A woman wrote to me recently about buying a house in Key West. Once she found out I live in Costa Rica, she wrote this:

I have a question since you are living in Costa Rica. This is where my husband originally wanted to get a home. We had even started to look when we were told there is a really bad problem with people stealing and/or homesteading your property if you left it to go anywhere. Have you found this to be true? Linda

Hi Linda,

That is all true. When we leave to go anywhere, we hire a person to stay in our home, about $300/month. Right now, my mom lives with us so when she goes on a trip, we are here. When we go on a trip, she is here. We also have three dogs, so we’d have to hire someone anyway if mom weren’t here.

If you leave your property alone for any length of time with no one checking on it occasionally, squatters will move in. There is a way to protect yourself from this – you put a lien on your property yourself so no one would bother; I can tell you who to talk to about this [Garland Baker]. But squatters have rights here and you have to be on guard.

Petty theft is rampant in Costa Rica. At our house, we have a monitored alarm system, bars on the windows and razor wire on our fence. We keep our doors locked and are very aware of the problem. As gringos (native speakers of English), we are targets. No matter how poor we really are, we will never be as poor as the poor here.

That said, this is the worst thing about life here. As a wise woman told me (over and over again because I never hear anything the first time it’s said), "Everything has a price. Ask yourself are you willing to pay it?" Living with the threat of petty thievery, for us, is far better than living in the U.S., especially right now. Costa Rica is peaceful and beautiful, no terror alerts, no para-military police. The market is soft, but they just don’t have the problems here they are having in the U.S.

Costa Rica is worth investigating, but petty theft aside, the culture is very different. We came here for a year planning to go home at the end of it. But we fell in love with living here so decided to stay. I strongly suggest renting here first for six months to a year, then make the decision. You will love it or hate it; you want to find out before you buy. In the big picture, life here is definitely worth considering.

Squatters are a huge problem* here. If you own property and leave it, you could lose your right to it or to parts of it. The vaquero [va-CARE-oh, cowboy] who lives around the corner from us wanted to hook up a hose to our outside faucet. He lives in a house with no running water… I can’t even begin to describe the house. We said yes; he hooked up a long hose and had running water for awhile. I mentioned this to a friend and she said unhook that immediately. After three months, he can earn the right to use the water and you will be obligated to supply his water for life.

Is this true? Seems outrageous, but, after everything I’ve read and heard and learned, I think there is some truth to it. For now, I can’t begin to decipher the laws here. And in other situations, like with squatters and employees, ticos can earn the right to all kinds of things you never meant to promise. You need a very good advisor here.

*Clarification: When I say squatters are a "huge" problem, I mean huge as in if it happens to you it’s quite the struggle. Not huge as in it happens to everyone once… I have no idea what the statistic would be on how many people per year have a problem with squatters. If it happens to you, you will understand what I mean by "huge" problem.

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