Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
I’m sure that you’ve been inundated with mail on this subject, property thefts.
Really, the whole thing comes down to a few principals. They are not that difficult, and normally come under the heading of due diligence.
Principal #1: understand the area, the business climate, and the opportunities for fraud or other crimes.
This should be fairly easy here. The laws that exist obviously are not designed to protect the rightful owner. The reason for this is actually historical, and goes back to the era of a single, great landowner who permitted peasants to live on his property and were required to work and produce a profit for the landowner. They were called peasants in English.
The word exists today in Spanish: peon. That word exists in English also, but the meaning has changed. Today, in Spanish, a peon is a common worker, construction, farm work, things like that.
When the inevitable breakup of the large haciendas began, laws were enacted permitting those peons to remain on the land that they had occupied and worked on for generations.
Only just, one would think. I would too. But today that law has morphed into a tool for legal theft of property. The people who actually go out and occupy the subject property are known as precaristas. This is translated as someone who has nothing, really the same as desamparado. Basically, homeless.
That’s a short form due diligence. Actually, the more comprehensive is a law, the more opportunities exist for abuse of that law. Look at white collar crime in the U.S.
Principal #2: Once a likely property has been found, understand how this property has been held and guarded.
This is more important than one would think. First, there are two types of property here: titled and concession. Concession actually pertains to beachfront property coming under the maritime law.
First and foremost, understand that with titled property, you will own it with whatever is on the property. With concession property, you will not own the property, but will pay the municipality in which it exists for the use of that property. You will own whatever exists on the property. However. I would counsel people not to participate in concession property, as everything regarding that property, except the color of your house, is decided by the municipality. And they may eventually get involved with that.
Regarding the actual guarding of your proposed residence: verify that you are actually talking to the owner of the property. That might seem basic, but there are a lot of people who forget to verify identity. If it has been guarded by someone, verify that that person has a valid contract with the actual owner. That is so important that I cannot stress it enough. That person may turn out to be one of the precaristas, and it will take you years to extract him from the property you just paid for, if you can even do it. Read the law: after two years, a precarista has rights regarding a property. After 10 years, he owns it. Read it.
Principal #3: This is the most difficult of the bunch. You will not be able to transfer ownership of property without the services of a lawyer/notary. The notary part is more important in Costa Rica. The choice of this person will make or break your entire deal, and may bankrupt you. There are only two types of lawyers in ANY country: those who are honest, and those who profess honesty. Those who profess honesty are relatives of snake oil salesman, and are difficult to separate from those honest types. Here in Costa Rica, the professional organization (Colegio de Abogados) will not do you any good for recommendations. I have found only one way to qualify a person in that profession:
Initiate contact, explain your intent, and ask for a contact list of former, or preferably, current clients, and their contact information. Then, you also have to qualify at least some of those references, as they may be relatives or friends.
If you have the time, it would be better to use your prospective lawyer on something small and see if he performs as you want and see if you get your moneys worth. Don’t be afraid to move on and find another.
Last, after all this, if you need to leave your property, hire a guard. Have your lawyer write a binding, renewable contract with a reliable individual, who you have checked. This includes that persons references. Without this contract, you may have hired a precarista, who will take your money and not leave the property when the job is over and you want to use your property. And, that person may take all the contents including the windows and roof, if you can get him out of there.
Above all, don’t be in a hurry. I bought beachfront property here years ago, without a problem. That took almost a year.
I’ve had a lawyer for 20 years who has always given me my moneys worth or more. He spoke English back when my Spanish was sufficient to buy me a cold beer, and that was it. He has proven to be honest. I stress “proven.” They exist. They are most important here. I conducted my affairs in the U.S. for years without one. Don’t try it here.