Bahamas Real Estate

In Naples, Florida, while waiting in line to buy a Diet Coke at 7-11, a real estate agent gave me her card and offered to help me buy a house there.  The Out Islands of the Bahamas are almost as flush with realtors as Florida.  Let’s look at the economics.

Over the last 80 years or so, the Bahamas have been subject to a cycle of real estate booms and busts.  One of these little “out islands” becomes fashionable with rich people or celebrities, a resort is built, some fancy houses are built.  After a few decades and a few hurricanes, “shabby chic” has turned to “just shabby” and that particular corner of the Bahamas are abandoned for a few decades.

Eleuthera and Cat Island are the two places that we visited on this trip.  Together the two islands are more than 150 miles long, with shoreline on both sides.  That is a lot of beachfront property.  Most of the beachfront property is undeveloped, and due to the poor soil, unused for agriculture.  There are “for sale” signs everywhere and asking prices are quite high, as much as $4 million for a reasonable sized oceanfront lot.

What generates demand?  The Bahamas has no industry, unless you count real estate development, so anyone buying a fancy house here will need to be retiring from elsewhere.  He or she is not going to find a job on the islands.  Most retired folks are fairly old and require frequent visits to doctors and hospitals.  When it comes to education and infrastructure, the Bahamas are just crawling out of the Third World camp, which means that anyone with money who needs to see a doctor or visit a hospital is going to be booking a flight to Miami or Fort Lauderdale.  Assuming a couple retires at age 55 and one becomes chronically ill at age 75, thus requiring a move closer to medical facilities, the maximum amount of time that any fancy house can be occupied is approximately twenty years.

What if you want to rent a nice house on an Out Island?  We didn’t meet anyone who paid more than $2000 per week even for the nicest houses in the most desirable locations.  That’s a lot cheaper than paying 1% property tax on a $4.5 million house.

What do Bahamians do?  Most of them flee the out islands for the career and social opportunities of Nassau and Freeport.  What about the handful who remain in these quiet corners of the country? Only a few blocks from where old white guys have paid $4 million, they live in ramshackle concrete places with chickens running in the yard.  Mostly they probably laugh at the Americans who are keeping their economy and government running.  When an expat-priced house changes hands, approximately 20 percent of the price is paid in “stamp tax”, legal fees, title fees, and real estate commission.  When the expat gets too old and sick to stray from the hospitals in Fort Lauderdale, the Bahamians will make another 20 percent from the next owner.

[Astute readers may notice that I myself am an old, fat, white guy.  Have I been tempted to put down roots here on a Bahamas out island?  The answer is "no".  People are friendly, the beach is lovely, the snorkeling is interesting, and Internet service seems to be fast, reliable, and widely available.  On the other hand, it is hot and humid for most of the year and fresh fruit and vegetables are pretty much unavailable at any price.]

8 Comments

  1. Bob

    February 28, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    1

    In our experience, you’re pretty much right on. Some folks who buy property seem to fit in and get along with the locals. In other cases, there are jealousies that develop, e.g. an evangelical preacher who came in by boat and bought a ‘Beach House”. He tended to draw boaters to services who the locals felt might have gone to their churches. Whenever he tried to expand, or even do serious maintenance on, Beach House bureaucratic obstacles cropped up that made it impossible. He eventually sold out.
    Customs duties are the chief revenue source, and they are imposed on the locals too. A straw-market acquaintance had to pay that same crushing duty on a van for her little subsistance business.
    The Out Islands all have different personalities. Some places you won’t find a single type “A” on the island and they’ll lay back and let the boaters ‘help them”. Others, like the Abacos up north, are definitely first world, but the weather is not as good in the winter.
    Most foodstuffs and merchandise are carried by a network of “mail boats” – most of which operate out of Nassau – though the Abacos have their own. Some of them look they modeled for a Joseph Conrad novel, but they get the job done. Island life is timed by these boats and fresher (not necessarily fresh) fruits and veggies are to be had “when de mail boat reach.”

  2. sylvia baker

    February 28, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    2

    i live on cat island. every word you said in this article is true, but vastly understated. you did not add matters of additional hardship.
    reasonable quality goods and services are just about impossible to come by.
    i was charged $650 to install a split a/c unit. quality of labor is inferior and if one can afford to pay, it’s always at a rip-off price. there is widespread dishonesty and let the purchaser be aware, in particular, when the service provider totes and quotes from the “good book”

  3. Perry

    February 28, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

    3

    Definitely one of the better posts I’ve read on Bahamas real estate. I’ve been going there since the 70s. I don’t understand why people want to own homes there. I’m staying in homes worth $3M plus for around $2 – $3K per week and splitting the tab with a few friends. Talk about cheap!

    The pluses:

    - directly on the beach
    - don’t have to worry about the house when a hurricane comes through
    - stay at the house during prime season while the owner has to make rent
    - not have to fix things every 10 seconds due to the harsh environment and then go through hell trying to replace them

    Best of all? I get to stay in more multi-million dollar homes and see more of the islands then the typical Bahamas homeowner does.

    And lets be frank… After so many years on a small island, you learn what the meaning of “familiarity breeds contempt” means. Meeting new people is more fun.

    The minuses:

    - can’t make friends jealous with “we have a house in the Bahamas.”

  4. Linda

    March 1, 2008 @ 8:19 am

    4

    good info folks, thanks…I’ve been looking for a warm retirement location, and with 700 islands to choose from, I figured the Bahamian Islands were the place to look , but you’ve opened my eyes. I had figured the tax stamp & fees to be around 5%…20 is a bit over the top! I saw me in a grass hut picking coconuts, grapefruit & oranges for breakfast, snorkelling a few hours, a nap, fishing a few hours, and winding down my golden years in bliss….guess I’ll have to rethink that plan….

  5. philg

    March 2, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

    5

    Linda: You can do all of that! Just rent a few different places and maybe eventually find something to buy from a local at a local price. The hot muggy buggy summer season is a particularly cheap time to rent. The rich folks are all back in their main houses in Michigan, Florida, New York, or wherever.

  6. Andrew

    March 3, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    6

    The above comments would appear to be made from a particular economic stand point. The 1% property tax is nothing compared to the land tax in some countries other than the USA. The Bahamas offer low tax rates on income so if for instance you have a large income stream from another offshore country of 1 to 2 million per annum and escape from tax rates of 30% to 50% (corporate and personal taxes, plus VAT sales tax, luxury car tax, land tax, capital gain tax, the list goes on) the savings are substantial. So you stay there for 10 to 20 years what are the savings (millions)? A few flights to mainland USA to visit a hospital if you are sick is a small cost or for that matter somewhere else in the world. The comments above seem to have a bias because the people making them cannot afford the cost of escaping the taxes that people with large incomes streams are looking for relief from. The house rich people have in the Bahamas is but a small portion of their net worth and probably not worth worrying about. There is a cost to paying no income taxes and if that’s a bit of humidity or heat the odd soft veggie it would appear to be the price you have to pay. When the heat gets to much go on a holiday to a cooler destination for a couple of months. As for the local’s charging to much for certain services it’s no different in your home country where ever that may be so let’s have a reality check in that department. So after you have saved millions from not paying income taxes and need medical care return to your home country for the last stage of your life. I have seen young professional global sport stars and business men do exactly this. The rules are different for people of means and I guess we all have realize that this will never change. Although everyone above seems to be group justifying why they don’t want to live in the Bahamas and also saying they are smarter than the people who own houses there because they rent them. That doesn’t make sense to me. I would live there if I could but I guess I’ll just have to go on pay taxes in the mean time.

  7. Mike

    March 15, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

    7

    The tax rate and structure is Republican heaven. The food is getting better, and in some places is excellent. I am building a house on Eleuthera, and I like the local people there, who are very pro family, regardless of the quality of their housing. Without slagging the US, the Bahamian people maybe have better values and priorities. It is a different culture, and very community minded.
    The Family Islands are not for sickly people or hypocondriacs, but I found the basic clinic services surprisingly efficient every time I have brought one of my children or my wife. It is not the right place to have a heart attack. It is the right place to avoid one.
    Neverless, you need to be of more adventurous spirit to move to the Bahamas.
    It isn’t Florida.
    Value wise, compared to Florida it is a bargain in many ways.

  8. Linda

    March 25, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    8

    Once again, the opinions of the many help to educate and inform the minds of the few . I am not a person of “means” by any stretch Andrew. I’m a middle class, divorced mother of 5, I’ve worked for “ma bell” since 1971, and have loathed the winters for my entire life. I want to die in warmth. I’ve never been to a hospital , and I’ve gone over 13 years without missing a day at work, so health isn’t a concern at this point. If I can buy aspirin at the local grocery, I’ll be fine. My needs are and always have been very simple…family, shelter, food…anything after that is icing on the cake.

    Mike, I also choose NOT to trash the US, but the current state of affairs leaves me wondering why I’m still here. I’ve peeked at Eleuthera, Abaco & San Sal, but there are so many out islands, it’s hard to choose. I figure I should take a month or two island hopping…I know for sure I don’t want Freeport or Nassau…I want quiet…LOL. Best of luck to you and your family in your new home!

    Linda<~~still in search of the grass hut

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