There are lot a benefits when you choose to build a house in Costa Rica: you won’t have to adjust to Tico housing styles, which may include low ceilings, no lawns, and odd ideas about finish work. In your own place, you can put the outlets where you want them, install North American-style hot water heaters and window screens, and lay down floors of tropical hardwoods. You can orient the house toward the best view (many Tico houses look inward rather than outward). You can put in a lush lawn or landscape to your heart’s content with native trees and flowering shrubs. “You don’t really have to plant things here,” one gardener told me. “You just stick something in the ground, or you wait (not long) for your yard to be invaded.”

homes on a hill in Costa Rica

You won’t have to plant anything in Costa Rica’s lush landscape. Photo © Balalaika/iStock.

Those who got the house they wanted tended to be on-site as much as possible, overseeing every little detail.In short, you can build the house of your dreams for considerably less than you’d have to pay up north. But it won’t be dirt cheap, and it will take a lot of sweat and patience. You will need to be scrupulous about paying your workers the minimum wage, which is far lower than it would be in the United States, plus their health benefits (see the Employment chapter of Moon Living Abroad Costa Rica for more details). And most people who’ve been through the experience say that you really need to speak Spanish, know something about construction, and be confident you can effectively oversee workers. Those who got the house they wanted tended to be on-site as much as possible, overseeing every little detail.

And be sure your contract with whoever’s doing your building is detailed and explicit. Mark Drolette, who moved from Sacramento, California, to near San Ramón, Costa Rica, counts as among the best things that happened to him in Costa Rica “deciding to purchase my half acre.” The worst was finding out his house contract “didn’t cover the cost of small items like, oh, doors and windows and toilets and sinks.”

Buying a Lot for Your House in Costa Rica

Before you buy land that you intend to build on, you need to do a little research. First, make sure the lot has basic services such as water, electricity, telephone, and drainage. If it lacks any of these, get estimates for how much it will cost to install those services. Next, make sure there are no restrictions on the lot that might cause you to be denied a construction permit. Begin by checking with the Public Registry (Registro Nacional), stop in at the Permit Reception Office (Oficina Receptora de Permisos de Construcción) in San José, and consult the municipality (municipalidad) where the property is located.

Filing for Building Permits in Costa Rica

According to Roger Petersen, author of The Legal Guide to Costa Rica, requests for construction permits are filed with the Permit Reception Office (Oficina Receptora de Permisos de Construcción) in San José, which is a centralized office that houses representatives from MOPT (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes—roads), INVU (Instituto Nacional de Vivienda y Urbanismo—housing), ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad—telephone), AYA (Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados—water), SNE (Servicio Nacional de Electricidad—electricity), CFIA (Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y de Arquitectos), and the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud).

By law, the local municipality is responsible for ensuring that all construction complies with building regulations, so you’ll also need a building permit from your municipality. There may be occasional visits to your construction site by the municipal building inspector, who must certify that the construction is proceeding according to code.

Applications for construction permits must be filed by an architect or civil engineer who is a member of the Federation of Engineers and Architects (Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y de Arquitectos).

Building Costs in Costa Rica

In general, materials costs in Costa Rica are roughly equivalent to those in North America, while labor costs will be significantly less. Total building costs vary a great deal depending on materials used and salaries paid, with estimates ranging from US$25 per square foot for simple construction to up to US$70 per square foot for a luxurious house.

Building in remote areas is often more expensive, since you have to factor in delivery costs of materials.

If you're considering living abroad in Costa Rica, find out what you need to know about building a house, from considerations when buying a lot to materials and labor costs and obtaining permits.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Living Abroad Costa Rica.