Building in Costa Rica
Maybe you haven’t found exactly what you’re looking for, or you prefer to build precisely what you want. Building a custom home can be a rewarding, provided you have a good understanding of the level of complexity with building codes and laws. So, your first order of business should be to find a reputable licensed architect or civil engineer.
Before you sign a contract with an architect or engineer, ask to visit two or three homes they have built and talk to the owners about the process and how satisfied they were with the results.
All architects and engineers operating in Costa Rica have to be licensed by the Costa Rican Association of Engineers and Architects, who establishes their fees structures. Most fees are based on the value of the construction project and are anywhere between 9-19% of the total value. Not only are you required to submit your application and construction permit through your architect or engineer, they’ll be a valuable resource throughout the project.
What’s the Process to Get Started?
First, you’ll need to find the right piece of property to build on. Check to make sure the lot has basic services such as water, electricity, telephone and drainage. Before you purchase anything, make sure the property is free from restrictions that would prevent you from getting a construction permit. It won’t be enough to check the Public Registry. You’ll want to also check with the local municipality, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Public Works to make sure there are no environmental, electricity or
other issues. When you’ve checked everything out thoroughly, you’re ready to find a builder.
Builders in Costa Rica are required to register here http://www.cfia.or.crThis is the same agency that regulates architects and engineers. Make sure the builder you choose is registered.
Note: If you can’t live on your property year-round, you will have to hire a guard, caretaker or a reliable house sitter to watch over it for you. Make sure boundary fences and limit signs are visible and well maintained. Visit your land periodically to check for Squatters. They can be a real problem. Underdeveloped land is a prime target for squatters and once they move onto your land, it’s hard to get rid of them. Not only that, if squatters occupy your land for a certain number of years, they can lay claim to it. The sooner you can get them off the land, the better. If you can’t hire someone year-round, you can have a friend or attorney stop by to check your property periodically. Also, there is a trustworthy, professional house-sitting agency in San Jose which will watch your home while you are away. They are bonded and will provide references upon your request.
Getting the Permit
You’ll sit down with your architect or civil engineer to create initial drafts, site plans and preliminary work drawings. From there you are ready to begin construction plans and outline technical specifications. Four copies of your plans need to go to the Permit Reception Office with your filing application. Plus, four copies of the property cadastre plot plan, four copies of the permit checklist, two copies of your property deed, one copy of your contract with the architect or civil engineer, approval from the water company and a copy of the electrical design plan. You must also request a building permit from the municipality in which your home will be located. The Municipal building inspector will coordinate with your architect review your construction project periodically to ensure that your house is being built according to code. Plan on being present at these inspections, just to stay on top of the process.
Once you are granted a permit, construction can begin. You’ll need to talk to your architect or civil engineer to discuss how much time you want them to devote to the project. The fees they charge are based on how much personal involvement they have. If you have some construction knowledge and want to visit the site on a regular basis, you may not require as much time from your architect or engineer. Always insist on a written contract. Construction regulations allow for three levels of involvement in the project.
What you need to know about Zoning
Building and subdivision plans must be:
A. Signed by a registered local engineer
B. Approved by the local (Health Department)
C. Approved by the (INVU) (Housing and Urban Development Department)
Building Tips at a Glance
Check with the local municipality for neighborhood zoning laws. In order to maintain local standards (and property values) some locales set down strict rules for style and quality of construction.
You cannot build a house within 50 to 100 meters (164 ft. to 328 ft.) of a river .
In most situations, you must to leave space for a front yard and a sidewalk.
If you have a nice view from your property: play it smart. Buy the land around it.
Contractors get a discount on materials. It is a temptation to build with the materials that gives them the best markup. Check up on them. Make sure they’re using the materials you agreed on.
Along both coasts, the first 200 meters (656 ft.) above mean high tide is owned by the government. No building is permitted within the first 50 meters (164 ft.) above mean high tide.
The area 50 meters (164 ft.) to 200 meters (656 ft.) above mean high tide may be leased from the local municipality with the approval of the Instituto de Turismo (Costa Rican Tourist Board). Ostensibly, foreigners cannot, legally lease property in this area. However, a clever or desperate person can find ways to circumvent these laws.
Costa Rican Law
The legal system in Costa Rica is based on Civil Law rather than Common Law. This is an important distinction to make in regard to how judges make decisions and how contracts are written. Civil Law is more restricted with less interpretation by the judges. Precedent is not necessarily a factor and may be considered or viewed only for clarification purposes. The Supreme Court or Sala Cuarta, is the exception and will hear cases where the lower courts were restricted to rule only on provisions provided in the civil code.
Written contracts in Costa Rica are of a simpler form than their stateside counterparts. Contracts include only what the law does not already state. Under Common Law, contracts are more specific and detail oriented since they must allow for as little interpretation as possible.
Protection of Private Property
You may wonder, “Can the government take my property from me?” Yes, it is possible, but extremely difficult. One thing to understand is that there are similar conditions we find even in the United States and other countries where the government has and can expropriate private property for public interests, i.e. roads, easements, protected areas, etc. There have been cases in the past where the Costa Rican government has expropriated lands for national parks and protected areas, however these are the exception and not the rule. Especially today with new constitutional procedures where the government must legally demonstrate public interest and justly compensate the landowner. Article 45 of the Costa Rican Constitution guarantees equal rights and protection of private property, be it owned by nationals or foreigners.