British Virgin Islands

Friday, Oct 30, 2020

British Virgin Islands’ prime property faces financial storm

New rules that lift lid on secretive BVI companies could hit housing market

Most people searching for a new home do not need to worry that the roof might get blown off. For Paul Mellor, a 40-year-old British lawyer who has lived in the British Virgin Islands since 2016 and is looking to buy his first home there, it is his top priority.

“Our current home withstood the BVI’s worst hurricane on record,” he says of the three-bedroom rental house overlooking Tortola’s Lambert Beach, in which he, his wife and two young children sheltered from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. “It is going to have to be something pretty good to prise us away from it.”

In recent weeks, Hurricane Dorian brushed through the area. The Bahamas was worse hit, with at least 50 people killed. it is a reminder of BVI residents’ vulnerability. Mellor is looking for somewhere that has “a bolt-hole” — a room with concrete on all walls and overhead — to keep the family safe next time. A generator or solar power would be a plus: he was without power for two months (the rest of the family moved to the UK after the storm). “Showering in a bucket of cold water lost its novelty value pretty quickly,” he says.

Mellor has plenty of homes to choose from. In the first three months of 2019, sales in the British Overseas Territory hit their highest level since Irma, according to government data analysed by Smiths Gore, a local agent.

Conditions are ripe for a bargain. Most houses for sale today were damaged in the 2017 hurricane — along with 80 per cent of BVI’s total housing stock — and have not yet been renovated, says Edward Childs of Smiths Gore: the longer they are on the market the more they will deteriorate. “These homes are now priced for a quick sale, which has created a competitive market between $200,000 and $700,000.”

Smiths Gore has a four-bedroom house in Romney Park, Tortola, with “minor damage” for $900,000. The same agency is selling the undamaged St Bernard’s Hill House on Tortola for $9.5m. In Long Bay, Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a five-bedroom home built into a hilltop for $5.25m. On Virgin Gorda, the same agency is selling a grand six-bedroom home for $39.5m.

Buyers should be aware that the BVI is not a typical Caribbean paradise-come-billionaire playground. There are high-end resorts and island-owning celebrities — Richard Branson being the most famous — and the steady winds and protected bays make it popular among the superyacht crowd. But Tortola shows few trappings of wealth. On Main Street, the principal shopping street in the capital Road Town, you will find no Tag Heuer or Cartier boutique outlets familiar to residents of Grand Cayman, for example.

While GDP per capita is $32,000, according to the BVI government, the number is inflated by an affluent expat workforce — including Mellor — that occupies roughly two in five jobs.

Many are accountants, lawyers and other financial workers servicing 403,000 companies. In many cases, opaque ownership structures serve to obscure their ultimate beneficial owners, something that has earned the BVI a reputation for money laundering and tax avoidance — a reputation that was cemented in 2016, following the Panama Papers revelations, where documents detailing offshore deals were leaked to the press. More than half the companies that featured in those documents were registered in the BVI.

A 2018 report by Transparency International found that the BVI “was the destination of choice for corrupt individuals looking for secrecy”. Out of 237 cases of grand corruption and associated money-laundering that the organisation analysed, companies registered in the BVI featured in 223 — or 90 per cent.

But lots of people work for legitimate companies. The average age of those arriving to work in the financial services sector in the BVI is late twenties or early thirties and rent their property, says Lucienne Smith of Smiths Gore. “They usually have a budget of $3,000 per month and want a comfortable two-bedroom apartment or standalone home,” she says. Family homes are less popular since the hurricane. Many partners and children returned to the US or UK.

The local financial services sector weathered Hurricane Irma better than much of its housing stock. As workers moved temporarily to other offshore branches, action from the BVI government meant little disruption to financial business, says Childs. By June 2018, the number of active companies had increased by 16 per cent on the previous year, according to the Caribbean Development Bank.

But another storm may be about to hit. Last year, new rules passed by the UK parliament require British Overseas Territories to have accessible registers of beneficial ownership of companies by December 2020, effectively ending the secrecy that a BVI base can offer. The deadline has been extended to 2023, but this could threaten the local property market.

The financial services sector provides three-fifths of government revenue on the BVI, so if the new rules prompt companies to leave, lower tax revenues will mean delays to cleaning up after hurricanes. The total cost of the damage to the islands from Hurricane Irma was $2.3bn, according to the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC).

Expats working in financial services are already used to a degree of uncertainty — they must have their work and immigration status renewed on an annual basis, for example — but the rule changes are adding to worries, says Smith.

For his part, Mellor is in no rush to move. He is happy biding his time and waiting for the perfect property to come on the market — and that rules out any in need of renovation. “Because we have a young family we would not be inclined to buying a home that needed lots of work,” he says. “We’re waiting to find the right place.”

Buying guide
Regular flights connect New York to BVI in 6 hours 30 minutes
Stamp duty for foreigners is levied at 12 per cent
Typical insurance premiums are 1.2 per cent of a home’s insured value


What you can buy for . . .
$700,000 A three-bedroom house with roof and window damage on a large plot overlooking the sea in Tortola
$1.6m A two-bedroom villa with a pool above Long Bay Beach, Tortola
$4m A four-bedroom beachfront house in Mahoe Bay, near Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda

BVI properties:  https://estates.bvi.org/

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