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MAKING THE MOVE
A RELOCATION GUIDE TO COSTA RICA

 

 

This is a short guide to life and living in Costa Rica. This guide is intended to be for people from many different nations, some of whom will find life in Costa Rica to be a completely alien experience, compared to life in their home country. As such, this guide will serve as their first step into a completely new, somewhat confusing and exotically foreign world. To others, it will be a statement of the most obvious. It is a collection of basic information and advice for everyone and anyone, finally, who is considering relocating to Costa Rica.

Step One:
In order to make the transition to Costa Rica at least somewhat easier, it is recommended that you use the "Buddy System." Somehow, find a reliable compañero. You may read about and research life in Costa Rica forever. There are certainly more than enough guidebooks available on the subject, but actually knowing someone in Costa Rica is the single best way in which to understand just how things actually work there. Somehow, get a Buddy. He or she could be a foreign worker with real life experience in Costa Rica, or perhaps a friend or family member who got here before you. It could be your real estate broker, Costa Rican attorney, or another professional interested in seeing that you get off to a good start. Whoever it may be, ensure, as best you can, that it’s someone who you can trust and are comfortable with. While your Buddy may make every effort he or she can to facilitate your adaptation to living and working in Costa Rica, it is important that you understand that it is you, finally, who holds the primary responsibilities associated with your relocation. Most who come here find Costa Rica a welcoming, wonderful place to live and work, and adapt relatively quickly to the changes in culture and lifestyle. While we can encourage you to get involved with community activities, learn some basic Spanish and establish relationships through colleagues and peers, wherever in Costa Rica you are
going to live, it is ultimately up to you. Those who have been most successful in creating a great life in Costa Rica consistently agree that the key for adaptation is thorough and enthusiastic immersion in the culture, language, and viewpoints of the host country, and to avoid the“ghetto” life of 100% American communities. If you are considering living in Costa Rica, then think about, at least in part, living with and among Costa Ricans and things Costa Rican. Regardless of your age and cultural sensibilities, to the degree that you can, we encourage you to jump into Costa Rica with both feet.

What your buddy can help you with:
Advising you regarding real estate, language, currency, how to receive mail, get a phone line and utilities connected, bills paid, safety and security, location of places to shop, go, see and do, finding and dealing with honest, competent employees, bureaucrats and the million eccentricities of things“Tico.” Provide general guidance to your new living environment, how to get around, what to do and what to avoid there. Serve as a sounding board for questions and problems which may arise during the first few months of your living in Costa Rica. Introduce you to others who have joyfully and successfully adapted to life in Costa Rica, and ensure that you avoid the inevitable loser, sometimes to be found at American bars, who finds something negative to say about everywhere and everything, yet who would never dream of returning to the States or Europe, because there, too, in his or her world view, it is “even worse.”

Remember: in Costa Rica never be afraid to speak Spanish, nor to ask questions. “Ticos” are, perhaps more than anywhere in the world, very, very decent, hospitable people and are willing to take their time and help you when they can. The success of your Costa Rica relocation lies in both your independence and in your establishment of strong relationships with Costa Ricans, as well as other expatriates. Your Buddy may help you as best he or she can, but the net result will really depend upon you. Be as fearless as you can be and realize just how fortunate you are to have discovered Costa Rica, and to have made the move. Know how many people “back home” wish that they could do so.

MONEY AND BANKING; WHERE TO BEGIN?

While a percentage of the Costa Rican population get by without checking accounts, virtually all international people utilize the services of a bank. Today there are many international banks, especially in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, as well as three national banks. Ordinarily, to avoid unnecessarily carrying around large amounts of cash, whether in the national currency, colones, or in U.S. dollars, most deposit any funds brought directly, or wired here, or brought here in the form of a personal check or cashiers check or traveler’s checks with the bank of their choice. Once the funds are deposited into a checking account, most ordinary expenses can be paid through personal checks drafted on that account. For example, your rent, mortgage payment, telephone bill, and electric bill can all be paid with personal checks today. This is significantly more intelligent than carrying large sums of colones or dollars in your pockets, for payment of routine bills.

Savings accounts or certificates of deposit are used by many who seek to reserve a portion of their funds. That is, to save whatever money that has not been expended on living expenses. Savings accounts pay interest, as do, of course, certificates of deposit, while most checking accounts do not. Accordingly, it may be best to transfer amounts to savings as they become available, and from there, as necessary, to a checking account, for living expenses. As well, most international people today keep the majority of their funds in U.S. dollars, and then make weekly or monthly transfers of dollars into Costa Rican colones, usually online, in order to take optimum advantage of the currency exchange. There are daily devaluations of the Costa Rican colon, and the day’s exchange rate between dollars and colones, is noted and posted in all newspapers, all banks, and online. Of course, you always have access to the money you have placed in either a checking or savings account via either a bank teller, or a 24-hour automated teller. Such access is much more abundant and easier in the Central Valley, than in the smaller coastal towns. There are, even today, beach communities with no banks, let alone automated 24-hour access to funds. While ordinary transfers of funds in your accounts are made through personal checks, cash disbursements through automatic teller machines are becoming more and more available everywhere in Costa Rica; the demand, created by today’s Costa Rican, as well as by the international community, is so great. Ordinarily, your bank will issue you a small plastic card. This card will allow you to access, with your personal secret code, your checking account, through any back-operated teller machine or an affiliated network. For example, if you bank at ABC Bank, you will be able to access your account through any ABC Bank teller machine, regardless of location. If your bank belongs to an automatic teller machine (ATM) network, you may access your account through any ATM Machine on that network. Such automatic teller machines, while virtually non-existent just a few years ago, are now located at most gas stations, larger supermarkets, malls, as well as just outside all banks. Costa Rica is an explosively developing country, and what was a country dirt road, leading to a “mom and pop” corner store, called a “pulperia”, and little else, just 3 years ago will often, in today’s Costa Rica, be a blacktopped road with heavy traffic roaring by a strip mall with an international supermarket, a bank with headquarters in Mexico City, another bank with headquarters in Miami, Florida, as well as a Costa Rican national bank, and two or three restaurants, including an inevitable KFC or a McDonalds. (No comment.)


OPENING AN ACCOUNT:


Most banks require personal or corporate identification, notarized by an attorney, in addition to, perhaps, a copy of a utilities bill with your name on it, as well as one or two letters of reference from Costa Rican individuals or companies, to open a personal checking account. There are today new international banks with substantially simpler requirements for opening a bank account in Costa Rica, but with the heightened security fears and subsequent regulation being pushed by the government of the United States, as well as world-wide regulations to stem money laundering, it appears as though opening a bank account in Costa Rica is not, for a time to come, going to be a simple procedure. Your attorney, as well as your buddy and your real estate person, will be able to help you get through this process with minimal time lost and minimal gnawing of fingernails. When you are ready to open a bank account, you should ask for a reference by new friends, your buddy, your real estate person, or your attorney as to which banks they have used and prefer. International people usually have strongly held opinions as to which bank in Costa Rica is the best. Banks in Costa Rica operate under strict guidelines and the deposit of funds with either national or international banks in Costa Rica is essentially risk-free. In hundreds of years now, there has been only one bank failure in Costa Rica, and this bank, before closing, covered all deposits. Once you have selected your bank, you should visit the branch and meet with a special services representative of the bank, This person will usually be located in a section of the bank referred to as the “plataforma” . Explain to the representative that you need to open a checking (and, possibly, a savings) account with their institution. The services representative will explain to you the requisite, appropriate paperwork as required by that particular bank. The opening of a new checking account generally takes from between two days to a couple of weeks. Be advised. Of course, you will be able to shop with cash which you may withdraw from your account at any time. Never, never send U.S. dollars or cash (in any currency) through the mail. It is actually illegal in the U.S. to mail cash, and the chances are very high that it will simply “disappear” if mailed within Costa Rica, and you have absolutely no recourse if the money just vanishes. It is equally dangerous and prohibited to send cash via international couriers such as DHL, Federal Express, etc.

HOGAR, DULCE HOGAR (HOME SWEET HOME)


Of course you'll want to get settled as soon as possible, and move out of that hotel. You might want to purchase a home, a condo or an apartment, and, if you do buy right, at the right price and at the right location, the value of your purchase will substantially increase within a year or two, and so there are obvious advantages as to buying, rather than renting or leasing. Property values in Costa Rica, in some areas, have gone up 25% to 100% a year, yet in other areas they have appreciated 10% a year. You should ask other international people, as well as your trusted real estate person, as to locations and values. And remember that in Costa Rica, virtually“everyone” is a real estate agent, so some intelligence, common sense, and homework may be necessary before settling on one real estate agency over another. Be advised that simply because an agency bears an international franchise name such as Century 21 or Coldwell Banker, does not necessarily guarantee either greater competence nor trustworthiness than an independent office that has been in business for many years and which has a good reputation.

WHERE IN COSTA RICA?


Everyone will give you their opinions and advise you as to which areas of the country are safe, have the best amenities, are appreciating in value fastest, and why. There are no Multiple Listing Services that are comprehensive, and FSBO, or For Sale by Owner listings, can appear to save you money and allow you to go directly to the seller. But there are reasons in any field for using a trusted and competent professional, and this holds especially true in negotiating the sometimes murky waters of Costa Rica’s real estate market. The barefoot smiling farmer, or the taxi driver with a“cousin who has to sell todayS” may appear to offer you the best possible price. But thorough due diligence on the legitimacy and salability of a specific property takes much more than paying an attorney and getting a receipt for your cash from that smiling farmer. In selecting your new home, do not be bashful about inquiring about the neighborhood. While most Costa Rica communities are safe to live in, there are crime areas which must be strictly avoided. Seek an area with a minimum of tourism, if possible, as highly-touristed areas are the areas with the greatest level of crime, due, at least in part, to the obvious conditions of “us and them”, or the unfortunate inevitability of what happens when “the transient haves” and the “permanent have nots” are in tight relationship with one another and there are virtually no police.

LEASE CONTRACTS


Most houses and condos in Costa Rica require the execution of a lease. A lease is a contract whereby the tenant promises to rent a given unit for a certain amount of time at a certain price. The general rule is: the longer the lease, the lower the monthly payment. Since you will probably be acquiring your first home in Costa Rica, it may be a good idea to avoid a long-term lease commitment. If you sign a one-year lease and are unhappy with your housing, or if you find a place to purchase right away, you can always move next year or sooner, with a relatively small penalty to pay for breaking that lease. If you sign a three-year lease, even though the monthly lease fee may be less than a one-year fee, you may be stuck longer than you would like. Occasionally, in areas of high vacancy, it may be possible for you to negotiate a month-to-month arrangement with the landlord. Although this may cost you a little more money each month, it may be worthwhile, since it will give you continuous flexibility to relocate at your convenience. There are places called “aparthotels” in Costa Rica that offer week to week, or month to month rentals, and which offer complete furnished units with kitchens, etc. Also its important to remember that commuting distance to a place of employment or even the supermarket is an important factor, considering the’s world-famous roads.

FURNITURE AND APPLIANCES


Once you have purchased or rented your home, you will probably be eager to furnish it. Today, Costa Rica has a wide variety of furniture and accessories dealers, and you would do well to shop around thoroughly before making any final purchases. Many choose to have their furniture made at cabinet and furniture shops, in select tropical hardwoods. Often the prices of these handmade, one of a kind furniture pieces is competitive to mass-made furniture. Additionally, roadside vendors offer interesting pieces made of softwoods and the cost of these furnishings is usually very inexpensive. One can find very similar furnishings at extremely different price ranges. Take the time to shop around. As regards kitchen appliances such as stove and refrigerator, many people will advise you to drive to the free port town of Golfito, by the Panamanian border for these. Although the savings may be substantial, one has to factor in the hassle, costs and time necessary to drive there and spend a couple of days in order effect these free port purchases. There are people available who work as runners to and from Golfito, and for a fee, will deliver your order right to your house. Again, do some price comparing and decide. Then, in the Tico Times weekly English language newspaper, as well as in the online classified ads, there are listed used furnishings of all kinds and in all price ranges. If you are lucky, you could find an entire household of nearly new furniture, being sold by an American or European, who, for whatever reason, is selling “absolutely everything” quickly and cheaply.

One last item: it is always advisable, when purchasing or leasing a home, to get a place that comes with phone lines already installed. It could possibly be a very long wait, depending on location, for phone service, and not having to go through that aggravation is worth a great deal. Do not think that you will be able to handle all telecommunications with a purchased cell phone and cell phone line, even if these are easily available, as there are many corners of the country that are just not accessible by mobile phone.

 

TRANSPORTATION

Much of Costa Rica, even today, gets from place to place by bus. You could do so too. Its inexpensive, and on a bus you meet Costa Ricans and share their adventures and misadventures. These will range from performers jumping on the bus, singing and dancing, and passing the hat, to elderly Nicaraguans selling homemade cooked food from the front of the bus, to the blind and lame being let aboard for free and being guided to a place to sit.

In many rural and even suburban areas, Costa Ricans use horses, oxen and carts, bicycles and their feet, as well as buses, to get around. The more affluent rural people generally drive older pickup trucks.

Should you decide to buy a used car here, the conditions are not totally different than they are in the States or Europe. Used car dealers - and many individuals selling used vehicles - often conceal defects or problems in an effort to unload the vehicle as quickly as possible. While most new vehicles offer warranties on services, the buyer of a non-warranted used vehicle has virtually no recourse. Because of very high import duties on automobiles, and the constantly changing regulations on these duties, many people who expatriate to Costa Rica just decide to avoid the potential import hassles and simply buy a used car here. And often they decide to buy from a fellow countryman. With the add-ons of import duties and shipping a car here from the States, a car that would normally sell for $10,000 in, say, California, here might cost as much as $25,000.

Whether purchasing a new or used vehicle, it is important to keep the following in mind:

Unless you are an expert car mechanic, it is in your interest to ask a friend or colleague or mechanic with prior experience in purchasing cars in Costa Rica to accompany you and assist you in decision making. This friend may be able to help you in getting the price down and in spotting hidden trouble signs in the vehicle that you are thinking about buying.

STAYING HEALTHY

Although Costa Rica is a developing country, it does have high health and sanitary standards. However, changes in lifestyle, climate, and eatinghabits can have an impact upon the health of anyone who has recently arrived here. With a little common sense, you can avoid health problems in Costa Rica, your new living environment.

It is always surprising to foreigners just how many people they will see on the roads early in the morning, especially in the Central Valley, doing their daily jogging and exercising. The gyms are everywhere and are well attended. Although lower class Costa Ricans tend to eat more fried foods and sweets today than they did ten years ago, the same trends that exist in the States towards healthier eating and active exercise habits are also evident here. Educated middle-class Costa Ricans today are eating less fried foods, sweets, and high cholesterol foods. They are returning, full cycle, back to eating more fruits and vegetables, leaner meats and seafood, and watching their salt and fat intake. When Costa Ricans were less affluent and could not afford meat and fatty fast foods and junk food offered by American chains such as McDonalds, and their diet consisted mostly of beans and rice and fruit and only an occasional piece of meat, they were a very healthy, active people. The educated Costa Rican is returning to this awareness. You will notice relatively few fat and obese Ticos.

Some things to be aware of: Do not make sudden, dramatic changes in your diet just after arriving in Costa Rica. Attempt to maintain your known, regular eating routine, much as you had in your own country. As time goes by, you can incorporate Costa Rican foods into your diet.

If your culture does not use heavily spiced foods, stay away from spicy foods. Try these foods in small amounts and make sure that your body is comfortable in digesting them.

Water is potable throughout Costa Rica. Nevertheless, some areas, especially in the country, are served by wells, and other areas have water supplements such as chlorine or fluoride. If you find the water in your locality distasteful, you may either purchase a water filter or purchase bottled water at any grocery store.

If you are moving to a new climate - for example, from North Dakota to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica - make sure that your wardrobe and dress habits are consistent with your new environment.

In addition to staying physically fit, your mental health is something which merits close attention. You are in a new country, with new friends, in a new situation entirely. You are eating new foods, watching new television programs and shopping in new stores. Virtually everything around you is a new stimulus and different people react in different ways to so much new stimulation. Most young expatriates in Costa Rica enjoy the change and do everything they can to experience as much of Costa Rican culture as possible. Occasionally, however, homesickness sets in and the new immigrant finds himself or herself longing for home. In order to preserve cultural identity, as well as experience Costa Rica in the fullest sense, without longing for things back home, remember to:

Write and call home regularly; send friends and family back home small gift packages showing them photos, what you are eating, where you have visited in Costa Rica; share everything. Sooner or later, the longing for home will dissolve.

Join local community organizations, churches, where others sharing your culture meet and gather.

Staying healthy in Costa Rica is not difficult if you eat sensibly, exercise, and maintain a healthy perspective on both your newfound life and your personal cultural background.


SHOPPING AND SURVIVING

Many newly arrived foreigners find that there is not a great deal to buy that they have not already seen "back home", and what is available is often more expensive. Americans have been spoiled by places such as Pier 1 Imports, and other mass market inport stores. Americans are spoiled also by the sheer abundancy of things available in their home country.

Yet, for a Costa Rican, shopping does not necessarily mean parting with one’s colones or dollars. Visit the local outdoor farmer’s markets, and there is one in almost any town in Costa Rica on weekends, or crafts market or mall on any Saturday and you will see thousands of people just window-shopping, strolling, planning, and simply browsing through the merchandise available. It is like a village faire from the 16th century.

Do remember: consumer credit is now readily available in Costa Rica and is frequently tempting, much as it was back in your home country. Each year, thousands of Costa Ricans and foreigners alike incur tremendous amounts of consumer debt because of uncontrolled credit card spending. Visit any store in today’s Costa Rica, and if you lack the personal self-discipline, it is very easy to amass far more debt than you can reasonably pay off in a short period of time. Since these local credit cards invariably charge incredibly high rates of interest, you may wind up paying for years on a very small purchase. 30% and more interest rate is not uncommon! Credit is useful and has its purpose, but remember to part with your money carefully in Costa Rica and to not spend more than you normally would.

As a foreigner, you may be an easy target for unethical salesmen, agents selling anything you could think of to ask for, etc. Maintain a healthy skepticism and remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. For years foreigners invested with a group called "The Brothers", located in Escazu. The Brothers paid over 40% on money invested with them! Then one day they just disappeared, taking with them perhaps a billion dollars of investment funds.

Consult your colleagues before making any major purchasing decisions and remember that you, the buyer, are the decision maker. Finally, its all up to you.

Pura Vida!

Harvey Haber Hot Tropics real estate agent

Harvey Haber






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