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  • Writer's pictureDiego Mendez Arce

4 Important Details to Consider Before Buying a Lot to Build a House in Costa Rica.

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

If you intend to purchase a building lot so you can build your home in Costa Rica, there are quite a few important details to consider. Being an architect and a builder, I wrote this article assuming that you already know the country. You may also visit frequently or may already be living here. You like the culture, the weather, the people and you’ve found an interesting location to live or spend your vacations.You may or may not have purchased land. But you’ve made up your mind about buying a building lot and then building a home. So, now what’s next? Here are 4 important details that you should know before you buy anything.

1. The Property

First and foremost, the property has to exist legally speaking. The only way to know if it does is making sure there is an official property map stamped by the “Registro Nacional de la Propiedad” (National Registry). This document is called “Plano Catastrado”, and it’s a simple drawing of the property boundary and the coordinates of the points that make up its shape, size and location. Unless a certified surveyor duly registers this document at the National Registry, it has no legal value. It is relatively common to come across property maps that look like the valid ones but are not in fact. Most surveyors, architects and engineers can easily spot the differences. This document is fundamental not just to purchase your property but also to get construction permits. Get a seasoned architect and builder (or one that does both) to rule out properties that do not match your requirements and your budget. Have them visit your site, as an example, something as simple as the turning radius on the access road to the project might have a significant impact in your budget, it might even constrain the materials and the design you can build.

Duly registered "Plano Catastro" with stamps
Property map "Plano Catastro", always look for stamps like the ones I marked in red on the image.

2. Titled vs Concession

Get a lawyer, and not just a good one, one that is fluent in English and familiar with property ownership. They can advise on the legal implications of purchasing land. In most cases, they will recommend you create a small local corporation (“Sociedad Anónima”) that will enable you to contract many required services or goods such as purchasing a car or land. There are two types of land-property ownership in Costa Rica, titled and concession. Concession ownership applies to coastlines; this is because all beaches in Costa Rica are public property up until the first 50m measured from the high tide and there are no exceptions. Concession ownerships are approved and issued by the city hall (Municipality) for properties located between the following 50m to 150m. The city hall also renews concession ownership permits. A duly approved concession ownership permit is the owner’s “safety net”. Should the Municipality choose not to renew the concession permit further, they’d have an obligation to pay back the value of the house and the property. A refusal, by the Municipality, of renewing a Concession Ownership Permit is uncommon since most of them simply do not have the funds for the reimbursement and because of the legal implications of a refusal. Beyond the 150m inland boundary, most properties are called Titled Land and will be registered at the National Public Registry. The process of purchasing Titled land is pretty conventional and straight forward.

3. Zoning Regulations

A “Plan Regulador” determines zoning restrictions in Costa Rica. Not all Municipalities have one even though they should. In the absence of a “plan regulador”, they will follow the National Building Code for the most part (“Reglamento de Construcciones de Costa Rica”). Either way, before you even consider buying the property, you have to make sure that the intended use that you will give the property is allowed by the local government. You must also be aware of restrictions that apply to the type of building you intend to build in that property. To address this, you must request a Zoning Regulation Certificate (“Certificado de Uso de Suelo”) at the Municipality. This document should indicate the allowed land-use you can give to the property, the setback distances, minimum property size, maximum building footprint, maximum building height, etc.

4. Utilities

Let’s be clear; you cannot get construction permits in Costa Rica without proper access to water and power availability. I’ve heard tons of stories where the seller came up with an “alternative” for water or power availability. Ignore what locals or foreigners might say about this. It is impossible to legally get construction permits without a letter or certificate from your local water and power provider or management entity. I’ve seen plenty of projects where access to water or power with just a promise based on assumptions on how the community of owners will eventually get it.

It is also essential to know that in large properties with access to power and water through a public road, it is the owner’s responsibility to cover the cost of laying potable water pipes and power lines into the building inside the property. Furthermore, in cases where the power lines do not reach the property through a public road, there will be additional costs to bring these power lines alongside a public road. These extra costs will also come from the owner’s pocket. As long as this is done correctly, the local City Hall will gladly grant you a permit to do so since it is in their best interest when someone else finances their public infrastructure works. For more information on designing and building a home in Costa Rica, book a virtual meeting for a free consultation here.

About the Author

My name is Diego Méndez Arce, and I am a passionate, detail-oriented Costa Rican architect with over ten years of experience in the industry. I studied at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica and The Technische Universität München in Germany. I founded Arkamos Architecture Costa Rica, a company that designs and builds homes. My team and I believe that good design feeds the human soul and has the power to improve people’s lives. We approach design and construction with a highly traceable and precise methodology to confirm that uniquely crafted residential projects are predictable in terms of scope, quality, time, and budget. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with those who are foreign to our real estate market. You can check out our blogswith different topics about design and construction in Costa Rica and its architecture here. If you have questions about how to approach the process of designing and building a house in Costa Rica, you may email me or book a virtual meeting for a free consultation here.

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