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  • Simon Dauphinee

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

Updated: Jul 11

Welcome back to Part Two of The Best Expat Guide to Building a Home in Belize, where we will continue our exploration of the nuances of residential construction in this part of the world. If you didn't catch Part One, you can read it here


As I mentioned in Part One, I have yet to include any information on finding a contractor as I already wrote a book that explores that subject at length. So, if it appears I have skipped over an important topic, I have. The process is the same wherever you are, so I encourage the interested reader to check out Home in Good Hands: A Homeowner's Guide to Construction and Renovation. In addition to helping readers find a reliable contractor, the book covers various topics, from receiving quotes and signing contracts to the construction process and workflows. 


Anyhow, let's get down to business!


Preparing the Property

At this point in the game, you will have a parcel of land, a design, and possibly a contractor ready to build. Depending on the location and purchase price, your lot could be in a different number of states before you start construction: cleared and build ready, partially cleared- some empty lot owners clear underbrush before they sell the property to make it walkable and more appealing to buyers- or in its natural state, which typically means dense jungle or savanna here in Belize. Let's assume you are starting with the latter to give the reader the most information possible.


Clearing the Land


With an essentially jungle lot, it’s common in Belize to clear or partially clear the land before construction can begin. How much you clear will depend on the property size and how much you plan to develop. In our case, the previous owner had cleared much of the underbrush. All that remained were some craggy trees and shrubs in the middle of the lot, which we chose to remove so we could have better access for construction. 


Please Keep What You Can

What you decide to keep or not is wholly up to you, your wants and needs, and the project's demands. However, keep as much as you can. Leaving older-growth trees and established plants will make the property look nice sooner, provide shade immediately, and keep your landscaping budget down. It also helps to preserve Belizean ecology and reduce the disruption to the local fauna that lives there. 


Two of our neighbours did this, and their properties looked appealing right after construction, with well-established plants throughout the lot. Don't get me wrong; we love the look of our property, but it takes some time for the saplings and infant plants to take root and grow.


Admittedly, we could have done a better job of this. We weren’t as mindful of Mother Nature as we could have been when we prepared the lot for construction. We hired the contractor to clear and didn’t fully understand the process -essentially, an excavator clear-cutting and removing everything. However, we did leave a large oak tree along the northern property line as it wasn't in the way and would provide shade to the home in the summer months. Similarly, we kept some small trees at the back of the property, canal side, because there wasn't a need to remove them. Unfortunately, everything else went. We regret this, but given the prefabricated aspect of the project, we needed a lot of access for the delivery and installation of the buildings. 


After construction, we replanted species native to the area, such as sea grape, cocoplum, cashew, and palmetto, and other local edible species, such as mango, elderberry, wax apple, and banana. We initially didn't anticipate this, but it's a good thing to consider: landscaping and replanting will require more work and cost if you clear everything. 


If your property has old growth, edibles, or a unique plant species, you should clear around them. A friend of ours in a community north of us on the peninsula left two specific trees during their clearing process because they contained orchids. To preserve them, they kept the trees on which they were growing, and they now add charm and a talking point to their garden property. Ultimately, you will do what you need based on your plans, but it's essential to be mindful of the process, as it can harm the environment. It's always best practice to limit your impact as much as possible.


Mangrove Considerations

Mangroves

Mangroves are critical for maintaining the country's rich biodiversity and protecting its coastal ecosystems. These unique intertidal forests serve as vital habitats for numerous species of fish, birds, and invertebrates. Mangroves also act as natural barriers against coastal erosion and storm surges, providing essential protection for communities and infrastructure. Belize has made significant strides in mangrove preservation through legal frameworks and community-based initiatives emphasizing sustainable management and restoration.


Belize is very protective of its mangrove communities, and alteration to any mangrove for any reason is strictly prohibited unless permitted. When we arrived, some juvenile mangroves were starting along the canal at the back of the property. We didn't touch them throughout construction and didn't need to include this permitting aspect in our project. If you are developing a property with a dock or boat slip on a lagoon, canal, or seaside that contains mangroves, conducting research, pursuing the proper permitting process, and treating these important ecosystems with due respect are essential.


Filling & Grading

An empty lot in Belize, recently filled and graded and now ready for construction

Depending on the lay of your land and the composition of the existing ground, you may need to add fill. Choosing the proper fill is often based on availability at the time of the project, but the primary consideration is how well it will allow water to drain. There are several different types of fill available. For properties along the coast, the most desirable is lagoon sand -sand dredged from the bottom of lagoons while constructing canals. When we built, lagoon sand was hard to come by and expensive, so we were left with the other two options: clay or rocky fill, consisting of sand and medium to large-sized rocks. I don’t recommend clay because it’s not porous and restricts water drainage. Many property owners and developers use clay because it is inexpensive, but they experience flooding afterward. Evidence of its lack of drainability (yes, I just made up a word) is evident on properties after heavy rains. It's common to see ankle to knee-deep water on many lots on the Placencia peninsula after a downpour.


Luckily for us, clearing our lot revealed that we had nice sand throughout, so our contractor suggested we scrape it up, pile it to the back of the lot, and bring in rocky fill. He then redistributed our existing sand overtop. It was a genius idea that saved us money by reducing the loads needed and ensuring excellent drainage and better sand underfoot. Even after torrential rains, the water weeps away quickly, and we never have standing water, even after it rains 60” in seven days. Yes, that happens.


When filling, focus on low spots and grade the entire property on a slight angle to train water away from the property.  Our property borders empty lots to the north and the south, a road to the east, and a canal to the west. The road is raised relatively high, with the canal much lower, but the lowest point is in the middle. We determined that we didn't need to match the height of the road (it would have required a lot of fill and not necessarily achieved much) but focused on filling the middle, keeping an even slope towards the back. In overland flooding -which we haven’t experienced- the water would naturally flow into the canal. Our contractor worked to grade the property according to this plan, making sure not to create a too steep slope, which would increase the risk of our sand washing away.


Installing Services

What services are available? Does the area where you are building have electrical, water, and gas (propane/butane)? Are they available at your site, or must you bring them in? If not, what alternative options are available to you?


Electricity

Standard Connection

At the time of clearing, there were electrical lines at the roadside. To get power into the property, we paid approximately 2,500 USD to install an electrical service entrance and the BEL connection fee. We put the service entrance at the northwest corner of the property, close to the road and under the power lines. Our contractor did this in a typical way. They built the entrance using the standard method: concrete and concrete blocks and then finished it with a cement-based parging mix. The electrician then installed a breaker box with a main shutoff on our side of the property and buried supply lines in a conduit that ran to the house location. They also installed a temporary outlet so the crew could have power to run tools. After completion, Belize Electricity Limited, the electricity service provider, installs the meter on the roadside of the service entrance. This location allows them easy access if they ever need to service the meter or remove the power to the property. I’ve heard this step can take ages, but it was about ten days for us. We weren't in the country then, so it didn't matter much.


For some properties, electrical service isn’t close by. In that case, you need to find out where it is and the process and cost to bring it to your property. Suppose it is not available at all or is too cost-prohibitive - I’ve heard stories of BEL trying to charge people tens of thousands of dollars to bring service into a new area- then you must explore other options like solar, wind, or hydroelectric for your house. Most solar systems are readily available at a hefty cost, and wind and hydroelectric generation would most likely require some research into companies capable of completing such a task and local government regulations and restrictions. Hydroelectric conditions on your property must be favorable, like a waterfall or other significant water source on a slope.


Solar

A close up of solar panels

Solar energy is plentiful in Belize, and retailers are widely available, with many companies providing equipment and installation services. If you plan to use solar energy in your home, you should determine this and budget it early in your project planning. There's no better way to blow your budget out of the water than not anticipating a big-ticket item like solar. 


Generally speaking, solar energy comes at a considerable cost for even a modest system, starting at around fifteen thousand USD, which won’t cover all of a home's electricity needs. From what I’ve researched, plan to budget a minimum of thirty thousand USD for a typical house home and closer to fifty thousand if you plan to run AC off your solar. 


If you can afford the upfront cost and have a long view, installing solar is worthwhile. Over fifteen to twenty years, you will save money on electricity costs for your home. More appealing is the self-reliance and sustainability aspect of solar power generation. By not drawing from the grid, you won't contribute to the dirty energy it supplies. Furthermore, electricity supply and distribution is a significant problem in Belize. The country doesn't produce enough to supply the demand and purchases additional power from Mexico. In recent months, the Mexican government, with their supply issues, ceased providing power to Belize. Blackouts and brownouts have been prevalent in Belize since moving here but have become routine as BEL adopts “load shedding” to reduce the demand on their grid. Friends of mine own an off-grid home in the jungle outside of Belmopan and are wholly unaffected by the rolling blackouts and wavering power supply—a compelling reason to invest in solar.


Fine Tuning

When determining your solar needs, you must provide the company you choose with a list of all appliances and sources of electrical draw.  This list includes anything that requires electricity, from fridges and washing machines to fans, cell phones, and laptops. Everything must be accounted for to put together the proper solar setup. You must also determine how much storage capacity you desire, which will determine how long you can run the home during times of little to no sun- which occurs during the rainy season. Using this information, they can calculate the kilowatts needed to run your home and either suggest a package they offer or provide a custom setup for your needs.


There is also the option of auxiliary backup power through a generator, which can be tied into the solar system and kick in when the batteries can no longer sustain the home. 


Alternatively, if you have access to the grid but still prefer the self-reliance of solar, there are grid tie options. Grid tie allows you to use solar power during the day and grid power at night, effectively reducing the cost of your monthly electricity bill.


Unlike in North America, buyback programs aren't readily available. However, recent news suggests that the government and BEL are implementing a buyback program, but from what I’ve read, this is limited and not as cost-effective as programs in other countries.


Wind

Many solar companies offer small wind generation hardware and installations. Most of these have a small production capacity and are used as an auxiliary power source to power a specific appliance like a water pump. I have yet to complete thorough research on this topic, so the interested reader is encouraged to explore viable options for residential wind power generation applications.


Water

As I mentioned in Part One, water wasn't available on our side of the road when we began building. After several inquiries and no reply from the local independent water supplier about bringing municipal water into our lot, we opted for rain catchment. We had heard rumors that the government would take control of the water service in our area in the future, so it appeared that the local company was not interested in the expense or effort required to bring water under the road to our lot. In recent months, BWS ran supply lines with metered service on the way.


So, say you end up in a similar situation to us, where water service isn't available or easily accessible. What are your options? 


Rain Water Collection

Rain catchment cisterns, the Green House by the Sea

As previously mentioned, rainwater catchment is a viable and eco-friendly option for water supply. Mother nature provides you with all your utility water and, depending on the filtration system you opt for, drinking water, too. However, there is a learning curve when coming from North America, where rain collection is not the norm or even allowed in many municipalities. 


Using rainwater requires specific equipment and routine maintenance to ensure all components function. Rain catchment systems require large eavestroughs, downspouts, and reservoirs to capture the water. They also need a pump, pressure tank, and filtration system to function correctly. 


There is also a supply issue for part of the year, with long stretches lasting months with no rain. You need a substantial cistern volume if you want a reliable water source through the six to seven months of the dry season. Also, it's important to note that annual rainfall volumes differ across the country. For example, the southern regions of the country get approximately three times more rain than the Northernmost, so researching the specifics of your area is crucial before installing a large rain catchment system. 


Researching an upcoming off-grid build, my wife and I estimated we would need at least two 2,640-gallon cisterns, each costing 2,600.00 USD. Once you factor in a pump at 250 USD, a pressure tank at 500 USD, and water filtration, ranging from a couple hundred dollars to over $1,000, the system's cost increases.


First Flush System

If you go with rainwater collection, add a first flush system. It is an additional attachment to the downspout that feeds water into the collection reservoir, which collects and diverts the first volume of rain collected from the roof. Rooftops collect dust, dirt, and other debris, especially over the dry season, and it all gets washed into your cisterns if you don't have measures in place. You can use a filter at the inlet, but that won't separate fine particulates from the water. These will eventually build up in the collection tank, clog water filtration systems, and need regular cleaning, which could mean draining the tanks and wasting water. 


A Hybrid Approach

Water distribution system for rain catchment, the Green House by the Sea

If you have access to municipal water but are interested in sustainability and self-reliance, you can take a hybrid approach to water service for your home. In this case, you install a rain catchment and a municipal water hook-up. In the dry season, municipal water can fill the cisterns fitted with a float valve. You will still pay a small monthly fee (ten Belize dollars) for the municipal water hook-up, but it allows you to use what Mother Nature provides during the rainy season and reduce some of your utility costs.


Water Collection Woes 

The downside is that the pump requires electricity, so you will lose access to your running water in a power outage. Making the water potable is possible, but some systems, particularly UV, are costly. To avoid clogs from hindering your catchment system's effectiveness, you must conduct routine maintenance to clear the roof and eaves of debris. 


If you decide to go this route, opt for large reservoirs. We didn't get the largest available, and in hindsight, I would have. In long dry seasons, water needs to be topped up by outside sources, and you will have to purchase water to fill the tanks if they aren't large enough or your consumption is high. Conveniently for us, the local hardware stores, our neighbour, provides water delivery service. This system requires us to monitor water levels within the tanks and order in advance when the levels get low. When it's very dry and the water demand is high, it can take up to five days for the delivery to show up after ordering, with advance payment. If you plan to build in a remote location, away from convenient water delivery, plan for large cisterns or a secondary source like a well or a year-round stream from which you can pump.  


Depending on the size of your reservoirs, you may need to change your behaviour with this system. Being more conscious of water usage is a good practice. For example, when showering, I turn the water off while I soap up, or when washing my hands, I shut off the tap when lathering. Efficient appliances, such as a dishwasher and washing machine, are necessary, as they will help conserve water and reduce usage. 


Well Water

Wells are also an option, depending on the availability and depth of groundwater. 

A well can provide a constant water source for your property, although it can dry up in severe drought. If you have many plants you need to water, this is a better option than rain catchment, as you can quickly use your rainwater to water plants in the dry season. (We capture the AC wastewater in buckets and use that to water our plants). Depending on the water depth at your lot, the cost of a well installation can be as high as seven thousand USD. 


Desalination 

If you are close to the ocean, you need a desalination system with your well to create fresh water. Since the water table is high in these areas, groundwater will be brackish if not completely salinated. A similar system to the rain catchment setup will accompany your pump house: a pump, pressure tank, and filtration system, which requires specific knowledge to operate and maintain.


Water Diversion

Water diversion is another option for locations close to a water source, like a river or stream. Due to ecological considerations, the local municipality will have its own specifications and limitations for diverting water sources. Usually, only a specific percentage is allowed for diversion to limit the impact on the surrounding ecosystems and inhabited areas.  


Septic Systems

Most properties in Belize need a septic system, as sewers are only available in parts of Belize City, Belmopan, and San Pedro. The size of your house and the number of bathrooms will dictate the size of the system. They are usually basic, consisting of a large concrete box (ours is five feet by fifteen feet) with several chambers, each with a clean-out hatch. Black water enters the first chamber, and grey water gets diverted to the last chamber, which leads to the leach field. The leach field is a perforated PVC pipe buried several feet underground and in line with the bottom of tank. It's best not to put anything apart from fecal matter and urine into the system. Otherwise, you run the risk of clogs and will frequently need pump-outs.  When installing your septic, place well-draining earth or gravel under and around it, especially if you have used clay fill. If the tank and leach field cannot drain well, it can cause unwanted backups.


Cooking with Gas

I'm unaware of any gas service line for residential homes in Belize, so most properties have tanks that supply LP gas (liquid propane- which contains 30% butane in Belize) to stoves, water heaters, and the odd dryer. 


Which Stove is Best for Belize: Gas or Electric?

An electric stove element

There is an ongoing debate about whether to cook with gas or use an electric stove and oven. The heat generated from a gas cooktop is substantial. If you plan to run air conditioning, you must use electricity to cool the appliance's excess heat. 


During the build process, the unit we rented had a gas stove. It was sometimes unbearable, especially when cooking in thirty-plus-degree weather in a space that didn't have AC. We opted for an electric stove and had planned for before that experience. After experiencing it firsthand, we were glad we went with electric. Unless your kitchen is mostly outside, gas inside with the Belizean heat is a lot, but ultimately, it's a choice you will have to make for yourself. Yes, we use more electricity to use the appliance, but it doesn’t heat our home to the extent a goals stove would, which helps offset cooling costs. 


However, our selection caused us some issues during the build. Our stove is a fifty-amp appliance, but fifty-amp plugs that are standard at home weren't available here at the time (only 30-amp plugs were available—I'm not aware if that has changed). We had to order the part from the US and have it shipped into the country through Belizean Queen, which took over a month. All the while, we were without a stove.


Foundation Fundamentals

The foundation of the Green House by the Sea

Basements, like those found in most homes in North America, aren’t very common in Belize (I have heard that some Mennonites in the Spanish Lookout area have them). The water table is very high in many places, so putting it in a basement doesn't make much sense. Most homes are either at ground level or raised on posts to catch breezes and limit the presence of bugs. Therefore, I sometimes interchange the term foundation with the first-floor structural components.


However, structural elements, such as footings, grade beams, and piles, could be considered strictly “the foundation.”


Floating

Foundation of the Green House by the Sea in Maya Beach,  Placencia

If you are building with poured concrete and concrete blocks, this is a common foundation used everywhere in the country. It consists of footings- approximately 4'x4'x8” blocks of concrete and rebar set approximately two to three feet deep. There isn't a frost line here, so going four feet below grade, like in many parts of North America, isn’t necessary. Depending on your house's size, you may have forty or more of these. Our house has twenty-seven of them.  


While pouring the footings, workers set rebar cages at the height of the first floor in the center of the footings. These cages form the interior steel skeleton of the building's structure. Workers erect wood forms around the steel cages and pour concrete inside to create foundational posts. If the second story is wood, they insert heel straps into the poured concrete at the top of the post to secure the wood structure to the foundation. If the second floor is concrete, they leave rebar sticking out the top to tie into the next layer of concrete.


This type of foundation is called a floating foundation because it is essentially “floating on the ground beneath it. There isn't anything tying it to something solid like bedrock. 


Piles

An excavator fitted with a pile auger in Maya Beach, Placencia, Belize

Piles, conversely, secure a home's foundation to solid earth beneath it. These are becoming more common as more owners and land developers build large concrete homes on the beach. Piles are long concrete piers connecting a home's foundation to the bedrock below. They are drilled and poured into the holes or pounded into the earth. The construction crew then ties the piles together with a grade beam, similar to the floating foundation, erecting structural posts from pile locations. There are limitations to piles, as sixty feet is their maximum length. If your plans call for piles but the bedrock below is below sixty feet, a floating foundation is used instead.


Wood Post

Wood posts are the cheapest option available here in Belize. The wood posts come with the price if you build a prefabricated home. The crew will set the posts on concrete footings at grade before delivery and attach the home to the posts when the house is delivered. Wood post foundations have the added benefit of allowing you to easily relocate the house later if need be. The downfall is that they are prone to termites and rot, requiring regular maintenance and care to ensure longevity. Most wood posts are Belizean hardwood, which is heavy, dense, and hearty. If you are in an area prone to earthquakes or hurricanes, further research is needed to see how this type of foundation holds up in such an event. 


From Floors to Walls

You will have various choices regarding a home's walls and floors. Here in Belize, there is wood, poured concrete, concrete block, foamcrete, and styropanel for walls. Each of these has pros and cons. Earth, wood, or reinforced concrete are the only options for floors. I will touch on the latter two, as earthen floors aren’t typically a feature of an expat home. 


Would Wood Work for Floors and Walls?

Wood provides warmth (not temperature, but aesthetics) and comfort, unlike any other material. The natural grain and colours in wood provide interest and a connection to nature, while the density and inherent properties of the material allow for moisture regulation and the quick cooling of the structure at night. 


Wood-framed floors and walls are much faster to build than concrete or block walls. Despite the increase in price over the last few years, wood is still cheaper overall due to the labour required to build with it. An experienced two to three-person crew can erect a wood-framed structure with surprising efficiency compared to the same structure in masonry, which requires additional labour to mix and haul concrete and mortar.


Wood frames are also easily modified and repaired, so if you plan to build an extension or complete a renovation later on, wood construction allows for ease of access, modification, and integration. 


However, it doesn't perform well when insulating against sound. It also doesn't insulate against the daytime heat like concrete does. Since wood is an excellent thermal bridge, the same principle that allows the building to cool off in the evenings works in reverse during the day, heating up the inside quickly. So, the studs in the wood walls connect the inside and outside of the home and act as a medium to transfer air temperature. In North America, offset double stud walls minimize thermal bridging, but I have yet to see this building practice used in Belize. 


Therefore, insulation is a must, albeit less common than in North American wood frame construction, when building with wood in Belize. Also, conventionally framed wood frame construction lacks integrity in a major storm unless you factor in additional measures to increase its storm viability.


Wood frame construction also has structural limitations in Belize as common North American structural wood technology like LVL is not yet available. So, if you are looking for large, unsupported openings, roof overhangs, and similar architectural details, wood frame construction won't be the building method to achieve them.


Pouring Over the Details of Concrete Walls and Floors

From the endless building sites on the Placencia peninsula, I have seen that entire concrete walls are rare. Most structural walls consist of poured concrete posts in-filled with concrete blocks. It doesn't mean that full concrete walls aren't available. Still, the building technology in Belize limits the scope of a pour, with limited access to large, easily movable, and pre-assembled concrete formwork. 


However, concrete posts, beams and floors are ubiquitous and are great options for building a sturdy home that can withstand hurricane forces. 


Concrete Block Walls.

A cinderblock wall close up

Also known as CMUs (concrete masonry units), concrete block walls are everywhere in Belize. At as little as one US dollar for a 6" x 8" x 16” block, CMUs are an affordable option for concrete construction. However, they are still not as affordable as wood frame construction after you factor in labour, rebar, concrete infill, plastering, and painting (not necessary but often desired). 

However, when adequately reinforced with rebar and concrete inside the block, CMU construction is arguably the most storm-ready structure. 


As with any construction method, the quality of construction matters, and a poorly built masonry wall can be a hazard to everyone, inside and out. The builder's practices will influence the building's cost, energy efficiency, and interior comfort. 


CMUs are quite porous and need to be sealed inside and out with cement parging (the ‘ol wall flick—if you know, you know, lol). Otherwise, moisture will penetrate the walls and cause high humidity, increasing the chance of mold and mildew. Filling the block with concrete while erecting the wall will help with this, as well as stiffening the wall.


Despite their porosity, air doesn't seem to move freely across the blocks’ surface, so be sure to design window and door locations to capture cross breezes and routinely flush the interior with fresh air. If not adequately planned for with proper interior ventilation, some concrete and block homes can smell and feel musty and possibly need a dehumidifier. 


Foamcrete and Styropanel

I'm not going to lie; I don't know much more about these building materials besides that they exist in Belize. Also known as aerated concrete, foam concrete is a mixture of cement, water, small aggregate, and a foaming agent. This process provides a lighter-weight, efficiently poured substitute for non-loadbearing walls and CMU infill. The foam aspect also gives the material a better insulating ability (R-value) than standard concrete and CMUs. 


Styropanel combines styrofoam and steel mesh plastered or embedded in concrete. It is commonly used as infill walls between poured concrete posts but can also be used for floors and structural applications when combined with conventional formwork and concrete.


Which Building is Better for a House in Belize, Wood or Concrete?

There is a longstanding debate over which construction method, concrete or wood, is better for the Belizean environment. Undoubtedly, concrete is more hurricane-resistant than wood, but there are methods for increasing the strength of wood-framed homes, like steel rods and hurricane ties, which I'll explain momentarily.


In addition to its storm resistance, concrete is typically cooler during the day. However, wood breathes better than concrete and, as I mentioned before, is an efficient thermal bridge. After a hot day, wood construction will cool off faster than concrete, which tends to store heat and radiate it back into the home at night. Wood floors are also easier on the body than concrete. Anyone who has ever stood on a concrete floor for an extended period will understand how energetically draining the material is.


Both wood and concrete homes have pros and cons, and choosing one depends on your priorities and preferences.


Raise the Roof

A sheet metal roof

Asphalt shingles aren’t common here, as they wouldn't withstand the direct sun and high temperatures. Metal roofs are the standard in Belize for residential construction, whether over a wood-framed or concrete slab roof structures. There are various styles, colours, and thicknesses (termes gauges).


Something to consider with metal roofing is that it amplifies the sound of the rain, which is nice for light drizzling but very noisy for torrential downpours. To mitigate this, install at least one layer of 1” high-density foam panels under the finished metal roofing. To eliminate this, install a poured concrete roof on your home.


Local Building Codes and Practices

I am unaware of an official building code in Belize like that found in North America. However, the Central Building Authority (CBA) enforces a construction standard for all new buildings in the country. At times, it's hard to tell what that standard is. Some documents are online, but most pertain to the permitting process, who can apply, and how one should apply. There is nothing in the realm of how to build homes. For those interested, here is the link to the most recent (2020) Building Act and the 2022 Building Regulations, which the former references.


I know of some standard rules from when we built, like five-foot setbacks from property boundaries and thirty feet from the middle of the road if your property is roadside. There is also a height restriction of five stories, at least in Maya Beach. 


Even if you don’t have construction experience in Belize, driving by the endless building sites reveals that construction is different here than in North America: they use bush stick –a fast-grown hardwood found in the country’s jungles– to support the formwork for concrete floors. I don’t doubt that it’s a sturdy and affordable option, but I definitely question how precise it is. The concrete work comes out quite rough, due to the absence of technology to adequately vibrate the concrete after its poured. As a result, all concrete work needs finishing with cement parging. 


Wood frame construction is also done differently, depending on who's building. For starters, subfloors aren't a thing here. Hardwood floorboards aren't typically tongue and groove and are fastened directly to the home's floor joists. The boards aren’t exactly straight either, so gaps between the boards get filled with wood filler. Over time, with the expansion and contraction of the boards, the filler comes loose and falls out, leaving you with a view of the outside through a crack in the floor. We avoided this issue by having plywood and plycem (where we installed tiles) installed throughout the entire house. Doing so also allowed us to have smooth transitions from hardwood to tile and improved the home's structural integrity.


A poorly framed prefab home in Belize

Furthermore, some Mennonite crews will build with 2 x 3 or 2 x 4 on the flat, often with wide spacing between stud centers, without adequate corner studs and other structural members. Those details may not mean anything to you, but take it from me: it’s not the best way of doing things. Luckily, we built The Green House by the Sea to a much higher standard, which was in line with how I built in Canada. Our house was overbuilt, with non-load-bearing door openings containing substantial headers. Perhaps the additional structure is necessary for the home to survive delivery and installation. Nevertheless, I appreciated the overbuilt nature, which is how I usually do things anyway. 


However, not all builders construct that way, and you must be clear on what you want. In addition to subfloors, insulation isn't often a standard inclusion in the building envelope, so if you want it in your home, request it early and budget for it. Fiberglass rolls and spray foam are becoming more widely available, but they still aren't the standard practice. Be sure to ask about it. 


It's All Greek to Me

Construction methods aren't the only thing different from “back home.” Ways of communicating are as well. Much of this stems from differences in living standards, so details get omitted from a misunderstanding of ways of life. Many expats move to Belize and expect the same standards from home, but those don't necessarily exist. For example, “finished home” means something different than it does in North America. At least it did when we built, perhaps this has changed.


Nevertheless, what is considered “finished” didn't include a kitchen or bathroom. Yes, that's right. How's that a finished home, you ask? That's a good question. The answer is many people still cook outside and use an outhouse. It's essential to remember that Belize is a developing country, and many modern conveniences aren't “standard” here.


Here is another example: Friends of mine had a laundry room closet on their plans (also a prefabricated home), but when the house arrived, the laundry area didn't have water lines or a drain; it was just a closet with an outlet inside. The thing is, many local people wash their laundry in the local stream. Just peer over the edge of any bridge while driving along a highway, and you are bound to see the women from the local village waist-deep in the water scrubbing clothes. So, there is an honest lack of understanding of some of these concepts, like in-unit laundry. It's just not a thing, so many local builders don't think of it, anticipate it, or plan for it. 


For further context, I recently spoke to a worker a neighbour hired to complete a project on his home. The worker explained to me that his house doesn't have electricity or running water. He recently missed a work day because they ran out of water, and his wife was home with their baby. He spent all day running water from the local source, which is intermittent, to his home so his family could have bathing and drinking water. That story reveals the standard many Belizeans live in, so it makes perfect sense that they wouldn't think of a laundry room as part of a home. 


Cultural Misunderstandings

I've also noticed a cultural difference from my time in the country: rarely is information offered, so you must ask many questions to get the information you seek. If you still need clarification, ask again in a different way. What often seems like an obvious opportunity for someone to provide you with information isn't. You have to ask multiple times to get an adequate answer to your question. 


As a result, pinning down exact pricing for, say, foundation work was challenging. I received a quote for a concrete slab under one part of the house with two bathrooms above. Even though the bathroom waste lines get installed under the slab, the slab price didn't include this. Because of this difference in communication, many items were left out and added on the fly, driving up costs. 


Another example of this regards our electrical service. When we received our quote for this aspect of the project, it didn't include the labour and materials to bring the power from the service entrance to the house, just the cost for the service post and BEL connection. So the “electrical hook up for the house” was a two-part price. I thought the quote should have included power to the house because what good is power at the street if it isn't connected to the home? The local contractor we hired was great and trustworthy, but it didn't occur to him to include the whole series of electrical connections in the cost of “hooking up electricity.”


Similarly, air conditioners were quoted, but the price didn't include the labour and additional materials needed to install them; it was just the unit costs. One or two misses like this are manageable, but many add up to a significant cost. So be sure to clarify when you receive pricing and ensure it includes all aspects of a given task. It may mean more legwork on your part, but it's well worth the effort when you build an accurate price for your home construction project. Lastly, don't settle for ballpark pricing. Such occurrences always went over the loosely quoted price.


To reiterate, what is standard in Belize differs from what is at home. Remember that even if they don't do certain things here, like subfloors and insulation, they are still important and valuable to home construction in Belize. You must act, ask questions, and push for adequate answers when local building practices differ from what you are used to. Also, expect that ‘modern conveniences’ will drive up the price of your project.


Dealing with Issues

As with any construction project, issues will arise. When they do, it's essential to stay calm but be firm with your approach to resolve them. During the construction of the prefabricated sections of our house, we receive regular updates from the associate managing our build. She sent them through photos as the yard where the construction occurred was several hours away from our lot. In one of the photos, I noticed a window location error. It was a significant error in which the framers accidentally increased the space between two rows of windows, which meant that a perpendicular roof line would fall into the middle of a window location. When I brought the issue up and requested that they fix the error, I received a pushback. They told me that their framing accurately reflected the plans. My wife and I designed the home using a 3D modeling program, so I knew the design inside and out. When I proved their claim false, they tried to convince us to change the width of the final window where the roof would now intrude. On the plans, that row of windows consisted of units of equal size, and changing the last one would throw off the symmetry of the design. We stayed firm and insisted that they dismantle the wall and build it to the specifications on the plans. After some time, they reluctantly acquiesced. 


That wouldn't be the only problem in that area of the home either. When they put the roof on the connecting section, it was too low, cutting into the window trim on the perpendicular wall. The builder literally cut into the trim to place the roof line instead of raising the rafters, which I made them redo.



That was one of many issues that arose during the build. Other issues included: missing insulation in the built on-site connecting section; a bedroom door hung backward; doors framed in the wrong place which interfered with the tub location; master bedroom closet doors were wrong, and many doors rubbed and got stuck. These were all things that the builder would have glossed over had we not stuck to our guns and insisted on a quality that was honestly new to them. Ultimately, I sorted out the master bedroom closet myself because I knew no one else would make it work to my standard. 


Now, I understand that the average homeowner doesn't have the knowledge and skills of a twenty-year construction veteran like myself. Yet, that doesn't mean you can't have the home of your dreams. I am sharing my experience through these writings so that less experienced can know how to plan and what to look out for.


I’ll be honest; it's a lot, and there was a learning curve for building in Belize, even for someone with substantial construction experience. Yet, it's doable and even enjoyable when you know what to expect. 


Building to the Environment


The Green House by the Sea living room with high ceilings to vent hot rising air

I mentioned this in part one, but I want to reiterate here that being conscious of the environment in which you build will help lower power consumption and maintenance costs and improve the interior comfort of your home.


All or partial concrete construction, albeit at the highest cost, will protect your home from storm damage. If you choose to build with wood, do not overlook the hazard of hurricanes and take measures to improve the storm integrity of your home. For example, have your builder install hurricane ties and threaded rods throughout the structure. It wasn’t a standard feature when we built the Green House by the Sea, but we opted for it. It's a great way to increase the structural integrity of wood frame construction. Hurricane ties, which secure the roof rafters to the top plates of the wall, are great, but in extreme winds, the whole roof can go, top plates and all. However, the entire home structure becomes mechanically fastened together when you insert half-inch steel threaded rods through the top and bottom plates at eight-foot internals. You secure the foundation posts to the beams at the underside of the structure with heel straps, then attach the beams to the floor joists with half-inch steel brackets. The threaded rod secures the joists to the top of the wall assembly, and steel rafter brackets attach the top of the wall to the roof rafters. This process significantly increases the force a wood-framed home can withstand because the storm now needs to uproot the home from the foundation. I'm not saying that can't happen (just visit The Split in Caye Caulker), but for a nominal fee—it cost us 750 USD—you can increase your home's storm readiness.


Lastly, incorporate high ceilings or open ceilings into your design. You rarely see attic spaces like in North America, and that’s by design. Heat rises, so high ceilings or an open ceiling with a high roof line allow hot air to rise and collect above the living area. Include a high window, wall, or vent to allow hot air to circulate out.


Knowledge Turns Challenges into Triumphs

A rainbow seen from the Green House by the Sea

Wow, that was epic. If you have made it this far, give yourself a high five and two if you have also read Part One. I hope you found this valuable, informative, and as enjoyable to read as it was for me to write. I appreciate your dedication to sticking with me. This is a lot of information. Yet, I hope I didn't discourage anyone. I aim to inform, not instill fear. With adequate knowledge, the inherent challenges of building a house in Belize are better anticipated and made easier to overcome. Proper planning is crucial. 


Consider all aspects of the project, from utilities and the foundation to storm readiness and other environmental considerations. The more informed you are, the better prepared you will be to take on the project and spot potential issues before they become significant problems. Knowledge is essential for keeping the timeline and, most importantly, the budget on track. You are building in a foreign country, and things are different, so communication is paramount. Ask questions and repeat them in various ways to ensure everyone is on the same page. Keep asking until you are satisfied with the answers. When problems inevitably arise, I hope the knowledge you’ve gained here equips you with the confidence to tackle them head-on. 


However, if you no longer feel like building in Belize is for you after reading through, that's okay. Perhaps a turnkey home like the one we built—and it's for sale—is more your thing.


One final thing. I put a lot of time, care, and attention into these posts: this one and the last total nearly 13,000 words, which is a significant amount of planning, typing, and editing. If you have found them valuable and care to show your support, click here to help me continue to provide helpful content to other interested readers like you. Alternatively, you can show your support by purchasing my self-published book, subscribing to the website to receive email updates of new blog posts or sharing this post with others. Anyhow, no pressure! Just putting it out there.


If you have any construction-related questions or feel I have left something out, please let me know, and I'll do my best to add it or address it in another post. 


Don’t forget to have fun with the project, no matter what arises. Despite its challenges, building a home in Belize is a rewarding experience for any expat. Happy home building!


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