It Never Hurts to Look, Until It Does

I gasped a little bit as it seemed like the dentist now had both of his hands in my mouth. With the ubiquitous slurping straw also in the mix doing its part to siphon-off saliva there was very little room in my mouth for the things that normally resided there — like my tongue.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, it’s at times like these that the dentist decides to get chummy and start a conversation. A conversation that, of course, starts with him posing me a question. The question comes in Spanish and my response is expected to correspond (he speaks fluent English but is, to his credit, prodding me in my studies by conversing solely in Spanish).

The question is, “How long are you and your family planning to stay here?”

With the capacity crowd in my mouth at the moment I’m challenged to reply at all, much less in Spanish. I think I managed to get out something equivalent to, “Quien sabe?”

The hands immediately withdrew from my mouth and the sucking straw was banished to the basin. His face already just inches from mine, he leaned in even further and asked, “Are you looking to buy land?”

In recent weeks I’d been propositioned about land at just about every turn. I had not, however, expected it to take place in the middle of a teeth cleaning.  “I don’t know. We’re still thinking about where we want to live. It’s possible, but not right now.’

I smiled up at him to hopefully stick the landing and the rest of the visit seemed to go per usual until we got to the register so I could pay. As he handed me back my credit card he asked, “Would you like to go now?”

My jaw still aching from the work-over I’d received, I stumbled through the translation in my head trying to figure out where it was that we’d be going. I was going to the grocery store. Had I told him that? Did he want to go to the grocery store with me?


“To my land that’s for sale. Do you want to come and see it?”

I managed to make it — alone — to the grocery store and as I roamed the aisles I pondered the sometimes hilarious wrinkles involving real estate here in Costa Rica. The attention I was receiving was absolutely, positively my fault as I’d taken a flier to look at one piece of property and, though I’d told no one, the word had gotten out and things had spiraled out of control from there. People I’d never met stopped their cars as I walked by to ask if I’d like to accompany them to their property, which just happened to be for sale. I got this same attention in line at the grocery store, or walking out of a bank or restaurant — often pitched with the wrinkle that this property belonged to a friend, neighbor or relative.

Many, make that most of these folks are well-intentioned and I am flattered that any of them might want me as a long-term neighbor (besides being tall by Costa Rican standards I don’t know exactly what I bring to the table). The queasiness with all of this comes from three basic things: 1) a complete lack of comps, 2) the commission system, and 3) the complete lack of zoning.

The comps that don’t exist would come via a system that would show available property with comparative data points and, potentially with the aide of a realtor, a history of what has sold and, better yet, the actual sales price. There is no such system here, nor are there any realtors (licensed realtors). There is instead a hyperactive word-of-mouth/rumor mill process accompanied by “For Sale/Se Vende” signs all over the place — some that have been around so long that that they’ve partially disintegrated or become obscured from mildew. As an example, one oddly situated property in town suddenly featured a large sign that said it was available for only $1 million. Several months later the sign came down. After a quiet period a new sign went up with the asking price of $350,000. Several weeks later the property was, apparently, sold. The rumor around town is that it ultimately went for $200,000 — but who knows?

On the commission front I suspect that most visitors to the area don’t realize that whoever sells them their tickets to the zip-lining place or coffee tour typically gets 20% of the price as their commission. Not coincidentally, there are any number of small buildings located out of town that advertise the fact that they are the “official” source of tickets for all of the local attractions. For some reason going directly to the theme park for your tickets does NOT produce a discount (local custom frowns on this approach as unfair to those who would otherwise receive the commission). The customs and percentages definitely vary a bit when real estate is involved but it is fair to assume that anyone that “introduces” you to someone with land expects some kind of cut. This potential windfall tends to make people a little less concerned about things like full, even partial disclosure.

Lastly, you might spending many months searching for the perfect property and, if you’re lucky, find it. Unfortunately, you might subsequently find that forested area next to you has now become a pig farm, or a lumber mill. There’s also the chance that the sleepy house next to you is expanded to within an inch (ok, a centimeter) of the property line and now operates as a backpackers hostel with smoke and lousy music pouring forth at all hours. We gringos are prissy about such things but it’s a cultural element that definitely doesn’t translate. Ticos, probably to their credit, largely roll with developments like this without comment.

I truly don’t know where we’re going to end up. There are many amazing things about this place that continue to tug at our collective heart strings. We’re going to try and sort this out on our upcoming. lengthy trip back to the U.S. — and Canada. In the meantime I’m going to spend as much time as possible indoors, as far away as possible from any sign containing the words “se vende.” Sometimes it does hurt to look.


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