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.


The Hidden Market


I’ve just submitted an article to Tico Times about the time we are in right now that is favorable for spec home building. Now let’s add to this another factor that is not as obvious. Well… it is actually every bit as obvious. It’s just that it is hidden, which is a gracious way of saying: neglected. And by virtue of it being neglected, it is a bit unknown.

Little House view

View from the “Little House”

The Zone is in an expansion period. There is a strong market here for existing houses. Many of these homes are in the $400,000 – $1,000,000 market and beyond. The realtors here are doing well selling these properties. When I get an ocean view house listing in the $350,000 range, I view it as solid gold, because this price point is in high demand, and relative to our market here, is in the low side of the range. It will likely sell quickly.

There is little to no financing on the purchase of a house in Costa Rica. This means that the buyer of a house needs to be liquid starting at right around $350,000. What about those that aren’t packing this amount of liquid cash?

The Hidden Market:

One of my sellers of a $60,000 property has consulted with me about how he can sell his property. This man knows his way around The Zone’s real estate market. He has been involved in millions of dollars worth of property business during his time here. Why did he feel the need to consult with me? Because I took his listing. He can’t get any of the local real estate guys out to his property to list it. They are not interested. Despite being low priced, his property represents a considerable amount of listing work. The real estate guy’s perspective is that he can spend his time taking a listing for, say, a $750,000 house, or for this man’s property that pays less than a tenth of the house. Duh!

I recently took a listing on a small, 1 bedroom, 1 bath house nearby to where I live in Playa Hermosa, which is a small pueblo just north of Uvita. It had been refurbished by an investor. He had found an older Tico (Costa Rican) house that he fortified, re-tiled throughout, put in a small pool and generally fixed it up. The resulting house offered what many are looking for but are having a very difficult time finding: “Ocean view home, with pool for $129,000, 7 minutes from the grocery store”. Yowza! This took me less than 3 months to sell, and I continue to receive inquiries on the property. I wish that I had another dozen of these. Alas, I don’t. But, the same (or similar) effect of this property can be achieved in other ways.

Cracking the Hidden Market Nut: Buy one of the available lots on the market, build a modest but nice home on it, and you are in it for less than $300,000. You can then live in this house, or you can put it on the market in the under $300,000 range.

In my Tico Times article, I spell out a scenario where the house is priced at $429,000. Getting a house on the market for under $300k and that is nice, will result in a line at the door.

Properties similar to the Little House I had at $129k are nearly non-existent. These are so extremely rare that, even with the buy-and-build approach, are difficult to duplicate – difficult but not impossible. And this is the Hidden Market here.

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can bring a limited budget to the table and still own a home here in The Zone, you are looking into the Hidden Market. It may be that you’ve done some searching, and perhaps you’ve even found some properties that look like they’ll work for your budget. But then when you inquire, or look a little deeper into it, you find out why the property is priced as it is. It may be way out in the sticks, or the property itself may have some problems that explain why it is priced so low.

The caveat to solving the Hidden Market problem is that currently, all of the solutions I know of require buying raw land and then building. This is beyond what many are looking for or are willing to do. However, if you’ve got a limited budget, and you really want to own a home here in The Zone, consider buying and building. Your possibilities are: 1) wait for another Little House option to come on the market, or 2) buy one of the low priced, but good, raw land options and then build on it. If you are one of those that say “I can’t build in a foreign land”, then you are going to need to go with option #1. It may be a long wait.

The purpose of this article is not to go into the ins and outs of building here. That is for another article (or post your question below). Suffice it to say that there are some good options for doing so, and that some have even had good experiences building in absentia. I’m hoping that this information will help what I feel to be a rather large segment of the buying population who are frustrated by their inability to find a property in their budget.

Let’s get started. Here are a few properties right now that I feel solve the Hidden Market problem:

Lot for sale in Uvita Costa Rica Town Uvita Ready to build, all services in, about 5 minutes to the grocery store and 10 to the beach. No ocean view, but in a very nice area.

Click to view

Price $60,000
Type Land
Size 1/2 Acre
Lot for sale in Uvita good for spec home.
Some of the usable area on the $69,000, 1 acre lot.
Town Uvita One acre of nearly all usable land. Located about 4 minutes to the grocery store. Beautiful location. The services are in. Needs simple tractor work to get it ready to build, all services in. Some ocean view. This is just next to the $60k option above. A father-son selling team.

Click to view

Price $69,000
Type Land
Size 1 Acre

Ballena building site.

View of Roca Ballena from the $83,000 spec home lot.

Town Ballena South of Uvita:

Centrally located between Uvita & Ojochal. Looking straight out to the Roca Ballena configuration. This lot is ready to build. The water will need to be run from a neighbor’s well system. The electric is at the road the runs by the property. Ocean view including the Roca Ballena formation.

Click to view

Price $83,000
Type Land
Size 1 Acre+
A sort of companion article with links just posted: “Disappearing Breed: Under $100k Ocean View Lots”

If you haven’t read the Tico Times article that I reference at the start of this article, do so. You can scale down the costs outlined there for construction to calculate if you can buy one of these properties and then build on it. Ah what the heck, I’ll do some of it here. (I’ve hit my 1,000 word limit. As a blogger I’m told that you, dear reader, have a declining attention span for reading such length. Let’s prove ‘em wrong.)

Let’s find you a builder who can build your house for $85.00 per foot. Let’s say that you want to build a 1,200 sq. ft. home. Your building costs will be $102,000. If you want a pool, add $15,000. And then let’s add another $10,000 for permits, landscaping and incidentals. So your costs are right around $130,000. Add the price of your property and you’ve got your Hidden Market home.

Fiddle with these numbers. Keep in mind that we are in Costa Rica for a reason. And this reason isn’t to be sitting inside watching the tele. Build your house cheap. This isn’t to say “low quality”. Just enclose & secure the bedrooms, bathrooms and (if you like) a media room. Go ahead and have plenty of areas under roof, but who needs walls? Your kitchen can even be open-air here. What we need is a place to sit, do yoga, talk with friends etc… that is protected from the sun and the rain.  That $85.00 per foot figure can be pushed down.

Or try this: buy that $60,000 property, build a decent abode on it for $70,000, and you’ve duplicated the Little House scenario, just without the ocean view.