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Buying & Selling a Home

Dreaming of Tranquility

A California couple turn an undeveloped Belizean caye into their dream island.

Doug Ingersoll and his wife, K.T., bought an undeveloped island 12 miles off the coast of Belize last year. The couple paid roughly $250,000 for 20-acre Tranquility Caye.

Owning an island was a dream for the Ingersolls, but their plans go beyond creating a private escape for themselves. Doug and K.T., who also own Caribbean Island Brokers in Loomis, Cal., hope to build a quiet luxury resort on Tranquility Caye within the next six years.

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Doug, 42, shares the challenges and rewards of buying an island abroad.

Kiplinger: How did you first become interested in buying an island?

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Ingersoll: It was an all-encompassing dream, and over a period of years, that fantasy became a goal. Then that goal became a reality. You're almost embarrassed to mention it to people because buying an island is so "out there." But as we learned about what's available, we realized it isn't much different from buying a vacation home in Tahoe. It's just a matter of perception and geography. It does take a different kind of person, I think, to do it. People attracted to islands are fascinated by the sheer challenge of starting something from scratch and maintaining their own space.

Why did you choose a Belizean island? Affordability was the biggest reason. Compared with islands in other parts of the Caribbean, it's less expensive to travel there. It's also easy to get to, and Belize is an English-speaking country. The ownership there feels more stable, and I think it's a safe place to buy. In other countries, you have to go through gyrations of corporations or leases to take possession of a piece of property, but you can just buy it in Belize.

Did you see Tranquility Caye before you bought it? We had only seen pictures. That was probably the most uncomfortable part of buying an island-sending money to a real estate office in a different country for an island we only hoped existed. It was a huge leap of faith. Our contract allowed about 21 days for us to back out. We quickly scheduled a trip to inspect the island, and for our own peace of mind, we visited about ten other islands to make sure we were doing the right thing. It definitely created some doubt. We came very close to backing out. But ultimately, we thought this was the best one for the dollar. When we renegotiated the price from $300,000 to $250,000, we could justify the added expense of building on our island.

How did you renegotiate the price? We made the point that building on the island would be expensive because the bedrock is so deep, and putting down proper footings for a structure would cost more. The $50,000 was an arbitrary figure. The seller knew it would be expensive to build on the island, and we had other viable options for purchase. We exploited a weakness and saved a little money.

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When did you know that this was the right island for you? The moment the seller agreed to reduce the price. Dollar for dollar, this was the best island we could buy. There was a giant hole in the market between the $250,000 we paid and our million-dollar limit. We wanted to pay cash, and we didn't want to take risks. It isn't necessarily our dream island, but we can easily make it our dream island.

And what is your "dream island"? We're trying to build a resort with ten cabanas on the water's edge. It would be a relaxed, honeymoon-style place, where people could go scuba diving, fishing, and maybe get a massage. We're just trying to push a little bit further and make something unique.

We have started the process of putting the workers out there on a more permanent basis, but we still need final approval to dredge and fill the island. Getting work done has been our biggest headache. And not just getting it done, but getting it done to our expectations. We visit our island about once a month, and it's tough to manage from afar unless you go there a lot.

Do you have a house on the island? Right now, because so little construction has been done, we take a boat to Tranquility Caye each day and return to the mainland to stay overnight. Once the structure for workers who are clearing the island is built, we'll stay there from time to time. Then we'll build the employee housing, which we expect will accommodate 15 to 20 people. We'll stay there while building our own house, and then we'll build the rest of the resort.

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Your plan to build a resort is extensive. Do you ever feel overwhelmed with details and costs? The vision can be all-consuming. You think about it a lot. But I don't worry about it. The idea is to do this debt-free, so we wouldn't proceed unless we had the money.

What is the biggest tradeoff of having an island versus a vacation home on the mainland? Accessibility. We fly from California to Houston, from Houston to Belize City, and from Belize City to Dangriga, a town in southern Belize.. Then we ride a boat 12 miles to Tranquility Caye. And that's a relatively easy destination. Southern or eastern Caribbean islands are much harder for an American to access, and the islands themselves are far apart from each other. A round trip costs us about $500.

What are the advantages? The exclusivity of it. Only so many islands are out there. I've heard that phrase used a lot, but it's true. I feel the overall interest in islands has increased. We've paid very close attention to Internet searches for island real estate, and a lot of people are looking.

What is the most important question to ask before buying an island property? It just depends on the angle you approach it from. Do you want a developed island, or do you want to start from scratch? Some people don't want a diamond in the rough. Other people would rather build equity by improving the island themselves. Some islands have geographic features that appeal only to certain people. Buyers have all different goals and ability levels.

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What pitfalls should prospective buyers avoid in the negotiating process? The island market is like the "wild west" of real estate, so be prepared for the unexpected and for a long process. When we were buying, we encountered long periods of time with no word and with no movement. I'm watching other people go through a similar experience now as a real estate agent, and simple questions go unanswered for two weeks. It's grueling when you think about it day and night, wondering if you're going to get that property you want. It took all the fun out of it.

What is the most unexpected problem you have encountered as owner of Tranquility Caye? Belize is an English-speaking country, but its people speak a different form of English. I can have what I think is a perfectly understandable conversation with a local, but later I find out he understood it completely differently than I did. The confusion is usually in the context of your sentences. You have to clarify your expectations. It's a little frustrating.

What unexpected costs did you encounter? Boat trips can be quite expensive. You go out on a wooden skiff for a day, get beat up on the waves, and it costs $300. I justify it by saying the boat's operator is essentially making his entire week's income in one day. You're employing somebody who doesn't work a lot, and they need to make up for it somehow.

What was the most pleasant surprise you discovered when you bought Tranquility Caye? The response. We formed a Web site to tell the story, and we got inquiries from people who want an island, too. They were amazed that other people think like they do and have the same dreams and fears.

Overall, do you think you got a good deal? It's absolutely one of the best investments we've ever made. In fact, I can say it's the best investment we ever made.

What is the single greatest reward of ownership? The satisfaction you've realized the dream. You've done it. Now the real fun begins.

Photos couresty Doug Ingersoll

Next: See our slide show of ten private islands for sale.
Plus: Interested in buying? Our checklist discloses five things to know before you indulge.