Why Not Costa Rica?

Why Not Costa Rica?

“Could you tell me why Costa Rica was left off your list of 18 best retirement locations?” wonders reader Stephen L. from the United States.

Costa Rica is perhaps the world’s best-known foreign retirement haven. Back in the 1980s, it worked hard to earn that status, the government even hiring a Madison Avenue ad agency to help spin the country as the world’s top choice for Americans looking to go “overseas.”

The Costa Ricans managed to get the attention of tens of thousands of foreign retirees, Americans and Europeans attracted by the country’s pensionado program of discounts and tax savings…as well as by its natural beauty and beautiful Pacific coast.

Plus, back then, Costa Rica was cheap. Cheap enough that foreign retirees didn’t mind putting up with San Jose (an unappealing place, dirty and crowded). They were even happy to overlook the country’s broken-down infrastructure.

What did it matter if the road was unpaved and rutted? Your dream home at the end of it, with the crashing Pacific just beyond your front door, was a bargain buy.

That was 20 years ago. Costa Rica is a different place today. San Jose is as unappealing as ever…and increasingly unsafe. The rest of the country is still beautiful, yes, but not altogether safe either. Crime has become a serious concern for both travelers and foreign retirees.

Plus, in 1992, after working so hard the previous decade to woo American and European retirees, Costa Rica seemed to change its mind. The Costa Ricans didn’t eliminate the pensionado program; they simply eliminated most of the tax breaks it had promised, as part of a deficit-reduction austerity package. And they didn’t grandfather existing pensionados. So those who’d chosen Costa Rica for the retiree benefits it offered were surprised and disappointed to find that those benefits existed no more. Pensionados since have paid the same duties on imported cars and household goods, for example, as Costa Ricans.

Now the Costa Rican government is considering a further pensionado program adjustment. They’re talking about increasing, maybe substantially, the minimum monthly income requirement to qualify. And, again, if the change is made, existing pensioandos won’t be grandfathered. To renew your status, you’ll have to qualify under the new requirements.

Many existing pensionado retirees won’t be able to afford this. They’re worried…and beginning to make and to plan moves. Many are coming to Panama, for example.

They’re looking to leave Costa Rica now not only because its pensionado benefits are defunct, but for other good reasons, too. The cost of living has increased…the cost of real estate has ballooned in some regions…and, meantime, the infrastructure has remained status-quo. That is, broken down.

After not having traveled in the country for five or six years, I returned last summer to find that the roads are in no better shape…and there are no more of them. Now, your dream house is still at the end of a rutted dirt road…but, in many spots, it’s no bargain.

Costa Rica Correspondent David Stubbs, living in the country for the past five years with his family, tells the story of friends who bought a house in an inaccessible spot…because they were assured a road was going in. Years later, their home is as difficult to get to as the day they bought it. Still, no road…

This is the way it goes in this country, which is long on infrastructure promises and short on follow-through. A new highway from San Jose to the Pacific coast has been discussed for more than two decades. It’s even been drawn on some maps. It’s now, today, finally, under construction.

I’ve been scouting and reporting on international real estate markets for about 25 years. I’ve come to accept that emerging property markets attract what I’ve come to think of as a carpetbagger element.

When these Wild West situations develop, guys from the States and Europe swoop in to make as much money as they can as quick as they can. Under these heated, frenzied, unregulated conditions, you can expect to encounter real estate agents and land developers who were travel agents or contractors back in Florida, say, maybe only a few months ago. They’re seizing a market opportunity. They’re not in it for the long haul.

These guys make big promises, earn net commissions, and, generally, do whatever it takes to make the sale.

Again, they exist in every unregulated, emerging market…including Costa Rica.

Maybe especially including Costa Rica.

Like many real estate markets worldwide right now, the Costa Rican real estate market is down. In particular regions, the Costa Rican market is down to crisis opportunity levels.

Still, I had an e-mail from a developer recently asking if we’d be interested in marketing his development for him. His project is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, in the Guanacaste region. I know it well. It spiked earlier this decade. And now it’s struggling. A good place to shop for distress sales.

At least that’s my take.

The developer who wrote to me, though…he saw things differently. “This is a fast-moving market right now,” he assured me. “Prices are climbing. You can bank on continued appreciation. Your readers will want to get in quickly, because there are only so many lots available…”

I passed. Because I realized from his initial e-mail that this was one of those guys. One of those guys who’ll say anything to make a sale.

And, because guys like this will say anything…you can’t believe a word.

As I said, this syndrome isn’t unique to Costa Rica. But I also have to say that I’ve encountered more of these guys in this country than maybe anywhere else.

For all these reasons, I left Costa Rica off my recent Top 18 Overseas Havens list.

On the other hand…

When friend David Stubbs was looking to relocate his family from the States to Central America five years ago, he shopped around. And he chose Costa Rica over all the options in this part of the world.

For two good reasons:

First, the weather in the hills surrounding San Jose is considerably more pleasant than the weather in Panama City. Cooler and less humid.

Second, the international schooling options in San Jose are perhaps the best in the region. Panama City offers top choices, too, but David was most impressed by the international-standard, English-language options that Costa Rica offered for educating his two children.

And you can’t argue with that.

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. The countries I did include on my list?

  • Argentina
  • Belize
  • China
  • Croatia
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • France
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • The Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Uruguay

These, then, are the countries we’ll consider live and in person and with the help of experts and expats convened from all around the world during our How To Retire Overseas Conference, commencing tomorrow morning here in Panama City…