How Much Did You Say?

How Much Did You Say?

by Vivian Williamson-Bryan

You must be kidding?!……Is that price for real?!……Boy, you’ve gotta be rich to live here!……That’s 3 times as much as it would cost me back home!!!

What are all these people complaining about? The price of milk? Maybe (everything in the Virgin Islands seems to cost astronomically more than it would on the mainland – except liquor, so consoling yourself over the high cost of living doesn’t hurt at all). However, that’s not quite what I had in mind – this week’s column will attempt to explain just why buying property in St Thomas equals big buck outlay.

Reason 1 – and this is first and foremost, undeniable and written in stone. This is a relatively tiny island – only 32 square miles – and as far as we all know there ain’t going to be anything added anytime soon. This in itself is not a huge problem (Canada’s Baffin Island springs to mind – while much larger than here I doubt if it will ever have a supply and demand problem). But when compounded by the factors of glorious weather; clear, unpolluted, bathtub-temperature water that gently touches icing sugar beaches; unrivalled opportunities for fishing and sailing; and (prime point this) the comforting presence of the U.S. flag flying over our official buildings (this non-banana republic status adds greatly to our appeal – there are lots of charming islands worldwide but…) it becomes a hot commodity with extremely limited supply potential.

Then the topographical details of that 32 square miles have to be taken into consideration. Think of the fact that St Thomas is only 3 miles wide at its very widest point (and a whole lot narrower in most other places) and its beaches are at sea level. Then think of the mountainous spine running down the center that reaches heights of 1700 feet. With this picture clear in your mind’s eye you’ll understand that the livestock of choice for the island’s farmers is the goat. Humans, being not nearly as adept at scaling steep grades as their cloven-hoofed buddies (also being a relatively lazy lot in general), usually prefer nice, flat spaces around their homes or at least a homesite that can be reached by methods other than rappelling.  Although the ingenuity of our local architects and builders is formidable, even they have to concede defeat when presented with combination of a 1:2 grade and a ghut (a ghut is a natural watercourse from the top of the mountains to the sea. Normally just a steep, rocky cleft in the hillside it becomes a raging torrent after heavy rain. The islands’ steep slopes are heavily dotted with them.) – in effect, making a scarce commodity – buildable land – even scarcer. This coin does have a flip side though – it is this staggeringly steep terrain that enables the overwhelming majority of homeowners to enjoy staggeringly beautiful views.

This steep terrain also contributes to building costs. Even though a parcel of land is deemed buildable it doesn’t necessarily mean easily. Bringing in utilities (especially underground – you wouldn’t want to mar that view!) can be a major expense. Bulldozing and paving a driveway from the access road – often a distance well in excess of 100 ft – can be a task beyond the wildest imagination of engineers from other, flatter locales. And sometimes that grading and paving duty will have to extend beyond one’s property line – the term “access road” is occasionally used euphemistically and if one would like to reach one’s home during insalubrious weather, being generous with the concrete is at times necessary.

This brings us to the actual construction of the structure and Reason 2. And again our cloud-scraping physicality plays an important role. This land of frequently replaced brake shoes is not the land of the subdivision. Hence, no cookie-cutter houses with their attendant cost containing features. Virgin Islands houses are as individual as their inhabitants. Most are designed to take full advantage of the view and the prevailing wind (usually from the east, occasionally from the north – you don’t want your bedroom facing west unless you have generous feelings towards the power company). They have high ceilings (since heat rises – the same reason that makes 8 ft the norm in places where a heating bill is a consideration) and tend to be spread out instead of being in the shape of a box (again to take advantage of cooling breezes). Many tend to be dramatic and almost sybaritic by most standards. All this individuality comes at a price – a good architect, one who is familiar with the idiosyncrasies of island design, is the keystone of any esthetically and functionally pleasing building project. This is not the time to be tempted to whip out your copy of 10,000 Home Plans to save some bucks. Esthetically and functionally pleasing – yes. Suited to the tropics and this terrain – no.

Now Reason 3 – the nitty gritty part.  This is the wood, the concrete, the steel, the nails, the tile, the plumbing pipes and fixtures, the lights, the every blessed thing that goes into constructing a livable, workable space. All of this stuff with one teeny, tiny exception is imported. The only building material that is a product of these islands is the gravel that goes into the concrete. But what about all that sand? I just know you’re thinking. Think again. Sea sand…sea salt…salt reacting with steel…maybe not the best idea. And houses take lots of those imported (i.e., expensive) materials partly due to being built as strong as bunkers, able to withstand anything that Mother Nature might have up her sleeve. Lots of steel, concrete walls 10″ thick, heavily beamed roofs – all comforting features to have considering our position in the “Ring of Fire,” an area prone to seismic activity, and in the hurricane path (though not a heavily travelled part of the path – it can be generations between major storms). The Virgin Islands has a pretty comprehensive building code which became even stronger as an aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 – a reassuring fact for homeowners, both potential and current.

And, of course, don’t forget the cistern – our version of a flooded basement that represents about 10-15% of your home’s cost. This is your water supply – the most important asset of your house. Unless you live in the minuscule area circumscribed by the municipal water system, the water that you catch on your roof and store in your basement is all you’ve got (there is a remedy if you do run out but it’s painful; a truckload of water – about a month’s supply very judiciously used – will set you back a couple of hundred dollars). In cisterns, the rule is the bigger the better. If you’re unfortunate enough to have a small one you’ll soon learn the fine points of conservation (less flushing, navy showers, a slight decline in over-enthusiastic cleaning, etc.) and become obsessed with sky-watching and weather reports, always hoping, hoping….

The sum of these 3 reasons? Island real estate prices that might boggle the minds of the good citizens of places like Peoria, Kalamazoo and Bangor (and no, I’m not slighting your towns – they just have a nice ring to them). The fact is that they and much of the rest of America have the luxury of space and the infrastructure to supply materials efficiently – important attributes in the housing market and something that is in short supply in America’s Paradise.

But whatever the cost, whatever the travail – buying an existing property (a lot easier in the travail department) or building your dream house (more travail but that’s not exclusive to the Virgin Islands – see Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House starring Cary Grant) can give you a sense of satisfaction unequaled by most other endeavours in your life. Choose well (but if you don’t, don’t sweat it too much – there’s always the next time)!