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  • Simon Dauphinee

The Ultimate Expat Guide to Building a House in Belize, Part One

Updated: Jul 13


The contractor watching in anticipation as a house is raised onto the foundation he built.
Our contractor watching as part of the house is raised onto its foundation he built.

Welcome back. If you are new, thanks for visiting!


With the continued inflows of expats into Belize, land and property purchases continue at a record pace countrywide. If you are an expat looking to purchase or move, several options are available: rent, buy a pre-existing home, or purchase a lot and build for yourself. This post will explore the latter option, which my family and I chose three years ago. The following year, we began construction. 


Like any construction project, it was a significant undertaking, even for a contractor in Canada like myself. Despite nearly 20 years of construction and renovation experience, I still found there was a learning curve to building in Belize. Construction methods are different, as is how local contractors, builders, and suppliers communicate. I learned some valuable lessons and want to share them with you so your project unfolds smoothly.


An Explanation of the Following Posts

The original draft was lengthy, so I've divided it into two parts, making it easier to digest and refer to later. Part One—this post—covers various pre-construction processes, like determining a location, considerations when choosing a lot, and ways to hack your budget and keep costs down. Part Two discusses all things construction, from clearing a lot and installing services to building methods, materials, and maintenance requirements and considerations.


Before We Get Started 

There is one, albeit important, topic I won't cover in the posts: finding the right contractor. I wrote an award-winning book, Home in Good Hands: a Homeowner's Guide to Construction and Renovation, with a chapter on that subject. I encourage the reader to check it out. The book also contains detailed information on renovations and construction projects from start to finish, and it's a great companion resource to this and the following post. To keep the posts concise, I choose not to rehash it here. You can find the book on Amazon (linked above in the book title), Google Play, Apple Books, Kindle, and elsewhere. It provides valuable information you can apply to any construction or renovation projects at home, abroad, and in Belize.


A Wee Disclaimer

While I have considerable experience in construction in Canada and built a home from scratch in Belize, expats aspiring to build here should conduct research and do their due diligence. My experience building in Belize is nearly two years old, so that things may have changed. Indeed, material and labour costs, the availability of buildable lots, and contractors to do the work have changed since then. 


Nevertheless, much of the information provided applies to the current market conditions and will, at the very least, get you thinking about things you might not have otherwise.


A Final Caveat

If you have never built or renovated a house in your home country, I wouldn't recommend cutting your teeth in Belize. If you are entirely new to residential construction or renovation, look for an existing turnkey home, like The Green House by the Sea. Doing so will make your time in Belize more enjoyable and preserve your mental and familial health.


For those of you who have previous experience or are the adventurous type, this post and the following will provide a go-to guide to building in Belize.


Let's get started!


Choosing a Property

Me, the author, posing beside the for sale sign at our property
Hey, it's me!

You can only start to build something once you have a property to build on. There are various factors to consider when picking a lot, so let’s start there.


Determining Your Location


Establishing Priorities

There is a lot of property for sale in Belize. Driving down the Placencia peninsula or along the Hummingbird Highway and scrolling through Facebook real estate groups reveals a lot of choices. The abundance of choice is a blessing and a curse. So the first thing to pin down is the environment you would like to live in, i.e., in the jungle or along the coast. There are various ecological zones within Belize’s borders, each with pros, cons, and nuances. I cannot say much more than this. The aspiring expat needs to do the legwork to determine what area of the country and way of life is best for them. It also isn't the post for an in-depth exploration into what each area of the country offers- perhaps an idea for a future post.


No matter where in the country you buy, vacant land is found in pre-established developments or stand-alone properties. If the property is part of a development, it may benefit from being already cleared and filled with services in place. However, it will also come with a higher price tag, monthly HOA fees, or other conditions. If not part of a development, there are many things to consider, like access to services (electricity, water, and gas), building materials and labour availability, and the extent of clearing and grading necessary for construction.


Ask Yourself These Questions When Choosing a Property to Develop

When starting, it's a good practice to list all the essential aspects of a property you seek. Ask simple questions based on your desired lifestyle, needs, and wants. Some sample questions may look like this:


  • What do I want out of a property? Do I want to be close to the ocean or a body of water, or are mountains and jungles more appealing? If water is a must, are boat and marina services a necessity? 


  • Do I want to be close to shops and restaurants? Is hopping into a vehicle whenever I need to do or get anything an issue for me?


  • Am I looking to downsize and live simply, or do I want the size, comforts, and conveniences of the houses back home? In the latter case, expect to pay a premium on your build.


  • Is the activity of a city or town my vibe, or is a secluded hideaway what I am looking for? 


  • If you prefer seclusion, how will the location affect the construction process? Is there a road/driveway into the lot? Can crews, materials, and machinery access the site? Will crews have water available on a lot that is ‘off the beaten path’? Water is necessary for poured concrete and concrete block construction. Many out-of-the-way, off-grid lots are affordable at first glance but come with a high cost to build on them. Considering everything will help prevent you from quickly getting over your head. Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on a real estate agent to provide this information, so you must find out for yourself.  


  • Is an expat community vital to me, or do I want to surround myself with locals and fully immerse myself in Belizean culture and customs? 


  • Do I require access to electricity, water, and gas services, or am I comfortable living off-grid? Many locals do in Belize- some by choice, many out of circumstance.


  • Is the property for personal use, an investment, or both? Do I want/need vacation rental potential and income generation? If so, purchase in a desirable, popular, and established area (or, at a minimum, an “up-and-coming” area) like Ambergris Caye, Placencia, Hopkins, or San Ignacio.


Investment Potential


A Belize flag with a hand holding a fan of money

If investment is part of your overall purchase strategy, then a hyper-focus on location is something to consider. The mid-to-long-term outlook of my past property purchases has always included an investment aspect. When my wife and I purchased in Belize, we decided to buy in a desirable area with growth potential. At the time, Maya Beach was an established community of boutique resorts, quality restaurants, and a small but established expat community. The area had a lot of property for sale and land for development. When we arrived to build our home a year later, the local real estate market increased by 30%. That number is over 100% now, notwithstanding the house we built. Development is happening all around us. It's reassuring to know that in the event of a tragedy, a challenging circumstance, a change in priorities, or an otherwise unforeseen event, we can sell without taking a loss. Curmudgeons on Facebook will tell you this isn’t possible, but it is -they are probably projecting their regret surrounding not purchasing land. 


Informed Decisions

At the time, we intended not to sell the property but to establish a long-term home. However, it's essential to understand that priorities change, as they did for us. We dreamed of living by the ocean but now prefer inland after two years here, traveling the country, and spending much time in Cayo District and the jungle around Belmopan. If you can spend a minimum of 3-4 weeks in the location under consideration, preferably when the weather is wettest and hottest, you will quickly learn if it's right for you. We couldn't do that with a 7-week-old and a toddler when we came to Belize, but if you can manage to live in and explore the country before purchasing, you’ll make the most informed decision possible. 


I digress. If you purchase in a touristy area and plan on spending at least some time at home, how busy do you like it? Maya Beach is on the Placencia peninsula but is less busy than the village proper. We wanted to be close to the action but not in the thick of things. At the time, this area was less expensive. If you make a similar decision, you can get more for your money.


When starting, the above and other questions are important to ask yourself, as they can help narrow down where to purchase and what to build. 


Affordability

Belize is still considered one of the last affordable paradises. However, property values have hockey-sticked in the previous two years, and with a North American exodus underway, they won't fall anytime soon, if at all.


Some basic questions you can ask yourself regarding a piece of land are: Does it fit within my budget? If it's tight, can I find something similar in another location? 


When we purchased, entry into the market in a beachside community was as low as 50,000 USD for a small parcel off the beach but close to it. It is no longer the case along the Placencia Peninsula. However, you can still find an affordable lot in some of the newer developments along the country's northern shores. Compared to other Caribbean countries that are desirable for expats, Belize is still a viable option.


Budget for Building a House in Belize

Ultimately, your budget will dictate what and where you can purchase. Here are some key factors when budgeting for land purchase and construction. 


Land Purchase Considerations

In addition to buying the lot, the government of Belize requires the purchaser to pay an 8% (for foreign buyers) Stamp Duty. If you have a lawyer on the transaction, they will charge an additional 2-3% of the purchase price for their services. 


Construction Considerations

I used to recommend to my clients in Canada that they include a 10-15% contingency for small-scale projects and 15-20% for major renovations. I recommend a 25-30% contingency for the project's construction phase in Belize. It has to do with communication, expectations, and market factors. I will explain this in more detail in Part Two, but I can provide an example here. 


Our real estate agent told us municipal water was at the roadside when we purchased our parcel. There was, but it was across the road at the beachfront properties. What she thought was water access was a grounding rod for the electrical wires overhead. The local independent water provider quoted a high price for bringing a water line under the road and into our lot, so we opted for rain capture, which was the cheaper option. It has become a non-issue now, with the government-owned Belize Water Service (BWS) assuming supply in the area and installing water lines on our side of the road. 


Nevertheless, it was a considerable oversight with a decent price tag. It cost us several thousand dollars to purchase and install a water pump, pressure tank, water filtration, sisters, and a concrete pad to sit them on. I don't blame the agent. We purchased the lot and were ultimately responsible for confirming the agent's claim about water availability.


Hack the System

Is there a way to hack the system? Can you achieve your goal without blowing the bank? Does the location(s) you are looking at provide the potential for creative thinking? For example, can you purchase off the beach, where prices are substantially lower, but still capture a view and take advantage of its proximity? 


We were fortunate to find a decent-sized lot (75’ x 145’ or ~¼ acre), nearly 6x the size of the property we previously owned in Canada, with a canal in the back and 100’ from the beach. The lot is road-front, and the beach-front lots across from it are staggered, providing a view of the ocean from our raised front deck. It was a great find at a decent price because there aren’t many properties on the peninsula this close to the ocean that aren't beach-front. The road in our area is very close to the beach, and beachfront lots are typically three to four times more expensive, so we felt we somewhat hacked the system. Beaches in Belize are public, so we can simply cross the road and use the beach as we please but don't have the cost to maintain it or pay the premium for being on it. When the sargassum comes, we can avoid it. If you are right on the beach, there is no escape; you'll smell it even if you don't see it. Don't get me wrong, being on the beach is an excellent option if you can afford it, but this was a great way to achieve a dream while keeping costs down. 


There is one caveat with this: many property owners fence their property lines, disobeying local bylaws that dictate the presence of an easement between each property. The beach is public, after all, which requires access. If your beachfront neighbour blocks that access, the beach may be farther away than it seems. Fortunately, The Green House by the Sea has a gift shop across the road, with a beach and road entrance. The owners are pleasant and allow us to use the right-of-way on their property to access the beach.


Another way we hacked the system was by incorporating prefabricated structures into our design. Doing so allowed us to build a custom home at a lower cost while reducing the timeline by 50%. Compared to the standard floor-by-floor construction method, we simultaneously built the home's main and second floors. If you didn’t know this aspect of the house, you wouldn’t guess, as ours is not the “typical Mennonite building.” Specifically, Mennonites didn’t build the prefab structures; we used Premier Homes Construction in Iguna Creek, whom I recommend.


Labour & Materials

Construction site in Belize, with labourers mixing concrete for a foundation. Materials and water cisterns are seen on site

Before you get that construction project underway, I recommend compiling a list of builders and their costs for specific projects. Many contractors can provide a per-foot/square-foot price for certain material types and installation methods. These fluctuate, so don't rely on old blog articles, websites, or Facebook groups to provide this information. Go directly to the source. Then, expect it to increase if you wait a year or more to start the project. You will need a contractor to complete the work, so shop around to put together a rough cost.


Materials

The availability and cost of materials change often. Some building materials, like concrete and concrete blocks, are produced locally and inexpensively. Other items, like pressure-treated lumber, are costly because broader market conditions affect Belize's trade and import prices. Fixtures and finishes (i.e., porcelain tile and lighting) can be expensive, and options for format, style, and colours are limited. Much research and legwork is required to source these items locally. Importing may be the right choice depending on what is available, the cost, or your desire (and insistence) for a specific style, quality, and type of item. 


However, since moving here, I have noticed a considerable difference in what is available for finishes and furniture. Stores like Builders Hardware in Belmopan and Mirab in Belize City have good-quality items. You will pay a considerable markup, though: my wife and I found a couch on a US-based website for sale at Mirab, with an additional thousand USD tacked onto it. 


Labour

Labour is typically affordable compared to North American standards. The typical wage for a general construction labourer is around five Belize dollars per hour. Therefore, you can deploy a large crew for a reasonable weekly fee. I encourage you to treat these individuals well. They work hard all day in the Belizean heat and commute for hours before and after each workday. If the builder you hire is legit, he should pay his workers for two weeks of holiday yearly and may even provide the crew with lunch daily. Expect the contractor to pass these expenses on to you. 


Planning Your Build

A female land owner holds up a paint swatch booklet and compares a colour to the natural landscape
My wife holding up colour swatches against the natural colourscape

As with the land selection process, there is much to consider when deciding what to build. You need to assess material types, construction methods, and environmental factors. It's important to ask yourself what you want to build and why and to be flexible if a design idea doesn’t work well within the Belizean landscape. Have you always dreamed of a glass home by the beach but failed to consider how it would hold up in the direct sun or a hurricane?


For that reason, poured concrete or concrete blocks are used in many homes. Wood frame construction is also common, and there are ways to improve the storm resistance of a wood home (I'll touch on this in Part Two). Combining all three methods is also a widely used construction method and what we chose. We built our wood-framed house on poured concrete piers, with one ground-level section infilled with blocks. 


When it comes to choosing an architectural home design, it'll come down to balancing personal aesthetics, practical building practices, and budget. Explore design ideas common in the region and similar climatic zones and compile a list of those you like and think will work for your lot.


Assess Your Property

The size and shape of the property and the local building variances will also influence what you build. Property access is another consideration, especially if you plan on prefab construction. We had to clear our lot entirely to get the delivery truck on site to place the buildings on their foundations.


Assessing the property and your budget is crucial to seeing what works best for you and the property itself. You will have already done this before purchasing the property, but it's good to revisit it during the planning process. Things pop up between buying and building, and you should consider them during the construction planning phase. 


Even if the entire home is built on-site, understanding access to materials and machinery is essential. For example, how far from the road is the building site? Can a concrete or pump truck make it onto the site, or will the crew mix concrete by hand? If you build a large home, that is a substantial undertaking for the crew and will increase the project’s timeline. 


Purpose of the Property: Personal Use vs Rental

What is the intended use for the property? Whether your residence doubles as a vacation rental, determining who will reside in the home influences the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and amenities. The planned use of the building and your personal preferences will also affect the level of fit and finish. The home must be well-appointed to fetch a high rental fee if you plan to rent it. You must also consider the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) qualifications and standards. The vacation rental market is highly competitive, so plan to include some unique features to attract renters. 


Needs vs. Wants

Need vs want sign with a tropical background

If the property is for you and your family, assess what is essential for you and what you want. It is subjective, but discussing and writing out what is needed and wanted is vital. Don't be shy; put down everything that comes to mind. You could include a view, a pool, an observation deck, specific-sized windows, or types of doors- really anything. Once you have these items down, you can build preliminary pricing. Depending on where you purchased and your budget, your needs may knock some wants off the list. 


Environmental Considerations

Heat Penetration

In the tropics, heat entering the home is a significant factor to consider. No matter how you build it, heat will permeate the home throughout the day. There is no stopping forty-plus-degree radiant energy. There is a continual debate surrounding wood vs. concrete, which I will explore in Part Two.


Other factors, such as the number and placement of windows, contribute to heat entering the home. More windows equals more sunlight, and more sunlight equals more heat penetration. It’s why traditionally built homes in the tropics have few and small window openings. However, this isn’t great for capturing views or interior aesthetics with limited natural light. Also, having few windows means limited airflow, essential in Belize for limiting humidity and preventing mould and mildew growth. Even in the height of the dry season, mould can still take hold in an inadequately vented room. 


Luckily, there are ways to strike a balance, and you can design a home that incorporates natural lighting while allowing for lots of windows and airflow.


Large Roof Overhangs

Large roof overhangs on a hip or gable roof provide shade for large windows, which is an effective way to mitigate direct sun exposure and cool off and air out the home in the evenings. Adding a covered porch or veranda is a great way to achieve this while improving the functionality and architectural interest of the house.


Building orientation

What is the best way to position the building on the property? Is there a breeze you want to capture or a view to optimize? Does the property get a lot of sun? Is solar capture a priority? If you plan to have solar on the roof, you must build the home in a clearing that tracks the sun's path. It’s a double-edged sword in the tropics because shade is your friend. Orient large windows parallel to the sun's path or shade them with awning or deep roof overhangs, as mentioned above. In the case of solar power, even if you don’t install it right away, planning for its installation and orienting the building for future purposes should be done first. As mentioned above, writing down your desires for the property is an essential step in the planning process, allowing you to forward thinking and the ability to anticipate future developments. 


With our house, which is C-shaped, we included many central windows in the design, with fewer east and west-facing ones and none to the north and south. Doing so allowed us to illuminate the home with natural light while reducing exposure to direct sun throughout the day. Some sun comes in the east-facing windows in the morning and through the west in the evening, but most is overhead throughout the day, hitting the insulated roof. We also included within the C a row of functioning high windows. Heat rises, so coupled with a shed roof, the heat naturally flows up and out these windows when opened. 


Insulation

I don't know if insulation is more common in wood-frame construction now than when we built our home, but it wasn’t a standard then. It was something we requested and insisted on. Many of the traditionally built prefabricated homes do not come with insulation. I was interested in spray foam, but the home builder didn't have it available, so we went with standard fiberglass batt insulation. If spray foam is available to you, it's a good option because it can seal gaps and cracks, increasing energy efficiency and keeping bugs out.


If you plan to run air conditioning, insulation is necessary to keep the cool air inside and reduce the load on your air conditioners. Insulation will also help to reduce heat penetration through the exterior wall assembly of your home, whether wood, concrete, or blocks. If building with the latter two, a stud wall framed against the interior block or concrete is needed for the insulation and should be accounted for in your plans. 


Natural Disaster Mitigation

Satellite view of a hurricane

There are various natural disasters to consider when building a home in the tropics. Belize is home to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and wildfires. Depending on where you plan to construct, you must plan for at least one or more on the list. So, it's essential to ask yourself what you can incorporate into the design to avoid or reduce the amount of potential damage caused by one of these events. Mitigation measures include landscaping, building practices, or accessories to the home’s exterior, and you should include them in your budget when planning. It's vital to explore these ideas early and have them influence your build rather than decide to add them later to a less effective degree and higher cost.


Hurricanes

If you are building on the coast, incorporate short roof overhangs or sacrificial eaves into the design. Sacrificial eaves are separate from the roof structure and designed to come off in a hurricane. This function reduces the stress on the roof structure, as deep roof overhangs that are part of the main roof structure act as a kite in high winds and can help the storm take your roof. 


Storm shutters are also a must on the coast and will protect your windows and doors from airborne projectiles. In their simplest form, use cut-to-size sheets of half-inch plywood. Some homeowners have traditional wood shutters built and installed on the house for easy access. On the high end, use steel roll-up shutters.


Trim, maintain or remove trees within striking distance of your home. Coconuts are especially harmful in hurricanes as they are plucked from their tree and hurled into the air. If you plan to include coconut palms in your property design, set them away from the house, regularly maintain them, and remove all coconuts before a storm. 


Overland Flooding



Many mountain areas and the country's south are prone to floods. In raining season, a lot of rain can fall in a short amount of time. If you plan to build in an area prone to flooding, you must design for it. A home raised on piers will keep you and your belongings dry. You can adequately divert, capture, or mitigate overland flooding using downspouts, rainwater reservoirs, swales, and French drains


Another way to prevent or reduce overland flooding is by selecting proper fill. Parcels of land commonly need grading and leveling. If your property requires this, bring in truckloads of fill to raise grade and level depressions. There are several common fill types: lagoon sand, rocky fill, and clay (ordered from highest cost or lowest). Many property owners opt for clay because it is cost-effective but regret it when their land floods in heavy rain. We needed fill for our lot and opted for the mid-priced rocky fill. It was one of the best decisions we made with our property. Many of our neighbours experience flooding, but ours remains dry. It quickly drains because of the porous nature of the fill, even when we receive five feet of rain in seven days like we did last year. 


When landscaping, plant heavily rooted trees and install retaining walls to prevent soil erosion during heavy rains and flooding that cause washouts. 


Wildfires

Wildfires are a severe hazard in Belize, and areas in Cayo are particularly susceptible. Over thirty percent of Mountain Pine Ridge burned this year, affecting families and agriculture; other regions were similarly affected country-wide. If you plan to build in an area where wildfires occur, you may wish to build in concrete or block or incorporate some into your design. Metal roofs and siding are typical in Belize, which is optimal in fire-prone areas. 


Good fire prevention practices include prescribed burns, creating fire breaks around your property, and routinely clearing brush and dead plants and trees.


Shape of Your House

The shape of your home plays a role in how it will withstand the local environment. Low, squat structures and round or octagonal homes withstand hurricanes best. If you build in an area not threatened by hurricanes and opt for a multi-story structure, incorporating a central chamber within the home facilitates the expulsion of hot, rising air through the natural stack effect


Design & Permits

A plan for interior lighiting in a residential property in Belize

Once you have considered the options above, you are ready to put a formal design together. You must hire an architect to draft your construction drawings to apply for the building permit through the Central Building Authority (CBA). Some areas are exempt from needing a permit, like Mennonite communities, but it is unlikely you will end up in one. If you do, you can skip this step and build as you please. 


If you use a prefabricated builder like ours, they complete the entire design and permit process. However, my wife and I designed the whole home using a 3D modeling program I used for my business back home. We simply provided the builder's architect with our drawings, and he copied them directly, which sped up the process and ensured our design was what we wanted.


Solid Foundations Start with Thoughtful Planning

Foundation work on a house in Belize

Thank you for reading this detailed guide on choosing and preparing your property for building in Belize. Kudos if you made it to the end. I know it was lengthy, but I wanted to include as much as possible. The planning stage is crucial and there is a lot to consider. I hope the information shared here provides a solid foundation for planning and decision-making. Remember, while the process of building a house in Belize is challenging, it is also gratifying. By doing your due diligence, staying flexible, and embracing the unique aspects of building in Belize, you can create a home that meets your needs and enhances your new lifestyle. 


Stay tuned for Part Two, where we'll explore the nitty-gritty of construction and offer more insights and tips to help ensure your project's success. Until then, happy property hunting or project planning, and enjoy turning your dreams into reality in beautiful Belize.


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