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Costa Rica: Where to live

San Jose

The capital is home to only 300,000 people, but the city certainly doesn’t feel small when you drive in from the airport to the city centre. You have to do this through two or three lanes of gridlocked traffic for an hour, observing suburbs that seem to reach into the mountains in all directions.

Getting around San Jose’s one-way, grid system streets can be very slow, especially during rush hour. There are lots of buses but no metropolitan railway or tube. For this reason, you may choose to live within walking or cycling distance of your job and local shops.

Walking around downtown San Jose, it seems as if everywhere is the same: a bit rundown but punctuated by the odd renovated urban retreat sparkling like a diamond in the rough. This seems to be the key to downtown home-hunting: renovated lofts that aren’t much to look at from the outside but have all the mod cons and more inside.

Nice neighbourhoods and suburbs include:

  • Willow Glen with its colonial grandeur
  • Almaden, which looks like an upmarket American suburb
  • up and coming Los Gatos
  • Silver Creek, which promises high-quality suburban living.

At the bargain end of the market, you can find small basic apartments for sale in the region of $70,000 though many will be a bus ride from the centre. You can buy a small, basic two-bed house for $120,000. As is the case with most places in the world, the further from the centre you go, the more land you get and the less you’ll pay. North of $120,000, the apartments become grander and more central. At around $150,000 you start to see 2,500 sq ft four-bedroom homes with drives and garages. $250,000-280,000 can buy some very grand homes from super-modern to more traditional styles.

You can buy a luxury 28,000 sq ft villa with a pool and four bedrooms for $1.5m right in the middle of San Jose.

Rentals in San Jose are comparable to American and European cities with two- and three-bedroom apartments ranging from$1,000-$1,200 per month. Monthly budgets of $10,000 and upwards takes you into the most salubrious environs in and around the capital.

(All property examples as of February 2018).

If you can live anywhere…

The best way to understand where to live in Costa Rica is to break locations down:

  • San Jose and suburbs
    • Pacific coast
    • Towns/cities
    • Villages
    • Rural
  • Caribbean coast
    • Towns/cities
    • Villages
    • Rural
  • Inland
    • Towns/cities
    • Villages and rural

The following observations are generalisations and exceptions to every rule can usually be found.

Unlike large capitals such as Rome, New York and London, San Jose doesn’t feel as if it has many large or specific areas with a particular character — rich areas, poor areas; old areas, new areas — until you get into the suburbs.

The Pacific coast has an American feel with its white mid-rise resorts, smart villas and Western-style bars and restaurants, not to mention many of the 1.7 million mainly US and Canadian tourists who visit each year. The Caribbean coast has a more culturally Caribbean vibe, from bohemian backpackers to modest colourful homes lining the roads.

Costa Rican towns are often a few roads on a grid, such as Quepos and Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, while villages can be little more than denser gatherings of houses on a single road, such as Manzanillo.

Five mountain ranges run down the middle of Costa Rica, so inland towns tend to be surrounded by soaring peaks or plummeting gorges, either rocky or carpeted by lush cloud forest.

Expats in more rural areas often complain about intermittent internet connectivity or weak signals.

Towns

Costa Rica’s next largest city after San Jose is Limón - a large port on the Caribbean coast and home to about 63,000 people. Limón’s downtown has some scenic streets but much of it is industrial and there are vast numbers of lorries taking goods to San Jose, including one of Costa Rica’s most famous exports: the banana.

Where towns haven’t grown up around industry and shipping, they tend to have grown around one or more tourist destinations, from the volcano towns of the central regions to the surf towns of the Pacific and Manuel Antonio, a village fast becoming a town around Manuel Antonio National Park.

Around $63,000 (February 2018) can buy you a modest three-bedroom house in Limón… if you can find one. Due to the size of many of the towns, properties in some regions may not come on the market that often.

It’s worth saying that the larger the location (town, city etc.) the more options there will be, with a choice of condos, detached homes, villas, and bungalows.

Villages

Many people move to Costa Rica to get away from it all and really set up home in paradise. As is evident from services like Airbnb, there are a number of US expats who have bought properties and/or land and have built ‘treehouses’ that they rent to holidaymakers. You don’t have to be far off the beaten track to feel off the beaten track. Costa Rican villages offer a sense of community and contact combined with space, nature and calm. If you’re looking to retire to Costa Rica for your own private slice of paradise and get close to nature, then these smaller destinations may be more suited to you than the urban hubs of San Jose and Alajuela.

A key consideration, especially on the coasts, is climate. Costa Rica can be very humid, and the ability to control the climate inside your home is an important consideration. Beach houses can feel romantic and liberating, but conditions in open-plan homes are harder to control — including the invasion of mosquitoes and other beasties, especially when it rains heavily and mosquitoes begin to swarm — and they’re more aggressive than anything you may have encountered in Europe.

Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife is a double-edged sword: waking up to see a sloth dining near your window is magical, but being woken up at 5am by howler monkeys gets boring fast. Racoons and white-faced Capuchin monkeys can be a nuisance if they get into your house or bins looking for food. For this reason, if you’re planning to live in Costa Rica long term, it’s worth visiting the location you want to live before you commit to buying or renting a property.

Many of the house-buying options in and around villages include large luxury villas: $1m can buy you a 4,000 sq ft home with pool and land in Manuel Antonio; $150,000 can buy a modest wooden beach home with three bedrooms on the Caribbean coast, or a modern villa in Guanacaste. $70,000 can still buy you a place to live, with two-bedroom properties available on the coast. (All property examples as of February 2018).

Renting

Cost of living site Numbeo.com (February 2018) suggests a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose can cost $527 per month while suburban accommodation would be $415. A three-bedroom home in the city centre would be $895 and the suburban equivalent $810.

A nice three-bedroom apartment near a city centre averages just over $850 per month, while a one-bedroom apartment costs less than $450. For example, a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Liberia could cost as little as $280.

More desirable locations, such as beach towns, can cost more, for example a three-bedroom house in Jaco Beach can cost around $1,300.

Land

Finding accommodation in specific villages can be difficult, especially when demand is high. Many expats take advantage of what seems to be a coastal land-sale epidemic. Whether you’re on the Caribbean side or the Pacific, the coastal roads are frequently punctuated by ‘se vende’ signs or those selling ‘titled lots’, and you may see many even on inland roads. Since some of the houses available don’t match the standards Westerners demand (size, mod-cons, garages, plumbing), many expats choose to buy land and build the home they want. While success yields glorious results, building your own property in a foreign country should only be undertaken with extreme care and access to those with the right experience.

Buying land and property in Costa Rica

Unlike many countries, foreigners have the same rights when purchasing land in Costa Rica as nationals. You can own property outright in your own name or in the name of a company and don’t need a local partner. The exception is beachfront concession property, where special rules apply: for example, if the land or property is within 200 metres of the sea, it is leased from the Costa Rica government for a specific period of time and the foreigner doesn’t own it outright.

If you want to buy a property in Costa Rica, you will go through a real estate agent,. It’s important to choose a reputable agent, especially as real estate is largely unregulated by the government.

The system for registering property is complicated because of the centralised national database of properties (Registro Nacional). As such, Costa Rica currently lacks a system of registering and monitoring real estate agents and buyers are responsible for checking the quality and reliability of an agent.

Without governmental controls, a good way of vetting a real estate agent is by checking whether they belong to one of the country’s national associations such as CRGAR (Costa Rican Global Association of Real Estate).

It’s important to make sure that you’re dealing with an expert who knows the area and the market. These are important factors as there are some large databases operating in the country run by individuals who don't live in the country, let alone in the local areas.

It is essential to appoint your own lawyer in Costa Rica to represent your interests in your property purchase. Your lawyer should check the title on your property in the central registry, and can help with forming corporations, opening bank accounts and other related roles.

Making an offer on a property

Here’s the process for buying a house or apartment in Costa Rica:

  • You and your agent write an offer
  • The offer is presented to the seller
    • The seller accepts the offer or
    • negotiations continue
  • Once an agreement is reached, both parties sign the contract
  • A deposit of 10% of the purchase price is usually paid
  • All funds should be held in one of the following:
    • a SUGEF (Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras) account (a government-sponsored system to prevent money laundering)
    • a government registered escrow account (separate from the mortgage account).
  • Final closing is usually 30-60 days after agreement and signing the contract.

Some expats on the ground have found it slow doing business in Costa Rica, with bureaucracy slowing things down.

Buying or renting a property is just one expense you need to consider when relocating to a new country. Find out about cost of living in Costa Rica.

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