Costa Rica was voted the world's top destination to retire to internationally by International Living Magazine, which looks at a wide range of criteria to determine the planet's best retirement destinations for its Annual Global Retirement Index.
The Index uses the ease and cost of buying or renting property, the cost of living as a retiree, visa and residence options on offer, the ease of fitting in and enjoying a healthy lifestyle in a pleasant climate as some of the most important benchmarks in its annual survey. Also deemed important are infrastructure in terms of transport and internet connectivity as well as the freedom available to residence under local governance.
Although Costa Rica is no longer the cheapest of retirement options, the country scores well in all categories of the Index, offering retirees a healthy lifestyle underpinned by an excellent health system open to expatriates for a low cost contribution averaging around $95 per couple a month. With a low crime rate, Costa Rica is also a safe place to retire to. The country's economy has been steadily growing, it is one of the world's most stable countries politically and one of the most environmentally friendly.
Costa Rica is a small country compared to some of its South American neighbours, but it offers a wide range of climates and exceptionally beautiful landscapes. Residents have a choice of where to live: rain-forests, mountains or sandy beaches. Renting a home is low with two- and three-bedroomed homes in good locations and with views starting at $800 per month. A small home costs from $300 to $600 per month, while a luxury condo or large house with yard or garden might cost between $1,200 and $2,000 a month. Much will depend on where you choose to live, urban areas and ocean-front are always more expensive than rural areas.
Buying a home is also comparatively cheap. A Central Valley home with a view of mountains costs around $100,000 to $120,000.
Long a favourite with US and Canadian citizens, who live in Costa Rica either full or part-time, the country is only now being discovered by Europeans. Costa Rica offers a wealth of things to do, ranging from fishing, surfing, rain-forest treks and canopy scaling to living it up in beach resorts or in the capital, San Juan.
For most retirees, the cost of living in Costa Rica is much lower than it is in Europe, Canada or the United States. A single, thrifty retired person can live quite comfortably for about $1,300 to $1,600 a month, while a couple can cut costs even further by sharing household expenses.
What are the Residency Requirements?
Tourist visas are valid for 90 days, but many people get around the restrictions by travelling across the border into Panama for 72 hours, after which a renewal tourist visa provides them with another 90 days of legal stay. Depending on how often you plan to visit your holiday home or for how long you envisage living in a permanent home, it can become necessary to establish legal residency. This falls into two categories.
Many owners with second homes in Costa Rica select either Pensionado or Rentista status. To qualify for Pensionado status, one must provide proof of monthly income from a qualifying pension plan or Social Security benefits amounting to a minimum of $1,000. To qualify for Rentista status, one must provide proof of a minimum of $2,500 monthly unearned income, which means it cannot be earned income gained via employment, but should be from savings, interest on investments or from dividends. Proof must cover at least two years prior to arriving in Costa Rica or must be via a $60,000 deposit made in a Costa Rican bank approved by immigration authorities.
What are the main areas Retirees choose to live in?
Cost Rica's Central Valley is where many retirees choose to live. It is the region surrounding the capital, San Jose, and its international airport, medical facilities, shopping districts, museums, theatres and various other amenities that are the best the country has to offer. San Jose's immediate surroundings are quite urban and cosmopolitan, but a little further away there is plenty of Pura Vida to be had in the countryside. The Central Valley's climate is also more pleasant than in other parts - the Central Valley enjoys a year-round spring-like temperature averaging about 72F. Elevation is a thing to bear in mind here: the higher up you are in Costa Rica's mountains, the cooler the climate will be. At night, temperatures in the Central Valley can dip into the 60sF, while days enjoy mid 80sF.
If you prefer life at the beach, the Guanacaste province will appeal to you. It is the region on the north-west Pacific coast which is known as the Gold Coast. Here you'll find quite a few expat communities, some in luxury gated villa and apartment complexes, other living a simple beach-life in traditional villages cheek by jowl with friendly local neighbours.
Costa Rica's Southern Pacific Coast, also known as the Southern Zone, is regarded as an up-and-coming area near the border with Panama. This area, unlike the Central Pacific Coast, which ranges from Jacó to Quepos, is far less developed. Travellers tend to be eco-tourists keen to explore the vast rain-forests brimming with flora and fauna or they head to the near-deserted beaches to watch migrating whales. The area has a small, but gradually growing expat community and still offers surprising property bargains.
The Central Pacific coast is very popular with expat retirees. The area offers the amenities of San Jose, which is just an hour or two away, but still has its own nightlife scene with great restaurants and beach bars. It is also home to some of Costa Rica's best national parks.
If you like living dangerously, go on a three-hour journey north-west of San Jose and find a home near Lake - and volcano - Arenal. While the active volcano and Arenal National Park offer some of the world's most stunning natural beauty, Lake Arenal with its 33-square-mile circumference is ideal playing ground for water sports enthusiasts.
Buying a home in Costa Rica
You don't need to be a resident to buy land or a property in Costa Rica and foreigners enjoy the same rights as locals. However, there are two important rules to note when buying property in Costa Rica:
- never buy any type of real estate unless you've visited the area and seen in personally
- don't delay making an offer when you've found what you like - there's always somebody else waiting in the wings to snap up a bargain.
Before making any offer, be sure to do your research and never, ever take the developer's word for granted. Many developers, for example, mention plans for new roads, golf courses, marinas or other nearby amenities, but fail to mention that the community will have to raise the money or that the local government hasn't actually finalised plans to build new roads or other infrastructure yet. Speak with several existing residence and take out references with reputable organisations on the developer before buying anything off-plan.
Although there are no restrictions on foreign property ownership as such, it is noteworthy that nobody can own property within 164 feet (50 metres) of the ocean, and for the next 492 feet (150 metres) real estate falls under Maritime Zone legislation, which permit development only under government "concession".
So if your house-hunt involves looking for ocean-front property in Costa Rica, be doubly careful, as Maritime Zone laws also govern condos. Before putting your signature to anything, insist that your lawyer verifies that the title is legally consistent with these Maritime Zone laws. Because of these laws, titled beach-front land is very, very rare, although it can be found occasionally on the Central Pacific coast and some other coastal locations. Any Costa Rica real estate purchase should be made only after due diligence and after seeking assistance of a trustworthy lawyer.