Million Dollar Homes in Costa Rica, Part 2

“Few people actually stumble into wealth.”
– Smith Barney (although I couldn’t determine if it was Mr. Smith or Mr. Barney?)

I outlined how million dollar houses fit into the Costa Rica real estate landscape, specifically in the southern Pacific zone (The Zone). There are a few obvious reasons to buy a luxury home in Costa Rica—

* It’s A Buyer’s Market (Prices are down approx. 50% from the peak in 2008.)
* Desirable Area (International Living Magazine rated The Zone as, “one of the top three real estate destinations in 2010.”)
* Stable Prices For Construction Materials And Labor

In Part One of this article,

The three-year Costa Rica real estate trend has reflected a significant drop in value, including property in the luxury home category.  Although there are some very nice million dollar homes in the area, this young market enables another popular strategy— Buy-And-Build.


Buy and Build

The majority of buyers who come down to the greater Dominical area with a plan to purchase a house, often end up purchasing raw land instead.  The reason is the area has a relatively small inventory of quality homes with floor plans and finishes that appeal to most North American and European home buyers.  So, they end up buy raw land or a lot in an established development, design their home with the help of a Costa Rican architect, select a builder, and then start the building process.

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Million Dollar Homes in Costa Rica, Part 1

In Northern California’s Bay Area, million dollar homes are very common.  They typically combine elements like— a desirable location, a large floorplan, upscale finishes, and/or estate-sized acreage.  My first position in real estate was in a beach area near Santa Cruz, and the power agent I worked for had no less than five million dollar listings when I joined her.  I just checked that broker’s website, and they currently have 307 houses listed between $1 million to $10 million.  Conversely, the Southern Pacific Zone of Costa Rica has a young real estate market and million dollar houses are less common.

Luxury Estate in Escaleras, Costa Rica.

As recent as 2006, this area was considered the new frontier in Costa Rica.  Access was difficult and more exhaustive than it is now.  Developments were few and far between.  Then, the real estate boom hit.  This boom affected all aspects of real estate—raw land, developing, construction, rentals and associated services.  All of the key elements for million dollar homes—desirable location, sweeping ocean views, large building sites, and affordable construction—were easily realized for a relatively affordable price.

Let’s start with the land…

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Why Canadians LOVE Costa Rica!

A few years ago, when I moved down to Costa Rica full time, I realized there are a lot of Canadians visiting (102,471 in 2009*) and living the area. One of the main reason Canadians (virtually all nationalities for that matter) visit, buy land, and in some cases, relocate to Costa Rica is

The Memo

Disclaimer: the following is not necessarily what some sellers of Costa Rica real estate want to hear.

It was sometime in 2008 when the world changed.  Our globalized economy demonstrated, for the first time, the extent to which we (all us humans) are interconnected.  When one falls, we all lose our balance.

Some of the bigger economic minds in the US got going with an illusionary slight of hand called “derivatives” and in so doing, yanked the rug out from under the U.S.’s, and then the world’s economies.

Costa Rica land sales stopped.  Here in the southern pacific zone many of the agencies have closed up shop, and the surviving agencies went 9 months with no business.

Why “no” business instead of “low” business?

2 reasons:

  1. High prices
  2. No credit

The fall of the world economies was rather sudden.  The prices on our real estate here in The Zone were high.  All of a sudden our prospective buyers were standing flat footed with not much money, no real way to get money, and even if they could get money, land was expensive.

The above 2 reasons that explain our 9 month freeze on the real estate business here in The Zone have both seen some activity and change.   Prices have come down by 30% – 50% across the board, and this has stimulated the market. If this isn’t obvious to you, dear reader, it may be that you have been cruising websites and listings by sellers that don’t want to lower their price, but instead wish to wait for the market to come back up.  (or you may have seen one of the numerous and un-maintained sites from now defunct Costa Rica real estate agencies)

About the “Hold Out” or  “Old World” Sellers:

Their listings in the various real estate agency’s web site databases likely pre-date the fall of the world markets.  Sellers who insist on pre-fall pricing are finding it harder and harder to find an agency to list their property.  (One of my peers at a competing agency told me recently that they had rejected 9 listings in 3 days.)

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Water In Costa Rica, Part Two

If you ask the World Bank or one of the mega-water corporations (e.g., Coke, Nestle, Vivendi), fresh drinking water is a commodity. If you ask virtually everyone else in the world (including the United Nations), fresh drinking water is a basic human right. Whether it is the encroachment of privatization or Nicaragua’s plan to divert the San Juan River[1], water in Costa Rica is an increasingly lively topic.

Water is a necessity.

One of the most popular questions for potential property owners is, “What is the water situation for this property?” Most of these new investors come from North America and Europe, areas that have hundreds of years of infrastructure development.  However, this southern Pacific region of Costa Rica is still early in the cycle of development.  We continue to see rapid growth in communications (cell phones and high speed internet), power (high tension power lines), and roads (the newly paved Costanera between Quepos and Dominical).  That being said, cell phones are a luxury, but water… is a necessity.

Property In A Development

Most quality developments have a water system that has been installed by the developer.  The most common sources for these systems are high flowing springs, and in some cases surface water (e.g., creeks and rivers).  Some developments, like Osa Estates in Uvita, even have back-up systems and extensive water storage capabilities.  The interesting thing is very few developments actually have a concession (permission to extract water from the ground).  The good news is the majority of them are “in process”.  Either way, the developer usually provides the property owner a prevista (water right document) which guarantees use of water into the future (assuming the property owner is in compliance with established CC&Rs and other laws).  Proof of a water document, like a prevista, is also required by the local Municipality before they will approve any construction project on a property.

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Houses In Our Future

For those with construction experience and a desire to build houses in a foreign country, this where there may be money to be made. The crystal ball formula is– buy a cheap ocean view lot, no more than 10 minutes from the Costanera (our paved coastal highway), and build an affordable house with a swimming pool. The main question we anticipate from potential builders is…

Now What’s My Land Worth?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and define some specific points that we at Guys In The Zone use to evaluate a property.  At the moment, this practice tends towards the black arts since the basis for land values in the zone went right off the cliff with the rest of the world’s economy.

Jesse over at Green Leaf Real Estate has come up with a rather interesting formula for property evaluation:  take what was paid for the land and add 25% annually, and then reduce that number by 40% to get today’s market price.  I find this technique to be ingenious, not so much for it’s accuracy, (that would be a subject of much debate), but due to the fact that Jesse actually came up with a method for evaluating land that sounds like it’ll put you somewhere in the ballpark.

The problem is, we’re not sure where the ballpark is these days.

Rod & I have been working more with the other real estate agencies in The Zone as we move towards a more cooperative real estate profession.  John Wieland of Coldwell Banker invited us out to look at a couple of houses in Ojochal and we got to listen to how he addressed the question “what’s my house worth?”.  He answered: “you can follow the market, be right at the market, or lead the market”.  To “follow the market” would be to realize that others have dropped their price and so you follow suit.  “Be at the market” would be to stay in the trajectory, up or down, that you feel the market is in.  Now, to “lead the market” means that you anticipate the market and blaze a trail with new prices that are compelling to the type of buyers that we now are seeing here in the zone.  In today’s “down” market, this means doing extraordinarily low pricing to get a timely sale.

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A Brief History of Real Estate in The Zone

“The Zone” is made up of a stretch of coastline starting from Hatillo in the north, and stretching south to Palmar Sur.  Included in that zone are the following towns, noted from north to south:

  • Hatillo
  • Dominical
  • Uvita
  • Ojochal
  • Palmar Sur

The inland portion of The Zone is a leg that runs from Dominical to San Isidro de el General, also known as Perez Zeledon.  In between Dominical and San Isidro is the town of Platanillo.

A word about pricing:
When dealing with ocean view properties in Costa Rica’s southern zone, the usual criteria of looking for a “per square meter” pricing fails us.  This becomes evident quickly as one familiarizes themselves with the market place.
Evaluating an ocean view property in this area is a combination of attributes, or virtues that come together to give the property its value.  Based on observing land buyers over the years, I rank these virtues in roughly the following order:

  1. view
  2. access
  3. size
  4. infrastructure
  5. amount of usable land
  6. proximity to the beach or a river
  7. privacy
  8. air motion

As an example of this, I once had a 10 acre property that had a window view of the ocean.  Of the 10 acres, perhaps 1 ½ were usable, the rest falling away in jungle covered hillsides. Price: $115,000
Across the way from this property, perhaps within 500 meters, I had another property of 2 acres with a sweeping ocean view,

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