Building Your Tropical Dream Home in Bequia

by Chris Kaye, guest blogger

(Chris and Rose, his wife, own Ijeoma, adjacent to Ocean Ridge Estates in Crescent Beach, Bequia. To see more photographs or to rent the finished house, go to www.bequiasanctuary.com.)

Building a home in BequiaBuilding your dream home can be a fraught and painful process even at home where you know–or think you know–the tricks and are familiar with the legalities and the construction process. Doing so in another country far from home with a different culture and values poses a big extra strain and risk. Here are some suggestions from our own experience that we hope will help you build your home here on the paradise island of Bequia.

Before You Start

It sounds obvious, but be sure you don’t get seduced into a place and a design that you will come to regret: do your homework, take your time to decide, and then and allow plenty of time for the process from buying the land to moving in. Our project, start to finish, took three years and this was considered to be pretty quick, but we were fortunate in our choice of builder and specialist support.

The Land

Unlike some parts of the world, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) has a good legalised land ownership system, and you should be able to confirm ownership by simply visiting the public records office in Kingstown and for a few dollars view the title deeds as everything is lodged here. If you are buying from a local person, ensure that they not only own the title but there are no ongoing or prospective family disputes that might delay or stop the sale or lead to problems afterwards. It is not unknown for someone to sell land which is owned by another family member or which has been promised or bequeathed within the family. Also ensure that the land has access to the electricity supply and a road, and that access to the land is passable – important given the hilly terrain of Bequia.

During the buying process you should get sight of the deeds and plan of the land. Do take time to check that the boundaries on the ground conform with the plan. If necessary, commission a professional surveyor to do this as identification can be very difficult especially on ‘virgin’ scrub. Doing so will also show up any topographical problems, notably over-steep ground which may sterilise that area for construction or increase build costs.

The Purchase

As in much of the Caribbean, you will be required to obtain an Alien Landholding License (AHL) before the government will allow you to register the land in your name. Assuming you have no murky past, this is a formality, but one that can take time – anything from 4 to 12 months. You should get a good local lawyer to do this who, crucially, has a track record of securing speedy AHL approvals. Normally you will place a deposit with the seller of 10-20% of the land value to secure the sale and allow the AHL process to complete, with this being returned only if your AHL was turned down. Once the AHL is through you will be required to complete the sale and pay the balance forthwith. In your budget allow for the cost of legal and Government AHL fees – your lawyer will advise you on these.

Once you have your AHL, you are free to develop. However you now also have the option of becoming a permanent resident of SVG. This is purely process but does require you to formally decide and there is a further government fee involved. However, in our opinion, it is well worth it for two reasons. Firstly, it enables you to come and go without the visitor time restrictions and it allows you to set up a business in SVG, which you may wish to do depending on the nature and purpose of your development. Secondly, it is needed to gain citizenship, currently granted a minimum of 7 years following achieving residency status. Citizenship provides some protection against political volatility and thus helps protect your investment.

Having got your land, you have in law up to three years to start developing it. In practice this means at least showing your intention to develop by ensuring the arrival of some building materials and/or making access etc.

The Design

Firstly, don’t consider using your local architect if they are outside the Caribbean. They will lack the vital knowledge of local ground and weather conditions, contractors, and sourcing of construction materials at what is the end of a long supply chain. There are a number of good architects within SVG. If you use a Caribbean architect from elsewhere we suggest you consider also employing a local firm as their agent as this will provide that local knowledge and save travel costs.Water tank construction, Bequia

Either way, we would urge you to employ a local project manager/quantity surveyor. There are not many of these who are independent of contactors as it’s such a small market but they can be found and are vital unless you have experience and intend taking a close and hands-on involvement in the build, which most people living thousands of miles away just cannot do.

There are many local contractors but much fewer who are good, i.e., cost effective, quick, and do a quality job. There are plenty of local scare stories about builders disappearing, walls not square or floors not level, or using your money on other projects, etc. Always take the time to view their work and talk with current and past clients. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away with your dream and rush into things. It goes without saying that you will get multiple tenders, and your architect or project manager will advise who to shortlist. You have a choice of fixed price or cost-plus. Both have pros and cons and in our opinion there is little to choose between them in practice. Why? Because in most cases when you get your quotes in you will find not all the work is fully costed but key areas such as plumbing, electrics, and finishing are shown as ‘PC’ or ‘prime cost’ figures. These are essentially a guess by the contractor because the work is not fully specified or because they would subcontract this work out and don’t have the time or interest to get subcontractor quotes. Do check for this in your quote and ask your architect or project manager for an opinion as these costs can be sizable.

On the matter of design, to avoid unpleasant fiscal surprises when it comes to finally settling up, try to specify everything at the outset and then stick to it and avoid making changes as the build progresses. Remember also that futuristic designs which work at home may be unfeasible or very pricey on Bequia due to novel materials. More so than back home, ensure your budget allows for plenty of contingency in the event say of unexpected ground problems, increased scope, delays, etc.

Be assured that on Bequia and indeed the Grenadines, there are a lot of highly skilled people who can work wonders with complex wood and reinforced concrete designs. If you choose a good contractor and project manager you should be comfortable that the build quality will also be good.

The project manager should be capable of checking that both the progress of the build and the cash flow stay on track and, if not, will tell you and negotiate directly with the contractor to resolve things. Insist on receiving a weekly progress reports with photos. These last are in our view essential both for reassurance that your money is being usefully spent as well as enabling you to cross check against the plans or decide sooner rather than later on any necessary changes.

Finally, you must get planning consent before you engage your contractor. The authorities seem quite flexible about planning providing your house is sized proportionately to the plot: they are strict regarding distances from boundaries. Also make sure your design does not contravene any covenants that came with the land. Once the build starts, the contractor needs to notify the local building controls office of key stages to allow them to inspect, and you must obtain at the end of construction an electrical  safety certificate from the local electricity company (Vinlec), which your contractor will arrange.

The Build

With a good and efficient contractor and an independent professional project manager most of the construction risk should be removed.

Before the contractor moves on site, do agree with him what trees and land features you wish to retain and make sure they are clearly marked. The builders do have a habit of completely clearing the land first and you can end up with a costly landscaping bill at the end of the project. On this point, you can engage your contractor to do landscaping and planting, or contract separately with a number of local specialists–or you can do what we did and do it yourself with the help of local labour. At the design stage you should also consider whether to install an irrigation system.

As you may have gathered, you will need a tank to hold rainwater for the dry season. Our advice is to size this as big as you can afford and allow for the possibility of a rainless wet season. (It does happen and topping up your tank is expensive.) As so much of Bequia is exposed to wind off the sea, the house exterior suffers much more from exposure to the elements than at home, so consider surfaces that allow themselves to be regularly cleaned without being damaged and go for low maintenance and rustproof finishes. Although much more costly, consider installing a hurricane resistant roof finish such as interlocking tiles rather than sheet metal.

Unloading household removal goods container, BequiaElectricity on Bequia is generally reliable. Power outages for maintenance are normally advised in advance and planned to last no more than half a day. Remember however that your water supply is pumped and if your power goes down you will have no water as well as no freezer. If your budget will stretch to it, consider installing a small generator hard-wired into the house supply.

Do you also want a security system? Serious crime on the island is very rare but there are regular break-ins, especially in the run-up to Christmas. There are local specialists who have experience in installing anything including sophisticated systems if that is what you want, but remember to specify this at the design stage to avoid retro-fit costs.

Naturally, get any changes you want to make during construction agreed with your contractor in writing with his commitment to a firm cost for the work.

Finally, when planning the build phases with your contractor, try and ensure that access to the site is completed, and the roof goes on, before the start of the rainy season.

Moving In

You are allowed to bring in one freight shipping container of personal effects free of import duty. Anything beyond this will be taxed. In practice, you pay a deposit to SVG customs and then reclaim this after the contents have been checked on off-loading (although in practice it is not easy getting your money back). You should keep a detailed inventory of your container contents. As the roads on Bequia will not take standard 40 foot containers, you will have to offload yours at the Port Elizabeth dock and then transfer by truck. Your project manager or contractor can arrange for this and your container will be kept under police guard during the process. Either your contractor or local casual labour can help you install fittings, etc.

Finally, do not be tempted to bring out metal fittings or leather or PVC soft furnishings as both suffer terribly from the sea blast and high humidity. Our brass curtain rails and ceiling lights after only 18 months are looking rusty and old, so we’ll soon start a replacement program–in wood.

What can you add to Chris’ advice on building a home on Bequia? Please add a comment or email Heather at info@islandpace.com.

Ijeoma, Bequia

Questions or Suggestions?