Renting or Buying Property: Which is Better?

peterchristopher's picture

I was recently corresponding with Scott Birstrup, and he gave me permission to post the following excellent set of issues to consider when choosing whether to rent or buy property in Central America.

Many, if not most expatriates living overseas, including here, should rent if they can, rather than buy. Why? For a lot of good reasons... :

1. What economists call "Country risk." This isn't the United States, folks. The U.S. is such a big a country, that, at a national level, things usually change slowly, when they change at all, and USAnians are used to that. Not so here. Besides issues with the rule of law, such as a court decision going against you (good luck with that denuncio, gringo), there is the fact that national policy can turn on a dime. An election, a political deal cut in the Assemblea Nacional, a Sala IV decision, decisions made by a newly-appointed minister, all these and many more can all affect the livability of the country to you. And you can20wake up in the morning, only to discover that the paradise you were living in yesterday, no longer is paradise at all.

As an example, take Panamá. For a long time, it was more attractive than Costa Rica, but no more. Changes to the immigration law combined with a new, draconian defamation law which has effectively ended freedom of speech in that country, mean that the flood of gringo retirees moving from Costa Rica to Panamá has recently reversed. A similar thing has happened in Nicaragua - a new immigration law there makes it a lot harder to get a residency visa than it used to be only six months ago - and it was done as a policy decision, not even a new law. Combined with right-wingers' nervousness over having a Sandinista revolutionary running the country, a lot of folks decided that the time had come to leave, and market values there are down by 40% from what I hear.

And even in this country, changes to the property tax laws that have been proposed, could make this country a whole lot less attractive to owners of ritzy properties, or changes in income tax law, to those making lots of money, whether that income is earned inside or outside Costa Rica.

2. Lack of liquidity. As my correspondent suggests, the real estate market is a LOT less liquid here than in the U.S. The house I bought some years back in Arenal had been on the market for over a year before I bought it. And when I sold it, it sat unsold for just about as long. The house I have just agreed to buy has been on the market for 9 months. The MLS system here is in a rather primitive state, few realtors are members of it, and that means it is really hard to market a property for the ol' gringo double, and getting it sold takes time even at Tico prices. So if you gotta get gone (as in you're under a deportation order deadline), you're going to need to be dealing with the country for a long, long time. By remote control. Good luck, gringo.

3. Market risk. What goes up, comes down, and if it comes down because of something that has happened in the country (such as a tax law change, or an unfavorable political situation), it can come crashing down with a bang. So buying property here as an investment is a very risky thing to do. Best not to consider it to be primarily an investment because the risk is so high, and the high risk is one of the reasons why prices in Latin America generally, including here, are so volatile, and vary so widely from country to country.

4. Property management risk. If you have a high-end property (anything that rents for more than about $600 per month), your only market for renting it is going to be to other gringos. Ticos that can afford that kind of rent are usually owners already anyway, and don't need to rent, so high end properties are rented almost entirely to gringos. That's fine, but you20need to recognize that the market for rentals to gringos varies tremendously from one season to the next, and it may sit empty during the off-season, or what got $800 a month last year may get only $500 per month this year. Lower priced properties can be rented at the drop of a hat (there is a terrible shortage of low-cost rental properties in Costa Rica at the moment), but it is going to be to Ticos, and every Tico renter knows the law like the back of his hand and will not hesitate to use it against a hapless gringo landlord. A renter who has a rent receipt, under the law has a rental contract, and the terms of that contract are the renter's laws, unless he has specifically signed a lease agreement with you. That means you run a lot of risk that you wouldn't necessarily expect - Costa Rican rental law very much favors the renter, and does not allow for a renter who is current on his rent, to be evicted for up to three years after occupying the property, except under limited circumstances. Can't raise the rent, either - as I recall, dollar-based rents can only go up 9% per year, and colon-based rents, 15%. And when the renter finally moves out, it is not uncommon for him take everything with him and disappear into the cloud forest - toilets, electrical wiring and fixtures, plumbing, doors, windows and cabinets, etc. The light bulbs are a particular favorite and almost always disappear. Since you're only allowed to char ge a single month's rent as a security deposit under the default contract, you'll probably end up holding the (empty) bag. Renters are only responsible for the damage they themselves do, not damage done by someone else while they were renting your property - so if he annoys a neighbor, and that neighbor sets the house afire (not uncommon), you'll get stuck with the tab for rebuilding the place. Or, if he hires something done and doesn't pay, the merchant can file a mechanic's lien on the house you own, and he moves out and disappears, scot-free, leaving you to pay the bill for re-tiling the kitchen with that truly hideous purple tile.

5. Disclosure risk. Ain't no law in these parts that protect a buyer from a material fact that the seller did not happen to get around to disclosing. Attic rafters have termites in them? House built on fill? Property has a title defect? It's up to you to figure all that out. Hopefully before you plunk your money down. This is an "assumed risk" country - as in, buyer beware.

If you're renting, rather than owning, and paraiso suddenly becomes infierno, you can call the mover and be outta here in a week.

So, given all that, why buy?

Well, not ordinarily as an investment, that's for sure. But having said that, there are some valid reasons to buy here.

1. You want to do things with the property that no landlord would ever allow. In my case, I am a ham radio operat or, and want to set a tower in the back yard, with an enormous set of antennas mounted on it. No landlord, not even my present one, who happens to also be a ham's ham, would allow that. So if I want to get on the radio in the style to which I would like to become accustomed, I need to pour about a cubic meter of cement in a big hole in the back yard. If I own the place, I can do that. Put up all the antennas I like. Blow a big-ass hole in the wall to bring the antenna cables inside. Really turn the place into a landmark, visible far and wide, that would truly horrify a landlord.

2. You can't find the sort of rental property you really, really need. This is probably the most common *valid* reason. The buyer of my house in Arenal, for example, who is a professional fishing guide, wants to build some cabinas on the property he bought from me, for use by his fishing clients. There is a dandy fishing pond on the property already. Great idea. Good reason to buy.

3. You want a place you can hold as a family property, either for use by various family members now, coming and going as they like, or as a legacy you can leave to your children when you push off (just see a good abogado about your will).

4. You want a place to live where you'll never, ever have to move, ever again, no matter what. Or you're planning to be there for a very long, long time. Remember the one-percent rule? The flip side of that is that only if you are going to live here for longer than roughly a hundred months, you're better off buying the place (if you're not planning to over-pay for it, anyway). But a hundred months is a bit over eight years, so if you're an old geezer retiree who's about to kick off anyway, rent while you're here, and leave your kids some money for beer and chips.

But on the other hand, if you're a retiree who is seriously annoyed with your kids, and want to complicate their lives well and truly, then go ahead and buy, and when you finally push off, they can come down here from the States and try, with the help of an abogado who understands just how vulnerable they are, to figure out the ins and outs of dealing with Costa Rican probate (that's a whole other story) and then try to figure out how to sell your place, if and when they can finally manage to get a clear title.

¡Buena suerte, gringito y gringita!

Scott B. 8/19/08

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