I’m a sucker for clear, warm water and tropical fish. In fact, two of the few things I hide from our four children are my new mask and snorkel.

“Just never know when I’m going to need ’em,” I constantly tell me wife. Truth is, “never” has come along more frequently than “need.”

That’s why I could not wait to hear from a fellow writer, Steve, who had just returned from a dive trip to the island of Roatan, the largest of 50 islands and keys that are collectively known as Islas de la Bahia, or Bay Islands. They lie in an arc in the western Caribbean approximately 40 miles off the northeast coast of Honduras and about 200 miles south of Cancun.

The lure of Roatan, about 32 miles long and two miles wide, is its extensive barrier reef system that offers some of the clearest saltwater swimming in the world. It is the largest of the chain’s six main islands and can be reached by nonstop flights from Houston, Miami and Atlanta.

Steve could not stop talking about Roatan — and his enthusiasm was as much about the property possibilities as the snorkeling and diving. Like several Central America getaways, most of Honduras is still off the second-home radar screen with beachfront condos readily available for less than $200,000.

Marci Wiersma, a 1985 graduate of Enumclaw High School in the Seattle suburbs, moved to Roatan in 1999 in search of slower, warmer days. She juggles the chores of her real estate brokerage with the responsibilities of raising two young daughters.

“The real estate market has really moved along the past three years but I think it has a long way to go before it caps out,” Wiersma said.

T.J. Lynch, broker-owner of RE/MAX Bay Islands Real Estate, sold his Vancouver, B.C.-area property company more than 10 years ago to head south to the sun and sand.

“I would estimate that business is going up by more than 100 percent every year,” said Lynch, one of eight agents in the office. “But this year was really off the charts. We sold more property in January and February than we did all of 2005.”

The ability of non-nationals to buy property in Honduras is a relatively new development. The Honduran Constitution prohibited foreign ownership until 1990 when a decree was passed allowing foreigners to purchase properties in designated tourism zones established by the Ministry of Tourism.

Financing is available, but not common in Honduras. Offshore bank financing is expected to be available later this year as U.S. and European lenders and fund managers look to assist the equity-rich baby boomers who are fueling the rapid second-home growth and appreciation. Traditionally, local banks have charged 10 percent to 11 percent interest while requesting reams of unrelated loan documents. As an alternative to the red tape and high loan rates, home buyers have paid cash — usually via a home equity loan on their primary residence — or obtained financing from the seller or developer.

While every seller-financed situation is different, buyers usually pay 30 percent down with the balance payable within five years. The buyer typically is responsible for transfer taxes and some closing costs amounting to approximately 6.5 percent of the purchase price. Real estate agents charge 10 percent commission, usually paid by the seller. Property taxes are extremely low and run one-third of 1 percent of the value of the property.

While Roatan is still in the early stages of its development as a tourist destination, and the overall level of development is still modest on an international scale, the last two years have seen a substantial increase in real estate activity and the number and quality of new developments. More people are simply auditioning the Jimmy Buffet-island lifestyle and/or investment opportunities.

Wiersma and Lynch say their typical customer is a 40- to 60-year-old American looking to retire in five years, followed by Canadians, other Central Americans and Europeans. Some U.S. buyers want to try out retirement by buying a second home now, using it a few weeks out of the year and renting it out for the remaining time.

“The biggest mistake people tend to make is that they leave their brain at the airport,” Wiersma said. “Everybody’s so nice here and the island is so beautiful … but you have to work to get things done. If you are building a house, you have to have a plan and the right people to put that in place.”

Nonstop from Houston? Where did I hide my new mask and snorkel?

Tom Kelly’s new book, “Cashing In on a Second Home in Mexico: How to Buy, Rent and Profit from Property South of the Border,” was written with Mitch Creekmore, senior vice president of Houston-based Stewart International. The book is available in retail stores, on Amazon.com and on tomkelly.com. Tom can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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