Steps to Building A Home on a Budget in Belize

So you’ve navigated the treacherous and confusing Real Estate process in Belize. You have successfully purchased the land and have valid papers to prove it. Good job!

Now you need to build your home, but your retirement funds and your common sense tells you NOT to finance your building project.

Another wise move! You don’t need a mortgage during retirement, correct?

Provided that you don’t have the full funds for your project in your pockets, you’ve decided that you will build over a period of time before retirement.

Maybe you have 3-5 years before retirement and a bulk of your retirement funds will be tied up for a few years.

So you can take your time, but it may not be so easy to find a Belizean construction team that will agree to your pay-as-you-go plan.

Many construction companies in Belize will require up to 50% down payment with one more payment at the end.  That’s the bad news.

The good news: Belize is filled with talented small construction crews who will work with you, providing that you can pay in chunks that will divide your project into a number of “mini-projects” that make sense.

That’s the route that we chose, mostly out of necessity, but also because we had contacts in Belize because my wife’s family resides there.

Let’s take a tour of our home building project, outlining the steps we are taking to make our retirement home a reality.

This may not be the most feasible route for you, but many of the steps are the same one’s that you will need to take.

Hopefully you’ll get some new ideas and encouragement along the way.

Step One: Agree on a Flexible Game Plan

The land that we will be building on has been owned by Linda for many years.

Long before she met me, Linda had decided she would one day move back to her hometown in Belize, a town she left at the age of 18 to make a life in America.

So she purchased a 75′ x 150′ lot in a new subdivision of Orange Walk town on the West side of the Northern Highway. All the while, she was making monthly payments from America.

The dream started as a 75′ x 100′ lot that needed to be groomed and regularly maintained. Finding the correct team to do the work can mean the difference between progress or failure.

Over the years since then, she would see the slow development of the area every time she visited.

They were nice homes, some 2,000-3,000 square feet that are owned by local Belizean business people, but also others that are modest, 1,000 square feet or less.

Her goal was to “fit in”.  She envisioned a 20′ x 30′ wood structure built by skilled local mennonite builders that are finely crafted.

Time brought me into Linda’s life, and my frequent visits to Belize since then have given us time to talk and reshape the plan.

Seven Belize visits later the dream has grown into:

  • Selection and slight modification of a nice concrete duplex floor plan with built-in flexibility.

This will allow us to gradually build a 2-bedroom unit next to a 1-bedroom unit that can easily be converted into a comfortable 3-bedroom home by simply opening a door in a conjoining hallway.

It will also have a 30′ x 30′ concrete roof patio to take advantage of the nice breezes from the East.

A recent site plan shows the 54′ x 47′ duplex with backyard palapa and car port. The palapa construction was used as test project to see how the construction team would do under our watchful eyes. The one bedroom unit is shown on the left while the 2-bed unit is to the right. The hallway behind the bathrooms will have a steel door separating the two units.  The foundation is planned to be poured early in 2018.

The one-bed half will be finished first, utilizing furnishings we have been gathering for a number of years.

It will be rented out to a local who will also serve as a caretaker.

Then other half (2-bedroom) will be finished by relatives in the family as time permits. Hopefully within the next two years, the 2-bedroom section will be ready.

At that point, we can decide to either rent out the 2-bedroom portion or, if we are ready we can live in the other half.

We also will have the option to move in and utilize all 3 bedrooms as a single-family home. That’s total flexibility dependent on our desires and circumstances.

  • Future option to build a second floor rental unit by converting the 30′ x 30′ rooftop patio. 

This expansion idea came during our recent visit to Ambergris Caye.

We really enjoyed the small cabanas at Royal Caribbean Resort on the South side of the island.

As we marveled at the simple, but practical layout of the cabana, we knew it would be a perfect structure to build on the rooftop of our Orange Walk duplex.

This simple cabana design at Royal Caribbean Resort on Ambergris Caye is a simple, but stylish design, that was the inspiration for our 30′ x 30′ rental space. It will have bedroom, kitchenette, ample living space and large bathroom. Don’t be afraid to dream while you visit the many resorts in Belize.

Linda’s brother can handle the architectural needs on the fly which makes this a feasible idea for us. Just know that making these decisions on a whim can be costly when using an architect at full price.

The genius of this conversion comes from the desire to have family visit us from the U.S.  Having a ready-made place for kids and grandkids to stay will help us to stay connected.

  • Added flexibility to follow our dream to the coast while being a landlord

That’s right. Our dream doesn’t end there.

If you have read our blog on a regular basis, you know that Linda has a dream of starting a Bed & Breakfast or full-blown restaurant.

This could best be executed in a tourist area such as San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia or Hopkins.

Rental income in Orange Walk will go a long way toward making our ultimate dream a reality.

We could easily hire a property manager to live in the one-bedroom unit and oversee the rental operation.

Bottom line: Dreaming and planning ahead allows you to chop any big dream into manageable projects that keeps you encouraged and moving forward.

Step Two: Pick a Trustworthy Construction Team

This is a lot easier said than done. Contractors run the gambit, and you need to know if you are dealing with one who runs a viable business that makes money by delivering quality construction on time.

In Belize, your choice of contractors come in several forms:

  1. A relative or friend who gained his experience by building his own home. Most will steer you away from this option and choosing this possibility is dependent on the amount of trust you have in your friend or relative. Be aware that the old adage that mixing business and family can be treacherous.
  2. A Belizean who has handled a number of projects successfully and pulls his team together when a project comes along. This option is more trustworthy, but can cause delays if the team is not available during your construction window.
  3. A construction company that builds pre-fab wooden homes either at their site or yours and delivers it to your site. These are mostly mennonites in Belize who make quality homes quickly, but they are made of wood which needs to be continually maintained over the years.
  4. A larger custom builder who designs and builds custom homes and handles all architectural, project management and subcontracting if necessary.  These are the best option to get your home done quickly when you can’t be in Belize to oversee the project. This option offers the least amount of flexibility in payment options.

You can find a list of these options by googling or by searching on Facebook, LinkedIn or other sites. Make sure to pay attention to comments and reviews on blogs, but realize that everyone has different opinions.

You can also talk with others who have successfully built in Belize. Realize, however, that most contractors are regional in Belize and may not travel a far distance to build your home.

Few people share a great experience, but they are quick to share a bad experience.

In the end, you need to chose based on your needs and circumstances.

Project One: The Security Fence (2015 – 2016)

Our first construction project was to securely fence in our land so that when we could have a secure place to store tools, etc. during construction. We were referred to a contractor by a relative who showed us many nice fences in Orange Walk that his team had built.

We stressed that we wanted the combination of cement block and chain link fencing to be done during a two week visit to Belize in 2015.

The contractor actually did his best to get done in the time frame, but a mixture of it being the rainy season and an underestimate of the money necessary caused the project to be 85% complete by the time we needed to head back to the U.S.

The fence was constructed in 2015, but we returned home and the contractor failed to cement three sides of the fence into the cement blocks. this caused us to have to fix it with patchwork in one corner on our next visit. He also failed to fill the blocks with concrete to make it more stable. His demands for more money to finish the work caused us to dismiss him from the project. Beware of this. Despite written estimates, signed receipts and being there for most of the project, the job sat undone for almost a year until our next visit. In our mind, he was taking advantage of our not being there.

Although we intended to use him for the home construction pending a nicely completed fence, we couldn’t move forward with his team due to a lack of trust.

Thankfully, we had a brother that brought in a small team to finish the fence, and build the 14-foot gates during our next visit in 2016.

The 14-foot rolling gates on both ends of the fence were nicely made in our absence shortly after our next visit in 2016. Linda’s brother oversaw the creation and installation and this helped us to gain trust in his team of local builders. Now that the fence was completed, we could concentrate on construction of the home.

You can see that to date, we have used a combination of options 1 and 2 above to get where we are, with mixed results.

Project 2: The Palapa (2017)

We were happy with how the gates turned out in our absence, so we decided that our July 2017 trip would be a great time to test the same team with construction of a small palapa in the back yard (see site plan above).

By doing so, we could see most of the carpentry and construction skills necessary to build our home.  We also could see how the team worked with Quidi, Linda’s brother, and if we could be confident the job would get done under his supervision.

We had a crude drawing of the palapa and only had a few requirements:

  • It had to have a concrete base and utilize a contractor’s grade zinc roof.
  • It also needed to be 6-sided with room for a fire hearth for outdoor cooking as well as Linda’s hammock.
  • We also wanted it done before we left back home two week’s later.

We met with Quidi when we got to Belize in July. We shared our duplex plans and our crude hand drawing of the palapa and left him to design it. We knew he had designed a number of homes in the past.

Quidi is a smart, capable guy who knows how to deal with a team and has all the skills to oversee the construction of our duplex. He lives only 6 blocks away from our land, so we are confident he will pay close attention during the construction process.

While he designed the palapa, we used a day to meet with two other possible contractors.

One was a person referred to us by Linda’s nephew who had little construction skills himself, but had a capable team.

The other was a larger contractor from Belize city. We happened to be renting his Orange Walk rental home during this trip.

The first estimate came back at more than we wanted to pay for a concrete home, but would be a good backup plan if things went awry with our first choice.

The second contractor to date has not gotten back to us and it became obvious that we did not fit into his construction windows.  Their work in Belize City was mostly commercial in nature, so they have bigger fish to fry.

It was a head-scratcher that they also failed to make any other recommendations to us along the way.

Needless to say, Quidi had a palapa plan, an estimate for construction and a team of four men ready to tackle the project when we met with him on Monday.

A separate blog post will soon be written to show the entire process of building the palapa, but until then, know that we were happy and sometimes amazed at the capabilities of his team.

The teamwork shown during the 5 days of full construction that it took to build the palapa built our confidence in this small team. You could tell that Fred (far center), Kenny (left) and Martin (right) had considerable experience and anticipated each other’s next move. They genuinely seemed to enjoy each other and didn’t mind that we were watching over the process along with Quidi.

A summary of the construction process included these steps:

  1. Day 1: Measurements, digging out framing sextagon foundation, Purchasing the madre cacoa hardwood posts, purchasing all other needed wood, hardware and supplies, sourcing the zinc to be used for the roofing.
  2. Day 2: Digging 2-foot deep holes for the posts, Setting and leveling posts, Pouring concrete into holes, Pouring 10-inch thick concrete floor.
  3. Day 3: Allowing all Concrete to set
  4. Day 4: Cutting posts to correct height, Constructing roofing frame and setting desired pitch of roof, Purchasing the Zinc for the roof to be delivered.
  5. Day 5: Cutting, setting and nailing zinc to the roof, insulating roof with foam to prevent leaks, Constructing a decorative apron and securing roof to posts with L-brackets.

The successful completion of the palapa, although a small project, accomplished a number of important things for us:

  • We now have a structure for the construction crew to escape the Belize heat.
  • It also affords Linda a place to oversee the construction process during our visits
  • It allowed us to get to know the workers by name and approve of their handiwork
  • It gives us confidence that the construction can progress under the watchful eye of Quidi and supervisory skills of Fred
  • It cemented in our mind, that we now have a team that could accomplish any construction process.
  • We could enjoy the second week of vacation filled with future dreams instead of construction worries.

Bottom Line: Take your time picking a construction company that fits your situation and project and learn to enjoy even the snarls along the way.

Step 3: Aggressively Revise your Timeline as Necessary

Now that you have the confidence in your team, be as aggressive as your budget will allow.

We have broken our timeline into six phases with a projected finish date of September of 2022, but if we aren’t quite done at that point, we won’t be disappointed. We will still be closer to our goal.

Here is our projected Timeline:

  • PHASE 1: November through December 2017: Construct an 18′ wide x 25′ Carport in the back left corner of the yard with a 6′ x 18′ storage area in the back. This area will be ample room for tools and construction materials that we send from the U.S. to Belize. We also will run electrical from the main hookup to the storage room. We will not be there to oversee this project.  PROJECTED COST: $7,000 U.S. or $14,000 BZ
  • PHASE 2: January 2018 through February 2018: Excavate and build cement block duplex foundation up to 24″-32″ above the ground level. This will also include running plumbing and electrical from the main hookups out at the back fence line to the laundry room area in back that will double as our utility room. PROJECTED COST: $15,000 U.S. or $30,000 BZ
  • PHASE 3: January 2019 through March 2019: Build the outer cement block wall of the structure, including windows, outer doors and cement upper patio area. Fill concrete into blocks and run all internal electrical, plumbing and  butane lines (for stoves and hot water heater). PROJECTED COST: $27,000 U.S. or $54,000 BZ
  • PHASE 4: January 2020 through April 2020: Build roofing infrastructure for master bedroom and all other areas outside of the patio. Also attach zinc roofing and create drainage gutters and water-gathering system. PROJECTED COST: $8,000 U.S. or $16,000 BZ
  • PHASE 5: January 2021 through September 2021: Build interior walls and Drywall one-bedroom side of duplex, install kitchen and bath furnishings, flooring, interior doors, ceiling treatments, lighting and other finishing. PROJECTED COST: $9,000 U.S. or $18,000 BZ
  • PHASE 6: January 2022 through September 2022: Build interior walls and Drywall two-bedroom side of duplex, install kitchen and bath furnishings, flooring, interior doors, ceiling treatments, lighting and other finishing. PROJECTED COST: $12,000 U.S. or $24,000 BZ

Note: After Phase 5 we can start rental of the one-bedroom side of the duplex. Also, all outside patio areas will be finished after the move-in date and will be done as time permits.

Total Projected Cost of the Duplex: $78,000 U.S. or $156,000 BZ.

Our duplex is perfect for our situation and fits our budget and our goals. Note that the front red door that Linda wanted shows proudly while the door for the one bedroom unit is hidden from the front. That’s to give the impression that it is a single family unit. Be sure to share your plans and dreams in the comments area below. We can’t wait to read your story!

If you think we are underestimating our budget, you might be right, but these prices are based on having some of the materials already in our possession.

Your budget will vary based on size of home, quality of materials used, etc.

Our desire is to show you our plan as a starting point for your plan. Creating a home “on a budget” is our goal. Is it yours?

Bottom Line: You might not think that our timeline of 6 Phases is aggressive, but it is quite aggressive for our retirement goals. We have 5 years before “retirement age”. Stick to a game plan that is aggressive for you without causing too much stress along the way. Remember, part of retirement is developing the correct mindset towards the process.