Monday, March 06, 2006

a different conception of property rights

You might not expect a real estate article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine to offer much of interest about different conceptions of property rights around the world. But Steve Hendrix's entertaining piece on how he became the owner of a seaside villa in Guatemala offers some items that might make people rethink their fiendish devotion to the right of property in land.

Forget the colonialist implications (he's aware of them) and revel in the joys of customary ownership:
It is, as it turns out, illegal for foreigners to own waterfront property in Guatemala. Armand [who functioned as his real estate agent] said not to worry. "It is an old law," he said. It came out "Eeet eeeze zan old law" in his beguiling Grenoble accent. The regulation traditionally has had more to do with coastal defense than with lakeside properties.

We also would not get a deed to the land, or any of the other ironclad niceties that are such a comfort to American property owners and their nervous-Nellie bankers. The land would remain officially "owned" by the local village; we would get something called a "transferable right of possession." Land title reform is just beginning in Guatemala. Armand said not to worry. "Here it is normal," he said. "It is a small village. Everybody will know it is your property."

In the United States, a modern real estate transaction contains within it every transaction that ever went before -- and went wrong. Every lead-paint lawsuit, disputed deed and property-line catfight is reflected in the hours of certificates, waivers and addenda you are forced to sign at the closing table. There are dozens of them, culminating in the ultimate litigious absurdity, the form that pledges you to come back and sign any forms they may have forgotten to give you. The overwhelming emotion of new homeowners in America is writer's cramp.

Not so in Guatemala. The contract that indentured us to a tiny piece of Latin America came as a single Word attachment and was about four pages long, double-spaced. We couldn't read it, of course, but we ran it through a free Internet translation engine and assured ourselves that our names were spelled correctly. Otherwise, it remained gibberish. ("Both comparacientes declare, one after the other that in the terms briefed in this writing the obligations accept for himself that of the same one are derived.")


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