This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Understanding Costa Rica Real Estate

Costa Rica History in knife metaphorI’d say that about 1/10th of my time spent with people looking to buy property in Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific zone is spent in the actual buying/selling of property. The other 9/10ths is a mix of conversations regarding what’s involved with living here, as well as discussing the business of real estate in Costa Rica.

At its core, the lack of an actual MLS (Multiple Listing Service) colors all aspects of the business here, and I’ll go into that later on in this series. To really understand the business of real estate here, I have found it helpful to go back in time and see the progression of events up to the present. This helps to not only understand the current market but also, to project what is to come.

Early days:
I got into real estate in Dominical in 2004. It felt like the day I got into real estate was the day that someone threw the on-off switch on the market. Since then I’ve heard some tales indicating that the market was already simmering and poised to boil.

I made a sale on my first day in the business. A $60,000 gorgeous ocean view property sized at around 2 acres.  The property featured Uvita’s Whales Tail front and center. That property has gone on to have a lovely home, guest house and pool built on it. It has been re-sold and enjoys a stellar vacation rental history (link to rental page on HomeAway)

Quick overview of The Zone:
The Zone is made up of a string of 3 towns with Dominical at its northern end. The northern boundary is not a hard line but is decidedly fuzzy, easily extending up to Hatillo and at times, up to Portalon. (link to Hills of Portalon Development).

From Dominical heading south on the coastal highway you get to Uvita and then further south, to Ojochal. The area between Dominical and Uvita has a nicely laid out mountain range that runs very parallel to the ocean. Hence the handle “coastal mountain range” This means that you can travel inland from the beach just a short way and get to elevation where it is breezy and cool and offers expansive views of the ocean and coastline, attributes which make this area extremely desirable to investors, relocators and migrators (part-of-the-year residents).

More History:
Before the incoming press of foreign interest in The Zone, the Ticos (Costa Ricans) owned all the land, and their land holdings were always in the multi-hectares (1 hectare = 2.48 acres. Think 2.5 to make it easy).

There was a time in the not too distant past when land in Costa Rica was nearly value-less. There were land-grant programs whereby a man simply had to be willing to take responsibility for a property and the government would “grant” him the land, with conditions.

At that time it was not known that “nature” had a lucrative aspect to it. Instead nature was largely viewed as “in the way” and needed to be tamed, subdued or eliminated. So, one of the conditions to receiving a land grant was to cut the trees down and raise cattle.

I suspect that this era may have coincided with the “McDonalds” explosion. This is an arguable point, so let’s just say it coincided with an extreme demand in the U. S. (and world) for beef.

After some time of cutting down enormous canopy trees and attempting to raise cattle in former rain-forest environs, there was a shift in our world’s appetites; nature became an important commodity. Granted, beef has continued to be an active commodity, but it was also learned that former rain forest land doesn’t necessarily make for the best pasture land.

Raising cattle in Costa Rica was a daunting struggle. The farmers found themselves up against nature. Having to maintain former rain forest jungle land in “pasture” condition presented its trials, as well as the fact that the beef business (exporting meat, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and 3rd world infrastructure or lack thereof) made a guy scratch his head and wonder if having all this land was such a good idea.

The Tico culture was/is multi-generational. These large, granted tracts of land, would end up being populated by the man who acquired the land, his now grown sons & daughters and their families, and the grand kids (soon to also have families.)

So despite having lots of land, a condition that in first-world countries equates to being wealthy, these farmers were subsistence. They lived off of what their land produced. As a child would grow to adulthood, Abuelo (abuelo = grandfather) would simply build them a house and apportion off some land (or not) and they would continue on contributing to the sustenance of the family. The land itself was not thought of in lucrative terms.

Abuelo just happened to acquire a land grant on, let’s say, 60 hectares of land that reaches from the inland side of the maritime zone on the coast up to the highest point of the coastal mountain ridge. He’s not thinking “oh boy! I’ve got some ocean view land here.” No, he’s thinking: “man I hope this land is fertile.”

Enter foreigner:
One day Bob, a tourist, is exploring the area and decides that he’d like to buy Abuelo’s property. Bob offers Abuelo $60,000 for the land. Abuelo has never even considered the remote possibility of maybe someday having such a sum. In fact, he’s never even seen that much money. He talks it over with his family and they (very understandably) feel that this would be a wonderful thing for them to do. So, they sell their land.

Bos is a visionary. He sees what is likely coming and so he stakes his early claim. Now, keep in mind that there is no electricity to this property, the access is horseback and the water is from a nearby spring that is bubbling out of the ground. Abuelo has run a pipe from the spring to an elevated storage tank near the family homes. Bob’s a visionary in that – what foreigner in their right mind would possibly want such a remote and forbidding piece of land?

To understand this is to understand the element that is credited with making the world go round. We all have different likes and dislikes. I wonder at the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s level of focus on the personal home computing idea at the time that they had that focus. I’m not of this ilk and so my hat is off to such ones. I view the early investors here in The Zone as being made of the same stuff.

In looking back over the history of the first wave of investors here, I marvel at their foresight. My then wife and I looked at some Whales Tail view property in Uvita around 2002 and, despite its being gorgeous and nicely priced, I felt that it was simply too remote. This was in the same area where 2 years later I sold my first property.

Ok, so I said that to understand the real estate market here in Costa Rica, it helps one to know a bit of the history. Granted, we’ve gone back to what I appropriately call the first-wave of intrepid and visionary investors – The Visionaries. We’ll continue on in the next article with Bob’s next steps and incredible gains on his visionary act.

Relocation FAQ 3

I just received some questions from a connection that I made in the Social Media site LinkedIn. I am reprinting these here due to the increase in these types of questions lately. I’m sure that these questions, and their answers, will be of help to a number of our readers.

Location In The Zone:

  1. We don’t want to feel like we’re living in the middle of nowhere, but we’re not looking to live in a large city like Seattle! What is The Zone like?
Costa Rica Real Estate

One of many developments above Dominical.

As a starting point, you picked a good one. The Zone, as we like to call it down here in the southern pacific zone of Costa Rica, is definitely a bit removed from things.  The developments are typically more spread out than North American developments, so in most cases your neighbor will not be right on top of you.  Access to The Zone is possible via two regional airports (both approx.40 minutes from Uvita) and the Costanera Highway.  Thanks to the new San Jose-Caldera Highway, the trip to San Jose is now 3 hours.  That said, it is difficult to say if this area would appeal to you with this point, and I would recommend a visit before making that determination.

Costa Rica Real Estate

You can buy or build your dream home.

Buy or Build:

  1. We are also trying to decide between building a home or buying existing… Do you have any suggestions?

This is one of the more common questions that we deal with. Here is an interesting data point: the majority of people that walk into our office want to buy an existing house. Yet, the majority of people that buy from us buy raw land & build.  Why is that?  Here in The Zone, we have been outside the main flow of tourism.  This was due to the bumpy, dirt road between Dominical and Quepos.  It is now paved, and we are more in the flow.  Historically, those visitors and relocators who found their way down here were a bit… well, let’s call it eccentric… might be the way to put it. These are truly individualistic individuals who built their house as an expression of that individuality. These houses are not easy to sell. Now, I should clarify that this building approach is ancient history.  There are very nice homes available in The Zone; however, there just aren’t that many of them.  The inventory continues to evolve, and home sales are up.  That said, I suspect that it’ll be a while before we hit the 50/50 mark of house/lots sales.  Our recommendation is to take your time and look at everything.  After you go through this process, you can compare those houses with what it would cost to buy & build on a similar piece of land, keeping in mind raw land is plentiful.  You might find that $450,000 house can be built for $350,000, and you’ll have it the way you want it.  Conversely, you might find a great house for less than what it would cost to buy and build.  In today’s market place, and with the economic crisis, you never know what you might find.  Building in Costa Rica can be a daunting and frustrating task.  For this reason alone, some people simply refuse to go through the process.  This question really is best served in a face to face consultation.

Costa Rica Real Estate

The ARCR is one of many sites with good info.

Groups and Associations:

  1. I have heard to be very wary of some places being over priced for foreigners who don’t know any better. Any good groups or services to retain?

Hmmmm, well I am inclined to think that you’ve found all you need right here with me. 🙂  A not so self-serving answer would be, “yes.”  There are actually PLENTY of options for information, so many in fact that I wonder at how one can really know what the straight story is.  Residency, taxes, zoning, business and so on, in a foreign land, requires that one be on his toes. I like the Costa Rica Living news group at Yahoo groups. Also, the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) have been a helpful residency and insurance resource for some of my clients.  Ultimately, I think that what you are doing is a good idea.  Talk with individuals who have done what you want to do.  When I get new clients in the Dominical and Uvita area, I set up lunches with my previous clients who have moved here, built, learned Spanish etc.  It seems that everyone is more than happy to share their experience, and from these tidbits you’ll get a very good idea of what to do and, often more importantly, not do.

Starting A Company:

  1. Did you find it difficult to start a company there? I will be looking to work, but understand I will need to start my own business to get paid. At least until we were able to become residents.

Starting a business, or buying an income generating property, or both, used to be oh-so-easy in Costa Rica.  Business owners would only complete the necessary steps to get a business license if someone from the Municipality came and bugged them about it.  And, income generated by businesses or rental properties was reported even less.  In today’s Costa Rica it has become a bit more difficult, or maybe I should say involved, to operate without them.  For better or worse, Costa Rica is growing up and finding ways to enforce laws that they have had on the books for years, in some cases, decades.  The simple fact is, to do any kind of work in Costa Rica, you need to be a resident.  Otherwise, you run the risk of being deported.  We know people who can help with residency and setting up a business, among other services.

I hope these thoughts help to answer your questions, although it is my experience that they usually bring up new questions.  Safe to say, The Guys here to help.

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