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.

Let’s Talk Value in Costa Rica Real Estate 1

“How much is my property worth?”

Right from the Guys in the Trenches. Here is how we evaluate property, and where we/I think property values are going. Please note that this article is written by me, Ben, and that these ideas can vary from one real estate professional to the other, even within a single office. Rod may have contrasting ideas on these points.

Replacement Cost:

Costa Rica real estate

Appraising a Costa Rica Property.

The starting point the Costa Rica real estate professional uses in order to evaluate a property in today’s market is to calculate Replacement Cost.

Raw Land: We assign a value to the land. This value is based on market knowledge – ongoing efforts to sell, and of course, actual sales of land in the area. The value of a piece of raw land will get a surprisingly consistent evaluation amongst various agents polled. However, I’ll be putting a bit of a challenge on this point in a bit.

Construction Value: After establishing the value of the land as though there were nothing on it, we then measure the square footage of the house and assign it a price per square foot. Such is the life of a Costa Rica expat real estate agent. We live in a world where land size is referred to in metric (square meters – hectares) and houses in U. S. units (square feet).

The square foot value of a house is going to be bracketed somewhere around the $100.00 (USD) per foot. Contributing factors to this evaluation are: finishes, distance up the hill, steepness of the hill.

We are assuming that the basic foundation, drainage, and wall construct are dictated by universal laws that aren’t negotiable from one house to another. In Costa Rica you’ve got a few material choices, but the prices don’t really vary that much between them.  Concrete block is likely the most common. Cement panels are gaining some traction. Structural insulated panels are used by a number of builders. The use of wood in building is growing with Balinese architecture enjoying a fashionable presence in the market.

The construction of the roof can vary quite a bit and consequently can affect the per foot value. I know of one house in the zone that has a poured cement roof. This is cool stuff – absolute quiet during heavy duty rain storms, but we are talking HEAVY.

Less expensive roofs vary from the poured cement, to insulated sandwich layers, to tin with a dropped ceiling (the noisiest).

It is, arguably, the finishes that have the most direct effect on the value of the house. Granite counter tops – really fine plumbing fixtures, tiles and the details of the pool will push the bracket into the “over $100 per foot” range.

A pool adds $20,000 to $30,000 to the price.

Here is an example evaluation that I just did yesterday in my offce:

Raw land, $110,000

A 2,600 square foot house at $120 per foot. This particular house is located in an area that requires four wheel drive, so the shuttling of materials increased the per foot price quite a bit –
+ $110,000

Pool – $30,000

Replacement cost – $455,000

So, what do we do with this number? These people have dedicated a year of their lives to building this house.  They flew to Costa Rica every 6 weeks to check in on the progress and of course, make the innumerable decisions that need to be made in such a project. What is that worth?

Merciless Market:
Well, frankly, this is the part that the Costa Rica real estate market doesn’t really pay much heed to. The big consideration at this point is, do we offer to sell your house at replacement cost, above replacement cost, or below? In today’s world, pushing the price above replacement cost is a function of the real estate Guy’s market insight. We are in a Buyer’s Market.

The agent will consider the desirability of the property. The view, the access, the privacy, the air motion and so on – the general niceness of the property are all considered.  Based on this criteria, there can be some upward movement from the raw replacement cost.

Here is where it can get a bit strange. There are some houses that are priced below replacement cost.  How can this be?!? The land has an asset value, and the construction costs are fixed and don’t vary too awfully much from one source to another.

I am working on a new theory about this phenomenon in evaluating Costa Rica real estate

In my ruminations of this topic, I have come to conclude that there are two rational areas that we might have misjudged the value of a property. There is a third that can simply be explained by the seller being intensely motivated by desperation.

The Rational Considerations

Consideration #1 – The seller ran amok with making their construction and design a declaration of their personal individuality with the result that nobody in their right mind is going to want to live in such a structure. In order to buy the property and then live in it, the buyer will be taking on some serious expenses in order to make it livable for their purpose. The sale price is going to have to be adjusted down to accommodate these expenses.

Consideration #2 – I got the value of the land wrong. It’s not really worth what I said it is. This is the one that gets me, and brings about some interesting questions. Is land value here in Costa Rica really lower than what we are willing to admit? Hmmmmm…

What is NEVER factored in:
How much the seller has into the property.

I’m going to write more on the evaluation of property in our Costa Rica real estate market place. We have had some interesting discussions as of late with the vibrations of increasing buyer activity here in The Zone.

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