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COSTA RICA: LESSONS LEARNED WHILE BUILDING IN PARADISE
by
Tom Rosenberger

When purchasing or building a home anywhere, be it New York City, London, Buenos Aires or San Jose, a primary concern of the savvy buyer centers on a property's quality construction standards. Construction standards throughout the world wide, however, can vary greatly, ranging from non-existent to superior quality.

In this article we follow the journey of one couple whose dream of building a retirement home in Costa Rica was fraught with mis-understandings, subtle deception and poor quality work standards. Then we'll look at how building your dream home in paradise, and Costa Rica certainly qualifies as that, can be put in to a simple action plan resulting in a dream home built with the highest of quality construction standards in place.

Let's first start by defining Quality Construction Standards.

These are the standard building materials and installation methods that the majority of the people from the USA, Canada and Europe are accustomed to growing up with.

If you have not spent much time in Latin America, you may not initially notice the lack of amenities that you have taken for granted your whole life.

Many times it isn't until after a foreigner has purchased a residence in Costa Rica, and had the time to live in it for a while, that they realize the amenities they are missing.

MOST LOCAL CONTRACTORS AND ARCHITECTS HAVE NO INTENTION OF FOLLOWING UP WITH THEIR CLIENTS AFTER THEY THINK THE JOB HAS BEEN COMPLETED.

Down here, there is much less attention paid to finish details by the local contractors and architects. The average Latino feels that many of the following amenities foreigners include in their homes are extravagant and unnecessary.

 Hot Water from all Faucets

 Vented Plumbing

 Drains with Traps and Clean Outs

 Sufficient Electrical Outlets

 Screens on Windows that Open

 Shower Sprays located above our Heads

 Garbage Disposals

 8' Minimum Ceiling Height

 Interior Doors that are High Enough for Adults

 Countertops that are Large Enough to Work On

 Cabinets Finished Inside with Sufficient Storage

 Ample Closets with Cleanable Surfaces

 Insulation in Walls, Ceilings and Attics

 Contiguous Roofing, Facias & Soffits that Prevent Rodent Intrusion
Most local contractors and architects, have no intention of following up with their clients after they think the job has been completed. They did not grow up with guaranteed products or work and the above amenities that you take for granted, are not things they are accustomed to having or installing. They do not like detailed inspection services performed by foreigners, because if defects and missing building components are revealed, the client will expect them to perform more work to complete the construction to higher standards.

Costa Rica Building


So most of the local contractors and attorneys will recommend that you to use one of their local friends or family, who can perform the Latino version of an inspection, supposedly on your behalf.

The Costa Ricans are very compassionate and extremely loyal to their families, as everybody is related to just about everyone through various parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Once you can speak Spanish, you will begin to listen to the conversations of your local Latino friends and understand their culture and how they support each connected family member. It's an admirable trait, except when you're the one with the short end of the stick.

IT IS WISE TO SEEK EXPERIENCED PROFESSIONALS FOR ANY PROJECT YOU ARE CONSIDERING IN COSTA RICA. A SMART INVESTOR LOOKS FOR SOMEONE THEY CAN COMMUNICATE WITH....

For instance; when local attorney Juan, has a foreign client who needs architectural work, he recommends his Cousin Jose. Even though architect Jose just got out of college, according to Juan, he's the best in the country. Their web of relatives goes on and on, but the foreign client who does not understand the local culture, because they cannot speak or understand Spanish, usually takes the attorney's recommendation and hires architect Jose, who proceeds to spend many months more than anticipated to complete the work that could have been completed by an experienced professional in half the time and for less money.

It is wise to seek experienced professionals for any project you are considering in Costa Rica. A smart investor looks for someone they can communicate with in their native language and preferable a person who was raised in North America and has construction experience. A professional with these skills will understand the type and quality of construction you are accustomed to and expect.

Additionally, it would be prudent to find someone who does not have family here that they are obligated to hire and protect. Many foreigners who work here, who are married to locals, are obligated by Latin family tradition to do whatever it takes to locate work for their relatives.

Costa Rica homes


For those who plan to build your own home in Costa Rica, for those who thought that something like this could not happen to you, or those of you who wonder what your legal recourses are in Costa Rica, I dedicate this story of a retired couple from the USA building their retirement home in Costa Rica to you.

It would be prudent to hire a Professional who will work for your best interest, before you get caught in a Construction Nightmare like the one experienced by Maude and Harold.

Costa Rica was a perfect place for retirement for Harold & Maude (all names have been changed), who braved 25 years of cold Buffalo, New York winters. Harold is an American and his wife Maude is originally from Costa Rica, but left for the states when she was 21. They were looking forward to coming back 'home'. Like many retirees, they both wanted to live a slower paced, more affordable lifestyle in Costa Rica.

Their goal was simple: Buy a lot and build their modest dream home and live debt free. They accomplished buying a lot with wonderful mountain and valley views. Their next step: To build their dream house, which has yet to be realized.

In their own words:

Harold: "We put all our trust in an architect named Juan Chirripo, who was a friend of the family. I really believed in him. I felt as though I was from here, spoke the language and had a good judge of character. He was the one for us. He was the one who did the plans for our house and also got bids to build the home. We had a total of three bids to build the house, and we decided to go with the least expensive bid, which happened to be with Juan's Construction Company." (Mistake #1)

Maude: "At the beginning I was very happy. Harold and I worked hard for 32 years in the United States to come back to Costa Rica to build a nice little home for us to retire in. I was looking forward to being back near all our family again."

"Once we had contracted with Juan for his architectural and building services, he required a down payment of 30% up front before the start of building. Harold and I deposited the money with Juan to get the project started."

"After three months, the plans and permits were approved. The foundation had been poured and the walls started to go up. It was a few weeks after most of the walls went up that my husband realized that some of the walls did not seem level."

"The concrete was also was slightly off in color (we found out later that too much water had been added to the concrete mix, which is very bad). Between that, and ultimately our gut feeling that something was just 'not right', forced us to seek answers. We wanted to be sure what was being built was to code."

Costa Rica Building


"We contracted a private Engineer by the name Antonio Quebradas*, who had built other quality homes in the same development where our house was being built. Consequently, he had been one of the three bids we received at the beginning, but we chose not to go with his company due to the price being too high. This proved to be a very costly mistake."

Antonio knew right away, that most of the support columns were dangerous and could not withstand the smallest of earthquakes. Of course, when we heard this, we panicked. He had asked us if Juan Chirripo did soil studies before building and we told him 'No'. He never asked us to do any. Nor did he ever suggest for us to do soil studies." (Soil studies should be done before the building of any project. This should be recommended by any reputable engineer).

"When we presented this information to the builder, Juan Chirripo, he denied Antonio's story and said that 'nothing was wrong and that Antonio wanted the job and didn't get the job and was trying to sabotage his reputation of the builder to spite him.' Harold and I knew that was not the case. Antonio was a highly regarded engineer and builder and wouldn't do such a thing. He truly saw our despair and wanted to help us in any way he could."

"Antonio Quebradas had suggested to us to hire an independent company to do concrete testing to verify the mix and strength (support structure) and also the type of rebar used on the house. We did just that. Within days the company came out to perform testing on ten different samples throughout the home. A few days later, we received the results in writing, which were devastating. Out of the 10 samples that were tested, 9 were found to be unsatisfactory."

"The report recommended that the entire structure be demolished. Our partially built home had to come down. We had invested $60,000 for a house that was more than 50% paid for but less than 30% complete. Obviously Juan, nor the foreman, nor the workers were not skilled enough to so much as pour a solid foundation or walls for our home. Juan was responsible to oversee his workers and failed in all capacities. Juan, actually, barely ever showed up to the site. I was there with Harold almost every day."

"To add insult to injury, we found out that Juan Chirripo was not licensed. In fact, he had a 'friend' that was signing off on his plans. I had found this out when I went to the Colegio de Architectos y Ingenieros to file an official complaint."

"We had given Juan several opportunities to make good before I actually took the time to go down and file a written complaint. I told him that we wanted our money back and he stated that he didn't have the $60,000 that we had paid him. When I found out he wasn't licensed, I was told that his friend could lose his license and Juan could be barred from getting his (he was apparently a year away from getting his license).

I hired an attorney to represent us because we thought we may be out all the money we had put towards the building of the house. This was most of the retirement money we had, so we had to look at what our legal recourses were to get it back. We hired an attorney to represent us and ended up settling with Juan Chirripo out of court."

"Our agreement was to have him demolish the existing structure and start from scratch. Except, this time, we would have a private engineer overseeing his work and signing off on each phase. If he does not finish the house per our written agreement, he will have a lot to lose. His friend will lose his license and he will be most likely be barred from getting his. This was the best solution for our situation."

As Maude notes, the moral of the story is: "Do not think you are immune from having things such as these happen to you. Also, if possible, try not to involve family in business. Verify all licenses of engineers, architects, contractors, etc and don't be afraid to ask for many references.
Hire an independent third party to oversee your project. While it is an added expense, it is piece of mind, especially if you are not familiar with building in Costa Rica.

And finally, make sure you have an iron clad contract and you are paying draws for completed construction.

TO ENSURE QUALITY CONSTRUCTION STANDARDS FROM THE GROUND UP, THERE ARE SEVERAL STEPS ONE MUST TAKE WHEN BUILDING IN COSTA RICA.

Building in paradise does not have to be like this. We hope that this story will educate others who plan to build on their own in Costa Rica."

Harold and Maude still hope to have their house, the one that they envisioned having from the beginning, completed by next year.

To ensure quality construction standards from the ground up, there are several steps one must take when building in Costa Rica:

  1. Before you build any type of structure in Costa Rica, you will need to consult with a licensed engineer to calculate the wind and seismic considerations in order to design the foundation and structure of the building.
  2. Equally important are the considerations prior to acquiring the land to build on. A soil test is recommended to insure that your structure will be able to be built on the existing terrain you are purchasing.
  3. To obtain construction permits in Costa Rica you will need to observe the following:

     The application for a construction permit must be presented by a licensed architect or engineer, to the municipality where the property to be built on is located.

     Prior to submitting a application, municipal zoning for the property should be checked, a determination that basic services such as water, electricity and telephone are available, and insure that there are no restrictions placed on the property, which would deny the issuance of a construction permit.

     To determine if such restrictions exist, the registered title, in the National Registry, would need to be reviewed, along with checking with a number of other Government agencies, who may have statutory authority to restrict development.

    For a serviced residential lot, you will need the following:


     architectural blue prints

     an electrical plan

     each of the above should be appropriately endorsed and filed with the "Costa Rican Association of Engineers and Architects", along with their standard consulting agreement

     filing at the appropriate municipality, along with the completed construction permit application

     a worker's compensation policy from the National Insurance Institute

     a certified copy of the property survey map

     three copies of the construction plans

     a municipal certification that all property taxes and assessments are current

     an approval from the water company (AyA), regarding the availability of water, where the home is to be built.

By following the simple procedures and processes outlined here, one can be protected from the building disaster that befell Harold and Maude, and end up with a dream home in paradise.

Author : Tom Rosenberger. With more than 25 years homebuilding experience 15 of which have been in Costa Rica, construction consultant Tom Rosenberger knows the ins and outs of building and remodeling a home in Costa Rica.

A Free Gift To You - Key Documents With 25 Years Of Experience: As part of his 'Build Your Own Home in Costa Rica - Key Documents' Tom offers his customers several informative documents, including a Land Acquisition and Home Building report, which outlines the process one can expect when purchasing property and building a home in this country. Other documents include a construction cost spreadsheet, payment schedule, and list of construction specifications. You can see Tom's story and key documents by clicking here.

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