(Reuters) - Cubans lined up at notary offices and banks Thursday to do deals or lay the groundwork for them on the first day they could legally buy and sell houses in more than half a century.

They said they welcomed the chance to finally make money off their property in a step away from the doctrinaire communism they have lived under since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

The change was the result of a reform announced last week by the government, which is liberalizing the Soviet-style economy in hopes of keeping one of the world's last communist states afloat.

Last month, it gave its citizens the right to freely buy and sell cars for the first time since 1959.

Previously, Cubans could legally only trade their home for others in what they call a "permuta, although often the transactions included payments under the table.

Cubans said the reform offered something many have not had for a long time -- a chance to improve their lives.

"This is now or never. It's an opportunity and you have to take risks to get something better," said Margot, a state worker who only gave her first name, as she stood in line at a notary office to do the paperwork to sell her Havana home and buy another.

Bank workers said their offices were filled with people getting their finances in order and seeking information in a first step toward buying or selling property.

While there was general agreement that the new rules were a positive step, there was less consensus on how much they would change life in Cuba.

The reform limits how much property they can own -- one house and one vacation place -- because the government wants to prevent a capitalistic-style accumulation of wealth.

Some said many people cannot sell their homes because they would have no place to live.

"The people who will sell their homes are the ones that have more than one house, which is not something that is very common. Most people have one home and most of their family lives there," said office worker Elizbet Reynoso.

HOUSING SHORTAGE

More than 80 percent of Cubans own their homes, but finding new housing is not easy on the island of 11 million people.

The government has said at least 600,000 new units are needed to meet demand.

One significant change under the new law is that people leaving Cuba permanently can sell their homes or give them to family members, where before they had to hand them over to the government.

The new rules were not viewed as particularly good news at Paseo del Prado, a historic avenue in central Havana where Cubans have gone for years to seek permutas in an informal market.

People who work illegally as agents facilitating the swaps said they expected the number of permutas to decline.

"What the people want is to sell so they can get money. There are people who have a large house, but don't have enough money to buy food," said Santiago, an agent who preferred not to give his full name.

The business was already shifting to trying to match up buyers and sellers, but that sellers were asking too much money, said Aristides, another agent, who also declined to give his full name.

"People are coming that want to buy small apartments for $4,000 or $5,000, but the prices being asked are several thousand above that," he said. "Think about who in Cuba has that kind of money -- nobody."

The average Cuban earns just $18 a month, but experts believe the opening of the housing market will attract money, particularly from Cuban exiles who want good housing for their families in the homeland or as a bet on Cuba's future.

They say the influx of capital will stimulate the economy by encouraging home renovation and construction and giving Cubans money to put into private businesses.

"One of my clients wants to sell an apartment he does not use for about $10,000. He said that with half of that amount, he will be able to open a coffee shop," said Aristides.

In another reform, the government is encouraging self-employment to provide jobs for the 1 million workers it wants to cut from its bloated payrolls. It reported recently that 338,000 people are now working for themselves.

(Writing and additional reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Kevin Gray and Eric Beech)



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