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The 20 Things You Should Know Before Buying Property in Costa Rica

We love reading and making lists at the Osa Tropical Properties office, and today’s list is inspired by a recent online thread that discussed what everyone should know before buying a house.  Taking a bit of very sage (and wisely upvoted) advice and giving it our Costa Rica spin, we present to you our list of the 20 things you should know before buying property in Costa Rica:

Don’t trust the listing pictures to give you the full context of the property.

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 want to check Google Street View to see what the surroundings really look like.  In Costa Rica, we’re a bit behind on the geo-mapping so the most you will see is a pixelated satellite image.  While there are genuinely a lot of great properties available for sale – there are also many agents who are skilled with a drone and can fake a beautiful view. What’s most important is that you get your boots on the ground and don’t buy anything sight unseen.

Observe the elements.

You can do a lot to a house in your time there; 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 of your house, so check which direction the windows are pointing and where the sun comes up in relation to the home.  Are there breezes flowing naturally across the property and through the home? These are features that savvy architects and builders know to observe when planning a home and will make all the difference to your quality of life.

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 rainy season (between May and November) to see for certain if there are any leaks in the roof or if there are areas on the property that are prone to heavy flooding.

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

Everyone in real estate talks extensively about the house but the yard also matters in terms of how much work and expense the place will be.  In a country that is heavily covered in tropical rain forest, you can expect that your property will receive heavy rainfalls throughout the year.  This is where proper landscaping becomes very important.  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 work afterward.

Houses don’t appreciate; Land appreciates.

With the cost of building a home being roughly equal to the cost of many existing homes for sale in our local real estate market, many buyers are taking the route of building their dream home for themselves.  But great lots are harder and harder to come by these days (as Will Rogers said about land: “they ain’t making any more of it”).  Even if you do end up building a beautiful home, it may not be as easy to sell as the older home on a spectacular lot. Sometimes it is better to buy a less desirable house in a desirable location than a “wow” house in a less desirable spot.  In Costa Rican real estate, as with anywhere else, location is everything.

Get to know the neighborhood.

Make sure the property you are looking at is in an area that you like. 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 all day, every day.  A great suggestion is to walk through the neighborhood at different times during the week.

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 at the local municipality office 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 mid-day, but 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 at these times, 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 can affect property values 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 on a home. It should be part of your home inspection and foundation issues should be a high priority on your list of deal breakers, especially if the house is already having issues such as cracked tiles and walls.

Avoid buying a house from a flipper.

People who professionally flip homes are a worldwide phenomenon and everywhere they are equally good at covering up problems in such a way that you won’t notice them until you’ve lived in the house for a bit.

If a house you were looking at was built in a booming housing market, at a time when house flipping was a pastime, make sure to check the fundamentals like structure and foundation, for instance. Too many rush jobs were built in time to sell, then dressed up with superficial cosmetics.  A cheap build will always be a cheap build.  Sometimes it is better to buy a house in worse condition superficially that you can fix to your own standards.

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.

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 the 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” for the issues around the home. Home improvement can quickly become your job that eats up all of your free time, leaving little time for actually enjoying your new home. Just like all of the little items mentioned, time spent on DIY really adds 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.

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 south to our location but the timeline is not certain and it cannot be counted on to reach every home in this area in the next few years.

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 a very infrequent possibility, so 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.

Be prepared to own to the property for a few years.

The local real estate market has risen and fallen many times over the last 20 years since developers started marketing South Pacific Costa Rica to Americans and Canadians.  These booms and busts have largely been dependent on the strength of the markets that expats typically come from. When a stock market turns downward, one of the first things to go is the luxury item like the vacation home in Costa Rica.  And even though the buyer’s market has been growing in this region for years now, new sellers keep coming on the market as their personal financial situations change back home. This means that you may end up having to wait to sell your home if the market is not right for the price that you need.

Pro-tip: As with any long-term investment, be prepared to hold onto your Costa Rica property for up to 10 years if you want to sell it for top dollar.  It may not take 10 years to sell for a good price, but it’s great advice to put you in the frame of mind to wait patiently for the right time to get the right outcome.

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 survived 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.