“Building a house in a foreign country is stressful enough. Our situation was made more stressful by our separation.
“Whenever I came to visit, I was yearning for a tranquil vacation. What I got was regular 7 a.m. wake-up calls from workers drilling and sawing. Some mornings I was driven nearly to tears by the noise and the commotion.
“Several of the crew slept on cardboard beds at the site. They rose with the sun and hit the ground running. They were ready to work from sun up to sundown. This was great, of course…unless you were seeking escape from the corporate fast track, as I was.
“Frankly, I didn’t have much time to swing in the hammocks back in those days. Part of each of my ‘vacation’ visits was spent hunting for local furnishings and décor.
“We did make time during each visit, though, for a few days at a dive resort on a remote island. This was my chance to indulge my appreciation for Belize’s exotic underwater landscape and sea creatures.
“For his 50th birthday, I treated Mike to a few days at Ian Anderson’s jungle resort. We floated on inner tubes down a river that carried us through caves where mysterious Mayan rituals were performed centuries ago. We slept in a simple but lovely cabana. Only a screen separated us from the jaguars that prowled the surrounding jungle.
“These adventure trips helped to compensate for the chaos of construction at Mi Casa. And if you were to ask me today for a single piece of advice on building a home in another country, it’d be this:
“Make sure to allow yourself time to enjoy your new home while you’re building your new house. Don’t be overwhelmed by the work of what you’re doing. Give yourself time to play and to enjoy what this new part of the world has to offer.
“By spring 2001, Mi Casa was finished. When I returned in April of 2001, it was to our brand-new home. It was perfect! Mike had done an impressive job.
“Much to my chagrin, though, Mike explained that he’d already entertained an offer to sell the house. We hadn’t built the place to flip it. But, with the completion of Mi Casa, Mike realized that he was ready to take on a bigger challenge in this country.
“After a brief period of nesting, we bid adieu to Mi Casa. The buyer’s offer had been a good one. Looking back, I’m confident we made the right decision. We both recognized the opportunity in this growing little town.
“What else have we learned about building a house overseas?
“1. Be sure you have the time and money to complete the project.
“Frankly, purchasing a condo or house is a much easier way to invest in a home in another country. Building one yourself is a lot of work. Don’t undertake this kind of a project if you can’t be present during construction.
“2. Understand that any home-building project is going to exceed your budgets for both time and cost. Count on it.
“3. If you can’t be on site full-time, you need a plan to protect your investment when you are absent. You need security. You can go high-tech and install a security system, or you can go low-tech and provide quarters for a live-in caretaker.
“4. Investigate the track record and the reputation of any contractor you consider. Your contract is only as good as the person with whom you enter into it. Some things are universally true. A contractor eager for work anywhere in the world may under-estimate the cost. Once the project is under way, you really have no choice but to continue paying the bills, even when they exceed your expectations. Enforcement of contractual price can be difficult after the project has begun.
“5. Be sure the construction supervisor can communicate with the workers in Spanish. Even though English is the primary language in Belize, many of the construction workers are from Central America or Mexico.
“6. Develop a formal set of plans and stick with them. The workers need direct and constant supervision. If uncertainty sets in about how to do things, nothing gets done.
“7. In Belize, wages are typically paid in cash weekly. Many construction workers are temporary residents who follow the work and do not establish bank accounts. You need a good cost-tracking system to monitor cash flow.
“8. Not only the crew, but your contractor, too, even if he’s a good one, needs to be monitored throughout the entire process.
“9. And, even if you’re present on site most of the time…and you’re monitoring and managing the crew and the contractor directly…count on misunderstandings and difficulties.
“Many contractors take on small side jobs while they’re working a big job (such as the construction of your home). It is easy for them to mix up funds and materials. Review all invoices carefully to assure your materials aren’t sent to another project site, for example.
“You’ve also got to monitor construction payments and expenses carefully. Take my advice: Pay materials suppliers directly, as the materials are needed. Don’t pay your contractor, for example, and then have him pay the supplier. The more direct control you have down the line, the better.
“10. Use local materials and appliances whenever feasible. Replacement parts are more readily available for locally purchased products, and local tradesmen are more familiar with installation, operation, and repair of local products.
“Plus, local products are designed to stand up to the local climate–the humidity, salinity, and other local conditions.”
Ann and Mike’s adventures in Belize continue. After they built a home…they undertook to build a business. Details in Part 3 of our series, coming soon…