WHY COSTA RICA?
When we mention our second home in Costa Rica, people often ask: “Why did you pick Costa Rica?” I answer, honestly, “It all began with my fifth grade project.” More decades ago than I care to acknowledge, Mrs. Moore randomly assigned me Costa Rica as the Latin American country I had to “report on” to my classmates. After reading several encyclopedia entries, even at age ten, it struck me as remarkable that this little country had health care for all its citizens, traditions of literacy and democracy that rivaled our own, and no military. Not only that, but with a population only one percent of America’s, they often beat us in soccer.
My knowledge of Costa Rica remained dormant, like a cicada underneath the ground, for thirty-five years. By then, I’d become a father of children aged twelve, fourteen and nineteen, and we sought a family spot that combined beaches, adventure and wildlife. All three children played for soccer clubs in New Jersey that had trainers from Central America. We’d befriended several of them off the field and recognized something interesting. The trainers from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were unnaturally thrilled to be in New Jersey. The Costa Rican trainers, however, though satisfied to work with our kids, aimed to make enough money to return as soon as possible to what they described as “paradise.” Combined with my earlier fascination, it made sense for us to consider traveling to Costa Rica.
It’s August 2003. I’m stuck in my law office, overwhelmed with too many house closings to leave, as my family travels to Costa Rica without me. I know they’re visiting San Jose and then somewhere on the Pacific Coast called Playa Hermosa. In those days before smart-phones and I-pads, it’s several days before I hear from them other than hurriedly written e-mails from internet cafes where half the letters don’t work and punctuation marks are random#@%&.
I answer the phone one afternoon and hear my wife’s excited voice on a scratchy cell-phone connection. “We’re looking (unintelligible) Pacific Ocean,” says Katie. “Building lots (unintelligible). You wouldn’t believe (unintelligible) $90,000 and…”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” I say. “What are you talking about? Can you speak more slowly?”
“Sorry,” she says, and continues, clearly: “We’re at a town called Playa Hermosa, and I asked the driver to stop at a real estate development overlooking the ocean. There are three lots that look great. Halfway up the mountain is an acre for $90,000 and on the TOP of the mountain are two acres for $170,000. The third one is at the bottom. No view, but only $25,000. This place is special. The views are amazing. It’s indescribable.”
I’m not sure what impulse controlled my usually cautious brain. Perhaps, it was the exhilaration in Katie’s voice. Perhaps, it was the realization that life has to offer more thrills than talking on the telephone to nervous people buying and selling homes in New Jersey. Whatever the motivation, I said immediately: “Buy the top two.”
“What?” she said, stunned. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do it.” It felt right.
Over the next several days, Katie and the children met with a local, Spanish-speaking lawyer and contracted to purchase the two lots. Several friends and relatives thought we had lost our minds. I had some doubts myself. Before the closings, Katie and I scheduled a visit to see the lots together and plan how to proceed. We flew to the capital, San Jose, since the airport just twenty minutes from Hermosa was not easily reachable from the United States (there were only three flights a week at the time – now there are over sixty).
We toured San Jose for several days before traveling four hours by bus to the Pacific Coast. I found every aspect of Costa Rica fascinating, from the people, to the diverse topography, to the excellent food and fruit. My mind raced; some details are forgotten in the haze. But I will never forget the thrill of taking a turn in the road and overlooking the brilliant blue ocean at Playa Hermosa for the first time.
A guide Katie had befriended on her earlier visit drove us to our lots. Katie was concerned I might not agree we’d made a good decision. However, the moment I saw the “million dollar” views we’d purchased for a fraction of the cost of a fixer-upper in New Jersey, I was delighted. After deliberation, we chose to build on the lower lot and hold off on the upper lot. While the latter featured a 270-degree view of the Pacific and the Bay of Culebra, the semi-paved road to the top of the mountain was daunting, and I doubted I’d enjoy an adventure every time we needed a carton of milk.
We arranged to meet several builders. The first two went by the company names of “Sun Bum Building” and “Frat Boy Construction.” Neither inspired confidence. The third was a local woman disinclined to return phone calls. Finally, we met a former Californian who had been building in Costa Rica for a decade and whose wife assisted with design, furnishing and landscaping.
A new, only-in-Costa Rica outlook of “try anything” affected me. This philosophy manifested during our visit in my willingness to zip-line over a gorge, dive off a cliff into rushing water, drive an ATV, and communicate with an iguana – hissing, mostly. We encouraged the builder’s wife to design a house with numerous features she’d always wanted to try, but clients rarely agreed to, including: several interior gardens; a waterfall in the dining room; and, a cashew-shaped infinity pool.
Once we returned home and communicated with the builder’s wife exclusively via fax and e-mail, we were shocked to learn her husband had cleared the lot and begun laying the foundation before we’d closed.
“Can they do that?” Katie asked, after our home fax machine revealed a photograph of the construction site.
“Not in New Jersey,” I said.
Not in Costa Rica, either, but…. We closed on both lots shortly thereafter and chose to re-sell the top lot for enough profit to pay for the construction on the lower lot. In two months, we’d doubled our money, much to the shock of some nay-saying friends and relatives. We immensely enjoyed the building process throughout 2004, running to the fax machine to see pictures every few weeks and visiting the site several times. The house was finished on time and on budget by early 2005, and we used it just as we’d envisioned, visiting several times as a family, and with friends.
We learned something important, however. When you see a house worthy of Architectural Digest, it doesn’t guarantee the plumbing and electricity work well. Also, putting live gardens and a waterfall inside a house in a humid climate may work under certain circumstances, but not for owners who are rarely present. Finally, repeated visits with three teen-aged children, plus friends, busted the budget.
I would like to claim I’m the genius who foresaw the downturn in global financial and real estate markets. I didn’t. It was the factors listed above that convinced us to list the house for sale in October 2006. A local legend of the real estate world named Mike Simon found a buyer and we doubled our investment once again. (It must be emphasized that the period from 2003-2006 was uniquely rewarding. The role of luck in real estate investing cannot be overstated).
Though we were happy with our memories, photo albums and profits, we felt sad after selling our home in Costa Rica. Katie and I thought of it often and the children spoke of it longingly, even as their high school and college schedules would have prevented them from going there together. As a real estate attorney, however, I was acutely aware prices were falling. When people asked if we missed our house in Costa Rica, my answer from 2007 until 2012 often started out: “Yes, but considering the state of the market….”
In 2013, however, history repeated itself. Our youngest child, Sam, had just graduated from college, thus ending our tuition obligations FOREVER. As a gift, we offered him a weeklong trip to the destination of his choice, and he picked Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the only week he could travel before the start of graduate school was while I was at a conference. Katie took him to a resort in Playa Hermosa. We didn’t exactly plan it, but it was tacitly understood she would spend an afternoon with Mike. Well, anyone who knows her or Mike can guess what happened.
Katie and Sam walked into the real estate office in Hermosa. “Hey, babe, I’ve got something for you,” Mike rasped, having just recovered from pneumonia. Although he should have been resting in bed, Mike insisted on taking them to see a condominium development called Pacifico in the neighboring town of Playa de Coco. “You’ll love it,” he whispered, showing the sales literature where three-bedroom units were now listed, newly finished, at a price forty percent below 2007 levels.
When Katie saw Coco, which she remembered from seven years earlier as somewhat shabby, she couldn’t believe the transformation. A winding road, surrounded by tropical flowers, brings visitors past a modern commercial center into the residential area. There, the sun-splashed pools and plantings are a veritable Shangri-la. Mike urged a particularly private and spacious unit and helped negotiate terms with the developer. We became homeowners in Costa Rica again.
Now, a twelve years after our initial visit, all three children are capable of visiting on their own. Though some might prefer a single family home, we deem the loss of an ocean view a reasonable sacrifice for having a team of professionals responsible for managing, among other things, multiple pools, landscaping, irrigation, weeding and security. Pacifico provides that along with an elegant beach club and the priceless ability to WALK into an increasingly vibrant town with restaurants, shopping and the beach. For sunsets, it’s a five-minute walk or ride up the hill. We brought our then-24-year-old daughter down last year and asked her what she thought. She answered with the same word the soccer trainers had used so many years before: “Paradise.”