How to Invest in BVI Property
- February 27th, 2019
- in PROPERTY
The principal appeal of living in the British Virgin Islands is its pristine environment, with arguably the best beaches and diving waters in the northeastern Caribbean. The ease of travel to and from major metropolitan areas, given its close proximity to the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for U.S. based travelers and from St. Maarten & Antigua for those travelling from the European mainland or the British Isles, enhances the BVI’s reputation as an ideal destination for visitors, residents, and investors alike.
The local currency is the U.S. dollar, providing an additional boon for U.S.-based investors, who need not worry about currency exchange. For others, the fact that the BVI has no exchange controls is a major benefit. For all of these reasons, property in the BVI remains a solid investment.
Can anyone buy BVI property?
Yes! A significant proportion of BVI property sales are to people from outside the territory. The Non-Belongers Landholding Regulation Act permits the sale of BVI property to non-citizens, however, they will need to obtain an NBLH licence to acquire property or to hold a lease longer than one year. Applications for NBLH licences must include a valuation of the specific property being purchased (or leased) and buyers interested in investing in multiple properties will need to get separate NBLH licenses for each one.
Additionally, under the NBLH regulations, the seller of any BVI property will need to demonstrate proof that they advertised the sale to the local market before a license will be granted to a non-belonger purchaser, according to professionals at leading BVI law firm O’Neal Webster.
After selecting the home you’d like to purchase, you’ll need to do two things, initially:
- Pay a security deposit to the estate agent—typically 10 percent of the purchase price.
- Sign a “letter of intent” outlining the preliminary agreed-upon terms of the sale.
According to a purchasing guide published by O’Neal Webster, those preliminary terms can include things like the agreed-upon price and conditions that must be satisfied before the sale is completed.
Even at that early stage, Jenelle Archer, Managing Associate and Head of Property & Business at O’Neal Webster, advises buyers without BVI citizenship to refrain from signing any document without first consulting a BVI-based attorney.
“A letter of intent, though informal, can constitute a binding contract,” she explained.
Buyers should also be prepared to provide important due diligence information about themselves in order to retain an attorney.
“Any attorney that doesn’t seek background information on a prospective buyer before proceeding with an engagement probably is not complying with anti-money laundering regulations,” Archer added.
Agreement for Sale
Next up is the sale and purchase agreement. This agreement will typically include a description of the land, whether the ownership is freehold or leasehold, the agreed-upon price, and any included furnishings. The agreement should allow time for due diligence on the property, and, if required, NBLH licensing.
Archer advises that clients should conduct due diligence on the property in a number of areas, including titles and boundaries, covenants, insurance, and environmental considerations, such as whether there are “protected areas” to preserve or restrictions that could impact a buyer’s plans for development or further improvements of the property. She also recommends conducting physical inspections of the property’s structure, electrical setup, and plumbing, as well as inspections for mould and termites.
Financing is readily available from the National Bank of the Virgin Islands or any of the branches of five leading international banks that have a physical office in the BVI. It is noteworthy that while the financial giant Scotiabank is divesting operations in the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, it has maintained its BVI presence.
If applying for permission to develop, the Land Development Control Authority will need to verify that the developments are within the terms of the NBLH license. Therefore, any immediate or future development plans should be outlined by the purchaser during the NBLH license application process.
The major tax applicable to the purchase of BVI real estate is stamp duty on transfer, which is currently 4 percent for BVI citizens and belongers (i.e. 4 percent of the purchase price or market value of the property, whichever is higher) and 12 percent for foreigners. Property taxes are assessed annually, determined by the size and use of the property.
There are several exemptions for foreign owners. For example, stamp duty does not apply to:
- exclusive transfers to the legal spouse, children, or grandchildren of the landowner;
- a trustee of a trust which has any of the previously mentioned persons as its sole beneficiary; or
- transfer from the trustee of such a trust to another trustee or to any of those beneficiaries.
An exemption also applies when property in the name of a company is transferred to any such relations of the beneficial owner of the company or the trusts described above. Leases are stamped at a reduced rate of 1.5 percent. Also, the Governor may grant exemptions where a company transfers property to another company that has the same beneficial ownership.
Buyers should give significant consideration to the ownership structure they will use to hold real estate in the BVI, which O’Neal Webster’s guide says has “a deep impact on tax implications, succession rules, and legal considerations.” Formulating a real estate holding vehicle, which can take the form of companies, trusts, joint ventures, or real estate funds, can reduce subsequent complications, according to the law firm.
Buyers shouldn’t hesitate to think about the future.
“To limit tax liabilities upon death, thought should be given to basics of estate planning and succession,” O’Neal Webster’s guide reads. “Stamp duty on transfers—even under a will—can be significant, as duties are calculated on a percentage of the property value. Thus, property held by a company, corporation, LLC, or in trust can facilitate the distribution of the property to heirs without the cost, delay, and publicity of probate, and can reduce duties and taxes payable.”
The island of Virgin Gorda, in particular, has a robust vacation villa rental market. Many homes in residential developments, as well as stand-alone villas, are rented for at least part of each year. Although long-term rental is discouraged, the BVI government readily permits short term rental through residential developments or real estate agents as part of the NBLH licensing process, or on subsequent application. Also, owners must obtain the appropriate trade license; whichever route is taken.
Security of Title
All land is registered in a central Land Registry, which reflects the details and history of ownership and other interests in the land, such as mortgages (called charges), leases, and easements. An instrument of transfer in the standard form must be registered to effect ownership changes. Evidence of title is kept by the land register for each property, and because property title is government guaranteed with a fund to compensate for any loss caused by fraud or obvious error. Title insurance—common in many countries, such as the U.S.—is not used in the BVI.
Opportunities in renewable energy
According to Archer, the BVI government now has a legal framework in place allowing individual homeowners to utilize a blended mix of power from the British Virgin Islands Electricity Corporation (BVIEC) and renewable sources.
“At present, a homeowner cannot elect to be removed from the Electricity Corporation’s grid entirely; rather a sort of ‘grid-tie’ arrangement is being utilized whereby a consumer-owned, renewable energy-generating facility is connected to the Corporation’s electrical distribution system,” Archer explained. “This facility is available to residences currently under construction as well as those already developed and connected to the Corporation’s electrical grid.”
Homeowners interested in taking advantage of renewables must submit an application—including plans for their electrical setup—to the BVIEC. Officials will then inspect the home’s electric equipment and decide whether or not upgrades are needed prior to interconnection.
“While the legislation allows for the employment of a wide range of renewable energy sources, such as hydro, bio-fuel, landfill gas, sewage gas, geothermal energy, and others, focus for the moment is on solar and wind,” Archer explained. “Customers utilising renewable sources can also feed power back into the grid and be compensated for it.”
Do you need a lawyer?
A potential purchaser should always engage a competent BVI lawyer from the very beginning—even during negotiations and before a letter of intent is signed—to ensure that all needs are factored into the deal. Archer explained that her law firm’s critical relationships with key decision makers in the various government departments allow for a seamless process for the purchaser.
“O’Neal Webster has been serving the real estate needs of buyers and sellers of BVI properties for more than 30 years,” said Archer, “Our local roots and knowledge of the territory and its unique laws provide an efficient, friendly process for international clients.”