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.


Living Off The Grid In Costa Rica


My business partner Ben likes to call them the “End of the World-ers”. People who have reason to believe there will be major global changes in the near future. They are interested in buying land and living off the grid in Costa Rica. By off the grid I’m referring to not being connected to the government-run electrical system. They are looking at Costa Rica as a relocation option, because of favorable factors like- weather, low taxes, friendly culture, good health care, etc. Recent “End of the World” clients include– a couple from France interested in le Costa Rica, a large family from California tired of the rat race, an eco-hotel group from Switzerland… clearly, living off the grid in Costa Rica is on the global radar.

solar powered cabin in costa rica

Off the grid… in the jungle.

If you’re anything like the aforementioned relocators wanting to buy land here, you’re in luck!  There are many big fincas (Spanish for farms) in this renewable energy Eden.  We use the term farm, but only a very small subset are actual working farms with barns, cows, and roosters.  Drive 15 minutes into the mountains above Uvita or Ojochal and you can find stunning property with flowing water; some even have ocean views!  The best news is you can grow many different types of food in the mountains of Costa Rica.

Most big fincas range from a short walk to town (and close to electricity lines) to 25-minute 4wd dirt road drive to town and no electricity for kilometers.  The beauty, privacy and value of farms way up in the mountains are exemplary, but what to do about power?

Solar

Installing a solar power system is smart, especially in the southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica.  This region sits at around nine degrees North of the Equator which offers 12 hours of Sun/day, and there is relatively little variation throughout the year. Solar panel energy production is calculated at half that number (6 hours) in rainy season and/or at higher elevations that often have more clouds cover.

Reportedly, Costa Rica has agreed to lift the tariff on imported solar panels and accessories, so the price to install a solar system shouldn’t be as cost prohibitive, moving forward.  Solar systems with batteries for storage are completely self-sufficient.  In addition to solar panels and an inverter, this type of system requires batteries to store the energy created for use at a later time.

If you’re going to be off the grid, experts recommend an alternative energy source to compliment the primary system.  This is especially true during months with heavy rainfall/cloud cover (September-November).  Gas-powered generators are nice to have, but for truly sustainable off-grid power, you’ll want to consider hydro or wind turbine options.

Wind and Hydro

If you think about it, wind… is actually a form of solar energy. The earth’s atmosphere is heated unevenly by the sun and this phenomena (modified by different terrain—bodies of water, vegetative cover, etc.) creates wind.   We see a version of this here in the southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica.

Every day around 10am, an ocean breeze blows on-shore.  This breeze lasts for five or six hours and tops out at around between 8-10 knots.  Most (affordable) wind turbines need more than 10 knots (11.5 km) to generate substantial kilowatts/hour number.

Hydro power, on the other hand, is viable option if your property has a river on it with a significant drop in elevation.  According to Paul at Osa Water Works, these small-scale hydro systems can produce over 2kw/hour (that’s 48kw/day!).  Paul bases energy consumption at around 30 kw/day as an average.  Obviously, that average will be higher if you have a swimming pool on your sustainable farm, but something tells me that’s probably not high up on your list.

Rio River In Uvita Costa Rica

Rivers = hydroelectric potential in Costa Rica.

What is high up on the list is water.  Fresh water, usually in the form of natural springs and rivers, or a year-round creek at the very least, is a must.  If you are going to buy land and live “off the grid”, you would be smart to buy a property with a river running through it or along one of its borders.  This is one of the few continuous (as in 24 hours per day continuous) renewable power resources on the planet.

There are a couple of details specific to Costa Rica, namely obtaining a concession (i.e., legal right to extract water from a given source).  In the interest of providing legit information, I asked hydro-expert Paul Collar at Osa Water Works about concessions as they relate to hydro-systems,

“Technically, you are not mandated by law to have a concession for any water extraction.  However, you are expected to apply.”

I asked him if the river had to run through the property or simply run along one of the borders.

”You do not have to own the land adjacent to where the water is being extracted to secure a concession, BUT, you must bound the river at some point, preferably continuous to the property where the water is to be extracted.  As part of the concession application, you ARE REQUIRED to make the bounding property owner aware of your intentions and he must either sign off and agree to your request… or alternately you must sign (and have a witness sign) to the effect that the bounding property owner was made aware of your intentions but refused to sign the form in question… however, having an agreement between the parties is infinitely preferable as a hostile relationship poisons the well.

I found Paul’s comments (and pun) insightful, and many others seem to agree given his business activity has remained strong during the downturn.  Although not specific to “off the grid” clients, his final thoughts on Costa Rican governments move to allow small scale, alternative energy systems (solar, wind, hydro) tying into the grid.

“ICE is presently in negotiations with Setena and MINAE to ELIMINATE the requirement of a concession (for grid-tie systems).  At present, the wording is that a concession must be in hand for a completed grid-tie hydro authorization, but since concessions take up to two years and ICE is fully behind their grid-tie initiative, this agreement is expected to smooth the path to hydro permitting for most. 

For an overview of Water in Costa Rica, I wrote a two part article a couple of years ago.  Costa Rica is considered one of the more “green” or environmentally conscious countries in the world.  The government has repeatedly stated its intention to be carbon-neutral by 2021.  That’s only 9 years off, and it’s one of the reasons Costa Rica real estate is on the radar of many people who want to relocate and live a more independent and sustainable lifestyle.

For more information on Costa Rica real estate, browse our listings at: www.propertiesincostarica.com  or contact us on our contact page here.

For more information on alternative energy systems in Costa Rica, contact Paul Collar at Osa Power and Water 011-506-8704-0027 or visit his website:  www.osapower.com .


About Tigre

My first visit to Costa Rica was in 2002. I immediately fell in love with the warmth of the climate and people. After spending two weeks in San Jose, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, and Tamarindo in Guanacaste, I knew there was a good chance I would return sooner than later. Sooner came just 6 months later when my uncle mentioned he was flying down to Costa Rica to close on a piece of property in the Southern Pacific Zone. On that trip I found my own piece of paradise above the small town of San Buenaventura, home to the San Buenas Golf Resort. Two years and 8 trips later, I decided to move to Costa Rica full time. Every day I am thankful for that decision.