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
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.
Looks like you’re back in blog mode, at least for the moment. Thanks.
In today’s piece you mention the ever current “petty theft” issue. A while back you had indicated that you were going to have a security expert visit your home and offer suggestions. And if I recall correctly, you promised to share whatever you learned.
If you learned something about security and you’re back in blog mode, I suspect your readers might be interested. Just a thought.
“Everything has a cost”. I pay about $90 a month for a trusted local to care for my property. He does some work on the land keeping the wild grass back, some plantings and cutting some steps into the earth for access to the lower waterfall area. I had my attorney draw up a contract stating what his duties were and what the salary was. No trees to be cut, no unauthorized use of the property, etc. Napoleonic law is strange to our North American minds. Legal contracts are never a bad idea.
It is difficult to find out accurate information about such matters as squatting. As far as I can tell from readings and conversations with locals and friends, there are no cases of squatting in the San Ramon area. When I expressed my concern about squatters, my attorney told me not to be too concerned as “Costa Ricans still fear jail”.
It is not common at all in the Central Valley. It happens in the Orosi area and other remote places but even where is does happen, there are measures that can be taken which will prevent it and they are not all that expensive or difficult. Most cases occur when there is a large tract of land with an owner who is absent for years. I visit my property about every 4 months and have a chat and a walk of the land with the local. I do this not because I feel it is necessary but because I like to.
I have thought long and hard about the petty theft problem. I intend to do the same thing you are doing but I am surprised that you are paying so much for the service. You must out quite often. I consider $15 a day for house sitting to be reasonable, especially for a local in the country. I would have to be gone 20 days out of every 30 to be paying $300 a month. It must be a city thing. I have no desire to spend any time near San Jose let alone live in that area for this very reason.
I’m planning a move to Costa Rica. This is a great bit of information. I’m still convinced that it is a small price to pay for living in paradise…no!
you should speak from your own general paranoia about living here and not in general terms for all of us living here.
I leave for months at a time and only lock my door. I dont even leave a light on, I have never had a house sitter for a weekend, or a week or even a couple of months. I live alone, no dogs, no alarm, and have never spent a single night afraid coming or going out to dinner or what ever I might be doing.
You forget that not all expats live in Escazu and experience your problems. Be fair to others who are having good experiences living here in Costa Rica, and to all those who are thinking of coming.
Hi John, we tried to connect with the security guy but between all of us, we just couldn’t get it together. He has a new security website and blog and I’m going to try again to hook up with him. The blog is at http://www.rapidresponsecr.blogspot.com. I feel pretty secure in my house these days. We are always home and anyone watching the house knows they have to contend with one grown man and two huge teen boys. And two mean old women. That’s gotta be discouraging…
James, we are almost never gone, thank goodness. That would break the bank! It’s $15/day for short stays and $300/month for 30 days ($10/day). He stays in the house, feeds the dogs… it’s a good service and I don’t mind paying for it. The squatting thing is very serious once it’s happened. Nowadays, more and more people are aware of the possibility and are taking steps to prevent it. But I know too many people – one friend who’s lived here almost all his 60 years and in real estate – who bought or inherited property, did not take precautions (because they didn’t know or didn’t do it fast enough) and squatters moved in after the fact, claimed they’d been there for years! They have witnesses, documentation (flimsy but enough), the whole nine yards. My friend has been in court for YEARS. There are gangs of people with lawyers backing them who roam the countryside looking for properties to take. No joke. It’s serious. You CAN prevent it but you have to take the precautions and take them immediately.
That’s the spirit, Kyle. All things considered, it’s better here than there…
Cynthia, I’m glad it’s safe where you are! Since it’s my blog, it’s safe to assume we are talking about my own general paranoia. God knows I have plenty! I also have friends, acquaintances and/or readers all over the country and there isn’t an area the squatters and ladrones have forgotten. More in some areas, less in others. Escazú seems to be the least safe neighborhood, no question. I don’t want to live anywhere else and am willing to pay the Escazú price so far. Don’t tell anyone where you live – they’ll be flocking there. As will the ladrones… then the squatters.
Here’s an interesting statistic, I’ve never met a single gringo that have not yet been robbed, held up, pick pocketed, or broken into. That’s how big a target you are here. So for those that have yet to experience crime, you are an exception rather than the norm. Its good to be paranoid here, keeps you aware, and believe me even the Ticos are paranoid when it comes to theft.
You fail to tell your readers that it takes 6 years of someone living and caring for your land in order for them to apply for the rights, there for squating for 6 years. As a home owner and owning a corporation here for almost 5 years I know this.
If you choose to buy property here and neglect caring for it, building on it for several years…then yes there is a “chance” that you could get a squater, however even that is very rare. The law is in your favor even then, if you are paying your taxes every year, and have a title.
Yes this is your blog and you are free to express your experiences, but it is not fair of you to continue to relay untrue statements.
Yes, anonymous, that’s pretty much my experience. And ticos are just as aware of the theft and squatters.
Cynthia, squatters can earn rights after three months. And they don’t even have to live on the land: just “take care” of it… mow the grass, pick up trash. Plant a tree and water it. Squatters are not “very rare”… It is a very big and very real problem here. You may not police my blog. Read it or don’t read it, but forget being the righteous one. That job is taken. Start your own blog.
“I’ve never met a single gringo that have not yet been robbed, held up, pick pocketed, or broken into.”
Well now you have!
In over eight years of living here I HAVE NEVER BEEN ROBBED, HELD UP, PICK POCKETED OR BROKEN INTO.” Costa Rica is not for everyone but I LOVE living here.
I honestly don’t know what people are doing and I know lots of people who have never had a problem here… I send and receive 200-300 emails per day and speak with people all day long who live here with very few problems and others who want to live here…
And even if you were ‘scared’ by the stories out there, Costa Rica has many very secure gated communities where you can enjoy 24/7 security.
Regarding the “statistic” that every gringo that you know in CR has been a victim of theft: I think I can say the same thing about every resident I know in Miami…perhaps in the entire United States. Perspective is important.
Touchy subject. Don’t shoot the messenger! BTW, I still choose to live here, so my endorsement is pretty clear.
Scott, of course, I’m glad to know you have never had a problem. But surely you can’t deny it IS a problem here. Even most of the judges have been robbed (as reported in A.M. Costa Rica) which has finally prompted the government to address the problem. You sell real estate: I KNOW you mention squatters as something to be aware of and tell your clients how to protect themselves. Why when I do it, it’s fear-mongering? BTW, all your contact information is available when someone clicks your name on the comment.
James, no denying perspective is important. Every resident you know “…perhaps in the United States” has been a victim of theft? Wow. Thirty years in Key West and family and friends in VA, KY, AZ, CA, WA, HI, CO, UT, NJ, MD, DE, IL… I don’t know a single person who’s house has been broken into except one (in Key West the same week of our attempted break-in here.)
On the other hand, our car was rifled for change and Hal’s golf clubs were stolen out of the back once which was devastating. So I guess we’ve been victims of thievery in the US.
But I’m not talking about pickpockets or having your ashtray rifled for change. I’m not talking about car-jacking or guys smashing your window while you are at a stoplight and taking your purse.
The kind of theft I’m talking about is a scary break-in when you are home: guys in ski masks with guns who pistol whip your husband, tie you up and take all your stuff. That is the big threat here. It’s the break-in while you are home that is my number 1 fear here.
With the economy in the shape it’s in, it will be interesting to see if thievery increases in the US. I’ve never believed people steal – and I mean break into houses with guns, plan the event – to feed themselves. Hungry people commit crimes of opportunity, if at all. But this phenom is on my list to research.
statistics, as we all know, can be misleading. So can word-of-mouth. It is just so hard to determine what is the probability that any one will suffer a crime no matter what location is discussed. In Miami, one out of every ten people are victims for a particular year. Add up all the years of anyone’s life and they may have been a victim at least one of those years so that over time, a much higher percentage of the population ends up on that list. That is why I think I can safely say everyone I know here has been a victim at one time or another. That doesnlt mean much.
The big question is “am I safer in Costa Rica”? There are so many variables that all we can do is talk and talk about it and tell our personal stories but ultimately, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know; that no place or person is 100% “safe”.
Exactly. Thank you. Am I safer in Costa Rica? In so many ways, I am. And, when deciding where to live, I have to weigh that question against many other variables. Life is not safe and life is not fair.
I need to clarify that 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.”
In over eight years of living here I HAVE NEVER BEEN ROBBED, HELD UP, PICK POCKETED OR BROKEN INTO.” Costa Rica is not for everyone but I LOVE living here.
I guess that simply means I haven’t met you yet. But if my memory serves me right, I remember you posting about having some website developer cheat you out of a couple of thousand dollars. Sounds like being robbed to me, but more like an in your face kind of way.
I find it fascinating that whenever we bring up something unpleasant about Costa Rica, you get a comparison to some other city in the US or elsewhere. Get real, even Costa Ricans are aware of the level of crime here. When I start selling real estate, maybe I too will change my tune.
OK, no broker bashing. I’m a broker… we are not without an occasional bad moment. Like the rest of humanity. But not everything we do is to help sell. Not EVERYTHING. I’ve met Scott, I like him, he’s a very smart guy, been here a long time, written two books, has built a killer website and a good business. Our perspective is based on our experience. To say his is manufactured to sell more real estate is unfair. You don’t know that, it’s just an easy accusation to make. I have been there. You adopt a child, everyone thinks you did that to break into the adoptive-parent market… You sign up to sell Shaklee, it’s to break into the MLM homebuyer and seller market. On the other hand, I knew a girl who used to send cards to everyone in the obits hoping to get listings. Sicko. That would constitute a very bad moment.