Our detailed insider list is packed with the top 20 things everyone should know before buying property in Costa Rica 2020 edition

Original article published June 6, 2018
Updated July 2, 2020

We love reading and making lists at the Osa Tropical Properties office! And today’s list is inspired by a recent social media discussion about what everyone should know before buying a house (in general). We took the best of the best and the most upvoted advice and gave it our Costa Rica-focused spin so we could present you with our list of the top 20 things you should know about buying property in Costa Rica!

Our goal is to help clients profit from making the very best Costa Rica real estate investment for them. This means that we are open and forthcoming about things like price vs. value, what makes a good home location, and problem areas to definitely check into before making your purchase. We hope that this list will save you a lot of time and headache by giving you our expert advice on the things that most people want to know about buying real estate in Costa Rica.

Don’t trust the listing images to give you the full picture

When searching online, you’ll see some great looking exterior pictures and many lot pictures showing amazing views. If you’re from the developed world, you might try to check Google Street View to see what the surroundings really look like. In Costa Rica, we’re a bit behind on Google Maps’ satellite capture outside of the main beaches, restaurants and a few hotels and vacation home stays.  While there are genuinely a lot of great properties available for sale, what’s most important is that you get your boots on the ground to avoid buying anything sight unseen, or have a great agent who will do virtual video tours of any properties that you are determined to buy, even if from a distance.

Observe the elements when on the property

There are a lot of things you can do to a house after buying it. You can repaint, redecorate, change the furniture, change the floors and fixtures, add or remove walls, convert the attic or even add an extension. What you cannot do is change the location or orientation of your house.

Our best advice is to check in which direction the windows are pointed and where the sun comes up in relation to the home depending on if you want the sun pouring in first thing in the morning or you want to watch the sunset from your patio in the afternoon. Also check if there are breezes flowing naturally across the property and through the home, and which time of day or night they come through (trust us, the breezier the better!)

These are the types of features that savvy architects and builders know to observe when planning a home that will make all the difference to your quality of life. If you have a quality local realtor, they will know exactly which houses are aligned in the best ways to make the most of the natural elements in the location. We know which locations have the most relaxing river sounds or which houses take advantage of the mountain and coastal breezes the most. We also know which jungle view homes will have the most frequent animal sightings! The trick is to know to ask your realtor to keep the natural elements you care about in mind when they are searching for properties to show you,

Pro tip: Sunset views from your bedroom are spectacular but be aware that this will also mean that your bedroom is heating up just before you go to sleep.

Also, it pays to visit the property during the green season (between May and November) to see for certain if there are any property drainage issues or landslides in the area. These are not prevalent issues but they are details that bad realtors may gloss over.

Don’t just fall for the house (love the yard, too)

Everyone in real estate talks extensively about the house for sale. But in Costa Rica, the property itself is one of the biggest factors in determining your enjoyment of it based on how much regular work and expense is needed. Do you prefer a small lot with very little maintenance? Or an expansive acreage with elaborate gardens and landscaping features like a tilapia pond with a small waterfall? Maybe you’re not sure but this is definitely something to consider that will have a strong impact on your enjoyment of your Costa Ballena property.

The Costa Ballena is a region of Costa Rica’s South Pacific that is heavily covered in tropical rain forest. You can expect that your Dominical, Uvita or Ojochal property will receive heavy rainfalls throughout the year. This is where proper landscaping and features like mature fruit trees become very important and will help with maintaining drainage. Aside from adding beauty to a property, landscaping helps with water drainage and plant root systems keep the earth from washing away in a landslide.

Buyer beware: Lazy gardeners may attempt a few quick fixes to beautify a property prior to putting it on the market, leaving the buyer with serious maintenance work afterward. Finding a property with mature landscaping is a bonus for those who want an easy transition for moving in. Others may want the challenge of creating their gardens from scratch. It’s good to decide which you are before choosing which property to purchase.

Houses don’t necessarily appreciate in value; great land appreciates

The cost of building a home can sometimes be equivalent to the cost of buying an existing home for sale in Costa Ballena. This leads certain buyers with more time and energy to choose the route of building their dream home in Costa Rica. However, great lots are harder and harder to come by these days (as legendary real estate investor, Will Rogers, said about land: “they ain’t making any more of it”). Even if you do end up building a beautiful spec home, it may not be as easy to sell as the older home on a spectacular lot. The best advice we have for speculators is that it is more cost efficient to buy an older home in a desirable location than to build a “wow” house in a not-so-desirable spot. In Costa Rican real estate, as with anywhere else, location is everything. A good realtor will make sure that their investor clients know the most lucrative locations to build a spec home, which homes are worth renovating, and where to situate for the highest vacation rental income.

Get to know the neighborhood

Pick a property to buy that is in an area that you like. This may seem obvious and you might think that you like a lot about the area at first glance. But depending on the time of day or the time of year, there are factors that may not jump out right away that can become a nuisance over time. Traffic noise, construction in the area, a driving thoroughfare – these are things that are good to test for at different times of day to make sure that your leisure time is not being disturbed every day. A great suggestion is to walk through the neighborhood at different times of day.

Keep in mind that traffic will change significantly between the high season and low season for tourism. And if you are located next to a number of vacation rentals, you may be inundated with people enjoying vacation time in your midst for part of the year.

Pro-tip: Look at the facilities in the area compared to the local population and assess if they are likely to expand in the near future. Ask your realtor if there are plans on record for future services and/or expansion of facilities. These can change the dynamic of the community – for better or for worse.

Introduce yourself to potential neighbors

Give it your best effort to meet your neighbors if you are close enough to see and hear each other. You’ll probably be looking at the house around midday so keep in mind that most people are out during this time. If you instead check in around 6-7 in the morning, you get a much better feel for how the neighborhood operates. For example, it’s good to know if your neighbors have dogs that bark all night or run around the neighborhood unleashed. Or there may be roosters in the house next door that crow from 4:30am.  If you love to sleep late into the day, avoid these homes.

Pro tip: Look at how people maintain their yards. If there are weeds everywhere on the outside, they probably aren’t maintaining the inside either, which might affect your property value in the future.

Inspect and categorize

Write down your priorities and create a house hunting list has 3 categories: not fixable (things like the location, lot size, etc), fixable but costly or difficult (like changing the structural layout, adding a pool, etc) and easily fixable (paint, counters, floors etc).  This list will be different for different people so make sure that you know what YOUR non-negotiables are before you begin searching and get swept up in all of the choices.

Make a list ranking what you cannot compromise on going down to stuff you like but can live without. Your list will change when you look at houses and realize certain things are not within your budget, or if there are things that money cannot buy (like a million dollar home right on the beach in southern Costa Rica).  You may also be able to convince the current owners to fix certain things, so be prepared to ask them about your non-negotiables before you decide to invest any more of your time.

Check the foundation

One key thing that everyone should inspect is the foundation of the home, which is likely to be the most expensive thing to fix in a home. It should be part of your home inspection and foundation issues should be a high priority on your list of inspections, especially if the house is already having issues such as cracked tiles and walls.

Know what standards to look for in older homes

When looking at any house in Costa Rica that was built more than a few years ago, make sure that it meets modern needs, like having sufficient electrical outlets and capacity (you don’t want to run power bars off of power bars to set up your standard home entertainment system).  Also inspect the plumbing, for which standards have gone up significantly in recent years.

Pay close attention to certain details if the property was used as a rental

If the home you are looking at has been a popular vacation rental, we suggest that you closely inspect the major items of maintenance. Property managers can be frugal in their repairs while the property owners are away and tenants don’t generally care too much unless the place is falling apart. If there is no homeowner taking pride in keeping the place at a high standard, there may be recurring maintenance issues that have been temporarily patched over that you won’t discover for some time.

Always check the water pressure

It takes nearly nothing to turn a tap on and check the pressure of the water and it makes a world of difference to many. In Costa Rica, it is a great suggestion to check the pressure at different times of day. Because this is a mountainous region, in certain locations, water pressure may fluctuate throughout the day with more usage upstream.

Pro-tip: Most homes in the Southern Zone are on a shared water system, maintained by the township or the developer. If you are looking at a lot, it is advised to ask if there is a concession for the water, what the system is, and how well it operates.

Check your phone and internet signal

Both cell and internet signals are growing in consistency in our region. However, not every provider is available in every area yet.  If you are wanting to go with a specific internet provider, this might be a non-negotiable that is worth it to ask about. Bear in mind that fiber-optic cable is being installed throughout the country and is working its way around the Southern Zone, with great coverage in many areas. If you are looking to work remotely while living in Costa Rica, ask your realtor to recommend the areas with the highest speed internet connections.

Hire a professional inspector that YOU choose

A private home inspector can cost $500-$800, but in our opinion, it’s absolutely necessary. They should be the ones to check the foundation, the plumbing (including the drain pipes leaving the house) and the electrical work – which are the three key items that really rack up repair costs.

A skilled home inspector will also point things out like moisture build-up in certain areas that can cause mold, or termite tracks painted over on the walls. A good inspector will provide you with a detailed report (in English) describing the structural integrity, the materials used in the structure of the home, where there are issues and what they are.

Pro-tip: In Costa Rica, roofs generally need superficial repairing/repainting every two years due to the tropical climate but inspectors should still check the integrity of the roof structure.

Anticipate the extra costs

We always tell people who are buying their first home in Costa Rica to make an estimate of all the little things they’ll need to buy and then double it. Most people have a handle on the bigger things they’ll need to buy, but don’t consider the smaller, ancillary things. Like anywhere else, it all costs more than you’d expect, even if you’re importing many items.

Be realistic about what you’ll need because you’ll still need money left over if you have any plans for improving your property in the future. Expect several trips to the ferreteria (hardware store) every weekend for the first few weeks as you get things to your standards.

Pro tip: Be realistic about how much of your spare time you’re willing to put into improving your home. When you’re out looking at homes to buy, it becomes almost trivial to think “I can fix that after we close.” Home improvement can quickly become a full-time job that eats up all of your free time, leaving little time for actually enjoying your new home. With all of the little items to consider, time spent on DIY can really add up.

Speaking of DIY, many people are not really technically inclined. While it’s not super hard to learn how to rewire an outlet, be realistic about your skills and how much you’re willing to learn. That weekend project you wanted to bang out could turn into many weekends or end in frustration, leaving you to hire someone to do it for you, which becomes an expense you didn’t account for.

Add the future into your budget

If there is something that you can foresee changing financially for you somewhere in the future, make sure you don’t borrow at the maximum that your bank will lend you back home to buy your home in Costa Rica (it is very unlikely that you will be able to secure a loan in Costa Rica and seller financing is not always on offer, although increasingly so. But don’t count on either of those options).

Even if you buy the home as an investment or to rent, don’t buy a bigger or more expensive house than you can afford now and in the future.  You need to budget for home repairs and upkeep and the amount needed depends on the size of the house, age of the house, and your ability to DIY.  It will average out to several thousand dollars per year regardless.

Avoid conflict in negotiations

As the buyer, you should always select your own lawyer. The seller may choose to use the same lawyer but try to avoid choosing the lawyer that is already in a relationship with the seller so that you have your specific interests looked after fairly.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal

There will be other properties — maybe even better ones — than the one you are fighting to have now. Pura vida.

Listen to your own advice

As soon as you announce that you’re looking to buy foreign property in a tropical region, you can expect all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork with all their well-intentioned advice based on their friend or someone who knows someone. Remember that principles that may have been true in the past don’t necessarily continue to be so in a fluctuating property market, nor does every example ring true for everyone.

By that same token, don’t just trust your real estate agent on any of the above advice – talk to everyone that you can and hear advice from everyone you can tolerate.  Find the local experts in their field and talk to the expats who have thrived the long haul.

At the end of the day, it will be your gut that will drive you to make the best decision for you. Owning a home in Costa Rica is an incredible experience… for those who are ready and willing to take the steps that will lead them to find comfort in this natural paradise. For everyone else, there’s always the holidays.

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