Pitfalls to Consider Before Buying That Caribbean Retreat

by June Fletcher
May 26, 2006
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Question: Thank you for your article, “The Emerging Caribbean.” I agree with many comments you made. After the first year, owning a second home becomes more of headache than a blessing. Question: where in the Dominican Republic can you buy a condominium for $40,000 close to the beach?

– Victor Mora, Miami, Fla.

Victor: I appreciate your compliment on my story. But I am puzzled by your question. If you find owning a second home a headache, why do you want to buy one…and add to the migraine by picking a foreign country with a different language and customs? Or are you planning to make this a primary home?

Either way, if your goal is to cut down on Tylenol intake, please read Elizabeth Roebling’s funny and insightful description of her experiences as an expatriate in the Dominican Republic on Escapeartist.com — an excellent Web site that I highly recommend to readers looking to buy abroad. Although she seems fond of the place, she also dishes on the downsides, including unpaved roads, unlicensed real-estate agents, crime fueled by rampant poverty, and unclean water. To prepare for life on the island, she suggests several exercises in denial, including duct-taping your freezer and covering up a couple of stove burners so you’ll get used to life without them (since you probably won’t have enough electrical power to use these things), and weaning yourself from any addictions to air-conditioned movies, chain-stores like Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, and even foods that you might consider staples, like bread and red meat — which, she says, might not seem so appetizing when you see it in an island market sitting in the hot sun, covered in flies.

Still interested in buying there? Certainly there are some advantages, since property is incredibly cheap compared to the United States. The Web site of Century 21 agent Juan Perdomo lists several studio and one-bath apartments in the $35,000 to $50,000 range in the beachfront town of Sosua. (The original European settlers of the town were Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust during World War II; since then, it has become a tourist destination, with some 2,000 hotel rooms in the area, according to the Web site Dr1.com, an information site on the Dominican Republic.) Although modest in size, around 500 square feet, many of these apartments come partly or completely furnished, and are in pool complexes.

Keep in mind that when it comes to buying property, you won’t have all the protections you have in the United States. According to the Dominican Republic law firm Guzman Ariza, escrow funds aren’t used often, so sellers or builders control all funds as buyers pay them. If your builder should go belly up before completing your project, or your seller misuses funds, you may have no recourse except a lawsuit. And though local title registry offices provide certificates of title, it’s advisable to ask the attorney handling the sale to personally check the documents for accuracy, and to make sure no one is squatting on the property.

Also, don’t forget that the Dominican Republic is often hit by natural disasters. Over the past 75 years, hurricanes and windstorms have killed or injured more than 15,000 people and cost around $2.6 billion in damages, and floods have killed or injured 3,800 and cost $44.7 million, according to the World Health Organization’s Collaborative Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. In 1998, Hurricane Georges was especially devastating, killing more than 300 people and leaving thousands homeless.

So while it’s fun to go bargain hunting abroad, remember that every tropical paradise has its snakes and alligators lurking in the underbrush — and every foreign real-estate purchase has its hidden dangers, too. Keep your wits about you, and don’t skimp on sunblock or insurance.