Nuts and Bolts of Buying a Property For Vacation Rentals

Buy a property in Costa Rica for a vacation rental

Below is a copy and paste from an e-mail inquiry regarding buying a property for the purpose of investment initially. It needs to be an existing rental property that the buyers intend to move to and live in at a future time. They need for the property to, at the very least, cover its expenses during the time they own it prior to moving to Costa Rica. This is a good example of a rather typical scenario here for a buyer’s criteria.

Thanks for writing. I’ve interspersed my comments below.

Hi Ben, my name is Meltown Bradwinkle (name changed). I found your blog and have really enjoyed the articles I have read so far, thank you!

​Thank you for the encouraging comments.​

The reason for my email is to ask you for your opinion of the purchase of a home in the Dominical to Uvita area, whether or not the right home can show a good enough ROI to carry the debt against it.

Short answer: yes.​

My wife, Melvania, and her family are from Costa Rica. My wife and I currently live in [US State] with our 3 kids, but plan on retiring to Costa Rica in 10-15 years. In the meantime we come down once or twice a year to visit family and vacation in your area. We have visited most parts of the country, but keep coming back to the southern pacific coast, where the jungle/mountains meet the sea! The blog post of yours I just read talks about the “low” season, and I agree completely with the theme of your piece. We were just there this past September and spent a wonderful couple of hours in the middle of the day having lunch, beers, and watching the downpour, beautiful!

Meltown, you sound well suited to your intention. There is a learning curve to investing in Costa Rica. Your comments indicate that you have already traversed a good bit of the curve and have a rational basis for your interest in this area of Costa Rica. 10-15 years allows for a lot of possible movement, up or down, from the conditions that you buy in now. The indicators right now are that we are heading into a time of property values increasing. I know that you’re asking about rental ROI and I’ll get to that in a minute. Initially I’ll address…

Property values:
Having endured the toilet flush of values in 2008 we have seen how dramatically the market can move. We are currently in a time of stasis. There hasn’t been much movement price-wise since the recession, but I would characterize the conditions as follows.

During the recession there was essentially no market for real estate in our area of Costa Rica, and perhaps in the whole country. There were a few anomalous sales that happened, but they stood in stark contrast with the reality of the the sleeping market.

Then, we passed through a time of buyers showing up and us realtors were in a bewildered state of “a buyer???” Our inventory had been languishing for several years and now we had buyers. The sellers were wondering if they would ever be able to sell their Costa Rica property(ies). We passed through the “fire sale” phase where these dejected sellers would take 40 – 60 cents on their dollars to move their property.

The fire sales are now gone. But the asking prices have not gone up. Well, maybe a little now and if so, more so with houses than raw land. Houses in the $300k – $500k range are the bread basket of our market and if they are reasonably designed and have an ocean view, they sell rather quickly. When I say “quickly” I mean by Costa Rican standards.

I just had a couple of clients that came to Costa Rica, bought a small hotel and a riverside residential piece for the future. They put these properties under contract knowing that they had to sell their home in San Francisco prior to closing. The market in SF is such that an immediate sale was expected. When they didn’t get an offer on the first day of the listing going public they panicked. It took 3 days to sell and they were a little disappointed that they only got $100k over asking price.

Costa Rica is not this way. The norm here is that the property will sit on the market for a few months at least, and then there are negotiations of roughly (and this varies) 10%.

As for raw land – lots that have ocean views and services & access in place, there was a glut. This is slowly changing to where we realtors are now having the occasional request that challenges our ability to come up with some options. But overall there are still a good selection of lots available.

The message of all this is that the prices are good for buying but they are firmer than they were as the market establishes it’s equilibrium.

Sorry rambling on a bit. I have equity in assets of my business, and am contemplating using that equity to purchase the “right” home in the area. But it will be borrowed money, so I don’t want to jeopardize my business related assets, hence the need for the property to carry itself. Is this realistic or just a dream? I have researched the property rental business in the area, but it has been impossible for me to come up with good hard numbers, occupancy rates being the most critical, and what is the right price point for a specific property to rent for weekly.

I’m inclined to respond to your inquiry about a financed property’s ability to cover its own costs in the positive – but of course, with caveats.

About Rentals:
Rentals in this area are strong. The area is growing in its prestige as a global vacation destination of choice. There are not a lot of hotels here and just the nature of tourism here leans towards the “destination” accommodation instead of the “bed” accommodation. By this I mean that visitors to the area seem to prefer having a multi-bedroom home, complete with kitchen and amenities that make the rental where they are staying a part of the stay. A pool is important. They may spend a day or days just hanging around the home.

Vacation rentals offer some enticing numbers. You’ve probably done a search on VRBO for the Dominical area. The homes here get a good penny for a weeks stay.

I think that long term rentals are the sleeper rental opportunity here. Most buyers are romanced by the high vacation rental numbers but fail to calculate the end-of-the-year numbers.

Comparison of short and long term renting:
Short term: your per-week price is considerably higher. Your maintenance and marketing costs are also higher, as is the hassle-factor. Your occupancy is lower.

Let’s say that you get $2,000 per week for your vacation rental home. To calculate a monthly on the same property, you’d end up somewhere close to the weekly. Let’s say $2,400 per month. Now calculate the costs associated with having the occupants change every week or 10 days – laundry, cleaning, re-stocking, administrative etc…

Occupancy rates vary depending on the property and the owners ability to market the property. I use the following and won’t argue with anyone that comes along with different numbers. This is just my take.

First year short term, shoot for 35%. The next couple of years your objective is 50%. Some reach 60% and higher with an exceptional property and exceptional marketing and probably years of history.

​Long term, you’re looking at 100% occupancy and the costs are very reduced when compared to the short term.

Take the above scenario as a loose guide only. Look at what your money costs you, your level of investment, and what you need in order to have the property cover itself.

There are times of the year when there aren’t enough beds in the area to accommodate the demand, and there are times of the year when there unoccupied beds.

Any input and guidance would be greatly appreciated!

Meltown Bradwinkle

Thanks for reaching out to me. I appreciate the confidence and I hope this helps.

I may post an edited version of this e-mail to my blog as I think that you address concerns that many others have as well.

Please keep me in the loop as I’d love to know what you decide to do and how it turns out. And of course, if I can be of assistance with your real estate concerns, I’m available.

The above e-mail was written in January of 2016. Many of the statements regarding current property values have proven to be accurate and what I like to call a rational market prevails. Also, my estimates on occupancy percentages remain as stated.

Living in The Zone, Costa Rica’s south pacific, since 1999. Working in real estate here since 2004. Loves to share the experience and help others with an interest in doing same.