Many people dream of owning a home on a tropical island. Others fantasize about finding an overseas property to build upon. A few truly adventurous folks accept the dual challenge of building an island home as their ultimate retirement experience.
Deb and Ben Unger took on this challenge when they chose the southern coast of Grenada for the perfect place to build their module home in the southeastern Caribbean Sea. They graciously shared their story including some valuable lessons they learned along the way.
Deb relates, “I feel safe here. We prefer a mountainous island, which is a bit less developed, and English speaking locals. There’s lots of adventure activities including hiking, waterfalls, water sports, and beautiful beaches at every turn.”
Other drawing cards include drinkable water, a variety of food, a stable government, and the ease of integrating with the locals.
In their former lives, Deb and Ben endured 80-hour work weeks and traveled extensively for their jobs. Ironically, while Deb had visited almost every island in the Caribbean, except Grenada, Ben had only visited Grenada.
In 1995, Ben convinced Deb to spend a week on his favorite island. She ultimately fell in love with the culture, the gorgeous scenery, and the laid-back island lifestyle. They visited Grenada almost every year until finally taking early retirement in 2013.
Visit your chosen country several times to appreciate different neighborhoods, cities, and building locations before buying and building.
Buying Island Land
In 1998, they purchased a lot near the point at Fort Jeudy. By the end of 1999, they had also bought the adjacent lot and were granted permission to build across both parcels.
The Ungers arranged the purchases using a power of attorney in Grenada while still living in the States. They worked with an architect to design a home that emphasized outdoor living at its finest. The building permit was streamlined in 30 days and they broke ground in December 2015.
Use local professionals to minimize regulation headaches and ensure each step is handled efficiently.
Island structures require different building standards to account for regional natural elements such as rain, wind, bugs, and humidity. In the Caribbean, hurricanes can be an issue as well.
Fort Jeudy can experience sunny, calm days, or winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour. Horizontal rain is possible, but usually short-lived. Temperatures average between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity hovering around 75 to 85%. High moisture produces mildew that damages clothes, electronics and appliances, and deteriorates wood and metal structures.
For this reason, Deb and Ben chose to keep their private master suite module sealed, using air conditioning and stationary windows to protect their clothing, artwork, and electronics from ants, humidity, and corrosion.
Learn common weather patterns and build using proven methods to avoid potential damage.
The Unger’s home was built with concrete block made from sand mined in Guyana, South America. Since the sand was not sourced from an island or along the Caribbean coast, it had no salt. Salt can lead to structural corrosion and deterioration.
If using concrete in a tropical location, be sure the composite sand is salt-free to avoid future damage.
Positioning Is Important
The location of the sun throughout the day and changing breeze patterns will greatly affect your comfort. Deb carefully planned multiple seating areas to take advantage of the shade, sun, and infinity pool. Also, since their scenic location features both sunrise and sunset water views, maximizing these stunning vistas topped their priority list.
Position your home to optimize any scenic views and natural amenities.
Deb and Ben shipped most of the finishing touches from Europe and the States. It was less expensive to ship higher quality materials from abroad than purchase local products in Grenada. The floor tiles were shipped from Italy, while their entire kitchen came from IKEA.
Use composite wood cabinets when building a kitchen in a tropical location because termites are repelled by the glue used to make the composite materials.
Grenada doesn’t charge duty to ship personal items, so Ben and Deb shipped two 40-foot containers by sea. Bribery and corruption is nonexistent since the local customs rules are published by CARICOM, which governs all Eastern Caribbean countries. Duty is calculated between 20% and 30% of the value of the item. Value added tax is set at 15%.
Talk to locals and expats about how they shipped items and ask for recommendations for customs brokers. A broker can make the process easier and less expensive.
Looking back at their experience, Deb and Ben shared a few important pointers.
- Working with local labor can be challenging. The professional you hire may not do the actual work. It’s important to be on site regularly to ensure quality craftsmanship.
- If you can’t be present during construction, find a contractor who will provide regular updates including photos or videos during the entire process.
- Local builders may not build to U.S. standards and may try to cut corners on quality or use substandard practices and materials. Be clear about what you expect.
- Laborers are often paid very low wages. This can lead to disgruntled or envious workers. Labor costs are low in Grenada, but the Ungers experienced no attitude problems and nothing was stolen from the job site.
- Avoid being your own general contractor in a foreign country because, as Ben says, “It could be one hell of a job and might make you hate living there.”
- If you plan to import goods, ask the locals about using boxes, pallets, or even barrels. Hire a freight consolidator in the States to take delivery of your goods, hold them until shipping, repack the items to save space, put them on the pallet, and keep you informed during the entire process.
- Shipping by sea is much less expensive than by air. It will take a week or two by sea, while air transport can take a few days.
- Buying and building on Grenada was much less expensive than other Caribbean islands, which could cost as much as fifty times more.
- A skilled Grenadian carpenter costs around US$40 per day, while a plumber or electrician may charge US$50 per day. It’s worth the money to have a professional do even the smallest of jobs.
- One downside in Grenada is the cost of electricity, which can cost three to four times more than in the States. Deb and Ben installed 45 solar panels on their roof with collecting batteries. As a result, they generate 70% of their necessary power. Once they build a wind turbine, they will be off grid with no further electric expenses.
- Compared to Pennsylvania, Grenadian real estate taxes are one-tenth the cost, water is one-third cheaper, and home owner’s association dues only run about US$300 per year. Cable TV and Wi-Fi costs are similar, but they have fewer options and slower speed.
The Downsides Of Building On An Island?
When asked what she doesn’t like about living in Grenada, Deb immediately responded, “Centipedes! It’s not that they are deadly, they are just prehistoric looking.” Apparently they can also grow several inches long.
Ben had to think longer to find anything negative about island life. Finally, he realized that sometimes he missed a change of scenery. “You need to leave the island from time to time, just for a change of pace.”
Overall, the Ungers had a smooth building process in Grenada, mostly due to their extensive pre-planning. As Ben summarized, “We did two renovations in Pennsylvania, but building a home in Grenada was actually easier.”