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Conflicting maps may jeopardize land ownership

by Garland M Baker on November 28, 2011

This is the time to have a trusted surveyor second check to see if there are overlaying maps on any property owned in Costa Rica. If there are contradicting maps, the uncertainty could soon cause big trouble.

Around three years ago, the Registro Nacional and its Catastro or plat map department started a plan to crosscheck properties. Before this time, there was little or no checking done. Now Registro workers are using sophisticated equipment, including NASA photographs to check map overlays.

Here is a true story that happened recently.

There was a guard watching a property for some expat property owners. A little old man kept coming by saying to the guard, “You are living in my house.” The guard thought nothing of it until one day a lawyer showed up with the police and told the guard to get out. The guard was not easily intimidated, so he ran everyone off with his machete.

The old man stopped coming by, and the guard felt at ease. However, in the last few weeks the attorney showed up with the police and said he now owned the house and served the guard legal papers. The peon – a term used in Costa Rica to mean a manual laborer – could not read or write, so he called the lawyer of the expats who owned the property.

As it turns out, there is a map registered almost 30 years ago that covers 700 meters that was subdivided off the property. However, this map was never registered as a deed.

In Costa Rica, anyone could make a map, and up until now could probably get it registered at the plat department. This is the very reason the Registro Nacional and the Catastro department are merging their efforts to help legitimate property owners.

In the case of the guard, the legal papers called him a squatter and said he needed to get off the property in four days or be thrown off by force. Since he could not read or write, he did not notice the person that served him the papers did not sign or stamp them.

A week of hell broke out. First, the officer who served the papers had to be found to sign and stamp the legal documents. Second, the legal owners of the property had to be found to sign all the paperwork to prove the guard was really a worker, enrolled in the Caja social security system and had workmen’s compensation.

Lastly, a lawyer had to draw up the legal paperwork to prove that the expats really bought the property and had a legal certified map for the land.

This whole ordeal is just a ruse to get possession of the house in which the guard is living. If intruders do get possession, to remove them would be a long, drawn out, expensive court battle.

As it turns out, the very old map does not even involve property close to the house where the guard lives but somewhere else down a long country road.

In another case, in another area of the country, a map showed a walking bridge crossing a river to an expats property. The bridge was washed away years ago. The owner of the property on the other side of the river sued the expat to rebuild the bridge.

A long court battle ensued. In the first decision of the court, the expat was told to rebuild the bridge. The appeals court overturned the ruling, stating that mother nature destroyed the bridge many years ago and it was too late to complain about it now.

Expats can do something about this problem of maps overlaying each other, but it does take a surveyor in most cases. Workers in the plat department at the Registro Nacional do not like outsiders in their midst. However, with this said, it is not impossible for a person to take the map of their property to the catastro department and ask if there are any other maps registered on top of the document or anywhere else on their property.

Usually, the normal procedure is that surveyors – referred to as topographers in Costa Rica – have access to the computers and can actually go in the computer room and look for themselves.

If a problem is found, the Registro Nacional will do an investigation on any abnormalities – in most cases – and nowadays will cancel maps that are not correct. Actually, that is their goal, to purge old maps that never turned into true deeds and only keep the maps that have been registered properly and have a legal deed attached to them.

Expats need to be aware to be a jump ahead of the scammers and have a current copy of the plat map that represents property along with the deed of purchase.

Again, a trusted surveyor can check to see if there are any other maps that have been registered — even a little map — if it exists on an expat’s property. If one is found, owners should get it canceled.

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