I visited Costa Rica for the first time in 2001…on a whim. My cousin asked me to join him and a bunch of his friends on a rafting trip. Like most people, I thought Costa Rica was an island somewhere in the Caribbean. Little did I know how that first visit would change my life – and the life of my family.
When I arrived, I knew I was in Outdoor Paradise. Growing up in Scouting, I immediately took to the stunning natural beauty and abundant wildlife. And, as a lover of anthropology, I also was intrigued by the people…their happy demeanor, their kindness toward visitors and their quaint towns. I also met my first Expats and was impressed with their adventurous spirits, their self-reliance and their colorful personalities.
I grew up around real estate…my dad was a builder, my mom was a broker, my sister an interior designer. Prior to visiting Costa Rica, I had been buying and selling parcels of unimproved land in Western North Carolina, but I wanted to do something more. I didn’t want to follow exactly in my family’s footsteps either…I wanted to do something with real estate, yet I wanted to do something completely different than what my other family members were doing. I had a sense that investing in Costa Rica was right for so many reasons, so I followed my gut.
The rafting trip was spectacular. Along the route to the river and our camp, I noticed several properties for sale by well-known real estate firms popular in that era…Century 21 and ReMax, for example. Why are these companies here? I wondered. That heightened my curiosity.
So, after the rafting trip, I decided to return to Costa Rica and look for property. I asked my family and friends if they would like to join me in the property hunt, but they thought I was crazy. But, something inside drove me to go it alone, despite the nay-saying.
I did tons of research. I viewed hundreds of listings online. I read every website out there on owning property in Costa Rica. I called every real estate office I could find. I took four property hunting trips over the span of 6 months. I saw all kinds of properties all over the country. I met all kinds of wonderful people. I fell in love with Costa Rican cuisine, the climate, the nature, the lifestyle, the beaches, the people, the beautiful homes.
After wrapping up these four exploratory trips, I decided to purchase my first property in 2002 – a lovely 8-acre parcel with ocean views near Playa Esterillos. I purchased it for $220,000 and sold it for $375,000 two years later. I approached my family and friends with the good news and informed them that I would be looking for a second property…and would they now be interested in investing with me. Resounding yes’es all around! But, where were they with the first deal?
In the early 2000’s, Costa Rica wasn’t really on the map. It wasn’t really on the map for tourism. And, it certainly wasn’t on the map as a market for retiring, for second homes, or for property investing. The roads were terrible. There was no real American investment of any kind. People only knew about Costa Rica because that’s where Ollie North built a runway to land military planes carrying weapons for the separatists fighting the Communists just over the border in Nicaragua (that old Ollie North runway is the location of the current Liberia International airport, by the way). The coming tsunami of retirees from the US, Canada and Europe had not yet arrived. I felt like I was a Pioneer in the wilderness.
The life of a Pioneer can often be lonely – no one wants to take the trek on horses across the uncharted territory with you. The life of a Pioneer can be uncertain – few people have done what you are doing, so there’s no roadmap, no well-worn path. And, the life of a Pioneer can be risky – some Pioneers enter No Man’s Land and they do not return. And, remember that old saying – “I don’t want to be a Pioneer, because all Pioneers get are arrows in their backs”. That can certainly be true, but the life of a Pioneer can be an amazing experience. You can pave the way for others. You can remove the dangers. You can figure out the system. You can show others how to win.
So, the second property search was on. This time, I had company…three other guys eager to invest, eager to score returns like I did on the first property. We together decided to search for a condo. I was going to find the property, do the due diligence, and make the purchase recommendation to the other three.
My criteria…find a condo development that’s just starting to build, ocean views, in a tourist location, awesome pool, well financed with a good builder, attractive master plan. Secure the second or third condo to be built for a great price, furnish it beautifully, rent it out for 2-3 years, and sell it at a profit.
That’s when I met Jack. Jack was a former Arkansas trucking company exec who moved to Costa Rica after his wife passed. Jack was a friendly, funny, tall, lanky guy with a heavy southern accent and a love for cigarettes and Crown Royal. Jack worked for a real estate firm in Flamingo Beach. I liked him immediately. We spoke over the phone several times. He found a condo development with all of the criteria I needed, so I booked a trip.
I was no longer the Pioneer, I had friends backing me this time. But, this property-hunting trip was not only on my dime, but on my investor group as well. So, I decided to go low cost all the way. I flew into Liberia on a red eye and took a shared van ride to a $14/night surfer hotel near Playa Grande….the cheapest thing I could find. The place looked like it hadn’t been painted for 20 years. The attendant showed me to my room. The room smelled like it hadn’t seen a guest in 2 years. There were so many bugs in that room…thousands of them, fleeing our presence through the generous number of cracks and holes in the walls and ceiling. They scattered in huge, colorful vibrating waves when we entered, surprising even the hotel attendant. Luckily, I brought bug spray, and I sprayed it everywhere. There were three army-style cots in the room and no air conditioning. I slept in my clothes that night, in case any one large insect, or swarm of smaller ones, interrupted my sleep. I made it to the morning, with only a few minor bug bites.
So, back to Jack. I let him know my arrival date but that I had not rented a car, so he needed to come pick me up. I said that I was staying in the $14/night surfer’s hotel in Playa Grande. Many years later, Jack said that he almost decided to not pick me up. He thought I must not have any money, since I had not rented a car and was staying in the bug-infested surfer hotel with a dubious reputation for attracting low-lifes, druggies, and those coming to Costa Rica to flee something. Little did Jack know that my friends and I were at the time running a hugely successful and profitable business, and that we had enough to buy 3-4 condos if we wanted, for cash. I was just trying to be judicious with my friends’ money toward my trip expenses.
We ended up purchasing a beautiful ocean view condo in a gorgeous development near Flamingo. At the time, only one other unit had been built, so we had to make decisions based on looking at a lot of dirt, lots of hard hats, some nice drawings, and the convincing of a talented developer and his general contractor. We closed on the unit, decorated it beautifully and our families used the unit for two years until we sold it. We bought the 2000 square foot ocean view unit, fully furnished it with upscale décor, furnishings and high end appliances for $425,000. Two years later, we sold it for $650,000.
My Costa Rica investment group had officially formed and we were off to the races.
From 2003 to present, my investor group and I have purchased eight properties in Costa Rica, all successful and profitable investments. We have sold five of the eight, averaging a 186% return on investment. The three remaining properties will most likely achieve returns of 500% or greater.
Over these years, my investor group has built up a trusted network of realtors, attorneys, builders, surveyors, escrow agents, banking contacts, interior designers and other professionals.
And, how about our families? Our families have enjoyed traveling the country with use for the last 15 years. My oldest daughter even requested that we take her and 7 other graduating high school girls to Costa Rica for a graduation trip. Needless to say, it was a grand adventure.
Due to our love for Costa Rica and our success in investing in that country, many people over the years have asked us for advice, which we have gladly supplied. Our enthusiasm for Costa Rica is contagious, stronger now than it was even in those early years.
A few years ago, my wife and I started MyPlace Costa Rica so we could spend most of our time helping people who are moving to Costa Rica find their place in Paradise, with a trusted team by their side.
MyPlace helps people find their Place in Paradise, to rent or to own, with that same trusted team of agents, attorneys and other professionals who helped us figure it out all those years ago.
My wife and I plan to formally retire to Costa Rica in 2020, either near Lake Arenal or Dominical. The kids have already said they’d visit.