• Ron Snell

Build Your Dream Without Nightmares

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

600 trips up that ramp with wheelbarrows of cement.

We’re getting a lot of questions from clients about building a home or hospitality business in Costa Rica, for a few reasons:


1. We don’t have a huge overstock of already built homes, especially in the “sweet spot” price range. The most popular price range is somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000, and although we have numerous options in that range, each is unique and we can’t always provide the designs our clients are looking for.


2. Sometimes, the location and view are more important to our clients than buying an existing home. With many lots and land parcels on the market right now, our clients are seeing views and features they love, and they can easily picture their own design on one of those.


3. If you do it correctly, there is a possibility you can get more value for your money than you can by buying an existing home.

So is building a good idea here? Is it even possible to do it without a lot of regrets? Yes! and Yes! Keep in mind that we have counsel and contacts to get you started. Who you choose to design and build your home is up to you, but you don’t have to start from scratch all on your own. Here are my tips:


1. Count the cost. Yes, it can cost about $100.00 per square foot to build a nice home, and about the same per square foot to build a concrete, tiled pool. But then you must add to that the cost of the land, the site preparation, the water line, the electric line, any landscaping you want to do, any extra construction like a gazebo (“rancho” in Costa Rican Spanish) or yoga platform, any sidewalks or pool surrounds, etc. By putting together an itemized budget, you’ll know how much you can spend on the land. Chances are you’ll end up with more like $125.00 a square foot.


2. Get the right property. Once you have gotten out all of your “wow’s” and “oh my gosh’s” because of the view or surroundings or other features, put your emotions aside and take good notes:


· Does it have access to a good water supply? Is that water supply ‘official’? This is critical for getting a building permit. Our area of Costa Rica is blessed with lots of water, but you need to make sure you can get it to your property with the right concessions, easements, etc.


· Does it have electricity close by? If not, you might end up paying a lot of money to get the power closer to your property.

· Is the access reasonable and legally registered? There are a lot of steep gravel roads to properties, so that’s not a deal breaker. However, you want to know that the community around you supports the road maintenance, and you want to know that you can get home in heavy rains at night. At the very least, you want to know that if you have to cross a swollen river, it will go down within a tolerable amount of time.


· Is your use permitted? Be very careful about trees because you can’t just cut them down without permission, and permission isn’t fast, easy or guaranteed. If you are in a wooded area you may have to get an environmental impact study approved before you can build anything. Ask a lot of questions about this.


· Is the altitude conducive to your lifestyle? Higher altitudes permit more outdoor living. Even 500 feet above sea level starts to make a difference, while at 1000 feet the changes are easily noticeable. Once you get to 2500 feet and higher, clouds may obscure your view more of the time.


3. Draft a design that works in the tropics. You would do well to talk to a real estate agent when you get to this stage, because we see a lot of houses and have a sense of what works well here, and what doesn’t. All else being equal, you’ll want lots of outdoor living space, plenty of ventilation, and rooms with bright, open views. What you won’t want is high maintenance designs or materials, because the tropics have a way of making you regret those.


4. Get the right architect/engineer. Officially, your plans may be done by either an architect or an engineer. Either one will ensure that your structure meets or exceeds building codes for earthquake areas, but the architect is more likely to have a “designer’s touch.” You want someone who stays on top of the procedures and lets you know what to expect along the way.


5. Get the right builder. The right builder isn’t always the least expensive, nor the fastest talker. Get recommendations and look at some of the projects that different builders have done. If this is your first time, listen to people who have been around.

6. Plan your construction time to coincide with the climate here. It’s wise to start at the end of the rainy season so footing trenches and septic drains can be dug in without immediately filling back up. If you time it that way, you have 4-5 months to get dried in before the rains get serious again.

7. Plan to be around, or at least in and out. The worst horror stories are from people who thought they had everything so well planned out that they could just leave for several months and come back to a finished home. NOTE: This is no different than construction projects in your home country. I’ve heard numerous horror stories from North America when customers didn’t regularly check in to see what was happening. If you can’t be here, find a soul mate who can.


8. Participate in the process. Sometimes homeowners will purchase all of the finishings and furnishings themselves to save money, have more options, and enjoy the hunt. Some homeowners even buy all of these things in their home country and ship them to Costa Rica in order to get better quality, have more options, and save more money. There are other things you can do as well, like double checking pipe fittings, tracing electrical conduits, measuring placement of toilet drains and shower faucets, etc. You can do this when workers aren’t there so you aren’t in the way, just as a double check before the concrete finalizes everything. It’s not just to make sure they are doing it right – it’s also a way to familiarize yourself intimately with the workings of your home while they are exposed.


9. Let your construction crew know you appreciate them. My wife baked cookies and cakes and other things for our workers pretty regularly, and by the time they were done they would have died for her. We wanted them to feel respected for their expertise and skill, and feel like we appreciated all they were doing for us.

We spoke to them with as much Spanish as we could, laughed with them, and even pushed a wheelbarrow of concrete or two so we could express our amazement that they did that all day long with good humor and care. The day they poured our second floor, they made 600 trips up a long ramp with wheelbarrows full of soupy cement mix. It was an extraordinary physical effort, yet they laughed and joked throughout the day.


10. Expect some glitches. They won’t kill you, but there may be scheduling changes, or new ideas, or other surprises. This is a global thing, not at all unique to Costa Rica. I’ve been interested how many of my clients have talked about the frustrations of building a home or business building in North America – it all sounds so familiar, and the solutions are similar: patience, participation, questions, participation, patience.


Finally, prepare to be amazed by the stunning beauty of the final product. If you followed the steps, your new home will be a comfortable, beautiful, soul-filling base for enjoying the magnificent world around you and you will have a whole new set of experiences to share along the way.

Then, someday down the road when you are ready to sell, your thoughtful design and placement will attract someone else who will go “Wow!” when they walk in the door to see it, and you will pass along a treasure, perhaps even at a profit.

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@2018 by Ron Snell.