Submitted by Andray Volney
St Lucia has a rich culture of storytelling. From the wit of calypso, to an increasingly vociferous media, to a budding community of writers inspired by the greatness of Derek Walcott—this is a country with a unique appreciation for written and spoken word. I was not surprised therefore, that when I joined the real estate fraternity, my associates bombarded me with tales of various real estate adventures. I was surprised however, and still am, to learn that the business of St Lucia’s scarcest, most valuable natural resource—land—operates like the wild, wild, west.
One of the first stories I heard was of a property manager who, for months, collected rental income on behalf of an absentee landlord. The landlord never received one cent of their money. The agent still practices today. Recently I was told of a St Lucian who, while residing overseas, made a deposit on a plot of land on the island. Upon returning home he found that the property, contrary to the information he had been given, was an inaccessible cliff side. Once, I was told by a Canadian citizen living in St Lucia, that while she was viewing a house, two real estate agents got into a fist fight, because they could not agree on whose client she was. Only last year I heard a British national on a work contract in St Lucia, say that if she was fired, she would ‘simply become’ a real estate agent on the island. This, I am told, was a common practice among visitors to St. Lucia when the real estate business was booming pre economic crash.
St Lucia, like most Caribbean islands, has no laws to guide the practices of renting, selling and managing property. However given the scarcity of land on these islands and the legal idiosyncrasies of selling real estate, I believe that the West Indian governments have neglected an important sector of their business communities. My research has found 2 Caribbean islands with legislature governing the licensing of real estate agents: Jamaica and the Bahamas. The Jamaica Real Estate Dealers and Developers Act was implemented in 1988 after 2 decades of public wrangling over the conduct of real estate professionals. In 1975 it was concluded that up to that time, 2400 people had lost their deposits to various land developers who failed to deliver on promises. The Duffus Commission of Enquiry therefore determined that the country urgently required legislation to provide for, among other things, the licensing and control of people engaged in selling real estate.
In the Bahamas, the Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons Act took effect in 1995 following years of effort by the Bahamas Real Estate Association. According to the Association’s website, it ‘promotes and maintains the highest standard of conduct in the transaction of the real estate profession’. The act also serves to ‘prevent infringements by foreign brokers or any unauthorized person or company not 100% owned by Bahamian nationals to transact the business of real estate brokerage’.
From my experience, I believe St Lucia is at the stage of its development that requires extensive examination of its real estate practices. Regarding the licensing of professionals, an act similar to that of the Bahamas is exactly what the country needs. The Bahamian legislation clearly outlines the qualifications for registration as a salesperson or broker; the process for application and licensing; a code of professional conduct and a disciplinary process for persons in breach of the code. The act also provides for the establishment of a real estate board to oversee the system’s implementation.
This type of legislation would have numerous benefits for St. Lucia:
• It will improve the experience of buying real estate in St. Lucia by ensuring that all agents are dedicated professionals who are serious about providing high quality service.
• It will protect members of the public from dishonesty or incompetence on the part of real estate salespeople.
• It will safeguard the local real estate industry from the infringement of opportunistic foreign brokers.
• It will enhance St. Lucia’s desirability among international purchasers of real estate, who favor a safe and controlled business environment.
• It will allow government to better keep track of all real estate transactions – a necessity for the successful implementation of VAT.
It is important to note that the process of buying property in St. Lucia is not defined by the dark scenarios I described above. There are many real estate agents who strive to operate with integrity, some of whom have come together to form the Realtors’ Association of Saint Lucia Inc. The work of the association however, must be supported by government legislation. Despite the protracted economic slowdown, there is high demand for property on the island. Locally, residents crave quality, affordable housing. Internationally, the island holds intense appeal to buyers of vacation and retirement homes. In order to experience the full benefit of this demand, St Lucia must be proactive in reforming many aspects of its real estate industry. The foundation of this is the establishment of a strong group of service providers who operate within the framework of law and order.