My Personal Story
Before I begin, I want to clarify that this is my own experience and decision-making process. Via my perspective, I want to give the reader a sense of what condo living in Costa Rica can be like, and why I chose to live where I do. It’s not my intention to imply that any other place or person’s experience will mirror mine. My brother would be bored out of his mind where I live, and I would not be happy living in the area he is currently considering–to each his own! I provide some tips about buying a condo at the end of the article.
How and why does a woman raised in the mountains of East Tennessee decide to come back to Costa Rica and live in a condominium?
This was the question being asked by many of my TN friends two years ago, and I’ve noticed that many expat group members seem to wonder the same kind of thing. So allow me to explain. It wasn’t because I was trying to replicate living US style, but rather my choice was a result of careful thought about what I needed for this chapter of my life.
It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I grew up roaming open fields and woods, and playing on a lake. I spent the last 20 years living in that same country neighborhood. I hadn’t lived in an apartment since I was 22 years old—a very long time ago! I have lived in houses in TN and in Costa Rica, alone and with husbands and children, and I loved the privacy and freedom, not to mention the yard areas I always had. But I managed to end up taking care of it all, from building, to maintenance, to garden and yard work, mostly by myself, for my entire adult life.
Five years ago I found myself suddenly living alone in a beautiful house with a large yard. Trying to work and keep up with it all could no longer be justified. Twice a year visits from children and grandchildren were not worth what it would take for me to keep this house that I basically used half of. Once I acknowledged that the house had to go, I was left with the dilemma of where to go from there.
First, I made the extremely complex and difficult decision to return to Costa Rica, a story beyond the scope of this article, but it was part and parcel of the plan to live in this specific condo complex.
Interestingly, the Costa Rica house I owned and lived in for ten years, a house I dearly loved, went back on the market weeks after my mother’s death (my last tie to TN), and my former neighbors called me to suggest I buy it back and return to the neighborhood. I have to admit I was tempted, but there were good reasons to say no to this.
If I was going to come back to Costa Rica, choosing to live in a condo was based on these factors:
For now, I didn’t want the burden of a house at all. After a seriously challenging decade in my life, I needed a break from the responsibility, the maintenance and the upkeep. I didn’t want to deal with unexpected repairs or live in a place that needed any kind of fixing up. My intention was to reduce the demands on me to the absolute minimum.
I would be living alone. An older woman living alone in my neighborhood in TN was not a major risk factor as far as personal safety goes, but in Latin America in general, it can be. I wish it wasn’t so, but that’s the reality, so even though I’ve lived fearlessly alone before, if I was to live in Costa Rica again, it had to be in a gated community this time.
I wanted to sleep well at night with my “strange noise” awareness radar turned off. I wanted to be able to leave my windows open day or night, and I didn’t want to make “checking to see if the car is still there” the first thing I did when I got up in the mornings. These were all things I dealt with when I lived in Costa Rica before. Yes, my house was broken into twice, and while I never encountered an intruder in my house, there were a couple of close calls. Plus, I knew I’d be traveling to see my daughters in the US, and I wanted to start taking trips to new places.
It was important to feel I could leave my house for days or weeks at a time with no concerns about break ins, burst water pipes, or anything else. I didn’t want to constantly have to arrange for someone to stay there, or to be checking on it. I wanted to be free to come and go as I pleased with no worries.
I had to live in a place with plenty of nature and green space around me, preferably having a view of trees and mountains to look out at, since I planned to work from home and would spend most of my time there. I didn’t want to look out at gates and walls. I wanted trees and flowers and grass, with none of the work.
After spending several years mostly alone, I was ready for more social interaction, and while living in a residential neighborhood can provide this, condominium living places you in a denser communal setting on a regular basis. I figured this would be good for me, because while I love going out and getting together with people, I also have plenty of introvert traits that make it easy for me to isolate myself.
So, a condominium it would be. Which one was a no brainer for me.
I’ve lived in several areas of San Jose’s Central Valley from Santa Ana in the west to San Pedro in the east, and I returned to this specific place, Santo Domingo de Heredia, for several reasons:
I love the weather here—65-75 all year round, so no heat or air conditioning is needed (my electric bills rarely surpass $30). It’s neither too hot, nor too cool, nor too foggy or rainy—conditions that exist just a few miles away from me in all directions. (Costa Rica is a mosaic of microclimates!)
It’s near my former neighborhood so I am familiar with the area, and in addition to my former neighbors, several close friends and family members live nearby. I didn’t want to live at the beach—I love the sea and being near it, but I don’t care for the constant heat and humidity. I can be at a beach in 2 hours if I get on the road early. That’s good enough.
I didn’t want to move to a brand new area where I didn’t know anybody, either. I have done that happily in the past, but this move was already stressful enough, and I simply wasn’t up for it this time. I needed some emotional comforting—the kind that includes familiarity and ease.
My condo complex is in a residential area off the beaten track but well situated for getting around this end of the greater metropolitan area. I am a 5 minute drive or a 15-20 minute walk from the nearby small town where I can do most of my errands. There are two large grocery stores and a little organic shop where I buy most of my food, as well as a farmers market on Saturday mornings. Several of my favorite restaurants and cafés are 5-15 minutes away. I found a great hairdresser, and I’m getting to know the people who wait on me at the carwash, the shops, and the bank. I walk to town at least once a week and I interact with local people every day. I am not isolated from the people I live among.
I’m about 12 minutes drive from downtown San José, and 15 minutes from a large mall (Lincoln Plaza) that offers a movie theatre, banks, restaurants, and all kinds of stores including a bookstore, home goods stores, specialty shops, drug stores, a grocery store, and more.
The wealthier, more Americanized part of town (Escazú) is 20-60 minutes away (depending on traffic) and I do enjoy an occasional trip over there to get my Crate & Barrel fix, for example, or for some specialty item purchase, or to eat at one of the great restaurants they have over there, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s twice as expensive as where I live, hotter, noisier, and more crowded, and the traffic is even more nightmarish than where I am. Nah, I’m happy over here in the smaller, cleaner, less prestigious, and less developed township of Santo Domingo.
And while I didn’t intend to go back to teaching as a job, I did take into account that the two schools I taught at back in the day are within just a few miles of me, and I still know people at each school—part of my back up plan, because we live in uncertain times. If you are a parent of school age children, living near the school of your choice is a benefit I cannot over emphasize.
I live beside the family owned Hotel Bougainvillea (link below) that is nestled with in over 10 acres of botanical gardens, and I have a couple of acres of gardens in our complex as well (same owners). Having these green areas practically outside my door is essential to my well-being, and my deck overlooks trees and mountains. Not many affordable condo’s offer a view like this, so this was a major consideration for me. I do miss puttering around in the garden and playing in the dirt, but the owner let me have a little spot to grow some veggies and I have some containers on my deck, so I’m content.
Another benefit of having the hotel next door is that without getting into my car or even leaving the property, I can go eat there when I don’t feel like cooking or eating alone, and I have endless opportunities to meet new people from all over the world. Several regular business travelers and hotel guests have become good friends and we get together whenever they’re in town, or when I am visiting their cities. This is a unique perk of where I live.
The condo and Bougainvillea properties are an oasis of peace and beauty, and they provide all the security and amenities that are important to me. And, I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this place has been a home away from home to me for years.
When I lived nearby, I often came here for lunches and walks in the garden. My daughters played in these gardens as small children. After moving to the US, I would often stay here when I came to CR for visits, so I have known the owners and several members of the staff for many years. During the two visits I made here as a barely functioning, grief stricken zombie, they took care of me like the family they’ve become. What else can I say? They are special to me, and had been encouraging me to move back for a couple of years with comments like, “we think instead of living there and coming here to visit, you should live here and go there to visit.” It’s always nice to be wanted, and their friendliness and caring hasn’t waned. If they haven’t seen me in a while, I might get a text checking to make sure I’m ok. Priceless and appreciated!
I knew a few people in the condo’s before I moved in, having met them on visits at the hotel, or through friends of friends. There are residents from probably a dozen countries here, including a fair number of Costa Rican and US American families. We are a neighborhood United Nations of sorts, and we’ve formed a few groups that get together several times a month. Yesterday we had a breakfast for a couple of snowbirds that just returned for their seasonal stay. Tonight I’ll meet up with several of the women at the hotel bar to catch up, as we’ve all been away.
I enjoy having this built-in community that is literally steps away. And our groups include people from several different countries, so conversations are always interesting and sometimes challenging—elements that I crave intellectually. The topics are all over the place, and I love hearing different languages. Even though I can’t speak more than a few phrases of most of them (French, Italian, Portuguese), I am thrilled to be able to follow bits and pieces of conversations and pick up a few more foreign language skills along the way.
Several of us are good friends and we engage in the normal neighborly, “can I borrow_____”, or “you wanna come over for some coffee or a glass of wine?” Of course there are other residents of our relatively small complex who I have never seen, or never met. We aren’t all one big happy family, but we are a fairly friendly group.
Note that no matter where you live in Costa Rica, you are likely to hear languages other than Spanish, and your children will benefit immensely from being exposed to them. If you’re a foreign language novice, know that you will understand first and speak second, so don’t get frustrated. If you aren’t a Spanish speaker but intend to live here, please make the effort to learn it, otherwise you’ll be cheating yourself out of one of the most important parts of living abroad—immersion in local culture.
There are a few more niceties about this place. We have recycling and organic compost bins conveniently located in each of the three buildings, and the property is always well maintained. The style may not be slick and modern, but the buildings themselves are well built, and after weathering more than a few strong storms and earthquakes with no damage, they give me a sense of safety in that regard.
Living in Latin America means periodic loss of electricity and water services due to old infrastructure and rapid urban growth. Our water comes from a well, so we’re never without. In case of power outages, an on-site generator keeps public areas illuminated, and two outlets in my unit are also connected, one at my desk and one my refrigerator is plugged into. I have covered space for my car, and if I leave a window down or a door ajar, I’ll get a call from the guard to let me know. The complex is generally quiet, and I’m rarely awakened by noise that originates here on the property. My neighbors are considerate for the most part, and it’s a pleasant place to live.
It doesn’t get much better than this anywhere, especially in Costa Rica. The only downside to my building is that all the units are very spacious! You read that right. There aren’t any small apartments–I have more space than I need unless I have visitors. It’s not a bad problem to have of course, but smaller would undoubtedly be easier on my budget. Having said that, I feel like I get my money’s worth here, and my peace of mind and contentment with everything is worth it.
Now, a little about the downsides to condo living. I understand that families with children would not want to be confined to a condo, and in any event, apartment/condo living is not for everyone. If someone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be in one, I’d have said they were nuts. But life has a way of throwing you out of your comfort zone when you least expect it.
I have no major cons to discuss, but I do want to let you know what you might have to deal with if you choose condo living in Costa Rica.
My biggest complaint regards odors. Despite exhaust fans in the kitchens, I often know when my next door neighbor is cooking fish or onions, and my downstairs neighbor’s use of highly perfumed cleaning products and dryer sheets drives me absolutely over the edge sometimes. Fortunately, these things only happen about once a week. Keeping certain windows closed helps, but nothing is sealed up very tightly here (by design) so it’s just something you learn to deal with.
Pets are not allowed in this complex, which is a common rule for condos here. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dog who now lives with his first mama, my daughter. Asking about pet policy, if you have one, will be vital–make sure you see it in writing! No exceptions here are made for service or comfort animals.
I miss having people over for an outdoor cookout, and I miss cranking up my music when I want to chase away the blues and dance around the house! I must always consider how any noise I make very early or very late might affect my neighbors, and I have to be aware that conversations that take place in certain areas of my apartment, including my deck, might be unintentionally shared with my neighbors. This also means that I overhear conversations I’d rather not be privy to, and am occasionally bothered by late night cleaning or early morning chat sessions.
Concrete is vital in the humid tropics and abundant rebar is necessary for earthquake-safe design, but these carry sound astonishingly well.
Carpeting helps tremendously with noise reduction but it’s rare here because it’s terribly impractical with what I call the mud & mildew and dust seasons. Ceramic tile is the standard floor covering, with wood losing ground due to deforestation concerns. Large area rugs are widely available and as with everything else, cost will be higher than you expect.
And with that, I’ll wrap this up. I think I’ve covered just about everything. I live in a special place and the pro’s far outweigh the con’s. Moving here was the right decision for me for this chapter of my life.
I have no idea what the next few years will bring, but I’m glad to be living in this lovely little paradise that is Costa Rica. I chose condo living to simplify my life—to minimize stress, and maximize my ability to enjoy my time here. Some of you might find it worth considering, even if you hadn’t done so before.
FYI Tips: Gated communities and condominiums exist in every area and at every possible price range all over the country. They are available to buy and to rent, furnished and unfurnished, with or without appliances. There is no “average” to speak of. Rent can be $300 p/mo for a hole in the wall, or $4,000 p/mo for a luxury unit.
Regarding size: Square meter is the normal unit of measurement. You can roughly estimate square footage by knowing that 100 square meters is just over 1,000 square feet.
If you are considering purchasing an apartment/condo, location will be the biggest factor affecting price. Don’t expect to get something awesome for a steal–the bargains that could be snapped up a few years ago are pretty much non-existent now. The amenities and homeowner fees are also highly variable.
Be aware that buying a rental as an investment is iffy here in most places. Buy it because you love it–consider it a plus if it makes money for you when you aren’t in it. Selling for a profit is the exception, not the rule.
I would urge you never, never to commit to one sight unseen. Always talk to several current residents to get a good feel for satisfaction or issues.
You do not have to be a resident or citizen to buy and own property (land, house, vehicle, etc) in Costa Rica, but you do need to be very careful to avoid scams or shady deals. You must have a lawyer to complete the purchase, so I suggest you have one you can trust. Contracts are not very standardized here, and must legally be in Spanish, so make sure you understand everything before you sign anything, and confirm that every possible condition is covered.
Be particularly careful about joint ownership with a spouse or partner because the legal complications of clearing the property in case of death or divorce can be costly and time consuming. The benefits of putting the property into a limited liability corporation are no longer what they once were, but can prevent issues in case of death. Again, a good lawyer should be able to provide the most current legal advice. Laws change overnight and constantly here–don’t go on anyone’s past experience, and please don’t ask your Facebook friends for legal guidance on this. Get a lawyer!