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Rental law is the key to being a happy expat tenant

by Garland M Baker on November 9, 2009

Renting properties in Costa Rica is as common for locals as it is for foreigners. However, relationships with landlords may be negative for expats who expect property owners to adhere to the basic rental laws. When renting a property in Costa Rica, expats can expect many headaches along the way, most of them provoked by landlord negligence.

Even though landlord problems occur in every country, if Costa Rica is the country of choice, expats may be better off buying than renting. Foreigners who plan to live in the country temporarily should prepare to deal with frustrating situations, miscommunications and neighbor issues provoked or plainly overlooked by property owners.

There’s one fact expats can count on: Most landlords in Costa Rica never read the rental law (No. 7527). They have no idea about their rights or duties as property owners or about violations or legal procedures that protect both tenants and owners.

Another fact is that even though some landlords have no idea about the content of the rental law, they will likely and blatantly violate it numerous times, and most of the time they can get away with it.

Costa Ricans tend to avoid confrontation. Culturally, Ticos are taught that standing one’s ground is a sign of rebellion, and as a family-centered culture, Costa Rica has done a pretty good job teaching its citizens that obedience and passivity are the best attitudes in life. That is mainly the reason why business owners and landlords have had the upper hand when it comes to abusing or neglecting their roles in society.

Therefore, once a tenant or customer decides to fight for rights and demand quality for what they are paying, common reactions from service providers or landlords are shock, indifference and even confrontation.

Many landlords have only one goal: Getting the most for the least. They do not flinch at violating the law if it means saving money. Expats should not be surprised if they encounter any of the following situations while renting in Costa Rica.:

Insecurity. Some apartment buildings lack safe, sturdy gates or security systems to keep tenants safe. Many buildings lack intercoms, making it easy for criminals to be buzzed in by mistake or to break in. Only very exclusive buildings have 24-hour security guards or intercoms with cameras. Many tenants come home to find their living quarters emptied by burglars that were mistakenly buzzed in.

Options: In this case, expats cannot protect themselves legally against negligence by the landlord concerning insecure facilities.

Misleading contract clauses. Rental contracts are supposed to have a group of clauses warning tenants of the rules to follow before considering moving into the apartment or house. However, consequences for violating certain clauses are sometimes not specified in the document, making it impossible to know how those violations will be punished. The most common of these situations is a contract specifying that pets are absolutely prohibited in the building. Then some months later one or two neighbors get pets. Problems like excessive noise from barking, odors and dog attacks against neighbors from untrained dogs and negligent pet owners can follow.

Options: Getting some legal advice is key in finding out how to make rental contracts enforceable against insensitive landlords.

Hidden apartment problems. Once a tenant leaves, some landlords tend to repair only the most visible problems, and more serious ones are left untouched until the new tenant complains about them, which can take months until noticed. That buys landlords time to enjoy the initial deposit — which is equal to a month’s rent — and to procrastinate about fixing problems when notified by the tenant. Some landlords play dirty by blaming tenants for recurring problems that can be easily disguised as new problems, such as pipe obstructions and water leaks.

Options: Having a lawyer inspect the apartment before moving in and documenting its condition will help identify which are recurring and new problems. Having another inspection before moving out will protect tenants and help them get back their whole deposit because landlords will not be able to invent or exaggerate damages left by tenants. Besides, according to Section 30 of the rental law, any major deficiencies in the property unknown by the tenant are reason enough to request a proportional deduction of the rent amount. Depending on how serious they are, tenants can file for damages.

Maintenance negligence. Even after months of constantly getting notified by tenants of problems, some landlords have the nerve to gracefully ignore them and use their favorite weapon of choice: words. Sweet little promises or placing blame on contractors that do not show up are common responses that can take months to surmount. Such cases usually end up in legal action by the tenant to break the cycle. Landlords generally tend to push the envelope.

Options: E-mail notifications are much better than phone calls from tenants in case the situation goes out of hand. After informally notifying a landlord of a problem immediately it is noticed, landlords might take care of it right away, wait a little or ignore it for months. According to the rental law, if landlords do not fix the problem 10 business days after getting notified, tenants can take care of it and deduct the cost from the rent. If tenants want landlords to take care of the problem instead (as it should always happen), the situation gets more complicated for tenants. The law details that if the problem is not fixed within the 10 business days after notifying the landlord, tenants can go to court and seek permission from a judge to deposit the next rent payment in court.

The judge evaluates the situation and, if approved, the judge sends a court notice to a landlord to force the owner to take care of the problem before getting the rent from court. There is a process to follow, however, before going to court:

• Tenants have to document all the notifications sent informally (by e-mail) to landlords in a formal letter that must be printed and illustrated by pictures of the problem. The letter must end giving the landlord 10 business days to fix the problem, stating that otherwise the tenant will go to court (juzgado con jurisdicción) and deposit the money of the rent.

• Tenants must get two impartial witnesses – police officers are recommended, since judges will take it more seriously than if family members or neighbors witness it – to attest that the document was delivered to the landlord. If tenants decide to go to the police, they should ask for an acta de observación diligence. Calling services by their correct names saves tenants the run-around in police stations. Requesting for a witnessing service incorrectly will immediately raise a red flag among policemen and they will send tenants to different municipal offices that will not help at all.

• Once the document has been given to the landlord and the acta de observación is duly filled out by the police officers, tenants wait the 10 days.

• If the problem is never fixed, tenants must go to a lawyer to prepare a document to take to court about the case. All proof must be kept and submitted (pictures, acta de observación, letter, e-mail copies) to the lawyer.

• Tenants agree on a day to go to court with their lawyer and process their case. If approved or denied, the judge dictates the procedure to follow.

Neighbor disputes. Even though Costa Ricans tend to be mellow and passive, they can also get quite violent with neighbors or when driving. Ticos can be really territorial. Therefore, whether it is complaints about noise, garbage or pets, landlords do not necessarily strive to keep the peace among tenants. Tenants have the obligation to notify landlords when neighboring tenants cross the line. Landlords are responsible for solving any problems keeping the peace in the rental building. However, that rule is rarely followed. Landlords might even make things worse by not using tact when talking about the problem or blaming the complaining neighbor for being too inflexible.

Reluctance to solve neighbor property issues. Problems from neighboring properties such as large trees that cover one’s backyard, excessive noise, garbage, among others, are most likely going to be ignored by landlords until tenants take it to a law enforcement level.

Options: Tenants should not take the matter into their own hands in this case. They have to make landlords deal with other property owners, since they are solely responsible for their piece of land, even if it is affecting their tenants only. Therefore, the legal steps specified above for maintenance negligence must be followed by tenants in order to get neighbor problems solved.

The rental law specifies all rights and duties for both tenants and landlords, as well as many legal procedures both parties can opt for in different circumstances.

Nevertheless, many landlords get scared once they see their tenants are serious people who will not let anybody walk all over them. Showing up at their door with two police officers, filling out an acta de observación and having a well-written letter with good pictures attached will likely do the trick, and no further legal action may be needed. Landlords sometimes are just lazy and only need a reality check to do their job. Otherwise, courts tend to protect anybody who presents a well-documented case.

Tenants must keep in mind that if they take any legal action against landlords, they may be subject to more negligence in the future or even spiteful revenge tactics from resentful landlords. The rental law specifies that unhappy landlords can notify the tenants to vacate any time after three years of living in their property, but if the apartment is located in the same lot as the landlords’ home and they share a common entrance, tenants can be evicted any time and for any reason.

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