Defying the Odds... Building in Costa Rica

By Janie Sohmer



EDITORS NOTE:  While Fran and I strongly subscribe to the model "rent before you buy",  Janie and John go for the gold and break ALL THE RULES.  They designed and built a house in absentia!  While this could have been the experience from hell, it wasn't.  For them it turned out to be a great and very rewarding experience.  But I'll say it again... this is the most rare of situations.  We do not recommend nor do we endorse this process.

As I write, Iím sitting on the terrazza (patio) of our cozy, yet light and airy, home in Santo Domingo, Costa Rica.  Earlier I saw a ruby-headed hummingbird, but now Iím watching one of those soothing tropical downpours.  I relax and settle in with my cup of rich, aromatic coffee that tastes as good as it smells.  As I sip, I notice the papyrus is beginning to peek over the wall and the vines with the big purple flowers have grown about 8 feet since March.  Oh, but I suppose I should get on with the point of this article.

Our success story of how we ďbuilt before moving to Costa RicaĒ began with a week long vacation in Costa Rica in March of 2007 celebrating our youngest daughter, Allison's completion of a three-week Spanish immersion course in Alajuela.   She kept telling us to go, go, go to Costa Rica and she ďjust knew we would love it.Ē


That first visit we were invited to stay in Santo Domingo (located in the province of Heredia in the Central Valley) in the home of a couple we had been introduced to by one of my husbandís colleagues but had only met once.  Oops, I think thatís another no, no.  Oh, well, this couple then introduced us to their neighbor who just happened to be a builder.  Oh, no.  Should red lights have been flashing about now?  Whatever. 

We asked to see some of his homes and found them to be well-built and attractive houses.  And most of his homes included his signature design "cuarto de luz" (room of light) along with a fountain.  And lastly, his process seemed very reasonable.  The average price for a custom built home (including lot) ranged from just under $100,000 to $120,000. 

I know itís unfathomable to the advisors, but we headed back to Dallas with a couple of house plans to study and began emailing back and forth with the builder.  We settled on a three-bedroom plan on a corner lot and by our next trip had made our first payment.  Iím sure some people thought we had fallen off our rockers.  Building began in July 2007, was completed by March 2008, almost exactly one year after our first vacation visit.

For three years we made visits back and forth from Dallas and finally on January 11, 2011 we moved.  We had planned for it all to happen a year earlier but, as it turned out, Johnís parents became ill and both passed away.  We stayed around to care for them and to remodel their home and sell it.

We did almost everything wrong according to sound advice given by most wise people.  Actually, the only people who would ever advise you to buy a home right away are probably realtors.  Would I advise someone to come here for a visit and start building a few months later?  Probably not, but that depends.

Why were we successful?  And we were.  Iíve heard some horror stories about people getting hugely ripped off by very ďniceĒ ticos (realtors, lawyers, builders, etc.).  For more info about that, check out this link.  There is a great video on the topic of building before moving to Costa Rica. 

John and I combined seem to have a sixth sense about people and have a history of reading people and situations quickly and accurately.  Our decisions have consistently played out with success.

If you have a history of misreading the cards, and experiencing disappointment in outcomes, I suggest you wait.  Not just on the buying, but on moving to another country altogether.  You will probably become one of the 60% who hightail it back home within the first year. 

When we met our builder, Jeremy, we sensed his genuine enthusiasm about the possibility of us living in the same neighborhood.  He had no spiel for us and was mostly interested in us as people.  Wow, what a concept.  And when it came time to furnish our home with appliances, Jeremy and his parents (SEE PICTURE ON RIGHT) took two days out of their busy lives and took me to Golfito, CR where I was able to buy appliances and other items tax-free (import taxes can be quite high). 


Another important factor in our success, we believe, is what went on before we ever even came to visit or committed to buy.  Iíll make a bullet list in an effort to hold on to the male readers.

  • When we heard that our 17-year-old daughter was going to Costa Rica for a Spanish immersion we read everything we could about the country.  Before we ever set foot here we had learned about some important cultural differences.

  • We had been thinking and scheming about our retirement plan for about 10 years. 

  • Climate ended up being the most difficult hurdle in deciding where to retire. We immediately ruled out our current location, Dallas, TX.  California would be ideal but we would have had to wait until we were about 80 to afford to move there.  I like it cold and John likes it warm but not hot.  We were stunned to find that the Central Valley of Costa Rica has an average temperature of 65-80 year round.  Bingo!

  • We were not running away from a bad life in the U.S.  This is very important... If you are running from something, it is likely you will never stop running.  Moving away from all that is familiar, facing a language barrier and unexpected cultural quirks will send you into a black orbit.  If you have a bad life, stay where you are and fix it.  Then, if you still want to move to another country, go for it.

  • We were committed to learning Spanish.  You can move here and hole up in a gringo/expat enclave and never speak a word of Spanish but I do not for a second believe you could possibly experience the fullness of the adventure of moving to another land.  Ticos can tell what kind of expat you are and may not embrace you.  Our builder and others who helped us along the way could see us trying to learn the language and understand the culture.  If you canít do that, I say, Yankee go (stay) home. 

  • We can never underestimate the value of networking.  The couple we stayed with during our first visit introduced us to several really great ticos who became part of our helping and friendship network.  This couple helped us get started at the bank, showed us good shopping areas as well as places to go and not to go, etc.  Without their help, Iím not sure we could have built our house while living in the states. There was always someone watching over things for us.

  • In a nutshell, we feel we used our heads as well as our hearts to judge our situation.  We were willing to wait on our dream move if other situations took precedence, and we did. 

  • Now that weíre on our own we have met many of our neighbors, some of whom have become like family, sharing graduation celebrations and birthdays with us, showing us how to use the bus and train systems, stopping by just to say ďhi."  We are so lucky. 

Maybe you think Iíve digressed from the point of our story about building before we moved to Costa Rica but I donít think so.  If you have trouble making sound decisions, have a habit of running away from problems, or are easily dazzled, then building a home in Costa Rica is not for you

This Latin American country is very different from what we are used to in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Understanding the Costa Rican (Tico) culture may take some getting used to.  Adhering to schedules and promises are not the same as we have become accustomed to in North America. 

While your builder might have agreed to install recessed lighting in your living room, he may just completely forget to do it. 

We ran into some of that when building our home.  That doesnít mean we got screwed, it's just an example of life in different culture.  Iím living without that recessed lighting now and am doing just fine. 

However, Jeremy (our builder) recognized the need for better drainage on our property so he installed a French Drain.   He did this without asking and we are so glad he did.  Had he not done this, we may have encountered serious water problems come rainy season. 

And, when we came to see the finished house, Jeremy had installed a beautiful handmade wood and glass chandelier on our terrazza Ė as a gift.  He had also put flower arrangements in the bathrooms.  Things went so well that about a year after we built our first house, we decided to build a second right next door.  The plan was to build it for John's parents.  Unfortunately, that never came to pass, however we have one really fantastic place to put our guests.

Our story is an example of how itís actually possible to be successful in building a home before retirement.  In fact, in our case, there was so much in Dallas to potentially hold us there that we might not have even retired and moved here when we did if we hadnít built the house. 

In the end, Allison was rightÖwe do ďjust love itĒ here Ö Ok, time to get my gloves and head out to the veggie garden.  Later, I plan to roast a large free-roaming hen stuffed  to overflowing with fresh herbs from our garden.

Life is good...

EDITORS NOTE:  Janie and John built in the town of Quizarco, a barrio (local neighborhood) of Santo Domingo de Heredia.  It is a very nice, primarily Tico neighborhood consisting mostly of doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and educators.  Santo Domingo is much quieter than most of the cities near San Jose.  There are no American restaurants and the only fast food nearby is pizza and chicken!


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