Tips for Buying Property in the Southern Pacific region of Costa Rica
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Steve Linder offers a wealth of information and advice about buying property in Costa Rica - from the bests places for expats to live in Costa Rica to the steps involved in buying property to property prices.
Best Places to Buy Property in Costa Rica
For expats the best 5 locations are the Central Valley, the gold coast of Guanacaste, the southern Pacific region, Lake Arenal and the central Pacific regions of Jaco and Quepos Manuel Antonio
Most Popular Areas in Costa Rica for Expats
Lots of expats ended up in the North West Pacific area of Guanacaste in places like Tamarindo, Flamingo and Coco. This area is near the Liberia International Airport and easy to get to, but prices are higher in this area than many other parts of the country and there's an issue with water availability. The situation for water is improving but this area is dry and hot like Arizona -- and in the dry season it has brush fires that can be scary. There's also a higher rate of crime aimed at tourists in this area since it's a target for criminals looking for rich tourists. Advantages are the ease of getting there since Liberia airport is close to the coast and the beaches are gorgeous white sand. There is also lots for tourists to do here in the way of bars, restaurants and night life
The Central Valley is one of the most popular areas for many expats. Higher elevation makes for cooler temperatures and there are a variety of smaller towns outside the downtown area that are popular. The most well known is Escazu, popular with the more affluent and younger crowd, loaded with shopping, great hospitals and lots to do and almost in downtown San Jose. This area has lots of high rise condo and apartment buildings as well as higher end single family homes. Healthcare is a breeze since CIMA hospital is right in Escazu. The second largest mall in all of Central America, the MultiPlaza, is here. If you want to be surrounded by familiar institutions like Walmart, Pricemart and OfficeMax -- and designer stores, like Ralph Lauren, this is the area for you. Property prices are more reasonable than the gold coast, but Escazu has one of the higher crime rates. Other popular towns in the central valley are Grecia, San Ramon, Atenas, Alajuela and Heredia -- all are more or less neighborhood suburbs of San Jose with the further out locations being more low key with less night life and other activities. Atenas and San Ramon are further away, but Atenas has had some water supply issues and can be subject to fires in the dry season when the winds are whipping around. Grecia and Heredia are more Urban, with more traffic during rush hour, but also more retail, restaurants and healthcare options.
The Southern Pacific zone is further away from San Jose and emerging as a popular expat community. The area has a slower pace of life vibe but you are not without plenty of good restaurants, activities and healthcare options. The areas of note are Uvita, Ojochal and Dominical. Dominical is more of a tourist town, noted for big surf and full of plenty of Bohemian type dudes. There's good music, some interesting restaurants but plenty of eco touristy stuff here with some large reserves complete with canopy tours, zip lines and hiking trails. There are also lots of waterfalls, some great beaches and some high end eateries tucked in the hillside. Uvita is more of the commercial center of the area, where you go for the farmers market, new tires or dental work. You can also find a vibrant expat community there as well as some cool beaches. Ojochal is one of the older and larger expat communities with a real international flair. Noted for nice restaurants and larger mountainside homes with great ocean views, this town has a strong North American community. Just to the south of the zone is an 80,000 square foot hospital, The southern zone has strict zoning laws prohibiting high rise construction. And, you'll find more lowland forest animals, plants and birds here than most anywhere else. As less of a tourist area, this region has lower crime than most other areas. The downsides are that this area is about 3 hour drive from the nearest international airport and there is less night life than any region other than the Lake Arenal region.
The central Pacific region was one of the early expat destinations. Long before the new airport had been built in Liberia, Jaco was a bustling tourist town. As the closest resort/beach town to the coast, Jaco has attracted Ticos for generations. It's a typical beach town, tourists, surfers, revelers and locals. You'll find typical t-shirt shops along with plenty of bars and restaurants in a walkable town with some high rise condos and hotels in the mix. Close proximity to the central valley makes this the most crowded beach town on the weekends. Along with tourists comes crime, some drug and sex trade and low life. Jaco is a great playground for singles; however; there are few expat families there. Jaco is one of the few places where titled beach front property is available, but the beach is a bit dirtier than some other locations since it sits in a bay. There are a few towns within a few minutes of Jaco of note. Playa Hermosa to the south is a popular surf town with a strong tourist bent. Playa Herradura to the north houses a collection of higher end residential developments with the most notable being the Los Suenos resort and Marina. If you want high-end living in a secure, gated community complete with golf, tennis, a big marina and a Marriott anchor hotel, this is the place to be.
At the southern end of the central Pacific region is the town of Quepos, home of the most visited national park - Manuel Antonio - now home to an expat tourist area known collectively as Manuel Antonio, though that is really just the name of the park. Quepos sits at the bottom of a winding hillside community and now home to the newest sport fishing marinas in Costa Rica, the Pez Vela marina. Quepos is the working town community providing service and support to the largest tourist area in Costa Rica, up in the hills of Quepos, again known collectively as Manuel Antonio. Some fine hotels sit perched in these hills as well as some spectacular restaurants -- most with stunning ocean views. This area is rich with wildlife and you can expect to see monkeys, toucans and sloths on a regular basis. The town has kept its boutique footprint, but recent development has brought in some multi-story high rises. This area gets more rain than the northern neighbors but benefits with lush tropical fauna that is a must see for most tourists. Crime is a bit higher here as in most tourist areas with crimes of convenience against property the main concern (think camera gone missing at the beach). The rainy season fortunately had pretty predictable rain scheduled for later in the afternoon -- so it's easy to plan around and not restrictive for those living there.
The region around Lake Arenal is another popular location for expats lured by cooler temperatures and cheap prices. This area flanks man made lake Arenal which was damned to harness hydro-elelctric. The area can be quite windy and rainy at all times of the day. Demand is less in the area for property so prices have remained lower. The roads to San Jose aren't great, which makes travel a bit cumbersome. Property prices here reflect these downsides, and, for those on a tight budget, this is the least expensive area in Costa Rica that's popular with expats. The area is noted for wind surfing and kite boarding as wind blows year round. Expect cooler temperatures that can be downright cold from time to time. There's a downtown area at La Fortuna along with some neat lodges. There are some unique hot springs that originate deep in the base of Arenal Volcano and it is worth noting that the sole provider of home owners insurance in Costa Rica (Institute Nacional de Seguros or INS) is reluctant to insure homes for earthquake or seismic damage in this area, again keeping property values low. Recently Arenal Volcano has gone quiet but Terrialba Volcano, its neighbor to the southeast, has become quite active.
Restrictions on Foreign Property Ownership
The only restrictions on foreigners purchasing property in Costa Rica are in the Maritime zone within 200 meters of the ocean. This area is not for sale though you can get a concession to build things like tourism projects on a leasehold type basis. Expats typically can't get concessions although some grandfathered properties are still privately owned. Expats otherwise have the same rights to property ownership in Costa Rica as a Costa Rican would have. Property ownership is deeded and fee simple and over 95% of the entire country's properties are registered in a national property registry.
Precautions to Take When Buying Property in Costa Rica
There are no licensing laws in Costa Rica for real estate sales so be aware. Many developments failed in Costa Rica. Part of the problem was that foreign developers did not realize how difficult getting all the permits for development would be. But, some developers clearly had no intention of ever providing the infrastructure promised to buyers, leaving buyers with a titled home site in a field with no road, water or electric. Often developments skirt the law by using "agricultural title" yet for the purpose of building "residential" developments. In order to build a true residential development (referred to as En Condominio) every aspect of the development must have permits prior to the developer obtaining separate titles to the individual lots or parcels. For agricultural titled properties for example, there is no requirement for the developer to provide water, electric or even roads -- you are basically buying farmland. In residential title however, various ministries that oversee things like road design and construction quality, electrical infrastructure, water quality, quantity and distribution systems, set backs, environment concerns, storm water management, street lighting, etc all must be completed or at least enough so that the various agencies have signed off on the project design and build. When all these permits are in hand, a final overseeing board determines whether to allow the developer to segregate and title the project into home sites. The cost of this type of construction is greater but the results are proven and dependable. Under En Condominio development, the owners within the development can also be "forced" to cooperate as an association. This sounds bad but is really the only way to have property in a community be guaranteed to hold value, maintain and upkeep the roads, the water system, etc. In agricultural development, it is impossible (prohibited by law in fact) to make owners work with each other to maintain the common area in the development. These agricultural projects end up with a few owners carrying the cost of maintenance on behalf of anyone that does not pay or comply.
Searching for a Property in Costa Rica
There is no multiple listing service in Costa Rica, but it is emerging now. There are a number of US real estate companies that have licensed offices in Costa Rica, for example REMAX and Century21. The best way to find property is to use the internet, take tours, visit communities, talk to other expats, read the online English forums and beware.
Steps in Buying a Property in Costa Rica
- Identify a property and price you are in agreement with the seller.
- Find an attorney if the seller is not extremely well known - make sure the attorney is experienced in expat purchases and has done LOTS of these transactions.
- Check the ownership in the national registry.
- Check for encumbrances on the property - that the taxes are up to date, that there are no liens, etc.
- Arrange for a simultaneous closing where the money changes hands at the same time that title transfers, because escrow is uncommon.
- Title insurance is hard to get, mortgages are rare for expats and cash is king.
- Most expats own property in corporations in Costa Rica. These are typically what are referred to as Sociedad Anonima corporations, which are not found in public records. So though the property ownership may be found online, the actual owner is often an SA and the actual owners of the corporation are not public information.
Home Prices in Costa Rica
There are lots of Tico style homes and smaller expat style homes in the hills around San Jose priced under $100,000. Decent condos in the Central Valley in nicer neighborhoods start at about $100k, with prices up to $300k or more. Single family homes in developments run from $150k or so to multi millions in some areas along the coast.
Costs Involved in Buying Property in Costa Rica
Costa Rican law fixes the taxes, recording and closing costs. Expect to pay about 2% of the value of the property or more. If the property is already owned in a corporate form, you may only need to pay the cost of transferring ownership of the corporation from one to another -- the property being part of the assets of the corporation. Make sure that the corporation is not encumbered in any way before buying under this scenario.
Using a Lawyer
Yes, in most cases. Find one of the larger firms or one specializing in expat services. I have used Facio law, Sphera law, Canas, or Phelps and Peterson. But, lawyers are only as good as the person you are dealing with and they sometimes are more interested in their interests than in yours so do pay attention.
Other Tips for Property Buyers in Costa Rica
Travel around and find the area you want first. Use tools like www.vrbo.com to see what the rental rates are in the area you are interested in -- and be sure to look at the calendars of availability to see how well they are booking. Visit the forums like Expat Exchange or Costa Rica Living and ask plenty of questions. Compare listings from a variety of sources and use tools like Google Translate to look at listings in Spanish as well. Seek the advice of folks like me -- make sure they have bought and sold for themselves and don't just have a good imagination.
Steve Linder is from Cambridge, Massachusetts and currently lives in Ojochal, Costa Rica and Key West, FL in the winter months and Salem, MA in the summer. Steve studied International Business in both the undergraduate and MBA programs at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Steve traveled extensively visiting areas noted as havens for expats before making Costa Rica his area of expertise. Steve is an expert in the Costa Rica real estate market actively selling properties in Costa Rica for over a decade.
Steve is the Global Sales manager for Pacific Lots and Homes of Costa Rica, the largest international residential development in Costa Rica. He also brokers residential, commercial, investment and rental properties throughout Costa Rica. He works with many North American Real Estate firms, expat and boomer organizations and publications including Berkshire Hathaway, Prudential International, Rubloff, Prudential Tropical, Century 21 and Remax. Steve also sponsors, advertises and exhibits in publications and events with Expat Exchange, International Living Magazine, Escape Artist, Hemisphere Publications, AM Costa Rica, Southern Living, Boomers Abroad, AM Costa Rica, Costa Rica new, AARP and a host of other publications and organizations. Steve has been a featured Keynote speaker in events with AARP, International Living, Hemisphere Publications, Fund Your Life Overseas and various expat radio shows. Steve sells lots of property each year in Costa Rica and visits many other countries to represent Costa Rica property to foreigners.