House Buying in a Salty Environment

My wife, Annika, and I are like many of you. We lived in the continental United States, in Upstate New York, and decided in 2003 to try Island life. We picked the American Virgin Islands because the property laws are basically the same as New York State, there are few territorial taxes, and St. Thomas is, after San Juan, the easiest place to reach in the Caribbean. That latter point was important to us because we have an apartment in Paris and travel a good deal to see children and grandchildren.

After we got down here, we decided to use some of my capital to purchase deteriorating villas, which were situated on particularly beautiful lots, and rehabilitate and beautify them, bringing the structure up the standard of the lot on which it was located.. We have bought and successfully sold four properties, and we currently own two, with a third villa about 80 percent completed. We have learned a few things along the way, and of the lessons, our experience with salt is among the most important.

St. Thomas is an island in the Caribbean. It is a volcanic island, which is composed mostly of ancient gray basalt, pushed out of the earth about a hundred million years ago, and weathered various shades of gray, yellow, orange, and browns over the eons. When the rock is broken, you can see the perfect and beautiful gray face that is the original stone.

A part of the weathering process here is the fact that salt is everywhere – in the water that surrounds the Island, in the soil, in the air constantly, concentrated in rain, particularly during hurricanes, and in every cistern on the island. When you design, build or redecorate a house, the presence of salt should affect every single decision you make about furniture, fixtures, and other issues of construction. If you think otherwise, you will be horrified at how quickly the salt destroys the materials in your home. For example, all electronic equipment – televisions, DVD players, computers, printers, etc. – will not survive more than a year to 18 months if they are exposed to breezes carrying salt. And this is just the beginning of the problem.

There are many strategies that you need to learn to cope with this ever present reality. For example, with all kinds of furniture, use woods that are customary in the tropics – mahogany, bamboo, and the like, and always use the more expensive fabrics that resist both the sun and the salt. For fixtures in bathrooms or kitchens, choose only products that use stainless steel for their working parts. For roofs and other construction, use only stainless steel screws because treated or regular screws and nails will be completely gone in a couple of years.

This is not always easy, and many builders do not respect the demands of salt, particularly builders whose primary experiences are in the northern climates. Some people, for example, will advise you to install an expensive water filtration system to clean the water of salt and particulates. We bought a villa that had such a system, and we never used it. Why? There is so much dust in the water in the cisterns, that it will clog the filters requiring that you replace them frequently, sometimes weekly, or have no water pressure at all. The alternative is to use the water for bathing only, which is fine, and use bottled water for drinking and cooking. The water filtration sounds good, but it is a very bad solution – financially costly and time consuming.

No matter how much foresight you use, the salt will win in the end, and our precautions only delay a process that is continuous. Even aluminum corrodes and disintegrates eventually. Polyurethane last much longer, but the product availability is limited. However, the “delay” means less expense over the lifetime of your ownership, and less heartache when you see you best laid plans destroyed by the elements. If you build or if you remodel, remember the word “salt” for every decision you make, and use that insight to guide you to the best products.

If you are just furnishing a house, you might want to consult with my wife, Annika, who is our designer of all of the interiors you see. She has spent a very considerable amount of time locating suppliers, many from Indonesia and the far eastern islands, who specialize in products for tropical climates. She knows from well earned experience what works and what does not work, and many of the best products are actually far less expensive than anything you can buy in Europe or the United States.

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