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Cuba: The Birth of a Real Estate Market

By Wendy Cole, Managing Editor, REALTOR® Magazine

I just returned from ten days in Cuba. It was a personal trip that offered a fascinating glimpse into one of the country’s great conundrums: how to balance people’s desire for greater economic freedom without compromising the country’s deeply-held socialist principles.  My visit, as part of a group, was enabled by the “people-to-people” license program restarted last fall by the Obama Administration. (Such visits to the island-nation are designed to foster meaningful cultural exchange between U.S. citizens and Cubans. They were initiated during the Clinton years and suspended while Bush was in the White House.)

I was particularly intrigued to see how Cuba’s new property law that allows citizens and permanent residents to buy and sell real estate was playing out. Ushered in with much fanfare in November, this market-oriented reform is a major shift from a half-century of socialist, state-run housing policies.

What’s evident wherever you go in the country (and we traveled to five cities): The housing stock is aging and badly decaying. The 50-year trade embargo with the United States and the loss of the Soviet safety net in 1991 mean Cubans must make do with what they have or can make, notwithstanding the contributions from the few countries they maintain economic ties with.  (Plywood and light bulbs are sorely needed, for example.) Still, the beauty of the neo-gothic, colonial architecture still comes through in many places, along with the peeling paint and crumbling walls.

Our personable and knowledgeable guide, Mirelys Gonzalez, is a typical Cuban home owner.  She lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom flat, constructed on top of the Havana home she grew up in. The extreme housing shortage means that multi-generational living arrangements are quite common. It also means that divorcing couples are more apt to erect a wall within the home they have shared and continue to occupy the same property long after the marriage has ended. The reason for all this togetherness is that no one can be assured of finding a new affordable place to live.

Gonzalez’s decision to “build up” is a common solution for growing families. She personally supervised the contractors she hired. She made them redo the stairs three times because they were either too long or too short, in her estimation. But she freely admits she’s no remodeling expert. When asked about any government permitting procedures, she wrinkled her nose in confusion. The government, she explained, has always left people alone to figure out their own home expansion projects. Safety concerns are left up to the people involved. Interesting to hear what the state deems its business and what it doesn’t.

Cubans taking advantage of their new right to sell or buy a home must pay cash. The concept of mortgages has not yet arrived, which surely limits the supply of buyers at the moment. Homes  cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, sums that are out of reach for most families. However, loans for repairs or expansion are becoming available from banks for the first time, which should yield some noticeable improvements in the housing stock.

This house in a well-to-do Havana neighborhood is not on the market, but the owner now has the right to sell it if he wants to.

I didn’t come across anything resembling a real estate brokerage during our travels, but there were a number of signs posted on houses noting that they were available “for sale or exchange.” The most common way to find out who might be selling in a neighborhood is word of mouth. Gonzalez explained that some people in any given community were essentially designated as “brokers”  of a sort to help put buyers and sellers together. Any fees collected for that service were between them.

While I don’t expect to see a Century 21 sign or RE/MAX balloon in Havana anytime soon, the journey offered a window into a nascent housing market about 100 miles from Miami. Now that Cuban-Americans are allowed unlimited travel to visit relatives and can freely send cash remittances, these developments will surely be a boon to a real estate industry that, at present, has no where to go but up.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the Managing Editor of REALTOR® Magazine.

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Comments
  1. Many Cuban’s would agree that there is still more change needed to make life better in Cuba. With that being said this is a great step towards positive change. Its not until you get stripped of your right to own property till you realize how important it is. Let’s take this to thought and take advantage of our incredible open market, especially our current bargain prices.

  2. Jim Mazziotti

    Great article.

    MAZZ

  3. Jesse Acevedo

    There are many questions that should be asked about Cuba’s Real Estate.
    Who really owns the property? At one time every property in Cuba was owned by someone currently not living in Cuba.

    What Kind of title transferred can be warranted and recorded?

    Is there Real Estate Taxes/Fee to the government? 50%??

    Who can afford a $10,000 property with their current twenty dollar monthly income? All of the cash money will have to come from other countries.

    It seems that the positive changes are for those who wish to exchange a property with a very small fee to the resident downgrading. Cuba is the most beautiful island in the Caribbean never seen and hope buying/selling real estate becomes a reality.

  4. Ramon Goas

    Ms. Cole,
    The 50 year trade embargo of the US on Cuba, has nothing to do with the quality or availability of housing, it is all the result of the policies carried out by the Castro brothers.

  5. Betty Hall

    My mother came here to the US from Cuba in 1966. How do I know if I qualify to travel freely?

  6. Wendy Cole

    Any American can travel under a people to people license. If you are going to visit relatives there, check with the Treasury or State Dept for the relevant rules.

  7. Gregory Schreiber

    Don’t blame the embargo for Communism’s faults. The US has an embargo, not the rest of the world. The Iron Curtain fell, and soon the Castro brothers as well. And not a minute too soon.

  8. Linda Greenwell

    Well said, Ramon Goas. Clearly it is far easier to place blame on someone other than the guilty party in a country where freedom of speech flows freely… at least for now.

  9. Danielle Taylor

    As long as the government remains socialistic, home ownership can last only until the government chooses to take that home away from you. I hate how this article made socialism sound exotic. There is not one successful socialistic nation in the world or throughout history!

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