Sunday, November 23, 2008

Our house and yard

On our first trip to the Caymans we included several days of touring houses that were listed for sale. We were not completely sure we wanted to buy, and in fact many people advised against buying right away, but we nevertheless wanted to get a feel for the real estate market. We are both the type of people who like to own rather than rent, so naturally we were leaning that way even before we came to visit in June of this year.

It did not take us long to figure out that the Cayman real estate market was unlike anything we had ever experienced in Canada, both in the duration of a listing and the prices. Houses are easily twice what you would pay in Canada (this coming from someone who is familiar with Toronto pricing), plus you would also have to get used to the fact that it would take a year on average to sell your house. The average number of days for residential listings, as per CIREBA (Cayman Island's Real Estate Association) is about 370 days, so just over a year.

Having said that, a Cayman house is not exactly like a Canadian house. Houses here are made of solid block construction, and the furnishings (which generally come with the house) tend to be of much higher quality, even exceeding what I am used to seeing in Europe at times. And other than canal front lots, which I remember to be somewhat smaller, many times the lots are easily three times the size of your average suburbian GTA lot at about .3 of an acre. Plus, backyard pools are commonplace, so it's not quite like comparing apples to apples, as it were.

The way we saw it, there were about four geographic areas we could live in - on the sea, on the canal, off the water near Georgetown or 'out in the country', better known as Savannah. Of course, on an island of this size (about 20 miles long and 4 miles wide), calling anything the 'boonies' is a bit of a stretch, but you'd be surprised how 'far' Savannah - a 20 minute trip without traffic - seems once you get used to living near Georgetown and being everywhere in less than 5 minutes. There are of course places on the island that are further away than Savannah, but the fairly long commute to Georgetown do not make them suitable places to consider for people who work in Georgetown.

On the sea
This is of course the quintessential Caribbean dream - living in a mansion on the sea, drinking your morning coffee on the patio as you meditate the meaning of life to the sound of waves gently washing on the beautiful white sand that is your backyard.....

But as with so many things in life, even beachfront living has a certain ying and yang aspect to it, meaning that with sand often come ants, and with water often comes algae. We found out about the ants from a helpful hotel employee who advised us that ants love to be near the sand, ergo in houses near the sand. And some beaches are nicer than others - yes, plenty of beautiful white sand beaches, but also beaches which require a bit more upkeep because algae tends to wash up constantly and has to be removed on a continuous basis. Beachfront buildings and equipment are also more vulnerable to wear and tear because they are closer to the salty sea air and water.

And of course, living on the beach can be a bit more hazardous for the simple reason that in periods of slightly windy weather (like a hurricane for example), water does not have far to go once the waves start moving inland. This does not apply to all beachfront property but a certainly a good chunk of it. Having said that, the risk of being flooded, and of having a major hurricane come through really is relatively small, so for most people the benefits of living on the beach still by far outweigh the risks. Even I still dream of meditating my mornings on my seaside deck.....and the real estate market seems to confirm this as seafront property is far pricier than anything off the sea and will likely stay that way because living on the sea is one of those dreams that just won't die. And no doubt there is a lot to be said for the atmosphere and natural beauty of living on the ocean.

On the canal
I should preface this little section by saying that I am not a boater, which makes me somewhat predisposed against canal homes. The name already says it all - you are on the water but not on the beach. Homes in this area are generally not quite as pricey as beachfront property, but not much cheaper either, as listings in the nicer areas can easily reach the million dollar mark. What I did not like about canal front homes were 1) the fairly small back yards, because after all, you buy the home for the canal front, not the yard; and 2) the fact that depending on where you lived on the canal (preferably as far back as possible), you'd have a lot of traffic (and smell) from other boats. And we are not talking little canoes here, these boats are mini-yachts in some cases. Also, a canal is not moving water so let's just say it does not look like your typical azure-blue and transparent Caribbean water ....

Canal front homes are subject to some of the same hazards as beachfront property - such as their relative proximity to water in case of a hurricane. I think we heard just a few too many "we only had 3 feet of water during Ivan" to convince us that we wanted to be on higher ground.

Forgive me if my assessment of canal homes sounds a bit negative - I am obviously not the type of person that would love a canal home for its inherent advantage - access to water. And in that regard I am definitely out of step with where the market is. Canal-front property has a very exclusive character to it, and some of the most beautiful homes on the island can be found on canals. And as I alluded to before, canal living is great if you love boating, because you literately walk into your backyard and you can take your boat out on the ocean, which of course you cannot do if you live further inland. For quite a few people, this is still a big attraction, and of course, somewhat of a status symbol. Say you live in Governor's Harbour and people right away have a very definite picture of you. Sort of like saying you are from Winnipeg's Tuxedo or Toronto's Rosedale .....

For an idea of what such a home looks like (and sells for), here is a link to a Cayman real estate website.

Inland near town
That's where we ended up! We ran the gamut from absolutely having to live on the water to canal front homes to sitting down one day and deciding that living inland made the most practical sense for us. This is incidentally where a lot of Caymanians live (it's a real mix of expats and Caymanians actually), and there are very many beautiful properties not too far from the ocean. In our case, our planning was driven by the need to be near schools (so we would not need two cars or an elaborate driving schedule) and something else we learned as we toured all the other houses - you want to be on high ground. So we searched for a home that was not only close to town but also on high ground. There is a ridge that runs through the southern part of the island, which is about 15-16 feet at its highest point, and that's where we chose to settle. Our thinking was confirmed during our first hurricane experience (Gustav in late August 2008), when everyone parked on our road, trying to make sure their cars would not be flooded (which was never an issue as it turned out, but more on that later).

Living inland has its advantages, although it would not be for you if you absolutely have to have immediate access to your boat and water or you need to hear the sound of the waves every day. And one other issue - you don't get the nice breeze you get on the ocean, which is a definite plus for oceanfront properties. In the interior (i.e. anything more than 500 metres off the ocean) it can get quite stifling during the hot summer months, as we found out. But prices are very reasonable, and many of the yards are very spacious and absolutely beautiful. Here is a picture of our backyard (or actually about half of our backyard):

Here is a picture of the front of the house:

And another shot of the backyard, this time facing the street:

And speaking of the street - here is the street. The first photo points towards the end of the street (away from the ocean):

The other side of the road, leading to Walker's road (the container is ours, this picture was taken on the day the container arrived and we were getting ready to unload it).

And last but definitely not least - Savannah and environs
I loved Savannah. Or should I say, I loved certain things about Savannah. Having grown up on a farm, there was something about the natural beauty and certain ruggedness of this area that really appealed to me. As I mentioned to someone once - it is a bit like the Interlake except with palm trees. And I always loved the Interlake! The soil is loamy, almost reddish, and the shore is hard and rugged, looking more like a lava field with fossils abound. This is not the place to stretch out your towel unless you are training to become a fakir.....but it makes for great photography, doesn't it?

Houses here are considerably cheaper due to the distance from town, and there are a number of very lovely developments. Plus, a lot of Savannah is on fairly high ground, an added benefit. The one drawback, as you may have guessed, is the distance from town. Of course, coming from a part in Canada where driving to work for an hour was the norm, it seems a joke that driving 20 minutes would be considered a 'commute', but down here it is. And when traffic does back up, that 20 minutes can also quite easily turn into one hour, although that would also apply to someone commuting into downtown from West Bay of course. Nevertheless, Savannah is still considered a fair distance from all the happening places, and when you have children in school, it definitely makes for a demanding driving schedule, something we were not prepared to do.

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