Real Estate Newsletter #25
April 20th, 2007
A few months ago, I realized that I had burned out on the entire subject of real estate in Costa Rica. After 18 years, I just couldn’t do it any more; couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t sell it; the thrill was gone. It isn’t that the clients who come here these days are not as much fun as they were, really, in 1989; its not that I had lost the enthusiasm for wandering into yet another unknown village, or of finding yet another hidden valley among Costa Rica’s endless mystic forests and jungles to discover that this place, too, was for sale. It wasn’t that. It was just time to take a break.
Certainly, the newly arrived prospective buyers of real estate still thrill at the idea of buying something beautiful in a tropical Third World country which fills the niches of his or her dreams. Especially a property that is within the realm of budgetary possibility. And these clients are enormously appreciative of a guide. Their enthusiasm is infectious, but I, personally, just couldn’t share the joy any more.
I felt loose, unmoored, without the activity of doing real estate, and just floated for a few months, spending time with family and friends and reawakening to Costa Rica.
The break was good. Thank you. And after four months of being away from real estate, its time to take it up again. I hope that most of you gentle readers are still there.
Coming home again means that it is Newsletter time. I thought I’d open this issue of the Newsletter, after such a long absence, with a story of my first real estate transaction in Costa Rica. It seems somehow appropriate.
My First Real Estate Deal
I had offered the princely sum of $50 a week to my friend, Quincho, to drive around, within a couple of hours of Escazu, and hopefully find a special, spectacular property that I could somehow buy and to where I could refer and send guests from my B and B. A place where they could go that would be authentic; a legitimate, hidden place that was not part of the predictable tourism industry. A real place, with real people, uncontrived, natural, open, guileless. I was hoping that he could find something that was quintessentially Costa Rican, without even knowing what that would be.
After weeks of driving around, Quincho came booming through the front door of the B and B, breathlessly announcing that he found “it”: The magical place that would be so unforgettable to anyone fortunate enough to go there. “It” was 265 acres of wilderness, with waterfalls, year around rivers and streams, incredible, ancient trees, magnificent foliage, jungle, forested areas, and the requisite parrots, macaws, and two species of monkeys, among so many other fauna. And this dream property was nestled adjacent to a sweet, humble village of 150 unspoiled country people, complete with church, soccer field, village store, town hall, and an indigenous village wise man and shaman, named Chepo. It was a two-hour drive away, on terrible roads into secret, steamy hills, and absolutely off the tourist track. It could not have been more perfect.
We began to research the central registry in San Jose, to find out just who the owner was. The people in the village only knew that it was for sale; or so they thought. After almost twenty hours of tedious file searching, we found, to our great dismay and disappointment, that the owner of this extraordinary property was the Catholic Church. Undaunted, I asked Quincho to persevere, to somehow get an appointment with the archbishop, who, we instinctively knew, would be the only one who could possibly authorize the actual sale of such a piece of land. It took three months to obtain the appointment.
Quincho, being a good Catholic, chose to advise me of the protocol of meeting with and speaking with the archbishop. He told me that I would have to, among other things, kiss his ring on greeting, and to always address him as “your Excellency”. I said that I could not possibly kiss his or anybody else’s ring, but I would show great respect. We argued about these rules for some time and whether or not I should be subject to them, being as how I was not a Catholic, after all. Finally the day for the appointment arrived and we drove to the archbishop’s estate compound. Entering the estate was, for me at least, something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, with its magical, hushed, timeless gardens, its dozens of gardeners, the aviary, burbling fountains and just the incredible enormity of it all. We were swooped up and guided by two priests to the main waiting area, and there we sat, hands folded, feeling and looking humble. Within minutes, the archbishop came flapping into the waiting area, arms fluttering, welcoming us with a great display of affection. I hardly had a chance to even consider kissing his ring, before we were whisked off to another room, where we were directed to sit with His Excellency to have an informal chat.
The archbishop was a bird-like, effeminate man of around 60, dressed in a blue-colored “leisure suit.” He appeared to be totally uninterested in my pitch to purchase the land, and once he found that I was originally from California, only wanted to talk about Jerry Brown, who was then governor of the State of California, and who had once been a seminary student. He seemed utterly enthralled by Governor Brown and whenever I would attempt to redirect the subject to the property, he would bend it back to Governor Brown. After a while I gave up and surrendered to his passionate interest, offering, as best I could, tidbits of information that I had gleaned about Governor Brown: His leaving the seminary, his outrageous relationship with the pop diva Linda Ronstadt, his interest in Zen Buddhism, etc. Finally, during a lull, and in no particular context, he said, “So…what about this wilderness farm?” I had to remind myself why I was there. “Yes….” I said, “ We wish to buy it and dedicate it as preserve land, to protect it from logging, etc, etc….” “And what do you feel that it is worth?”, he asked.
I had come prepared for such a question, with a paper bag full of red, one thousand colon notes, totaling around $12,000. I looked at the archbishop, across the coffee table that was separating us, and said, “I don’t know, really. But I have this amount to pay for the property and no more. I hope that this will be acceptable.” With that proclamation, I emptied the paper bag onto the coffee table, red one thousand colon notes spreading all over, some falling onto the carpeted floor. It did look like a sizeable amount of money, at least. Two attendant priests hurriedly scooped up the colones and taking them aside, counted them and whispered the total amount to the archbishop. His eyes did not waiver and he simply nodded, acknowledging the amount. The next thing he said was, “Such a nice man, Jerry Brown. Do you think he may some day return to the seminary?” That was, I supposed, the end of the business at hand, yet I had no way of knowing whether or not the $12,000 had been accepted in exchange for the property, or what, really, had actually transpired.
After a few more minutes of pleasantries, of casual chatter about the Mexican population of California, the archbishop excused himself to take a phone call from Europe. Quincho and I were left sitting there by ourselves. I asked him, in a whispered shout, “Is that it? Was that a done deal? Do you think he went for it?” Quincho answered me, with utmost confidence, “He did! He sold it to you.” “What? How do we know?!” I asked in much too loud a voice. “Is this some kind of Catholic thing, where you just know what the archbishop is thinking? Come on, Quincho, I just gave him a bag of money and all I got back was a nod! I can’t go to the central property registry and tell them that the archbishop nodded to me, and now I need the title to the property transferred to my name!” Quincho just shook his head, incredulous that I was not thrilled at this “done deal.” “Sorry, Quincho,” I said, “But I’m a gringo and I need a receipt for the money, at least.” His eyes widened in horror at the notion. “If you ask the archbishop for a receipt, we’re through. You can’t do that! It would show terrible disrespect.” I didn’t even bother to answer.
A few minutes later, the archbishop briskly reentered the room, smiling, ready to resume the conversation. I immediately said, “Excuse me, your Excellency, but do you suppose that I might trouble you for a receipt for that money? I might need it to facilitate the property title transfer…” What followed was a second of intense embarrassed silence, with Quincho looking at his feet. Then the archbishop, appearing to be delighted at the notion of a receipt, said, “Of course!” and waved his arms and the attendant priests came rushing over. He whispered something to them and they returned, rushing back, with an ancient portable typewriter and a sheet of parchment colored paper. With great flair, the archbishop twirled the sheet of paper into the typewriter and began to peck out a receipt. The attendant priests appeared to marvel at this and smiled widely. Imagine, among his endless abilities, he can type! Soon the amazing document was completed and the archbishop whizzed it out of the typewriter. He said something to the priests and again, in seconds, they reappeared. This time with a lighted gold-colored candle. The archbishop dripped a small amount of paraffin onto the typed document, and, again, with a flourish, pressed the ring on his hand into the paraffin. And voila! A receipt, complete with the seal of the archbishop! He grinned and handed it to me. I received it as one would accept something of incredible value, and nodded to him and smiled back. Quincho murmured, “That receipt is probably worth more than the property…”
We finished our cups of tea, the archbishop was again called away to another room for another phone call, we waved goodbye, and left the estate main building, to walk outside to the car. I could scarcely believe that it had happened! Had I really purchased 265 acres of land from the Catholic Church for $12,000? Surely, we would never get away with it. Surely, during our walk back to the car, some priest, some lawyer, would come running to stop us, declaring in a tone of accusation, “I’m sorry, but we can not allow this…! You will have to return the receipt. It is not possible for you to buy that property at that price!” And, walking slowly and deliberately, not daring to talk or smile, with only 50 yards more to go before we reached the outside gate, sure enough, a frocked priest, running and gesturing, yelled something at us. Thinking, “Ahhh. So close… we almost made it ! Damn!” And during that thought, the frocked priest rushed towards us and then passed us, continuing to the gate, where he fumbled with the ornate lock. Saying something to the effect that they were unable to operate the electric gate opener from the central office, and, please excuse, smiling, almost bowing, he manually threw the gate open and stepped aside, and said, “Goodbye! Please come again…! “ And then spun about and hurried back through the gardens, disappearing.
I remember that moment so clearly. We got in the car, kept the windows rolled up, and, oh, so slowly drove off. Once we were a few hundred yards away from the estate compound, we began to scream in the closed car and pound on the steering wheel. “Yessss! We did it! I can not believe it! Yessssss!!! Amazing! Fantastic! We did it!!!” Screaming, laughing, shouting at one another in the car we must have seemed like two madmen, to drivers of passing cars…
It was a most memorable event. My first property transaction in Costa Rica. A moment to treasure. And that, I suppose, is how I got into real estate in Costa Rica.
Our next Newsletter, #26, will be sent out sometime next week. It will contain dozens of great new listings, from all over Costa Rica, for all budgets.
Thanks for listening, for still being there. Talk to you soon, and look for #26.
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