In many countries, there are
stiff building codes that must be adhered to by the contractor. That
is simply not the case here and even if a code does exist, there is little
or no enforcement.
Let's discuss some of the little "surprises" you
might encounter! These are very, very common things and not the
The vast majority of homes here have only 120v
service to the home. Therefore, if you have large electric
appliances like a dryer, you are screwed. Why is this?
Probably because electricity is costly here and is treated more like a
luxury than a necessity
The 120v service that is
installed is often low service, i.e. maybe 15 Amps for the whole house!
The homes electrical system is almost NEVER earth grounded. Not
only is this incredibly dangerous, but surge and noise filters will
not work properly and many electronic items, PC's, stereos, etc,
can be at risk.
Hot water may not be delivered to all
faucets in all bathrooms. Again, as electricity is a luxury, so
this is hot water in a guest bathroom! We have no hot water in the
sink in our home! Ticos are happy to wash their hands in cold
Goofy stuff like reversed water faucets.
The word in Spanish for HOT is Caliente, so guess what the faucet
marked C has flowing from it? Yup! Hot water. We also
have this in our home and our guests sometimes wait a LONG time in the
shower for the water to run hot!
Outgoing waste piping
can be the wrong diameter which can cause some very nasty happenings in
The fixtures used may be of average or less quality. Here I
speak of toilets and other necessities.
Some of this stuff
is funny, like the cold faucet thing. Other stuff is just plain
dangerous! I can go on and on, but choosing a home builder who builds
to the standards you want is critical. This also of course
includes the quality of the building materials. Make SURE your builder
is cold stone fluent in your language and is also 100% fluent in
construction and building Spanish. Also, make sure your builder, if
not a Tico, is here in this country legally and has his Permanent Residency.
Communications is critical! Here is an example.
friend of mine built a beautiful home just outside of San Josi a couple of
years ago. A picture of his home appears at the left.
problem was that he and his Tica (Costa Rican) wife were out of the country
while the home was being built.
See that copula on the top of the
house? Well THAT was the Tico version of a skylight! When they
finally saw their new home... it was quite a surprise. Note that this
was using a Tico company to build the home and the wife was Costa Rican!
As most people will tell you, it is truly important that you be here in
country to supervise construction.
Martin Rice, author of
At Home in Costa Rica, has built two homes and has kindly submitted the
following article which may be of help to those who plan to build their
dream home in paradise.
Lots of folks seem
interested in building a house in Costa Rica. My wife and I have done this
twice and thought that maybe knowing about some of our experiences might
prove useful to others.
Because we're focusing on building here, I
won't talk about buying land. I'll assume that you've already acquired the
land you want to use.
We arrived here with plans that we had
purchased in the States. We found them in one of a myriad of home plan books
that you can buy at bookstores. When we made our decision, we sent off for
the the plans.
Although we loved the plans, we had to make a lot of
necessary changes to make the construction suitable for Costa Rica. For
example, we didn't want the house built with wooden studs and sheet rock. We
decided to use concrete block and stucco. There were other things, too. The
plans showed a built-in vacuuming system. Not necessary; there was a heating
and air-conditioning system. Definitely not necessary in our Costa Rica
mountain home. Furthermore, we wanted a few design changes made.
Clearly we needed an architect to help us with all this. So we asked the
realtors from whom we had bought the land if they could recommend one. They
had someone they had worked with in the past and highly recommended. We had
a close and quite friendly relationship with the realtors and we trusted
them, so we followed their recommendation. After twice meeting with the
architect, we asked him for a quote, found it reasonable, and contracted
with him to make the modifications.
Of course we weren't contracting
with him to design the house from scratch by any means. Had we been doing
that, the process would have been different. In any case, if you're going to
build a house, you must have some relationship with an architect so that the
plans you submit for approval are properly stamped by a professional
architect in good standing in Costa Rica.
You will also use the
architect to obtain the building permits for you.
Make no mistake
about it, you must get your building permits. I can't tell you how many
times I heard of people who had their building projects stopped dead in the
water because they had no permits. The interesting thing is that after
you've submitted your plans and received your permits, there's not a lot of
checking that goes on to make sure that what you're building agrees with the
plans. Personally, however, I would not take the chance of submitting plans
that are not what you're going to build.
Also in our agreement we
contracted with him to be the supervising architect, that is he would submit
the plans, as mentioned above, would do all the paper work, keep the on-site
log required by law, work closely with the builder, etc. We paid him $10,000
for all of that. The funds were paid over the course of the project,
according to an agreed-upon schedule.
We had already found a builder.
He lived right in our little town. In fact, our property was part of a huge
farm his father had once owned. He had built a lot of the houses for our
neighbors, and we examined those very closely. We also looked very closely
at houses in the neighborhood built by others. Our guy's work was really
superior, plus he had an excellent reputation with our friends and
neighbors, almost all North Americans. We never regretted our decision to go
When the architect had the plans ready, we gave them to the
builder and two weeks later he came back with a price for all labor and
materials. The price was more than we had expected. We now know that the
reason for this was that he was concerned because the house was more complex
than anything he had ever built before, and he was padding considerably to
help ensure that he didn't loose money. The fellow did everything on scraps
of paper and didn't have any kind of estimating system of any sophistication
at all, he didn't even have a computer. Some houses he made money on, on
others he lost money.
Although the price was higher than we wanted, it
was not unreasonable by any means. We both made some adjustments and soon
agreed on a price. One thing should be stressed here, the price was for all
labor and materials, that is, it was a fixed price. I'll talk about
alternatives later. It was agreed, of course, that any changes we wanted to
make would cost extra. As it turned out, we did, indeed, make a handful of
changes, one of which was significant and the others rather minor. But for
each one we agreed beforehand on the cost so that we knew all along what the
project was costing us.
Three things we talked about quite a bit
before signing our agreement had to do with allowances, infrastructure
improvements, and payment structure.
The question of allowances is
extremely important in a deal such as this, that is, where there's a fixed
price. Clearly you the owner are going to select things like finishes
(tiles, floors, counter tops, for example), paint, light fixtures, plumbing
fixtures, doors, windows, cabinets, shelving, and many other things.
The builder has already estimated what these are going to cost him,
otherwise he couldn't give you a fixed price. So you have to know what he
estimated so that when you pick things out you'll know whether you're right
on the money, whether you're going over budget, in which case you'll owe the
builder if you decide to purchase these thing anyway, or whether you're
under budget, in which case he will owe you money.
The question of
infrastructure is important, too. One must make sure, for example, that the
price includes bringing water to the property. In the rural areas where we
built both times, there's no such thing as "city water." What about
telephone lines to the property? What about electricity? All of this has to
be planned beforehand, and there are costs here the builder isn't
For example, both times we built, although there was
electricity available, there was no transformer on the road from which to
supply our houses. So we had to pay the electric company for buying and
installing a transformer. We had no phones where we first built, so there
was no problem about installation. At our second house, telephone service
was available, but the nearest pole was a kilometer away. We were
responsible for paying for poles and cable and having the work done to bring
the lines from that last pole to our house.
These things about
electricity and phone might strike you as being strange or unusual. But if
you live out in the country in Costa Rica, that's the way it's done.
Finally there was the question of payment. We worked out a schedule of how
much we needed to give the builder and at what intervals. That made it easy
for both of us to watch our cash flow.
consideration while building is where you will be while the building is
going on. The first time we built a large house, we were living in a small
guest house right on the property and were always right there. Indeed, every
day the foreman (who, by the way, was fantastic) would consult with us
numerous times as did the subcontractors. Living on site is the absolutely
best arrangement. It's even better when, as in this case, the builder lives
right in the neighborhood.
When we built the second house we were
living in a rental house that was exactly a 20-minute drive from the
building site. In addition, the architect/builder lived in San Josi. What a
difference that made. We were obviously not always available to the foreman
and subcontractors. We had to schedule regular meetings at exact times on
certain days with the builder who had to travel about and hour and a half to
get to the site. Although it was doable, it was far from ideal.
have friends who continued to live in the States while their houses were
being built. In most cases this resulted in large problems and great
All in all, the building of our first house went
extremely well. The house itself was magnificent, we had all the input
anyone could ask for and at the end of the day, we were still had a fine
relationship with the builder.
I wish I could say that after the
first experience, the second was even better because of all we had learned
the first time. But the second time we did it differently and I must say
that even though, in the end ,we were extremely pleased with the house,
getting to that point was much more difficult than our first venture.
In this case, we didn't start with pre-drawn plans, but we did have a highly
detailed plan that my wife worked out with just a little bit of help from
me. Then she built a model that would have done her proud in any school of
We met the builder by calling him after seeing his
full-page ad in an upscale Costa Rican home and building publication. He was
an extremely bright young man who only built log homes, which is what we
wanted. There are other log home builders in Costa Rica and we investigated
them all. But the type of homes they built were not what we were looking
What we did was to have a series of meetings with the architect
at which we would present our ideas, he would make sketches, we'd come back,
look at what he did, discuss it and then go to the next round. The purpose
of this was to end up with a plan, on paper, with drawings (but not final
blue prints) of what we would go ahead with. He charged us a set price for
the series of meetings which was quite reasonable, less than $US1,000.
Eventually we agreed on a plan about which we were quite excited. At that
point, we contracted, but on an entirely different basis than we did during
the first project. This time there was a fixed cost for plans, labor and
labor supervision. The idea here is that if they don't meet the deadline for
completion, we don't pay anything extra regardless of how long they take.
The architect's company was also the builder. Materials, however, were only
estimated and we would pay for the materials as we went. In most cases they
would buy the materials and I would pay the invoices directly to the
vendors, unless the architect had already paid for them and gave me a
cancelled invoice, in which case I would reimburse him.
things that are normally considered allowances, that is, the things the
client picks, we ourselves would just pick and buy, since there was no set
price for materials.
There are two potential dangers in doing this.
The first is that the estimate made by the architect/builder is way off, in
which case you could go way over budget on materials. The second is that the
architect/builder could be in cahoots with the suppliers and we could be
overcharged and they getting a "commission."
The latter was not the
case. I was convinced at the time that these were honest people and even
after all the difficulties we later had, I still believe them to be honest
men. But ... that's the only thing that went well.
So, we had the
estimate for materials and a completion date 5 months out. They spent a
great deal of time explaining to us why we could be sure that the estimated
materials cost was right on the money and that the job was going to be on
time. Unlike our first builder, these folks were highly computerized. Which
just goes to show that the old saw about garbage in - garbage out as far as
computers are concerned is absolutely right.
They were to start
working on January 3rd or 4th and were to finish on May 30th. I fired all of
them about early April because it was clear that at this point that they had
no real idea of when the house was going to be done -- I estimated that it
was about 90% done.
At that point we were a good 20% over budget and
I was having a hard time getting a fix on what was to come. As you can
imagine, there was a lot of other stuff going on that contributed to my
reaching the point of firing him. One significant problem was, as I
mentioned, they were from San Josi and weren't here nearly as often as they
needed to be, and the foreman here was as bad as our first foreman was
great. Additionally, they were always late on their estimates about when we,
the clients, had to make certain materials choices. This in return resulted
in either falling farther and farther behind schedule or our settling for
something that wasn't our first choice.
Eventually, after I fired
them, the job was finished by a terrific local guy. Before we started the
house, we had been the architect and supervisor for a large stable, a nice
little house for our workers, a large gate, water system, etc. He had done a
great job and, he's extremely competent and, in general, an exceedingly nice
and honorable young man. We didn't consider him for the main house because
we wanted someone with experience in building log homes. That was a mistake.
He did a fantastic job in getting the house and remaining infrastructure
work done and had an extremely efficient crew of local workers. Man, what a
difference between using local workers and workers who have no tie to the
Clearly, the first arrangement with a fixed price was far
superior to this open-ended material purchasing arrangement. We'd certainly
never go into an arrangement such as the second one again.
prices per sq. meter for building: there is a great, great range of prices
so that it is difficult to speak generally. The variables involved are many.
For example, a huge part of cost of materials is based on transportation
charges. Thus, if you're far away from the suppliers your materials cost can
easily increase by as much as 30%. At times, I've had delivery charges that
were 50% of the value of the materials delivered.
especially unskilled labor, vary from builder to builder, regardless of what
the law says. This, too, tends to be influenced by location. If you're
building in a generally economically depressed area, the builder will pay
the workers less than in an urban area where there might be more work
The type of house you're building will make a great
difference in per square meter cost as well. For example, the log and stone
house of the second project required much more hand crafting than a block,
concrete and stucco house, like the first one we built. But then comes
design. The first one had many curved walls, niches, a curved stairway to
the second floor, etc. All of this takes a lot more time to do and thus
results in great labor charges.
In the second project, in addition to
the house, we built a large stable, a small house for animal rehabilitation,
a large flight cage for un-releasable bats we've rehabilitated, a small
house for our workers, and a large storage facility. All the prices per sq.
meter varied greatly, not only because of the usual variables but also
because we used several different builders for the several projects.
But, just to give a general idea, a very good price for a simple home would
be between US$270 per sq. meter (which is US$25 per sq. foot) to US$323 per
sq. meter (US$30 per sq. foot). A simple house would be basically a
one-story, rectangular structure with straight walls and a simple roof line
built with block, concrete, and stucco. Some people refer to this type of
design as a "Tico house."
On the other hand, you should be able to
build just about anything you want, regardless of how complex and complete,
for between US$540 per sq. meter (US$50 per sq. foot) and US$645 per sq.
meter (US$60 per sq. foot).
If you're building a simple block and
concrete house and you're paying between US$40 per sq. foot and US$45 per
sq. foot, you're probably paying quite a bit too much.
And if you're
building anything for US$65 per sq. foot and above, you're probably building
a mini Taj Mahal.