Q&A: Chris Krolow of HGTV’s Island Hunters on What to Look for When Buying a Private Island

Krolow shares where to buy, what to know, and the pros and cons of developed versus undeveloped islands.

Chris Krolow knows a thing or two about islands. In 1999, the Toronto native created an online database of private islands; today, the website boasts the world’s largest selection of island listings, currently numbering more than 900. Since 2013, Krolow has hosted and executive-produced HGTV’s wildly popular television show Island Hunters on which he has traveled to hundreds of islands to help would-be buyers find their dream property.

“The private-island market has boomed since Island Hunters began airing,” Krolow says. “Before then, the market was mostly made up of developers and buyers looking for a second or third vacation property. It was more like an exclusive club because many people weren’t even aware that islands could be purchased.”

Robb Report talked with Krolow about the pros and cons of purchasing a developed versus an undeveloped island, what to know before purchasing an island, and the hottest spot to buy now. Here’s what you need to know if you’re in the market for a private island.

What types of buyers are looking for a private island?

There are typically three groups of island buyers: developers looking for a flagship property to develop into a resort, buyers looking for an island specifically, and buyers who already own waterfront property and are looking to upgrade to an island for more privacy or space in the same region.

Why are private islands so desirable, and what are the perks of owning one?

They offer more privacy than mainland waterfront and—because of the limited number of islands for sale in any given region—they are more exclusive. You can experience 360-degree views on some islands; that’s impossible with mainland waterfront. Time goes by slower when you are on your own island, and spending time on your island with friends and family brings you closer together. And there is higher rental-income potential than with mainland waterfront properties.

What considerations do you need to take into account when buying a private island?

If the island is undeveloped, buyers need to make sure that they can acquire the necessary permits to build what they want. Does the island have sufficient elevation in case of flooding? Is the island large enough for your needs? Is there sufficient infrastructure on the mainland for your needs? How far is the closest hospital, and how quickly can help arrive on the island if need be? What about cell phone reception, groceries, and supplies? Is there water depth for larger boats? Is there a safe area to build a dock or pier? Is the distance from the mainland viable for potential paying guests?

What’s something that no one mentions about buying an island but that everyone should know?

Most buyers are aware that building and maintaining an island is more expensive than mainland property, but in some cases—especially for more remote islands—the extra expenses are higher than originally anticipated. Most first-time buyers also don’t realize that up to 30 percent of islands for sale are not advertised publicly, so they could be missing out on the perfect island if they don’t know what’s available.

What are the pros and cons of buying an undeveloped versus a developed island? How does the process change if you want to rent out the island to visitors?

Undeveloped islands often require environmental assessments and permit applications, which take time and money and often can go over budget. Developed islands that are turnkey are easier to manage, but the developments may not be exactly what the buyer is looking for. Developed islands in need of major renovations can sometimes be the best deal because fewer permits are required and the process goes quicker. If you are planning on renting out your island, you need to look at the whole project through the eyes of a potential renter. Will guests be safe getting to the island? Will you have a full-time caretaker? How close are neighboring islands? Some owners don’t mind neighbors, but most renters want complete privacy.

You recently bought Gladden Private Island in Belize. What drew you to it?

I own several islands, but Gladden Private Island in Belize is my most special island project to date. There are many luxurious private-island vacation opportunities, but they require either self-catering or intrusive staff. Others provide impeccable service in a resort setting, yet there are still other guests, staff, and maintenance crews on the grounds. With Gladden Caye, I had the solution: We built a single luxurious villa for one couple—there is a second master suite should the couple feel the need to share this experience—on the main island and housing for staff on the nearby smaller island. The chef, manager, and concierge are a 2-minute boat ride away when needed and completely out of view the rest of the time. All support structures on the smaller island are hidden from sightlines of the main house, and there are no neighbors to be seen in any direction, so you can focus solely on the astonishing views.

In your opinion, what’s the best up-and-coming place to buy a private island?

Belize is the current hot spot because it is close to the U.S. and Canada, people speak English, the islands are freehold—not leasehold like in all of Asia, most of the South Pacific, and the Caribbean—and prices start at around $350,000.

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