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Coming to Live in Costa Rica?

May 16th, 2006

Between three of my websites, The REAL Costa Rica, this Blog, and my personal Blog, I get maybe 200 emails per week. I try to answer them, though this is getting tougher every month, and soon it is gonna get real ugly.

The hands down #1 topic of these emails is people asking me for my advice on moving to Costa Rica. Popular questions are:

* Where are the North American communities?
* Where are the good places to live?
* Constant questions about buying property here…
* Where is the best place to buy? Live?
* Where to visit when coming here to decide about a permanent move
* Where can I get a job?
* Plus a TON of emails from scared baby boomers world-wide who are just now saying to their spouses, “Holy SHIT Martha (or Clyde), there ain’t no way we can live on our social security! We gotta get outta this place!”

So, in this Post I am going to cast some pearls to you folks!

First, let’s take a look at a telling statistic, (and for those of you who do not believe in statistics, please do not consider a career in the insurance industry).

About 40% of ALL those who relocate to Costa Rica, LEAVE within one year.

Now think about that! These people packed up their lives, some quit their jobs, all said adios to family and friends, and many brought property and land in Costa Rica only to return “home” in 6 months with their collective tails twixt their collective legs to explain what idiots they had been for not planning the whole process better! Actually, that last part is a lie. They really return home and blame everyone and everything EXCEPT themselves for the failure of their grand experiment. Human nature… go figure.

In any case, the point here is that Costa Rica, or any other foreign country, is NOT for everyone. When you leave your home country to live here, every single thing you do (now), every single day, will change. You must be prepared for this. The sum of all these changes is perhaps best engendered in the general topics of Culture Shock or Cross Cultural Adjustment. Only a fool does not believe these are real issues that will affect your ability to live in and enjoy a foreign country!

That brings me to “the big lie”, OK… maybe that is too harsh, so I’ll rephrase that to “the enormous misunderstanding”. It is:

You do not need to learn Spanish to live in Costa Rica.

In reality, it should say “You don’t need to learn Spanish to exist in Costa Rica.”

Yes, while you can certainly exist here without knowing Spanish, but time and time again I hear the frustration of those who cannot communicate with others on a daily basis. I see their frustration in stores, restaurants, in government offices.

So now you say, “I heard that almost all Costa Ricans speak English?”.

Why YES, they DO… so long as you are living in a hotel, at the airport, staying in a bed and breakfast and doing nothing all day but visiting the butterfly farms! That is not living. That is being a tourist!

When living here, you will be doing exactly the SAME boring everyday things as you do now! You will be dropping off the dry cleaning, picking up a prescription, visiting a doctor’s office, stopping at the hardware store, renewing a drivers license, visiting the bank, etc, etc. and NEWS FLASH: With the exception MAYBE of the doctor, almost NONE of those people in those places will speak one word of English (or French, or German, or whatever), and then the frustration builds.

Real Estate

Lately, real estate has been a hot market, and more and more I am meeting people who have either purchased land or other property (sight unseen!) or come here for a two week vacation and return home separated from their money. I bunch of them got screwed. Some don;t even KNOW it yet! It is an almost SURE way to pay too much or simply buy in the wrong location!

As a visitor here, you will have NO idea what is a fair price to pay nor will you be able to negotiate this as you have no knowledge of the enormous differences in real estate and the laws here in this country.

Well, you think, I’ll make sure the realtor checks the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Well, there IS no MLS in Costa Rica.. No comps. Nada. Further, the laws here are so very different! There are 100 ways to get taken even if you know what you are doing. Can you spell “sucker”?

You may well also buy in the wrong location because you just don’t think about how different things are in Costa Rica, how many places there are to live here, the differences, and how those differences may affect you.

Let’s take just one example dealing with location.

You are a retired (or nearly retired) couple who want to live somewhere near the ocean. A reasonable desire, but here comes the conflict:

A 60-something couple has different needs than does a younger couple… right? The first one that comes to my mind is medical care. As we grow older, stuff starts to break. It doesn’t mean we are ready for the old folk’s farm… but it does mean you need to be at least reasonably close to a hospital or a medical complex and have emergency ambulance service close by.

The conflict? There are few if ANY hospitals anywhere near most of the beaches and for sure no trauma centers. They are hours away in the Central Valley. As for ambulances, in most Cruz Roja (Red Cross) ambulances in the beach areas, you are lucky to see a bottle of oxygen, much less the nearly “hospital equipped” vehicles prevalent in the USA.

Another common question is, “Where do all the ex-pats live? (meaning the English speakers). People want to live with others of their nationality. I understand this, but there is a downside. When you live in one of those gated, gringo strongholds, you may well pay at LEAST 50% more for housing (and that is conservative!) and at least twice to three time more for food, clothing, and nearby restaurants, than if you lived elsewhere in Costa Rica. Why? You are viewed as wealthy whether in fact you are or are not, and for sure, the average Costa Rican is going to ask higher prices for everything.

In fact, if you live in those places, you’ll end up paying about the same as if you lived in Miami!

I can go on perhaps with 50 other examples… but nearly all these issues can easily be resolved, lessen your chances of an ugly surprise, and vastly lessen your chances of falling in the 40% who leave.

LIVE here for at least 6 months and preferable a year, before you make the final decision to move.

Don’t sell everything. If needs be, put it all in storage or rent your existing home while you leisurely and intelligently make this incredibly important decision.

Travel the country and see all the beauty there is here. See if you like it! In that year, you will experience life and living in this country… a HUGE difference from just visiting. Then when you make the big decision to buy land or move here, your will be playing from a position of strength! If you decide against it, then you have not lost much and in fact have learned about not only another culture, but about yourself as well. A no-lose situation!

People are always amazed when I tell them that after all these years, I still rent. I do not own property in Costa Rica. Why? The three biggest reason are:

  1. As there are no tax advantages to ownership and property taxes are non existent (and also not deductible anyway), why pay the outrageous interest rates to own a home here?
  2. I could pay cash, but I can earn more in the US stock market than I can on the appreciation of the vast majority of real estate in this country**. Where does my money do better?
  3. At least once every 4-5 weeks, my wife and I find someplace else we would like to live in this incredible country. One week it the mountains, the next week it might be Tileran in the highlands! Because buying property in Costa Rica is FAR easier than selling it, by renting, we have the ability to move anywhere at any time, and when we retire in 2-3 years… we will! Also, our money is not tied up. We are liquid and free to do as we please.

(**Note: The exception may be certain beach front locations that are appreciating greatly, but as we have no desire to live in that heat and humidity, far from the hospitals, infrastructure and cultural activities in the valley, I am not about to buy property on the beach. I also have no interest in speculating on property values. Finally, my businesses require the technical infrastructure currently available only in the San Jose area).

That’s it! Costa Rica is a marvelous place and offers a lot, but it is not for everyone. It is a totally different culture and I assure you, THEY are not going to change! So before you write me, think clearly about what are your wants and needs. Come visit (and NOT for 2-3 weeks), and you’ll be ever so much better off for the effort.

One final note to those who want to work here. In general, you CANNOT. Only citizens and permanent residents can legally work here (just like the USA), so if you are thinking about coming here to find a job… it might be a good idea to rethink that.

8 Responses to “Coming to Live in Costa Rica?”

  1. S. J. Fondon on May 21, 2006 6:04 pm

    I may come to visit to see San Jose. An aquaintance owns a nightclub/beer joint/restaurant in San Jose. I have lost contact with the acquaintance, but wondered if there was a list of North American business owners and the names of their businesses in San Jose?
    S. J.

  2. Delane on July 27, 2006 11:14 am

    I’m interested in buying a home for occasional/vacation use and ultimate retirement use.

    It’s important that I select a home that will appreciate in value.

    Do you have any recommendations?

  3. Rex Stephenson on May 23, 2007 4:13 am

    Enjoyed your site. I have lived the last six years in Esparza. I am currently in AZ. having work done on my heart.
    When others ask me the same questions they appear to be asking you, I tell them to rent for at least two years and rent all over Costa Rica.
    I have never lived in one of the gringo communities. So life there, no se. But I moved to Costa Rica to meet the natives and try to learn a different culture and language. I like to think that I am now a part of what make Costa Rica great.

  4. Tim on May 23, 2007 9:26 am

    Nice comment Rex

  5. Abigail on June 26, 2007 12:28 pm

    Best wishes, Rex, for your recovery. I got a heart stent 2 years ago and feel great. My husband and I (in our mid-50s) want to move to Costa Rica within the next two years and do plan to rent, not buy real estate. We know that we must get sound legal advice on many topics before moving. Rex, do you think it will be possible for us to work part-time there until our Social Security pensions begin? Many American luxury hotels are being built in Guanacaste and we have career experience in that industry.

  6. Rosanna Morera on January 15, 2015 10:57 pm

    Hello! Thank you for the great information. The company I work for owns 3 resorts in Costa Rica. I have heard they are only allowed 2 or 3 non Tico employees. Have you heard of this? I would like the opportunity to work at one for a year or two if possible. I currently live in Utah and have lived in SE Asia as a diplomat. Thanks!

  7. Tim on January 16, 2015 8:16 am

    The general rule is that no company may employ ANY person whose job can be done by a Tico. This is VERY rare. There is no such law I know of that permits 2-3 non Ticos to be employed without a work permit, and that is even even MORE rare. So be very careful.

  8. Karen on August 20, 2016 12:36 am

    I find your blog the most honest information I have read. I have so many questions. We have spent some time looking at different places that might suit us for retirement. We have what many would consider quite a comfortable life here, but so much is changing I am concerned about the direction the country is going. There are increasing racial problems, terrioism, etc. We live just far enough away for these to avoid much of this unrest in the big cities.We raise chickens, grow much of our food and generally work at maintaining a healthy life. However it is becoming more and more difficult as the federal government encroaches more on our freedoms. My primary concern is health and health care. We had a short visit in Costa Rica and were impressed with the ecological lifestyle, and the beauty of the highlands as well as the amazing soil and wildlife and the wonderful friendly people. We would like to make a more extended stay and rent a place where we can begin to explore the feasibility of a part or full time life there. America is headed for single payer healthcare where there will be little or no availability of quality care for us as we get older. I prefer alternative care from naturalpaths and have studied ayuerveda, so am looking for availability of alternative care and natural medicines. i do not take prescription drugs and rarely go to estern doctors as they typically want to perform unnecessary or put you on drugs which are harmful to health. American hospitals are third world places where doctors don’t even wash their hands between patients spreading diseases like MRSA.

    Also we would like to explore possibilities for starting a business and whether we could find something that would suit our interests and talents. Finally we are ballroom dancers and really don’t want to give up the joy of dance or opportunities of sharing it with others. This would be one reason why we would not cut ties with the US at least at present. Because we run two businesses here, we have to figure out how best to juggle our time to explore opportunities in Costa Rica and maintain things here. We would be looking for a location to rent that would be outside San Jose definately not the beach. We have two dogs and would like to know if we could bring them if we make an extended visit. My doctors here are also viewing a future where the government may force them to close their doors. They are wondering if they would be able to prescribe and obtain natural medicines if they moved their practice outside the US.
    Our Spanish is not great–pretty much survival level so we have much to learn. I learned German when I was a teenager and lived in Germany and Austria for several years, so I know one learns best when you hear the language a lot, not just in a classroom. We spent a month in Quito, Ecuador several years ago. We managed with our spanish and met some wonderful people, but felt the diet was a bit too different and the distance from the US meant very long flights if we ever wanted to visit the US We like the fact that it is a reasonable flight from San Jose to the US if I needed to come back for a particular specialist or dance coaching or competition.
    I have read many articles in International living about experts and always had the question which you answered–how many go unprepared and end up leaving after a year or so. When I retired I moved from the East Coast to Arizona, and after being here 16+ years am amazed at the number of people who retire here from elsewhere (even as close as California) and end up moving back after 2-3 years.
    I am open to any insights or suggestion you might have regarding our situation and how we might determine if Costa Rica is a good fit for us. It would be ideal to spend 6 months there and 6 months here, but I don’t know that we can swing that and maintain our business interests here. Probably two months would be easier maybe three. We usually rent a house or apartment when we travel as I do not enjoy staying in hotels or eating hotel food. I enjoy shopping at local markets, trying new foods and doing my own cooking, so eating out is an occasional treat not a daily experience. I love farmers markets and bargaining, even with my bad spanish! I am also curious about transportation if we stay for several months. Rental cars are expensive, but here in the US I am used to the freedom of being able to go where I want and explore when I want to. What do people do when they stay for several months?