US Virgin Islands: house prices continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace
Lalaine C. Delmendo | February 01, 2021
It’s no surprise that house price rises in the US Virgin Islands are slowing. Tourism has plunged because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown and travel restriction measures imposed worldwide.
In St. John, the heartland of luxury residential properties, average home sales prices rose by 4% y-o-y in 2020, to approximately US$1,216,419 according to Cruz Bay Realty, Inc - a sharp slowdown from y-o-y rises of 11.5% in 2019 and 17.7% in 2018. In 2017, house prices fell 14.4% due to the devastation brought by the Hurricanes Maria and Irma to properties in the area during the year.
Condo prices in St. John fell by 6% y-o-y to US$715,227 in 2020, in stark contrast to an annual rise of 26.8% in 2019.
In St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the average home sales price continued to rise strongly by 17% y-o-y to US$ 474,853 in 2020, according to Re/Max Team San Martin. This is still a slowdown from the previous year’s 23% rise.
In St. Thomas, where the USVI’s capital Charlotte Amalie is located, the average home sales price rose by 6.5% y-o-y in the first eight months of 2020 to US$ 709,626, again a sharp slowdown from rising 27% in 2019, according to Re/Max Team San Martin.
In St. John, the number of homes sold rose by 13.3% y-o-y in 2020, following a 25% decline in the prior year, according to Cruz Bay Realty, Inc. In terms of value, total home sales in St. John increased 17.8% y-o-y in 2020 to US$62.04 million. The number of condominium units sold rose by 10% during 2020.
In St. Croix, on the other hand, home sales fell by 14.9% y-o-y in 2020 and condo sales dropped 44%. In St. Thomas, home and condo sales also fell in the first eight months of 2020 by 35% and 32%, respectively,
Residential construction is now falling. During the first seven months of 2020, the total value of private residential construction permits in the US Virgin Islands plunged 32.9% y-o-y to US$75 million, according to the USVI Bureau of Economic Research.
In March 2020, the U.S. Virgin Islands closed its borders to international travellers to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. As a result, total visitor arrivals dropped to just 803,450 people during the first eleven months of 2020 – less than half of the arrivals seen in the prior year. About 55% were cruise passengers while the remaining 45% were air arrivals.
USVI began welcoming international travelers again in September 2020.
There are no restrictions on foreign property ownership. Owning a property in the US Virgin Islands is "fee simple".
House price boom and bust
The U.S. Virgin Islands saw a housing boom from 2000 to 2007, with nationwide home sales prices surging by 90.1%, according to the USVI Bureau of Economic Research. The condominium market experienced even bigger price rises, with an average price rise of 133.8% over the same period.
However in 2008, home prices fell 11.8% while condominium prices fell by 2%. Home prices in St. John/St. Thomas saw the biggest decline, of 28.5%.
In 2013 and 2014, home prices began to recover, increasing by 22.1% and 5.6%, respectively. In contrast, condominium prices continued to fall (by 15.9% and 3%).
The situation was reversed in 2015, as home prices fell by 10.5%, while condo prices increased by 6.5%. The trend of declining home prices and rising condo prices has continued for the next two years. But in 2018, both home and condo prices fell by 7.4% and 9.7%, respectively.
Then in 2019, both markets bounced back strongly, with home prices rising by 7.9% and condo prices increasing by 15.8%.
PROPERTY PRICE CHANGE (2000-2019)
|Home Price Change (%)||Condo Price Change (%)|
|St. John/St. Thomas||146.8||-39.1||62.1||-18.0||161.7||-11.9||-2.4||10.0|
|US Virgin Islands||90.1||-16.0||28.9||-13.5||133.8||-11.4||-18.4||19.9|
|Sources: USVI Bureau of Economic Research, Global Property Guide|
Residential construction plummeting
During the first seven months of 2020, the total value of private residential construction permits in the US Virgin Islands plunged 32.9% y-o-y to US$75 million, based on the figures from the USVI Bureau of Economic Research.
In major islands:
- In St. Thomas/St. John, private residential permits value plummeted by almost 47% y-o-y to US$ 45.14 million from Jan to July 2020.
- In St. Croix, the value of private residential permits increased 9.9% y-o-y to US$ 29.85 million in the first seven months of 2020.
Land price variations
St. John continues to have the most expensive land in the territory, with land prices surging by 19.2% y-o-y in 2020, to an average of US$ 296,524 per transaction, according to Cruz Bay Realty, Inc. Though despite the strong increase, it remains far below the average land price per transaction of US$551,000 from 2004 to 2008.
Similarly, land prices in St. Croix skyrocketed by almost 53% y-o-y in the first eight months of 2020 to an average of US$ 81,949 per transaction, according to RE/MAX Team San Martin. Yet it remains below the average per-transaction price between 2003 and 2009 of US$110,000.
In contrast in St. Thomas, the average land price plunged by 37.7% y-o-y to US$107,410 per transaction in the first eight months of 2020, in sharp contrast to an annual increase of 55% over the same period in 2019.
The rental market
St. John has the most expensive rental houses and villas. Monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments range from US$1,000 to US$2,000. Three to four-bedroom beach houses can cost from US$2,000 to US$7,000 per month. Recently, more condominiums have been built near hotels and resorts in St Thomas and St Croix.
Long-term rents in USVI are usually not advertised, except to locals. Most landlords only put a “for rent” signage in front of these rental apartments, which are often part of a larger house, with the landlord living next door.
The Virgin Islands Housing Authority is responsible for planning, financing, constructing, maintaining and managing public housing developments, mostly on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and manages around 15% of USVI’s total housing stock. VIHA provides rental assistance to low-income families, elderly and disabled persons, with rentals based on the highest of three methods:
- Income-based: 30% of the monthly-adjusted income Total Tenant Payment (TTP)
- Welfare rent, if applicable
- Minimum rent of US$50
By early-2020, VIHA operate 27 low-income public housing communities for a total of about 3,000 units. About 1,471 apartment units are located in St. Thomas/St. John, while 1,543 units are in St. Croix.
One of VIHA’s newest developments (and also its largest redevelopment project) is the Louis E. Brown public housing developments, which are privately managed. The project’s first two phases consisted of 102 family units and 40 senior villas. In June 2020, the third phase of the housing development was opened, offering 90 hurricane-resilient family apartments. The other public housing communities are directly operated by VIHA.
Tourism is plunging
Tourism is the US Virgin Islands’ main industry, generating 2 million visitors every year, and accounting for 80% of GDP. In 2019, the total number of visitor arrivals in the territory breached 2 million people, up by 7.9% from a year earlier, according to USVI Bureau of Economic Research. This is a sharp improvement from y-o-y declines of 1.7% in 2018 and 24.1% in 2017, mainly due to the adverse impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit the island in September 2017.
However due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown and travel restrictions imposed worldwide, tourism plunged last year. During the year to November 2020, total visitor arrivals were just 803,450 people – less than half of the arrivals seen in the previous year. About 55% were cruise passengers while the remaining 45% were air arrivals.
Despite the challenges, USVI continues to see more flights. Delta Air Lines has recently launched its newest non-stop flight between Minneapolis-St Paul and St. Thomas. In the fall, JetBlue Airways also launched a new route from New York to St. Thomas while United Airlines launched a new route form Newark to St. Thomas in September 2020.
In an effort to boost tourism, USVI Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte is now actively promoting the Territory as a viable location for sports and other related events. “Teams won’t have to worry about passports as they are not needed for U.S. citizens, and we have top-rated facilities as well as U.S. standards and coaches to provide oversight,” said Boschulte.
In addition, Boschulte highlighted the potential of marine tourism to the territory’s overall economic recovery. “We forecast 2020 numbers to be positive due to the large number of visiting vessels, as well as our expanded reach into the charter yacht, regatta and game fishing sectors.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands has received the “Destination of the Year” award during the Caribbean Travel Awards 2021 by Caribbean Journal, a leading digital travel news publication. Also, The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas was named “Caribbean Hotel of the Year”.
GDP figures for 2019 and 2020 are still unavailable. But it is expected that, like most nations around the world, the tourism-reliant economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands contracted sharply last year due to the pandemic. In 2018, USVI’s economy grew by 1.5%, after contracting by 0.6% in 2017 and posting miniscule growth of 0.9% in 2016 and 0.3% in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The growth was mainly driven by post-disaster recovery activities.
The past decade has not been kind to the USVI. USVI’s GDP dipped 6.6% in 2009. After a short-lived recovery in 2010 (GDP up 0.9%), GDP plunged again by 8.2% in 2011, and then fell by a huge 15% in 2012, by 5.8% in 2013, and by 1% in 2014, mainly because of the closure of the HOVENSA refinery in 2012, which caused the layoff of around 1,200 employees.
In October 2020, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. Virgin Islands increased to 9.4%, sharply up from 5.7% in the previous year, as many hospitality workers have been laid off or furloughed, according to the USVI Bureau of Economic Research. In St. Thomas/St. John, the jobless rate surged to 10.5% in October 2020, from 6.1% a year ago. Likewise in St. Croix, the jobless rate rose to 8.1%, from 5.3%.
What attracts people to USVI?
St. John, the “Love City”
St. John is known for its well-preserved natural beauty and picturesque hills dotted with lavish villas. Unlike the overdeveloped St. Thomas, real estate developments in St. John are restricted. The island is the wealthiest and most expensive of the US Virgin Islands.
“St. John has always been the most expensive island of all three,” said Belton E. Jennings III, the CEO of the Virgin Islands Territorial Association of Realtors. “It holds its value because it is preferred by well-heeled buyers.”
St John is home to the territory’s National Park, which protects more than half of St John’s land area. The National Park includes some of the best beaches and coral reefs in the world.
Some of the condominium developments on St. John offer full ownership while others operate as timeshares or run on fractional ownership. Most of these residential projects are located in Cruz Bay. Some existing condominium developments include:
- Pastory Estates: located on the hillside just five minutes from Cruz Bay, it has four buildings with thirteen one and two bedroom condos. One-bedroom units are currently priced at around US$360,000 while two-bedroom units are offered for about US$425,000.
- Pond Bay Club: located in Chocolate Hole just three miles from Cruz Bay, it is an exclusive 15-acre fractional time-share development consisting of 50 furnished three-bedroom cottages and villas and other recreational facilities.
- The Lumberyard: located just above the Cruz Bay ferry landing, this unique mixed-use development on the west coast of St. John offers four 2-3 storey buildings.
- Sunset Ridge: located in Cruz Bay, time-share and condo units are available starting from US$575,000. Weekly time shares from US$8,000 and up.
St. Thomas, the “Rock City”
Mountainous St. Thomas is an ocean lover’s paradise. Hillside houses usually have magnificent views of the ocean. Snorkeling, scuba diving and windsurfing are popular tourist activities. St Thomas is home to USVI’s capital and largest city, Charlotte Amalie.
Some residential developments in St. Thomas include:
- Jumeirah Botany Bay Resort: formerly known as The Preserve at Botany Bay, a 400-acre resort, which include an 84-room five-star boutique hotel, 30 fractional residences, 30 villas, and up to 20 grand estates.
- Marriott Frenchman’s Cove: Marriott Vacation Club International’s first timeshare resort overlooking Pacquereau Bay, which comprises of 220 two- and three-level vacation homes within seven buildings.
- Yacht Haven Grande: located in Long Bay Harbor, this mixed-use luxury development features a marina, an extensive retail and office space, four restaurants, and 12 three-bedroom condominiums.
- Dolphin Cove: a luxury community situated on St. Thomas’ "Gold Coast"; with around 20 acres of oceanfront property, the Dolphin Cove development includes at least 4 oceanfront bungalows, 64 villas, and 36 luxury flats offering views of Nazareth Bay and St Croix and the channel between St. Thomas and St. John.
St. Croix, the “Twin City”
St. Croix is the largest island in the US Virgin Islands, but is more laid back than the other two islands. Unlike St. Thomas and St. John’s mountainous landscape, one of St. Croix’s charms lies in its varied topography, which goes from uncrowded white-sand beaches to rolling hills to rain forests.
St Croix is nicknamed the Twin City because of its two main towns: Christiansted and Frederiksted. Out of the two, Christiansted is more developed featuring shops and superb restaurants with a modern setting. This town is also known for architectural and historic richness, present in its 18th-century Danish-style buildings constructed by African slaves. Meanwhile, Frederiksted, with its historic landmark Fort Frederik, has been the main port for cruise ships in St. Croix.
Some notable attractions in St. Croix include the Buck Island Reef National Monument, the renowned Cane Bay Wall, St. George Village Botanical Gardens and the Cruzan Rum Distillery. St. Croix is also the only island in the US Virgin Islands that has a casino, the Divi Carina Bay Casino.
- St. John MLS Sales History (Cruz Bay Realty, Inc.): https://www.cruzbayrealty.com/st-john-sales-history/
- 9 Year St Croix Home Sales Price Trends (Team San Martin): http://www.american-virgin-islands.com/Team_Times_Market_Report.htm
- Total Construction Permit Value - U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Construction20-july.pdf
- U.S. Virgin Islands Annual Tourism Indicators (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/TOUR19.pdf
- COVID-19 Prompts US Virgin Islands to Close Borders (Travel Pulse): https://www.travelpulse.com/news/impacting-travel/covid-19-prompts-us-virgin-islands-to-close-borders.html
- U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism Statistics (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/
- US Virgin Islands Has Reopened: What Do Travelers Need to Know? (Travel Pulse): https://www.travelpulse.com/news/destinations/us-virgin-islands-has-reopened-what-do-travelers-need-to-know.html
- Delta Just Launched a New Nonstop Route to St Thomas (Caribbean Journal): https://www.caribjournal.com/2020/12/28/delta-just-launched-a-new-nonstop-route-to-st-thomas/
- Sports will help tourism sector’s post-pandemic revival (USVI Department of Tourism): https://usviupdate.com/2020/12/sports-will-help-tourism-sectors-post-pandemic-revival/
- U.S. Virgin Islands Named Caribbean Destination of the Year (USVI Department of Tourism): https://usviupdate.com/2020/12/u-s-virgin-islands-named-caribbean-destination-of-the-year/
- Virgin Islands Housing Authority and McCormack Baron Salazar celebrate grand opening of Phase III of Louis E. Brown Villas (McCormack Baron Salazar): https://www.mccormackbaron.com/news/2020/06/23/grand-opening-louis-e-brown-iii/
- Grand opening of Phase III of Louis E. Brown Villas (Virgin Islands Housing Authority): https://vihousing.org/grand-opening-of-phase-iii-of-louis-e-brown-villas/
- Buying costs are moderate in the US Virgin Islands (Global Property Guide): https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Caribbean/US-Virgin-Is/Buying-Guide
- Unemployment Rates (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/UN20-oct.pdf
- U.S. Virgin Islands Annual Economic Indicators (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ECON19.pdf
- Review of the USVI Territorial Economy 2019 (USVI Bureau of Economic Research): http://usviber.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Review-of-the-Virgin-Islands-Economy-Final-March-25-2020.pdf
- Economic and Fiscal Conditions in the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S. Congressional Research Service): https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R45235.pdf
- House Hunting on St. John: A Mountain Perch for $1.65 Million (The New York Times): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/realestate/house-hunting-on-st-john-a-mountain-perch-for-1-65-million.html
- US Virgin Islands' property market improving - March 16, 2015
- US Virgin Islands' property market on road to recovery - January 02, 2013