A mountaintop villa outside of Grecia
A mountaintop villa outside of Grecia

The question of housing looms large for potential retirees to Costa Rica.

Deciding whether to rent, buy or build is probably one of the most vexing issues you will face as you consider relocating here. As regular readers of this column have learned, I am a strong advocate of renting for at least six months and preferably a year before investing your hard-earned nest egg in a permanent home. Although the numbers vary depending on the source, as many as half of all expats end up returning to their home nation within one or two years. And while it’s easy to invest in property in Costa Rica, it’s not so easy to get your money out, should you decide to leave. The housing market here in the last few years has taken a beating just as it has in North America so selling a home is a crapshoot. In a familiar refrain to many North Americans, some people who moved here and bought now find themselves “upside-down,” wanting to sell and go back but unable to recoup their investment, let alone make a profit.

Hands down, a far wiser strategy is to rent. My husband Layne and I moved down in a couple of suitcases, storing most of our goods in the barn at our leased Northern California home. We are heading into our second year of renting fully furnished, basically turnkey lodging. Many apartments and even single-family homes in Costa Rica come equipped with dishes, pots and pans, towels, sheets and furniture — just about everything you need but the toothbrush. If after a few months, you find that life in a developing country that lacks the infrastructure you are accustomed to, being thrown into a foreign culture and surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbors, missing family and friends, is not for you, it’s a lot easier to pick up and leave if you haven’t shipped your grand piano and your priceless collection of ceramic elephants down here.

But whether you decide to rent or buy, the question remains as to where you should settle, what kind of housing is available at what prices in different areas, which climate most suits your comfort level and what kind of neighborhood will fit your lifestyle. It is a challenging task to assess all the variables and come up with a smart decision that you won’t regret.

Inside one of many lovely homes we visited
Inside one of many lovely homes we visited

One way to approach this investigation is by visiting Costa Rica several times before you move down. By this I don’t mean you should go to all the well-known tourist destinations, whiz through the rain forest on a zip line or spend your days wandering through museums and gift shops, although you may find time for some of that. More important is to spend some days exploring the country and learning from individuals and couples who have “been there, done that.” By talking to expats who have lived here awhile, visiting large and small towns, you can get a feel for what life is really like in each region. Ideally, you will learn through word-of-mouth the name of a good attorney and notary (often the same person) and why having one is important. You should locate a good accountant so you can understand the tax laws here, which seem to be in a constant state of flux with new rules being floated in the media but which can take forever to actually pass and become law.

Call it “due diligence,” but whatever you call it, it is a critical part of preparing for such a big move. One convenient way to obtain this information is to sign up for an organized “retirement tour.” There are a number of such packaged trips available in Costa Rica, as a quick search on the Internet will reveal. As part of our ongoing research for the retirement workshops we plan to do next summer in the United States, Layne and I recently joined George Lundquist’s three-day Relocation and Retirement Tour, a whirlwind excursion through the western Central Valley towns of Grecia, Sarchi, San Ramon, Atenas, Escazu and on to Santiago de Puriscal and Barbacoas de Puriscal where George lives in a gorgeous custom home his company built.

View from a rental in Puriscal
View from a rental in Puriscal

So, yes, George is a developer and much of the information he conveys is intended to educate clients on how to build or buy a quality home here. But George also emphasizes the importance of renting first and includes a number of sample rentals in the tour, even adding an impromptu stop at our one-bedroom apartment here in Atenas. We saw cabinas in the jungle and condominiums near the city, mini-mansions on mountaintops and modest bungalows in town. The range of housing options George presented was impressive.

As we cruised around in his comfortable tour bus, safely chauffeured by Oscar, George discussed some of the aspects of living in Costa Rica based on ten years of experience. Urging participants to take notes (although most did not), he covered basic information on the medical system and cost of drugs, legal issues and insurance, transportation, Internet services, utilities and household services such as maids and gardeners, shopping, banking and, of course, real estate, both his own developments as well as others that he recommends for their quality, honesty and location.

At every stop along the way, we met expats who opened their homes to us, shared their stories and answered our questions. As they told about their real-life experiences and the sometimes hard lessons learned, the tour group got an unvarnished look at the pros and cons of moving to a foreign country. We traveled to CIMA Hospital, one of the fine medical facilities in Costa Rica, where we heard George’s attorney explain residency and real estate law. We enjoyed a delightful reception and overnight stay at Vista Valverde B&B and over breakfast the next morning, we talked with Arden Brink, an authority on shipping household goods to Costa Rica. The last day we listened to an accountant explain various Costa Rican taxes in detail. We wandered around downtown Santiago de Puriscal, soaking up local color, stopping in a grocery store, a farmacia or drug store and a shopping mall.

Arden Brink explains the ins and outs of shipping
Arden Brink explains the ins and outs of shipping

It was a vast compilation of information and a lot for participants to retain. In order to help guests evaluate the many places we visited, George provides his clients with a valuable tool: a spreadsheet for analysis of the various locations. It lists the factors to be considered: urban vs. rural, altitude (climate), proximity to San Jose where many services are located, proximity to beaches, traffic conditions, views, local shopping and other critical variables; each factor is to be given a numerical rank to measure its importance to the client, then a score, as judged by the client. (Too hot? Too cold? Too much traffic?) By multiplying the rank times the score, one arrives at a value for each factor. Then by adding those values, one could quantify an overall score for the location. It’s a pretty nifty way of keeping your eye on what really matters to you in a lifestyle.

And after all, that is the key to enjoying retirement in Costa Rica: figure out what is truly important to you and find a location and a home that maximizes those features. Only then will you really enjoy and appreciate Pura Vida!