Private islands sit at the very pinnacle of the luxury property market. Here's what you need to know before you buy one
The joys and challenges of owning an island
There are many things that might deter a dispassionate home seeker from buying an island. Private islands are frightfully expensive and require constant upkeep; those that are located in regions that suffer harsh winters can be accessed only for a few months each year, while the tropical lot can get uncomfortably hot. And yet, islands are almost always spoken about in poetic, paradisaical terms.
Defined as an obsessional enthusiasm or partiality for islands, islomania afflicts those who are lured by the idea of outdoor living, oneness with nature and, above all, complete and utter privacy. “On an island, everywhere is your dinner table,” is how Chris Krolow puts it. As host of the HGTV show Island Hunters, chief executive of Private Islands Inc and owner of Gladden Island in Belize, Krolow is one of the world’s foremost authorities on island buying.
Island versus regular real estate
Krolow became acquainted with the peculiarities of island seekers early on in his career. “The big lesson I learnt from my first few sales was that potential buyers are interested, first and foremost, in the island itself, rather than a particular location. Most people who market regular real estate, do it by region, right? Passionate island hunters, on the other hand, are often open to travelling for even half a day to get to their islands, so say from America, that opens up Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of the United States and Canada. So I learnt early on to market islands first to various income brackets and then to focus not so much on the region, but on the beauty and privacy of the property itself.”
Another major difference between regular and island real estate is that size rarely dictates price. For instance, the 11-acre Petra Island in New York State is listed for US$14.92 million (Dh54.79m) with Vladi Private Islands, while despite boasting 800 acres, Lataro Island in the Pacific Ocean nation Vanuatu is going for less than $10m.
Vladi founder, the German businessman and author-editor of the coffee-table book Luxury Private Islands, Farhad Vladi says: “An island is like a painting. Just as you cannot value an artwork based on its square inches or the amount of paint used, you cannot compare square-metre prices when it comes to islands. An island that is closer to a main city will have a much higher land value. The second factor is appearance and, of course, emotional appeal. A 100-acre flatland is not as worthy as a smaller but more beautiful island with trees, hills, beaches and rivers.”
Personally, Krolow says he prefers smaller plots to unending swaths of land. “If the acreage is massive, you’re not actually going to feel like you’re on an island – you may not even be able to see the water from your residence, for example. For many people, the mere idea of an island – the tangible embodiment of wealth, status, safety, sovereignty, privacy and freedom – compels and captures the imagination. But it’s easy to get caught up in the romance of a particular region or type of property without knowing exactly how it will fit into your life.”
What to look out for
Electricity, internet connectivity, fresh water supply and proximity to hospitals, stores and even schools are some other factors to keep in mind when seeking out a habitable island, as is the licence to develop a home or, if you’re so inclined, a resort, on it.
While doing up your island your way has its own perks, George Damianos, president and managing broker of Damianos Sotheby’s International Realty, says that an island that is ready to move into saves a tremendous amount of time and money that would otherwise be spent developing it. “The cost to develop [can] be greater than paying for the island itself,” he says. A plot with a mod-con residence and other amenities is also likely to retain its value and fetch you a higher price should you wish to sell.
“If people want to sell their islands, I tell them to make sure the building permits are in order and in writing,” says Vladi. “Buying a piece of mainland property close by also helps to host potential buyers, some of whom may fly in or drive in from other parts of the world. Getting an environmental study done helps to highlight the beauty and rarities of the island, while setting a realistic price is always helpful.”
Of course, being the sole owner of an island does not automatically give you free rein to build upon it. Each parcel of land generally has its own policy: some may require you to build some way off from the shore, for example, while others require a flat but elevated area to protect the house from storm surges and the elements. Other islands, especially those with historical significance or ones that are home to rare or endangered species of bird and marine life, may not have building permits at all.
“In our agreements, buyers have the right to do their due diligence for 90 days, so they can check out all the factors that are crucial to them before closing the transaction. We hire a local architect who can get or find out about permits and speak to the authorities,” explains Vladi. He also invites potential buyers to spend a week on the island he owns – a 1,700-acre plot in New Zealand, which is rented out when Vladi is not staying on it.
“I always tell my clients, before you buy, get a tent and camp on the island,” adds Krolow, who says he sells at least 30 islands every year. “Spend enough time to know what it is you want to be looking at when you wake up in the morning. At Gladden Island, for instance, the bedroom faces the sun rise, while the living and dining areas look west. Private islands bring a rare kind of pleasure to their owners; not just of possessing something truly beautiful and unique, but also of knowing that you’re the kind of person capable of attaining it,” he explains.
And to this, Vladi adds one final uplifting tenet. “To explain the differences in real estate, I always tell my buyers: if you own an island, you control what you see. If you buy a property on land, you have absolutely no control over that one neighbour with loud dogs, the other with wildcats and the third who blares his stereo. On land, your living experience depends on others; not so on an island.”
Your island, your pride
Finally, there is the privilege of knowing you are the sole protector of a little piece of the planet. As levels of pollution soar, arguably the very act of not contributing to the further erosion of the earth, environment and oceans is a luxury in itself. If you have the means to power your island with solar panels, invest in a state-of-the-art septic tank and hire a marine biologist to protect indigenous species, it is your prerogative, perhaps indeed your duty, as an island owner to do so. Just as you would not litter your on-land apartment with rubbish, your island home, too, needs to be kept as clean and natural as possible, not only so the local flora and fauna continue to flourish, but also because as your home, you can revel in the pride of ownership.
“The last thing you want to do is throw a plastic bag in the ocean that laps at your doorstep,” says Vladi. “Even when people have tons of money, they often keep their island homes simple because they are there to enjoy birdsong and sun sets. True luxury on an island is the pristine nature that it affords you and that you can afford to upkeep. Castles are seldom built on an island,” he concludes with a laugh.