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Cuba's New Real Estate Market, Betting on the Future, Wary of the Past

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Placing zeros to the right seems to be the preferred sport of those who put a price on the homes they sell in Cuba today. A captive market at the end of the day, the buyer could find a lot of surprises in the wide range of classified ads. From owners who ask astronomical sums for their houses, sums that have nothing to do with the reality of demand, to real bargains that make you feel sorry for the naiveté of the negotiator. Many are pressured to sell, some by those with the smarts to realize that this is the time to buy a house on the Island. It is a bet on the future, if it goes wrong they lose almost everything, but if it goes well they position themselves -- in advance -- for tomorrow. The slow hurry up and the fast run at the speed of light. These are times to make haste, the end of an era could be close... say the smartest.

It's surprising to see, with barely any notion of real estate, how Cubans launch themselves into the marketing of square meters. They talk about their space, usually with an over abundance of adjectives that make you laugh or scare you. So when you read "one bedroom apartment in central Havana with mezzanine bedroom," you should understand "room in a Central Havana apartment with wooden platform." If they talk about a garden, it's best to imagine a bed with soil and plants at the entrance; and even five-bedroom residences, after a visit, are reduced to two bedrooms partitioned with cardboard. The same mistrust with which people view the photos on the social networks where young people look for partners, should be applied to housing ads here. However, you can also find real pearls in the midst of the exaggeration.

Right now there are at least three parameters that determine the final cost of a home: location, physical state of construction, and pedigree. The neighborhood has a great influence on the final value of the property. In Havana, the most prized areas are Vedado, Miramar, Central Havana, Víbora and Cerro, for their central character. The least wanted are Alamar, Reparto Eléctrico, San Miguel del Padrón and La Lisa. The poor state of public transport significantly influences people's preference for houses that are near major commercial centers with abundant spaces for entertainment. If there is a farmers market in the vicinity, the asking price goes up; if it is near the Malecon it also goes up. People shy away from the periphery, although among the "new rich," those who have accumulated a little more capital whether by legal or illegal means, the trend of looking for homes in the outskirts has begun. It is still too early, however, to speak about a trend to locate in greener and less polluted areas. For now, the main premise can be summarized as the more central the better.

The physical state is one of the other elements that defines what a home will cost. If the ceiling is beam and slab, the numbers fall; meanwhile constructions from the 1940s and '50s enjoy a very good reputation and appeal. The lowest values are for the so-called "microbrigade works" with their ugly concrete buildings and their little Eastern European style apartments. If the roofing is light -- tiles, zinc, wood, ceiling paper -- the seller will get less. The state of the bathroom and kitchen are another point that directly influences the marketability of the property. The quality of the floors, if the windows are barred and the door is new -- of glass and metal -- these are points in its favor. If there are no neighbors overhead, then the seller can rest easy. Also very valuable are houses with two entrances, designed for a large family seeking to split up and live independently. Everything counts, anything goes.

So far it resembles a real estate market like any other anywhere in the world. However, there is a situation that defines, in a very particular way, the value of homes for sale. This is their pedigree. This refers to whether the house has belonged to the family for forever, or if it was confiscated in one of the waves of expropriations in Cuba. If the previous owner left during the Rafter Crisis of 1994 and the State handed the property over to someone new, the price is lower. The same thing happens if it was taken during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, a time when property was awarded to others after the emigration of those who had lived there up until that time. But where the prices hit rock bottom is with those homes confiscated between 1959 and 1963, when great numbers left for exile. Few want to take on the problem of acquiring a site that later may go into litigation. Although there are some who are taking advantage of this situation to buy real mansions in the most central neighborhoods at bargain prices.

In order to check the location, the state of construction, as well as the legal past of the house, potential buyers are aided by their own experience, a good architect and even a lawyer to dig through the details of the property. Each element adds or removes a cipher, one zero or one hundred to the total price people are willing to pay. In a captive market anything is possible; it's as if knowledge of real estate has only been sleeping, lethargic, and now returns with amazing force.