Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Housing market blooms in Cuban provinces

Housing market blooms in Cuban provinces
By Marc Frank
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba | Mon Jan 9, 2012 3:53pm EST

(Reuters) - Hundreds of handwritten signs stuck on doorways and in
windows announce "se vende" or "for sale" in provincial cities and towns
across Cuba as the island's nascent housing market begins to bloom.

Buyers walk the streets looking at homes the whereabouts of which were
passed along by word of mouth as sellers outside of Havana have limited
access to the Internet or other means to advertise their sales.

There are hovels and there are splendid little places tucked between
crumbling buildings. There are two-story homes in need of repair and a
few in immaculate condition. Some places go for the equivalent of a few
thousand dollars, others for much more.

Buying and selling homes was banned for decades in Cuba. The best one
could do was trade dwellings in what Cubans call a "permuta" and expand
or decrease the size of where you lived by a single room.

That all changed when the ban was lifted in November, along with much of
the previous paperwork and bureaucratic tangles, though Cubans can still
own just one home and vacation place and non-resident foreigners are
excluded from the market.

The measure appears to be the most popular yet as President Raul Castro,
who replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, works to reform the
Soviet-style economy and gradually lifts some of the more onerous
restrictions on people's daily lives.

Trading one's home was a nightmarish process that could take months and
even years under the old system, and often required bribes and
under-the-table payments.

The new system requires a simple notary and payment through the bank and
appears to be working relatively well according to more than a dozen
people selling their homes from one end of the island to the other.

"The new law is really good because there are people who get divorced,
or who have money but no place to live, or live in a big place and want
a smaller one, or have big families in a little place and want something
larger and now with this law they can meet their needs much more
easily," Tania Vigaroa, in the process of selling her home in eastern
Holguin, said.

Most of the sellers say they would like to move to a smaller home and
that permutas plus payments are now to difficult to find because people
prefer to buy or sell.

In neighboring Santiago de Cuba the other day a haggard looking
receptionist at the San Pedro notary office, where the waiting room was
full, said the three notaries working there had no time to talk.

"This place has been overflowing since they changed the law, every day
is the same," said receptionist Milaidy, who asked that her last name
not be used, adding there were three other offices in the city.

Most sellers have become used to strangers on the prowl for a home. They
are a hospitable lot, welcoming the passerby to come in for a look.

"I'm asking $55,000. The house has three rooms, two bathrooms, a big
back yard, kitchen, dining room and living room and this is right near
the center of town," said Jose Ramirez in the city of Ciego de Avila, in
central Cuba.

"A number of people have come by so we will see. It's a respectable sum,
but my daughter was recently divorced and lives across town and I want
to be near her for support. There is a house over there that costs
exactly the same amount," he said.

Some 60 miles to the east, in the city of Camaguey, bicycle-taxi driver
Roberto Sosa says "no problem," when asked to peddle the Cuban version
of a rickshaw around town for a look at what's on the market.


An hour and five homes later one place catches the eye on Virgin Street.
The neighborhood needs a plaster and paint job and the road needs
paving, but the half-block-long, five bedroom single story house,
freshly painted and with new tile floors, is splendid.

"We want $35,000 and have a possible buyer, but she is checking with her
family in Miami," said the owner's son, who gave his name only as Santiago.

Bicitaxi peddler Sosa wasn't surprised.

"Most of the houses sold are (being bought) with the help of family
abroad, if not it wouldn't be possible because their value is going up a
lot now," he said, pointing out most local residents make only the
equivalent of $20 or $30 per month.

Emilio Morales in Miami wasn't surprised either.

"A number of law firms, mainly here in the United States and Spain, have
already called asking about the law for clients who want to know how
they can buy property in Cuba," the former marketing strategist for
CIMEX, one of the largest state-run trading and retail corporations on
the island, said in a telephone interview.

Morales, now CEO of The Havana Consulting Group, a startup company
specializing in potential Cuban markets, including residential real
estate, said there was plenty of interest.

"Here in Miami there are a lot of people interested in buying property
in Cuba for diverse reasons, some to start restaurants, cafeterias or
other businesses and others to have a place to retire and live out their
old age," he said.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)


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