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Faltering real estate market presents opportunities

by Garland M Baker on September 1, 2008

A personal trip to the Parrita-Quepos area to look at property and meet with real estate agents turned out to be an invaluable experience. The real estate slowdown is quite evident, but there is good news for well- informed investors. Today’s deep discounts are tomorrow’s profits.

For sale signs are everywhere. Property prices have dropped on some real estate 50 percent or more. Some people have walked away from the houses they were building before completion and assigned them to real estate agents with instructions to sell them for whatever they can get. Some condominium developers are selling their projects out using fractional ownership so they can make some sales and bring in badly needed cash flow.

A.M. Costa Rica published articles cautioning about the coming weaknesses in the real estate market starting in January 2005 when property values were spiraling out-of-control. Later articles predicted that too many condominiums were under construction and this would cause an over supply.

In retrospect, 2005 surely was the topping out of the real estate market in Costa Rica and the beginning of the slowdown of real estate sales. This is true in most market situations. When prices are crazy and people are willing to spend almost anything on the upswing, the market is ready to burst and turn around.

The slowdown started to show its nasty head in 2006 when real estate agents complained of fewer sales and prices leveling off or declining. The events in the United States surrounding the subprime mess where consumers over borrowed on the equity in their home, perhaps to buy a vacation or retirement property in Costa Rica set the foundation for a turn around in real estate here.

This is not the first time this has happened in Costa Rica. Old timers remember Costa Rica went though a similar time in the 1970s. Property values were on the upswing and relative to those times, real estate was expensive and increasing in value rapidly. However, with the onset of the Nicaraguan conflict and the United States embargo against the country, real estate sales abruptly entered stagnation.

Values did not start to rise again until after the end of the United States embargo against Nicaragua in 1990. Costa Rica’s real estate values started to increase slowly at first but gained momentum rapidly in the late 1990s. This culminated into explosive growth and skyrocketing prices from 2000 to 2005.

Today, Costa Rica real estate prices are on the fast decline for several reasons. Here are a few:

North America is in serious financial distress. In the past, when the United States caught a cold, Costa Rica suffered financial pneumonia. This is not as true as it was in the past because Costa Rica is a destination and retirement option for many other types of foreigners not just North Americans. However, even today, when the United States is having troubles so does Costa Rica. Usually, there is a lag time of around a year before Costa Rica suffers from the happenings in the United States. This is also true during the recovery process. Costa Rica needs the same amount of time to begin recovery after the United States markets improve. This means the bottom of this slowdown is just beginning not ending.

As stated in the article “How high can skyrocketing land values go?” New found paradises go through a defined cycle: The phases to the cycle are exploration, involvement, development, consolidation, stagnation and, decline and/or rejuvenation. Given all the development over the past several years, Costa Rica is now ready for its consolidation and stagnation phase. The slow down in the United States has not helped and is probably nudging the country into these phases prematurely.

Today, Costa Rica is at war. It is at war with crime. Crime is everywhere. It runs the gambit from the highest echelons of government down to petty street crime. The problem is the street crime is not so petty any more. Many robberies are at gunpoint or worse, someone is killed. The Costa Rican press is full of stories of students being murdered over a cell phone
while waiting for the bus. The problem is Costa Rica has not declared war on crime. The country is just too complacent letting the criminals run the show.

The country had better wake up sooner rather than later. In the past, Costa Rica’s proximity to Nicaragua made North Americans uneasy about traveling here during the Nicaraguan war. The United States’ embargo put the nail in the proverbial coffin. Most foreigners like to feel safe when they travel — especially North Americans — and when they do not feel safe they tend to avoid a destination in conflict. The increase in crime in Costa Rica and the increasing world’s perception that Costa Rica is not a safe place to visit will stagnate Costa Rica’s growth even if the United States recovers from its financial problems.

For these and other reasons, the bottom of this slowdown is in its beginning stages not at the bottom, as some real estate agents believe.

Now for the good news for savvy investors. Baron Rothschild, an 18th century British financier, is attributed with saying “The time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets — even if the blood is your own.”

This author is bullish on Costa Rica and feels the country will eventually get its act together — of course — in its own Tico time, but it will happen eventually.

There are some great real estate deals these days for investors and for those people looking to retire here in the future. There are even better deals for those with cash. Knowledgeable investors recognize bad times make for good buys. Even though Costa Rica has probably not hit bottom, it is the time to start looking for property. Real estate values have a positive trend over time and real estate values will sky-rocket again sometime in the future as it has done in the past. Markets always do.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carol Ruiz May 16, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I have a purchase agreement for pre-construction of a condo with a Costa Rican Developer in the Guanacaste region.The condo is built but no interior details or grounds have been completed. This purchase agreement states upon completion (no deadline date given) we will receive a deed and folio number for our condo.Recently we received a message from the company stating they want every buyer to pay $10,000 now to re-start the project after delays for permits, economic downturn, and the costs lost having the project sit unfinished for the last 3 years. Our purchase agreement states we only pay money when particular stages of construction are completed. This money would go into a trust and the condo owners would then own a share of the project complex, depending on how many condos they purchased. I am not interested in this type of ownership. My contract states if the company does not complete the project I can ask for a refund, which I am considering. If the other condos owners decide to own fractional shares of the project complex and I choose not to, can the company force me to do this? I think paying the $10,000 and agreeing to a share ownership would void my purchase agreement and would no longer allow me a choice to a refund. What is the refund process in Costa Rica? This company has always stated we could ask for a refund if they didn’t complete the project.

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