‘You couldn’t make this stuff up . . . .’

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

When I was first investigating the possibility of moving to Costa Rica more than 11 years ago, I was given some very good advice from someone who had been here for more than 20 years:  Don’t buy property!

He cited as his reasoning the now defunct development company who, for the upfront payment of $25,000, would allow prospective buyers to look at their project with the promise that if they didn’t like what they saw, their money would be refunded.

We see how well that worked out, with that company absconding with many millions of dollars and leaving unfinished projects dotting the landscape.  It always struck me as strange that anyone would think forking over twenty-five grand before they looked at something was a good idea.  Would they do that in the U.S.?  I doubt it seriously, but oh, it was Costa Rica in the boom years and people couldn’t hand over money fast enough.

I found out later than the reason this scam wasn’t exposed sooner was that the company’s legal muscle promptly threatened a battery of lawsuits against anyone who dared complain that they’d been ripped off.  Most people shut up immediately and cut their losses or tried to participate in the myriad class action lawsuits that went mostly nowhere.

I did not follow the advice of my friend. I did buy property and built a house, and I guess I was lucky because I have the title and everything seems to have been done properly.  But it always amazes me that there were people who did build very expensive houses on land they didn’t own and could not get title to.  It begs the question “Who does that?”

In the States there are title insurance companies that make sure there are no clouded titles when property is transferred, and in the five or six homes sales I have participated in, the title company was the first team member.  Why didn’t people use a title company here?  There is one, and I’ve heard they are very good.

It’s hard to muster sympathy for people who threw caution to the wind and didn’t do their homework.    My sympathies lie with the honorable businessmen such as Sheldon Hazeltine who was the victim of squatters and who has spent the last 16 years of his life trying to reclaim land that is rightfully his only to be harassed and dragged through court on bogus charges of impugning the reputation of the people who, for all intents and purposes, reappropriated his land.

A decade and a half of litigation and what does he have to show for it?  And where is the system that should be in place to protect people from this kind of swindling?

I have been following this case for the last two-plus years, and I swear to God, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

I realize that there is a long history of squirrelly land deals in Latin America.  A friend of mine whose family owned one of the loveliest stretches of beach in Mexico replied, when I told him how lucky he was that his grandfather bought such pristine property when it was still affordable, “Oh, he didn’t buy it; he stole it from dead people!”

And while many of us make jokes about Costa Rica being the land of the wanted and unwanted, it doesn’t seem like much of a joke  if you’ve been a victim of a property scam.  Sheldon and I agreed that Somerset Maugham probably had it right (although Somerset was referring to Monte Carlo): This is a sunny place for shady people!  Caveat emptor!!

Trishas Spinelli
San Ramón de Alajuela
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