I wanted to buy a house, not build. And I wanted it right away. I had this quixotic notion that I’d tour the many houses I’d heard about, and pick one. All within two weeks. Ha ha. The day after my arrival, a mortgage employee moonlighting as a realtor picked me up. Thus began three weeks of house tours that drained me of hope until my eyes rolled over.
To homeowners, the concept of showing a house at its best is absurd. I saw a home at Manet Gardens that was dark, moldy and blistering with moisture, from the foundation up to about a foot high. The owner assured me it was no big deal. He would scrape off the blisters, slather it with some kind of black sealant to get rid of the moisture, and paint the whole house. Everything will be fresh, he said, just trust me. Now, why would I? Why would I rely solely on the words of a complete stranger?
House after house turned out the same. One house at East Legon hills was so fetid I stumbled back outside, gasping for air. No amount of cajoling could get me back in. The house hadn’t been opened in years, the owner said. It was black and damp. Why not tell the buyer upfront about the condition to expect? Why whip up desire with pictures taken years before, or doctored, luring buyers to waste precious time? Meanwhile the moonlighter kept saying it wasn’t so bad. Implication: a customer shouldn’t expect the best. Thou shall not whine!
When you do find a house you like (and there are many gorgeous homes), chances are you can’t afford it. Prices are listed in dollars. For a country where public health doctors earn about $1000 a month, how can one afford a $250,000 home? What’s mind boggling is that you’re expected to have that amount and more sitting nicely in your bank account. Even more amazing is that people do have that kind of money. As explained to me, most houses aren’t built for the Ghanaian. They are built for the expat who has muchos dollars, or the foreign Ghanaian who can take out a substantial home equity loan, or the rich Ghanaian. Faced with these kinds of difficulties, people have turned to estate developers.
With developers, pre-construction prices are better. As it might take a year to two for your house to be completed, you get to spread your payments. It’s still not easy for the average worker. Even these developers are building houses worth $100,000 or more, unless you’re prepared for four hours of a daily commute to far flung neighborhoods. Fortunately, there are a couple of mortgage companies like Ghana Home Loans and Home Finance Corporation that offer 20-year mortgages. For a mere 10-13 %. Now, before you go into cardiac arrest, note that although American mortgage rates can be as low as three percent, you also pay higher taxes and insurance, never mind end-of-year tax deductions. In Ghana, your monthly mortgage isn’t going to be as astronomical as you think. However, to qualify for the loan, you must have the credit history of a saint and earn above average income. What’s more, mortgage companies typically lend $50,000 to $75,000. As a result, young professionals are forced to rent.
Renting invites the same headache as buying. You go cheap and you have to live beyond the suburbs, or get something unlivable in the city. For a nice place in a nice neighborhood, say a two-bedroom, be prepared to shell out anything from $400 a month to $2000, depending on your budget. Worse still, you’re required to pay one to three years rent in advance, depending on the owner. This is of course against the law. You are only required to pay three months advance. However, it’s a lonely road fighting for your rights when renters regularly shell out the outrageous amounts. Still, I’d encourage you to follow the law.
The good news is that the price of rentals has gone down, so landlords are grudgingly taking in less advance. You can actually find a two-bedroom flat or chalet in East Legon from $500 a month. Chances are it won’t be modern and glitzy like apartments in Clifton homes. These fancy buildings are sprouting everywhere, featuring Lilliputian dwellings for the price of arms and legs. Most are thinly built, not sound-proofed and inhabited by people who fear smiling might diminish them. The buildings feature swimming pools and gymnasia, with monthly maintenance fees from $300-$500. Clearly not for the light of pocket. But they have 24-hour security, constant water and emergency generators. I do have to say though that the dumsor has greatly improved. Power outages are becoming rare.
If you do find what you love, try not to show enthusiasm. Whether you’re buying or renting, the minute you wiggle with excitement, or verbalize it, the price goes up. Either the agent got the price wrong in the first place because he/she got the listing through another agent, or it’s a deliberate ploy to reel you in and make the most out of you. Sometimes your agent originates the price hike; sometimes it’s the owner. Don’t be fooled by the compassionate smiles. Greed is rampant. Then there are the owners that will sooner have a house stand empty for years than reduce their inflated prices. At one home, when my realtor pointed out to the owner that he was losing money, the owner said, “No I’m not. Do I feed or clothe the house?” But he does feed the house. He has to paint it, get someone to stay there, etc. If it’s an apartment, he has to keep paying maintenance fees, and yet apartments remain empty because their owners would rather pay maintenance fees than reduce the rent. The concept of rent sale seems an affront to both property and owner, therefore the homes stand in uninhabited defiance.
In conclusion, if you’re planning on moving back to Ghana, fly down and check out the scene. Study the market for a bit, and decide what’s best for you. But unless you have a pile of dollars, don’t expect to do it in a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months. It’s still worth it to come back home. When you’re sitting at a poolside concert, nibbling on kelewele, that spicy fried plantain, tossing groundnuts into your mouth and toasting your friends, nothing seems to be such a big deal. That’s the Ghanaian guide to happiness.