When we read the story you are about to read below we were first of all blown away at the quality of the writing and more importantly very pleased to hear a clear and concise first hand story from the perspective of what we would consider a very typical scenario that occurred over the last 10 years in this area of Costa Rica…
Fall in love – Make some money – Fall in love all over again.
This story is written by our good friend Stuart Sanders with the main cast his wife Katie and their family. Stuart and his family have owned various properties in our area and as you will read, never lost their love for Costa Rica.
PS – Stuart and Katie are the ones in Red.
WHY COSTA RICA?
When we rave about Costa Rica, friends and acquaintances in North America who have not been here inevitably ask: “Why did you pick Costa Rica?”
I answer, honestly, “It all began with my fifth grade project.”
More decades ago than I care to acknowledge, I was randomly assigned Costa Rica as the Latin American country I had to profile for the rest of the class. Even at age ten, it struck me as really cool that this little country had no military, health care for all its citizens and had traditions of literacy and democracy that rivaled our own. Not only that, but with a population only about one percent of America’s, they often kicked our butts in soccer.
My interest in Costa Rica gestated, like a cicada underneath the ground, for thirty-five years until I found myself a parent of children aged twelve, fourteen and seventeen, and we sought a place for a family vacation that would combine beaches, adventures, and natural beauty.
All three children played for a soccer club in New Jersey that had trainers from Central America. We befriended several of them off the field and recognized something interesting. The trainers from Honduras and Guatemala and Mexico were so delighted to be in New Jersey it was as though they had survived a crash; they had no desire to return to their countries of birth unless it was to visit a close relative for a short time. The Costa Rican trainers, however, were pleased to work with our youngsters, but all of them wanted only to make enough money to return as soon as possible to what they described as paradise. Retirement for them would be in Costa Rica.
Fast forward several months to August, 2003. I am stuck at my law office in New Jersey, overwhelmed with too many house closings to get away, as my family travels to Costa Rica without me. I know they are visiting San Jose and then somewhere on the Pacific Coast. In those ancient days before smart-phones and I-pads, it is several days before I hear from them other than hurriedly written e-mails from internet cafes where half the letters appear not to work and punctuation marks are random#@%&.
A call comes in while I am at my desk, and I hear my wife’s disembodied voice speaking excitedly on a scratchy cell-phone connection.
“We’re looking out at the Pacific Ocean,” says Katie. “Building lots are cheap. You wouldn’t believe what you can have for $90,000 and…”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” I say. “What did you say? Can you speak more slowly?”
“Sorry,” she says, and continues, clearly: “We’re at a town called Playa Hermosa, and I asked the driver to stop at a real estate development that overlooks the ocean. There are three lots that look great. Halfway up the mountain is an acre for $90,000 and on the TOP of the mountain is a two-acre lot for $170,000. The third one is at the bottom. No view, but it’s only $25,000 This place is gorgeous. The kids are amazed. It’s indescribable.”
I’m not sure what impulse controlled my usually cautious brain. Perhaps, it was the exhilaration in Katie’s voice. Perhaps, it was the realization that life has to offer more thrills than talking on the telephone to nervous people in New Jersey trying to buy their first home. Whatever the motivation, I said immediately: “Buy the top two.”
“What?” she said, stunned. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do it.” It just felt right.
Over the next several days, Katie and the children plowed through meetings with a Spanish-speaking lawyer and the developer and entered a contract to purchase the two lots. Though several friends and relatives thought we had lost our minds, we scheduled a visit over New Year’s, 2004, for the two of us to see the lots together and plan how to proceed.
We flew initially to San Jose, since Liberia was not easily reachable from the US (there might have been one flight a week at that time). We enjoyed a B & B in Escazu for several days before traveling to the Pacific side. I was still mentally processing the fascination of Costa Rica, from the people, to the diverse topography, to the excellent food and fruit when I saw the brilliant blue water at Hermosa for the first time. I will never forget the thrill.
We drove up to our lots. Katie was concerned I might not agree that we’d made a good decision. However, the moment I saw the “million dollar” views that we’d purchased for a small fraction of what a tired cape cod would cost in New Jersey, I was delighted. After some deliberation, we chose to build on the lower lot and hold the upper lot. While it had a 270-degree view over the Pacific and the Bay of Culebra, the road to the top of the mountain was daunting, and I was not sure I’d enjoy an adventure every time we needed to descend.
We arranged to meet several builders. The first two went by the company names of “Sun Bum Building” and “Frat Boy Construction.” Neither inspired confidence. The third was a local woman disinclined to return phone calls. Finally, we met a former Californian who had been building in Costa Rica for a decade and whose wife would assist with design, furniture and landscaping.
With our new, only-in-Costa Rica philosophy of “try anything” (for me, this meant zip-lining over a gorge, diving off a cliff, off-roading on an ATV, shaking hands with a monkey, and communing with an iguana – involves a lot of hissing) we encouraged the builder’s wife in designing a house with numerous features that she’d always wanted to try, but people rarely agreed to, namely: several interior gardens; a waterfall in the dining room; a cashew-shaped infinity pool with newly-developed translucent tile; and a roof that “floated” dramatically above the house.
We were having so much fun designing that we did not know the builder cleared the lot and began laying the foundation before we had technically become the owners.
“Can they do that?” Katie asked, after our home fax machine revealed a photograph of the construction site.
“Not in New Jersey,” I said.
Actually, you can’t do it in Costa Rica, either, but….
We did close on both lots shortly thereafter and, with RE/MAX’s help, re-sold the top lot for enough profit to pay for the construction on the lower lot. In two months, we doubled our money, much to the shock of some nay-saying friends and relatives. We immensely enjoyed the building process throughout 2004, running to the fax machine to see pictures every few weeks and visiting the site when we could. The house was finished on time and on budget by early 2005, and we used it just as we’d envisioned during the next year, visiting often as a family, and with friends.
We learned something, however. When you see a house worthy of appearing on the cover of Architectural Digest, it does not necessarily mean all the plumbing and electricity work exactly as hoped. Also, putting live gardens and a waterfall inside a house in a humid climate may be workable under certain circumstances, but not for owners who are not present full-time. Finally, repeated visits with three teen-aged children, plus friends, blew out the travel budget.
I would like to claim I was a genius who foresaw the coming downturn in the financial and real estate markets. But I didn’t. The foregoing factors simply compelled us to list the house for sale in early 2006. Mike Simons found a buyer promptly, and we doubled our investment again. (It must be emphasized that the period from 2003-2006 was almost uniquely rewarding. Lucky timing is always a good thing).
Though we were happy with our profits, memories and photo albums, everyone in our family felt an emotional loss in selling our home in Costa Rica. The children spoke of it longingly, even as their high school and college schedules would have prevented them from going together in any event.
I was acutely aware, however, as a closing attorney, prices for houses were falling. When people asked if we missed our house in Costa Rica, the answer from 2007 until recently, often started out with “yes, but considering the state of the real estate market….”
This past summer, history repeated itself. Our youngest child, Sam, had just graduated from college in May, thus ending our tuition obligations FOREVER. As a gift, we offered him a weeklong trip to the destination of his choice, and he picked Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the only week he could travel before the start of graduate school was while I was scheduled to be at a writing conference, having retired from the law practice.
Katie took him alone to a resort in Playa Panama. We never discussed it, but it was tacitly understood she would try to spend an afternoon with Mike Simons. Well, anyone who reads this knows what that means.
Katie and Sam walked into the office in Hermosa and Mike happened to be upstairs. “Hey, babe, I’ve got something for you,” he rasped, having just suffered a near-death illness the day before (as he recounted in his blog several months ago). Although he should have been resting in bed, Mike insisted on taking his unscheduled customers to see Pacifico.
“This will be perfect,” he whispered, showing the sales literature where three-bedroom units formerly sold for $450,000 were now listed newly finished at a price of $270,000.
When Katie saw Pacifico in the town of Coco, which she remembered from seven years earlier as somewhat on the dusty side, she could not believe the transformation. A gleaming commercial center ushers visitors and residents into a Shangri-la of beauty. Mike suggested a particular unit that combined privacy with spaciousness and helped negotiate favorable terms for us with the management office. We became homeowners in Costa Rica again.
This time, however, all three children are capable of visiting on their own. Our particular circumstances now allow significantly more usage of the property, and we deem the loss of an ocean view from our own living room as a reasonable sacrifice for having a team of professionals responsible for multiple pools, landscaping, irrigation, operation of the gate and security. Pacifico provides all of that along with an elegant beach club and the priceless ability to WALK into an increasingly vibrant town with restaurants, shopping and the beach. For private sunsets, it’s an easy walk or ride up the hill in Pacifico. We brought our 24-year-old daughter down with us recently and asked her what she thought. She answered in one word: “Paradise.”
Different readers have different circumstances, of course. For some, an individual house may be preferable. Regardless, we feel confident we have caught another favorable wave in the real estate market. It may not become the tsunami of 2003-2006; even Mike would not guarantee that, I think, but conditions appear favorable. And we could not be happier with our purchase and Mike’s assistance.