Expat Life in Costa Rica: Simpler but not Easy

In Search of a Simpler Life? Come to Costa Rica

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Ahh…wouldn’t you love to have this expat lifestyle every single day in Costa Rica?

It’s common when you think about moving to Costa Rica, that your life is somehow going to be easier. After all, in that perfect dream (born when you fell in love with this tropical paradise), you might find yourself surfing those killer waves or sipping your morning coffee as you watch the tide roll in from your ocean view Costa Rica house.

Am I right? So many of us discover the Pura Vida essence of Costa Rica while visiting on vacation, and we carry that relaxed vision with us as we consider retiring to Costa Rica or moving here.

Expat Life in Costa Rica: Simpler but not Easy

So, what do I mean by that – expat life in Costa Rica: simpler but not easy, at least most of the time?

Well, it’s simple….kind of.

Expat living in Costa Rica is…very much so….simpler than life back “home”, assuming you’ve hailed from a country that’s more developed than Ticolandia (Costa Rican nationals are referred to as “Ticos”).

Your choices for toothpaste here are quite limited – at least here along the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The same goes for most of your food items in the grocery store and at the farmer’s market: you have limited choices which does make your selections simpler. Fewer options, no need to think much.

Finding Office Furniture in Costa Rica

My husband and I recently opened our own real estate firm. But since we live on the Pacific coast – almost four hours from Costa Rica’s capital, where all the major shopping is located, we chose to order our office furniture online and have it

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Finding office furniture in our new office in South Pacific Costa Rica proved quite a challenge…

shipped to us. (Shipping stuff to Costa Rica is an entirely different topic, which I’ll cover on another day.) Suffice it to say, the click click click of ordering online is simple, but the subsequent hiring of a trusted shipper, managing the shipment paperwork, paying for the shipment, picking it up and then installing it…none of that fell into the “Easy” category.

We did some previewing of office furniture at the limited selection stores in San Jose before we ordered, and quickly realized that the prices on identical merchandise were at least 30% higher than the U.S. and in some cases more than double. Plus, the selection is very, very limited.

Back in the U.S. in my former life, I’d have ordered my office furniture from one or two websites or visited my nearest Office Depot, pointed and purchased, and two days later, the shipment would have shown up at my door….including the install. Easy.

Sigh.

There are moments like these when I miss the ease of my former life in the U.S.

The reality is that it took three months to get all our office furniture ordered, shipped, picked up and then installed. THREE MONTHS. (Frankly, it makes me tired just to think about it. But at least now, I’m on this side of it.)

It’s part and parcel of living along the Costa Rican South Pacific coast.

Another example: coffee. Here in Costa Rica, coffee is grown like crazy. It’s delicious. You’d think there would be coffee shops on every corner. But in my little coastal town, there’s only one coffee shop and it’s not open every day. So, if I want coffee on a day when this little shop is closed (and I did not have the inclination to make my own at home), then my second option is to drive 15 minutes down the road to the next town.

Limited options make my choice simpler, yes. But, this is hardly the ease with which I used to walk to Starbucks, which sat – easily – across the street from my office in Denver and pick up a Chai without thinking twice.

There’s no Starbucks in the Costa Rican Jungle

I know, I know. None of us move to Costa Rica jungle in search of Starbucks. (Though there is one now in the international airport in San Jose, just so you know.) It’s just an example.

Car Repairs in Costa Rica

Ha ha! Here I have to laugh a bit, because this is so often a topic that NO ONE considers until they’ve actually bought their piece of Costa Rica real estate. But it should be considered, because the wear and tear and maintenance on your car in Costa Rica will cost you a lot more than it did back home. And the bigger question – for we coastal dwellers – is WHERE you will find that reputable, trusted repair shop.

Visit any online Costa Rica expat community group and you’ll see that one of the most frequently discussed subjects is where to get your car fixed. One person recommends XYZ shop; another complains that they got ripped off there. Someone else pipes up with another name; yet another expat will scream that their car sat there for three months and exited with the problem still in tact. It’s a never ending story.

Simpler versus Easy regarding Car Repair in Costa Rica

The choices are very simple: (1) you can buy a brand new car – expensive, yes, but it also comes with a three to five year maintenance package, hooray! or (2) you can buy a previously owned car and take your chances.

We’ve bought three used cars in recent years and have had pretty good luck with that route. However, we also choose to make our lives simpler by taking them back to the dealer (think, Ford or Toyota) to get their annual check-ups and for all the regular maintenance and repairs. (Believe me, when you bounce up and down 4 x 4 roads 365 days a year, your vehicle needs more regular maintenance than it did back home, especially when it comes to suspension. Now maybe if you came from the Australian Down Under, that won’t be the case, but for the bulk of new expats to Costa Rica, this is a very true statement.)

Is taking our cars to the dealer simpler? Yes. It is more expensive? Yes. But are the parts warrantied, as well as the work? Yes. Is this route easier? No. Because our dealers are between 1.5 hours drive (Toyota) and four hours drive (Ford) from where we live. When we take the Ford into San Jose, we need to schedule for pet care, house sitting, hotel rooms and eating out. All of that adds up. But, long term, does it mean our car will have less problems on all of our local roads during the rest of the year? Yes. So, long term simpler? Yes.

The alternative option would be to locate a local mechanic and take our

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Choosing the right mechanic in Costa Rica: just another example of the simpler expat life….or is it easy? Hmm…

cars to them for service. Easier, yes. Simpler, long term? No. With all three cars, we’ve tried this route – with three different mechanics – and though my hubby is a “Tico” (meaning a Costa Rican native), we’ve had less than stellar luck. Problems on each and every encounter. 🙁

After multiple attempts on the “easier” route, we gave up and abandoned the local mechanic option and have since gotten really good at planning those needed maintenance trips.

Now, the truth is, as many new Costa Rica expats as I may share this story with….at least half of them will still attempt the local mechanic route – over and over and over again – and then, the next five times I see them, it’s all they will talk about. (Part of that has to do with the 1% Rule of Meeting Other Expats Abroad – another recent post I did here.)

Which Do You Prefer for your Future Costa Rica Expat Lifestyle: Simpler or Easy?

You always have a choice. If you said, simpler, than life here on the South Pacific Costa Rica coast will appeal to you in a huge, huge way. Welcome. And if easy is your answer, that’s great….but once you make sure that Costa Rica is where you want to live, I’d suggest you choose a more populated area like San Jose or Escazu or any other area closer to the city. And even then….you’re still in Pura Vida land….where life moves at its own pace. 🙂

Want More on Expat Life in Costa Rica?

I’ve been living abroad in Costa Rica (and Panama, before) for almost ten years. I write about expat living in hopes that my experiences will be of help to others who are considering this lifestyle. On the right hand column, you should be able to see some other recent topics I’ve written about.

You’re also welcome to subscribe to my newsletter list here.

Interesting in buying your own piece of Pura Vida Costa Rica real estate paradise?

I can help you with that too. We opened our new boutique real estate firm in South Pacific Costa Rica in April 2017. We’re one of the only local brokerages who’s

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Yours Truly, here, living and working the Costa Rica expat lifestyle along the South Pacific coast. 🙂

owned by a Tico and a North American (local connections, international expertise), and who are legal, licensed and committed to working in an ethical manner. Check us out here.

The 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

Meeting Other Expats Abroad – What’s the Reality?

When it comes to meeting other expats, many people think that they will make friends easily when they move abroad. I mean, we’re all expats, right? That’s a big thing to have in common! But when meeting other expats abroad, the reality is that the 1% rule governs.

What is the 1% Rule?

The 1% rule is a law of averages I’ve come up with to make sense of what my personal experience of living abroad in Costa Rica and in Panama for the past ten years. My experiences – and those of other expats who I’ve interviewed and known as friends and co-workers – leads me to believe this rule applies to expats as people…not to expats living in a particular location.

The 1% Rule is numbers driven. (Accountants and Mathemeticians,rejoice!) Let’s use the United States as our backdrop for this post, since it’s my home country.

Why the Rule is Called “1%”

The U.S. has 350 million citizens. Of those, 46% hold passports for international travel. In 2016, just 19% of U.S. citizens traveled abroad. But how many of those travelers venture out further and make the decision to actually move abroad?

While the diagram below gives a fun breakdown by Internations published in 2016 of what the average U.S. expat looks like, there are no firm numbers of how many U.S. citizens actually live outside the U.S., only estimates.

Expat Statistics on US Americans Abroad — infographic


Estimates of how many U.S. expats live abroad range from two to seven million. Hmm…that’s a pretty big range!

So back to our 1% Rule for Meeting Other Expats Abroad equation.

Let’s assume – since there are no firm numbers – that five million U.S. citizens live abroad. Five million of 350 million equates to 1.4% of the total U.S. population.

This 1.4% is why I named this Meeting Other Expats rule, “The 1% Rule”. I assume that this number is more or less going to be the case for most other countries (not taking into account those that are war-torn).

Let’s Keep Breaking It Down

Keeping the 1.4% in mind, consider Costa Rica and Panama – where I’ve resided full-time for the past ten years. Estimates in Panama for U.S. citizens in 2012 were around 20,000. In Costa Rica, according to the U.S. State Department in 2013, U.S. citizens in Costa Rica totaled 50,000, though only 12,000 held legal residency visas. (I have yet to see more recent statistics reported online to date.)

(Side note: I’ll do another post soon on legal residency in Costa Rica.)

Back to our numbers – let’s estimate 70,000 U.S. expats live between Costa Rica and Panama. When you split that number across all the little retirement towns along the Pacific coast and between the two capital cities in the two countries, 70,000 expats is really not that many. Yes, you’ll run into more expats from the U.S. and Canada than those from other countries, most likely, but even so, 70,000 is the size of the town I grew up in. It’s not that big.

Applying the 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

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It’s exciting to meet other expats abroad, but it’s wise to take your time in getting to know them.

Now remember, when you live abroad, you’re not just living with other expats from your country of origin. Our tiny coastal community of Costa Ballena in South Pacific Costa Rica is comprised of expats from around the world – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Spain….you get the picture. It’s colorful and it’s fun to have this much diversity, much less the local Costa Rican nationals!

So, assume that 1% of all the countries in the world are those that you will meet abroad.

Now, consider your city or state back home, wherever that might be, and think of it like this: when you live in your country of origin (the U.S., in our example), you have the entire diverse population of your citizenry around you. And from that pool of different personalities and backgrounds and sub-cultures within your own country, you select your friends from within your community. But even within your own community, you don’t get along with every one, do you? Nope. There are lots of people in your own home town or state or province that you would never choose to fraternize with.

Can’t We All Just Get Along? Well, Maybe…

Keeping that in mind….here’s the bottom line. You cannot expect that just because you meet other expats in your new country that you’re going to like them or that you’re going to have anything in common with them.

In fact, often, it’s just the opposite. Remember that guy at your old job back home that bugged the living sh#t out of you with his stupid jokes? Or the gal in your church who was always skating the line between legal and illegal with her business? Or the Peeping Tom in your community with a window washing company who got caught?

Yep. You’ll find those same kinds of characters here – whether Panama, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Timbuktu. You’ll encounter top of the line and bottom of the barrel folks and the truth is you’re just not gonna gel with everyone.

Why Can’t We Be Friends, Fellow Expats?

Let’s break down the final equation.

Every time I now meet an expat – no matter where they hail from, whether U.S. or not – I keep the 1% Rule in mind. I know that they too come from the 1% of “those who moved abroad” from their home country.

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What fun it is to connect with other expats until you realize that something about their story doesn’t feel right…

I then expect that 50% of all the people I meet will be people I have zero interest in socializing with.

Because these people will be living abroad for a reason that doesn’t jive with my values – maybe they’re running from the law, maybe they’re evading taxes, maybe they’re just living abroad illegally, who knows. It doesn’t really matter. The law of averages bears out such that I know that one out of two expats I meet is someone that I’ll say, “Hmm. Okay. Nope. Next.” (And by the way, this is not conjecture…this is not real….I’ve met these people – over and over and over again.)

Of the remaining 50% (of that original 1%), half of those people will be the characters I referenced above – the ones I would never have anything to do with if I met them in my home town. So why would I want to socialize with them here? Bottom line, I probably won’t, though I might on occasion if we’re in a larger social setting. (Except the Peeping Tom guy….assuming I figured that one out…ewww.)

The reality of living abroad is that the expat circle from which you select your friends – whether they turn into close ones or have-a-drink-with ones – is much smaller than the pool you had to choose from when you lived back home.

But don’t forget the remaining 25% (of the 1%)! Now, THESE are my people! Yahoo! They are fun, adventurous, open minded, interesting, educated and savvy. And this is where my social circle forms. And it’s probably where yours will too.

If you think about it, 25% of 1% is one of four, right? Those numbers are pretty good, aren’t they?

Expat Life in Costa Rica: It’s Paradise, but It Ain’t Perfect

Now you can be sure, as soon as I put this post up, I’ll hear it: Hey, JuliAnne, you’re being way too negative.

But this stuff is truth, my dear readers.

Keep in mind, I’ve lived abroad – as a corporate executive and now as an entrepreneur – for ten years.

So, this is not about slamming anyone or making stuff up.

This is REAL EXPAT LIFE, people. And I choose to share it – the good, the bad and the ugly – so that other future expats like you have a bit of a leg up on knowing what it’s really like.

With these morsels of shared experiences, perhaps you can avoid some of the heartache I and many others like me had along the way because of unrealistic expectations.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your expectations which will make you sink or swim as an expat living aboard, no matter where you are.

So, pack your bags, get out there, shake some hands, throw back some cocktails (or a freshly-squeezed Costa Rica fruit juice) – it’s so much fun once you find your 25%! And, believe you me, they’re waiting for you too!

Want more insider input on Expat Life in Costa Rica?

Some other recent articles.

Expat Interview with a Recent Retiree to Costa Rica

The 101 on Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica

If you’re interested in Costa Rica real estate for sale in Costa Ballena including Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal and Tres Rios along the South Pacific coast, my husband and I own South Pacific Costa Rica Real Estate.

We recently published an article on Five Things You Need to Ask Before You Buy in Costa Rica. If that’s of interest, sign up and you can download that report for free (on the link in the line above)! It’s relevant no matter where you buy in Costa Rica.

Until next time, Pura Vida, and good luck to you as you start your new life as an expat abroad!

Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica 101

As owner and the Managing Partner of a boutique real estate firm in South Pacific Costa Rica, you will see that many of my future topics here relate to buying real estate in Costa Rica. (So many people asked me about real estate that I finally listened, and got back in the biz!)

Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica

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Does your dream of buying real estate in Costa Rica include endless views of the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean?

Well, first of all, who doesn’t have the dream of buying real estate in Costa Rica? Doesn’t everyone? 🙂 And if not, maybe you should. But how does buying real estate in Costa Rica really work and how is it different from other countries?

Bingo! You’re in the right place….let’s get to it.

Location, Location, Location

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Here’s a map of my hood in South Pacific Costa Rica.

As in almost anywhere in the world, the first thing you want to do is narrow down your choice of locations. For example, in our tiny coastal area – where we live – called Costa Ballena (pictured above & ‘ballena’ means ‘whale’ in Spanish) – there are three ‘main’ small towns: Uvita, Dominical, and Ojochal. (There are others but these are the main three.) What many people don’t fully get when they come on vacation, fall in love with the area, and then return to buy Costa Rican real estate – is that these three small towns have very unique personalities.

This is a common mistake, and can often lead to an investor buying in a place that does not fit them.

Determine where you want to live in Costa Rica BEFORE you buy

If you’re not absolutely sure where you want to LIVE (not just vacation!) in Costa Rica, then I have two suggestions: (1) come and stay for a month and do a TON of poking around to get to know the local flavors of several areas, or (2) come and go for about a year – including at least 10 days in each area you might consider living in – and rent an AirBNB or a VRBO and really get to know each place.

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This photo is of the main supermarket in Uvita de Osa, South Pacific Costa Rica. It’s called ‘BM’ which often triggers another word for many of us in English…

Shop at the supermarket. Go to a local ball game. Go to the farmer’s market. Talk to people, both Ticos (locals) and expats. Go visit the local vet (if you think you’ll be bringing or adopting pets when you move to Costa Rica). Do things you would do when you live here, versus hanging out at the beach all day working on your tan. (Because of course, we do that too, but living in Costa Rica is NOT like being on vacation in Costa Rica.)

The point is to get to know the town / area you’re considering BEFORE you put down a deposit.

When buying real estate in Costa Rica, do you need a broker or not?

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When buying real estate in Costa Rica, is it in your best interest to hire a real estate broker?

The short answer to this is that as an outsider / non-local, a legitimate, legal real estate broker can help you avoid a lot of pitfalls that you might otherwise not expect when buying real estate in Costa Rica. This is especially true when you don’t speak Spanish.

I do recommend having a broker when you buy in Costa Rica, no matter where you purchase. And that’s not based on me now having my own real estate firm – that’s based on living in Central America for almost ten years now. I’ve seen too many people burned because they thought they “knew better” and struck out on their own.

Does this mean that you CAN’T find a great deal on an amazing property for sale in Costa Rica without a broker? No. But the odds of doing so and doing so successfully and with little to no risk are way lower than most other markets.

As friendly as everyone in Costa Rica may appear, there are still plenty of questionable characters out there who are happy to take your money, “sell” you something they don’t even own, and get you into a load of trouble.

So, my opinion, get a broker. Please. And, to do any type of real estate transaction in Costa Rica, you also must find a good attorney. For this,

How do you make sure the broker you have chosen is legal to sell real estate in Costa Rica and is also licensed with the Costa Rica Real Estate Broker’s Association? Great question. Read this page to find out more of the questions to ask.

Finding your dream property in Costa Rica

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First, it’s important to know that Costa Rica does not yet have a “multiple listing service” for real estate. This is unfortunate. The Association of Brokers is working on implementing one and making it a legal requirement, but that’s already gone years in the making and has yet to actually happen.

As a result, properties for sale in Costa Rica are listed the old-fashioned way: online (by one brokerage or a multitude of them – often with different pricing), using For Sale signs and via word of mouth.

It seems crazy, doesn’t it? In the United States and Canada these days (and many other countries), you have Zillow, Trulia and a host of other apps and search engine tools to help you find your property or home. But not here in Costa Rica. Step back about 15-2o years and that’s about what the process of house hunting here in Costa Rica feels like.

Yes. It can be frustrating. It can be confusing. So, what’s the solution?

Consider hiring a Buyer’s Agent to represent you in buying Costa Rica real estate

Most of us from the U.S. or other more developed countries have heard of “Buyer’s Agency” services. A buyer’s agent is one that represents you – and ONLY you as the buyer – and therefore, goes out and searches high and low for your dream property, even if that means they have to find it with another broker.

Buyer’s agency services aren’t common in Costa Rica.

Let me give you a common example of why this type of service might be of interest to you.

Let’s say you hire Broker A to help you in buying real estate in Costa Rica. Broker A has 25 homes listed on his website for sale. You decide you like house #4 and you want to make an offer on that house. However, Broker A has a sales contract with the Seller of house #4. So, when you start negotiating with Broker A and he then goes to negotiate with the Seller – whose interest is he really representing: yours as the Buyer or the other guy that is the Seller?

Hmm…see how it can get convoluted and complicated?

Many people moving to Costa Rica or retiring to Costa Rica feel uncomfortable with having one broker as the middle man between Buyer and Seller. And, if that’s the case for you, then ask your broker to consider being your Buyer’s Agent. That means, it’s her job to go find your property – whether she has it listed among her 25 homes OR if she has to go find it at another brokerage.

If your broker offers this type of service, they will likely ask you to sign a Buyer’s Agency Representation agreement. (That’s what we do.) This protects them and the time they are spending in conducting the search for your piece of paradise, without worrying that you’re going to run off and find another broker (and then they would not get paid).

Make sense? It’s not a perfect world here in Costa Rica real estate terms, but for some clients, having a broker as their Buyer’s Agent makes them feel more comfortable and better represented.

Did you learn something about buying real estate in Costa Rica here?

Great. That was the point. I’m all about education, and helping people find their way – in a smart, protected fashion – in Costa Rica whether they are moving here, retiring here or just coming here to live for a while.

Find your tropical oasis in South Pacific Costa Rica

You can reach me at our offices here in South Pacific Costa Rica via our US/Canada phone line at 1-929-229-2022. Or visit us on the web at CostaRicaPacificRealEstate.com. If you’re a Facebook person, you can check out our page there as well to see what’s new and get the latest listings.

Want to sign up for our South Pacific Costa Rica Real Estate newsletter? You can do that here.

Best of luck as you start your process of buying real estate in Costa Rica!