Interested in renovation or new construction in Costa Rica? This week, we are featuring part one of a two part interview series with Jeff Steffe, owner of the full-service construction management company, Figure 8 Management, out of Uvita, Costa Rica. Stay tuned for part 2 with Jeff next week where he addresses building options, costs, logistics, and more.
You are the owner of Figure 8 Management, which offers full-service construction management including building, remodeling, renovating and solar installation. Is this your main focus or are you working on other projects as well?
Figure 8 Management is primarily a full-service construction management firm. Lately, with the real estate market here booming, I’m also performing a tremendous amount of home inspections for potential buyers in the area. This is the busiest season I’ve had yet and the last few months have been on fire with the amount of people coming in. Some people are buying virtually, sight unseen other than video tours and really good interviews with the real estate agents showing the property. As a result, home inspections have been booming, so they’ve been a big focus for me lately.
I’m also working on a complete remodel in partnership with an investor friend from the US. Through a new construction company we formed called 9 Degrees North Collective, we’re buying and renovating properties with our own crews and these beautiful new homes will be for sale when they’re complete.
Where did you move from and what made you choose to move to Costa Ballena?
In the fall of 2014, my wife and I came to Costa Rica for the first time to feel out whether we’d like to move here. A few months later we came back with our kids to investigate further. Both of those trips were in the Guanacaste region, and though we knew that wasn’t where we wanted to live, we were totally intent on moving here.
Exactly a year after our first trip to Costa Rica, we had sold off our city life in Chicago and moved to the Costa Ballena area. We wanted to live someplace with a tight knit expat community, lush jungles, epic waterfalls, beautiful rivers and easy access to beaches. We found all that and more here in the Costa Ballena.
We flew into San José, immediately bought a car and two days later we drove to this area where we’ve been for the last 5 years. There have been some challenging days for sure, but we’ve loved it. Every day is a new adventure, and this has been such a blessing for our little family.
We had a realization when we were getting ready to put our son in Kindergarten that we were working 80 hour weeks and that we desperately wanted something different for ourselves. We needed a change of pace. We wanted to spend more quality time with our boy, and each other. I only saw him for a few short hours on weekdays and it was mostly in the evening when we were all exhausted from the day. We were living the typical North American hustle lifestyle… you know, make money, buy the big house, buy all the things to fill the house, take expensive vacations to escape the life we created. We soon realized it wasn’t how we wanted to spend our life, while essentially having someone else raise our son. This was really the most beneficial place to come to enjoy each other as well as our family.
Did you move to Costa Rica with the intention of continuing working or did something inspire you here?
When we first moved to Costa Rica, I think like most people who come down here, you don’t really know what you’re going to do especially if you don’t have an online business. Neither of us have an online business and we wanted to do something where we worked together. We came with the idea of opening a B&B. The dream was to build a homestead with cabinas so we can spend the days working together, collaborating and building.
When we got here, we realized that this area was flush with a tremendous amount of rental homes, boutique hotels and guest houses for rent. We fell into a property management gig where we were actually able to test drive our dream of hosting guests from around the world, and after the second or third client we quickly realized that the bed and breakfast wasn’t what we wanted to do. Lindsay is a hairdresser and she picked up those skills again here. And after a few discussions with new friends we made here, I realized that many people were in need of the skills I could provide in inspection, building, and project management.
I started Figure 8 Management in 2016 and became an advocate for people who want to build in Costa Ballena. I was a contractor back in the States and I realized that my experience makes me the perfect liaison between property owners and their builder. My clients may not understand construction or they can’t be at the site 24/7 during the build. They may have a lot of questions about the process or they want an extra set of eyes on the site. Those needs were the genesis of Figure 8 Management.
What are some recent projects you have worked on in Costa Ballena?
I’ve been fortunate to have work all over the coast – from the Hills of Portalon all the way south past Tres Rios. I keep my region local to the Costa Ballena area. I’ve had projects as small as a couple of thousand dollars all the way up to projects that were over a million.
I offer a full service detail to projects as small as you want or as large as you want. I know it’s kind of cliché to say that no job is too small but everybody has a different type of want and need. Sometimes the small jobs are more fun, they’re quick, and you realize right away what a small amount of work can do to upgrade a smaller house. I offer free estimates and it’s nice to be able to see people’s faces when the plans on paper become an actual product on the ground. It’s a passion of mine to see how people really love the change a renovation can bring.
What do you find to be the most popular style of home that people are looking to build in this region?
In the time I’ve been here, the most popular style of home that people are looking to build in this region is all over the board. I’ve seen the Hacienda style that people really like and there is also modern that is always popular. I’d say it’s right around 50/50 Spanish colonial and modern from the clientele that I’ve worked with. There have been the occasional outlandish styles that people want to build and we are always aiming to deliver what our client wants.
What are the most popular/requested projects that people are looking for in this market?
Lately, the most requested projects are upgrades or renovations to either a kitchen or a bathroom. A few of them have done pool extensions and terrace expansions as well. But the most typically requested project is definitely a kitchen remodel. A lot of older homes in Costa Ballena that were built 10-15 years ago have really small, dark kitchens that are kind of closed off. A lot of people looking for properties in Costa Rica love the indoor-outdoor living situation and some of the kitchens are instead buried in a corner. So a lot of my clients have opened up their kitchens to where they can entertain easier and see their guests or their family and see the outdoors.
What are the most common renovations you find are needed in homes in Costa Ballena?
I would say that the most common renovations that are needed in the homes in Costa Ballena are also the kitchens and the bathrooms. But definitely the kitchens are first and foremost to get people out of the corner, out of the darkness, and to open them up to a view of the ocean or the mountains or whatever their view may be. And to open their view to their friends and family to where they can still entertain while being in the kitchen. I feel that’s the biggest life-changing renovation that’s needed in older homes here.
What are some of the most valuable changes that a homeowner on a budget can make to an older home in Costa Rica to better their quality of life?
Some of the most valuable changes that homeowners can make to an older home in Costa Rica is opening up the house to indoor-outdoor living and entertaining. Most of the time, people who live here find themselves spending a lot of the day outdoors. By either adding an area outside of a home where you can comfortably enjoy the daytime or even the early evening before the bugs get too bad, maybe a place where you can cook outside, or somewhere you can enjoy the swimming pool with friends and family and the views. The most valuable change you can make is to open up the house to where you can make a living space that can feel interior and exterior all in one.
You have bought and sold homes in the past and worked with many clients doing the same. If you were to give advice to sellers, what would you recommend for upgrading an older home to help it sell?
I would recommend anybody looking to sell an older home in the area 3 main things: always check the roof, always check the plumbing, and always check the electrical. As a home inspector and a builder here, those are the three areas that are typically in the worst state in older homes. A lot of times, if there’s a leak in the roof, bandaids are put on the holes or the roof is filled with silicon to prevent leaking. Over time, the amount of leaks that can happen in the roofing can cause significant damage to the ceiling, soffits, and facia. Those become very costly the longer you let them go.
As a general rule, plumbing and electrical are two of the areas that when you’re building something, you may want to spend a little bit more on and make sure you have a good contractor who will do US-style code work, like installing large enough plumbing tubes where toilet paper can be flushed. And the electrical is wired correctly, where there’s no issues of faulty wiring or problems down the road.
Do you find it more valuable to buy an older home in a great location that you can renovate or to build from scratch?
I myself find it more valuable to take an older home that has a great location and do some renovations. Some older homes here have a tremendous amount of charm and spectacular views. If you can give these homes nice upgrades, I think that’s the best way to go. I do like new homes but they also come with their own issues. My opinion would be if you have an older home in a great location, I would opt for renovation.
Renovations can be pretty pricey but a lot of times you can pick up an older home for a little bit cheaper. You still have really good bones and you can take it from there and establish a really nice home with a little TLC.
Stay tuned for next week’s part 2 of this interview where Jeff goes into timelines, costs, logistics, and more details about construction in Costa Rica. Subscribe to our newsletter below to stay up-to-date with new articles, videos, and more.