22 June, 2007

Buying a House, Belize Style

So you want to build a semi-custom home for oh, say, $25,000US...

"Oh", you exclaim, "is this 1962"?

No, my dear. This is 2007, and we're buying a 20' x 30' Mennonite, wood-framed house to be built and erected on our property. We'll be living in it for the next few months as we design and build the "big house" as we've taken to calling it.

The Mennonite house will be ready for occupancy before 1 November, when Tony and Nelly, our landlords here at Casa Ranchito, come back from the Low Lands. We're putting it close to the road, so that the big house will occupy the land closer to the canal, and once we move into the big house, the Mennonite one will become a separate guest house.
Initial Drawing for the Mennonite House
The plans above are what I drew up to give to Franz Wiebe, the builder. He's located in Shipyard, Belize, but is spending a significant portion of his time up in the "Free Zone" at the border, building a hotel extension for the Las Vegas Casino.

We've met two times now with Franz to nail down what we want, what he will do, etc. to deliver us a house. The first meeting was scheduled for 6 PM. He showed up at about 9:30 PM. We forgot, Belize time... Duh.

For our second meeting, we agreed over the phone to meet at the same time. Well, we weren't sure if that meant 6 or 9:30. So, we had a delicious spaghetti dinner with sauce that Dianna had made and simmered for a day-and-a-half in our new crock pot at about 5 PM. We did that so we could be ready from 6 PM on. Franz arrived right on time - at 9:30, and we got to work.

To give you an idea about business here in Belize, we asked about a contract. Franz' answer, was "Well, sure if you want to write one up, we can have a contract". Which is what we did - just for our peace of mind. It is disconcerting, but also refreshing to deal with people in a land where a handshake seals a deal. A man's word is his bond - literally. That is taken very seriously here.

We made a production out of reading the agreement out loud, penciling in changes and re-printing the thing in two copies. Then, when we had all agreed on what it said, all of us signed it, with Elsie also signing as the witness.

When it gets down to it, what was important was the verbal agreement and handshake. The paper doesn't mean a thing.

The way the payment works is this: half down up front, then when it is framed up, another quarter is paid, and upon delivery and setup, the final quarter is paid. We wrote a check to Franz for half last night, and the ball is rolling.

So far, the whole process has consisted of two or three brief phone calls, and two evening meetings here at the house. And writing a check. That's it. If it wasn't for our Gringo need for detail and paper, we really didn't need a drawing or even the agreement. That's strictly for us. Oh, sure. Franz will use the drawing, but if we hadn't had one, that would not have impeded the deal.

You might be curious how we found Franz. There are three Mennonite house builders on the Internet in Belize - Plett's Home Builders (; Linda Vista Lumber and Homes (; and Midwest Lumber Mill ( All three are located in Spanish Lookout, Belize. Franz' company is not one of those, and he's located in Shipyard, Belize.

We liked the looks of Mae and Craig's Mennonite house. They used Franz to build theirs, so we contacted him by phone and here we are.

I don't have a picture yet of Franz. He's a little shorter than I am, and very solidly built. Blond, curly hair, freckles, and Ben Franklin-style glasses, he looks Nordic. As soon as he starts to talk you know. With the Germanic and Kreol (local spelling) mingling of accents, there is no doubt. English as spoken by a Belizean. Franz is of Mennonite extraction - Germany to Canada to Mexico to Belize is the trail his family took over the past years.

Anyway, he's a busy, no-nonsense builder. He doesn't dress as a typical Mennonite - no denim coveralls, no blue shirt, no light straw cowboy hat. Blue jeans, work boots and short-sleeved work shirt. He drinks beer and whiskey (although he'll tipple rum if need be). He uses a cell phone and carries a sort of brief case affair with all his papers and tools of the trade.

So, there you have it. The deal was sealed at our kitchen table. No real estate agents, no attorneys, no bankers, no financiers, no nothing except us. A great way to work.

Oh, and by the way, we'll be talking to Franz about building the big house, the property fencing, the well, septic system, etc., etc. He can either do it or he has a cousin who can. One stop shopping.

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