How To Buy Your First Costa Rican Property

We’ve all heard stories about tourists who fall in love with Costa Rica and rush to buy property during their one-week vacation. While many find what they seek, …

We’ve all heard stories about tourists who fall in love with Costa Rica and rush to buy property during their one-week vacation. While many find what they seek, others are disappointed with their hasty decisions. They didn’t know about some common-sense “how-to’s” that would have made their experiences more satisfying.

Costa Rica rightfully ranks high as a favorite place for foreigners to live, vacation and invest. The dream of owning land and building a home continues to lure buyers from the United States, Canada and Europe. They are attracted to Costa Rica’s lush tropical environment, laid-back lifestyle, political stability, warm people and economic growth. In an uncertain world, Costa Rica likely will remain – and even strengthen – as one of the world’s top real estate values and most liveable lountries.

In my 13 years’ experience as a real estate broker in Costa Rica, I’ve worked with thousands of customers, showing them hundreds of appealing listings of raw land and built product. Some customers experience smoother experiences buying and building on their ideal places than others do.

What makes the difference between heartache and satisfaction in the property-buying process?  Many factors are involved, with time and patience as the common denominators.  My advice is, take your time to gather information and compare properties. Tempting though it may be, don’t rush into any purchases without all the information.

Here are a few tips:

1.    Work with a reputable Realtor.

This point cannot be over-emphasized. Naïve buyers who listen to sales pitches from taxi drivers, tour guides, drinking buddies and casual acquaintances are in for trouble. Everybody knows of property for sale, yet few people other than reputable Realtors are qualified to help the buyer successfully complete a real estate transaction. Many U.S. and international real estate companies have offices in Costa Rica. And there are many independent real estate companies with long track records. When you find the area where you want to buy, ask around for recommendations for the top Realtors. Don’t work with amateurs, sleazy characters or inexperienced operators.

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2.    Find the property that suits your needs.

Location, location, location – these are the three most important factors in buying real estate, anywhere. If you have children, look in areas with schools. If you plan to run a business, make sure there is high-speed Internet service available. If you are into roughing it, look at farms and raw land in more remote locations. If you are a farmer, make sure your finca is near a farmers’ market or, at least, a good road. If you like peace and quiet, a lot on a busy road won’t work for you. If you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll probably need to be near a community that speaks your language or has a Spanish-language school. If there are avid surfers in your family, hold out for a property that is close to the ocean.

3.    Get to know the property.

Everything looks beautiful in Costa Rica, but some lots are better than others. Verify that your lot is a clean deal. Check the Registro Nacional online to determine who has legal title to the property. Make sure it doesn’t have liens or “gravamentes” listed against it. Look for hidden costs to using your property. Check out the access. Are the roads improved? If not, ask the developer to commit to improving the road, and include this as a term of the purchase agreement. Don’t assume that electricity and water services are included in the deal. Find out before you put your money down. Drilling a well and installing electricity – poles, lines and transformer—will dramatically drive up your costs.

4.    Determine the government zoning, regulations and restrictions.

Work with your Realtor and get a good lawyer to find out how the property is zoned and that your intended use you want is allowed. For example, don’t get stuck with a lot in the maritime zone unless it comes with a government concession that allows certain types of low-density development. Learn the setback laws for building near a stream, road, or spring that is considered a public water sources. Your buildable land area may be smaller that it first appears, and you need to know this in advance.

5.    Learn the lay of the land.

Is the property on a floodplain? Near a river? In a drought-prone area? On a steep slope? Composed of landfill? Near landslides and rock slides? Are the roads passable in the rainy season? Get the real scoop by talking to the neighbors and long-timers in the area. Figure out in advance the optimal house sites on your lot, and make sure the setback requirements leave sufficient usable area for your intentions.   

6.    Educate yourself about natural forces and hazards.

Study the lot to figure out the wind direction, rainfall runoff, flood history, erosion patterns, shade trees, potential house sites. We love Costa Rica for its natural environment. Nature is an awesome force, one that demands respect and careful management.

7.    Meet the neighbors.

Get to know the owners of adjacent properties. Find out their construction plans for the future. You don’t want to buy a lot if the adjacent owner plans to build a tall house that will block your view. Will your next-door neighbor’s plan to build a big hotel disrupt your hopes for a “tranquilo” life? While you’re at it, find out how the neighbors manage the community water systems and share road maintenance costs.

8.    Be patient.

Take time to compare the qualities and differences of several lots prior to purchasing. Spend time on your favorite parcel – camping out is a good idea. Watch the rise and set of the sun. Test the breezes with a streamer in the morning, noon and night. Use the data to inform you on how to situate your house to take advantage of the natural elements and the views. Know that you will find what you are looking for.

These are just a few items to start the education process. Realtors value their customers and want to assist them in realizing their Costa Rica dreams. We aim to make the buying process as smooth as possible, without the many obstacles or headaches that can cost a lot of money if you’re not careful. Pura Vida!

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