11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Building My Home in Costa Rica

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11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Building My Home in Costa Rica

Moving to Costa Rica from San Antonio, TX, with my wife has presented us with many exciting challenges, from starting a family to completely resetting our domestic and professional lives. While most of these changes have been embraced with enthusiasm, there are certain aspects of our North American culture, mainly related to our home’s safety, functionality, and quality, that we aim to maintain even in our new country. The video below explains our ups and downs in Costa Rica.

A source of great pride for me is leveraging my 18-year career in the construction industry to establish Costa Rica Dream Home Consulting. Through this endeavor, I assist my fellow expats in building their Costa Rica Dream Homes, providing them with peace of mind through step-by-step guidance, steering their projects toward North American business, and building standards without compromising Costa Rican influences and design.

I offer comprehensive project oversight, technical construction inspection, and guidance to steer them away from costly mistakes. Learn more about my story of becoming a construction consultant in Costa Rica below.

Engaging in conversations with other expats who have undergone the building processes in Costa Rica, I’ve discerned common threads in responses to the question, “What do you wish you knew before starting your construction journey abroad?

This article is a platform to share the advice I’ve gathered from friends, clients, and acquaintances. Embarking on the exciting venture of building a home in Costa Rica is a journey filled with cultural nuances and unique challenges, and this article aims to offer valuable insights into aspects that North Americans often wish they had known before undertaking such a project.

1. The Cultural Difference Building Abroad

Building a home in Costa Rica is more than a construction project; it’s an immersion into a culture rich in nuances. You may need to learn to embrace some of the Costa Rican cultural differences regarding work practices, such as “Tico Time” and the term “mañana,” where the locals have a more laid-back and patient approach to time.

While learning to navigate the prevalent “yes” culture, where most of your building requests and changes are met with a cheerful “no problem” response, the results and costs may differ from your expectations and will sometimes leave you confused.

Going into construction with the understanding that work typically happens slower than in North America and that the answer “yes” sometimes means “no” will help you manage your expectations when building in Costa Rica.

2. The Importance of a Trustworthy Design and Build Team

When building your dream home in Costa Rica, selecting an architect and builder will be the two most significant decisions influencing the direct outcome of your entire construction process and project. Conducting a thorough interview and selection process to vet these professionals, ensuring they possess the credentials, experience, and a solid track record in delivering successful projects to satisfied customers, is crucial.

Secondly, investing in a reliable team goes beyond architects and builders; it encompasses a collaborative effort involving various professionals, including lawyers and engineers, with Construction Consultants at the helm. Engaging a seasoned Construction Consultant to guide and oversee the building process and lead your dream team will mitigate conflicts and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities and is utilized to their fullest potential.

Collaboration with a North American Construction Consultant and local experts brings a unique blend of perspectives and expertise to the Costa Rica construction process. While North American professionals are familiar with international construction standards and expectations, local experts provide insights into the specific challenges and nuances of construction in Costa Rica.

This harmonious collaboration ensures a well-rounded approach, fostering a successful and satisfying construction journey for Project Owners pursuing their dream homes in this vibrant Central American paradise.

A trustworthy team has your best interests at heart and will always advise you to operate within the law. This includes conducting proper due diligence, site testing, and obtaining the necessary permits.

3. The Proper Payment Strategy

Establishing a wise and fair payment strategy is critical to a successful construction process in Costa Rica and involves several key elements.

Milestone payments are a payment method that ensures that payments align with the completed phases of the project, providing a clear and structured approach to financial transactions. This helps maintain a transparent and organized payment schedule and allows for thorough inspections before each payment, ensuring work stays on schedule.

Transparency in cost estimation is equally essential. Your Construction Consultant will request that your builder provide a detailed breakdown of projected expenses covering labor, materials, and supplementary costs. This provides a comprehensive understanding of the financial aspects of the project and allows you and your team to track the construction progress and budget together, fostering trust between the parties involved.

Handling changes or unforeseen issues is an inevitable part of construction. Establishing a clear protocol for managing alterations and change orders and addressing potential impacts on timelines and budgets. Agreeing on prices beforehand and documenting changes in writing ensures clarity and minimizes the risk of disputes.

In essence, a well-thought-out payment strategy, incorporating milestone payments, transparent cost estimation, and a systematic approach to handling changes, contributes to a smooth and transparent financial process, enhancing the overall success of the construction endeavor.

4. How to Budget Wisely

Anticipating unforeseen costs is a crucial aspect of effective financial planning when undertaking a construction project in Costa Rica. Many who have been through the building process in Costa Rica will often express the need to include a buffer of 20%-30% when creating the initial construction budget and estimating accurate building costs.

However, if you have done sufficient groundwork in properly vetting and selecting your architect and builder and thoroughly designing and reviewing your plans to the point where there will be no significant changes during construction, a good builder can provide an accurate estimate. In such cases, you may adjust your buffer to 10%, allowing a smaller cushion to address unexpected expenses, upgrades, and additional requirements that may arise during construction.

Construction projects involve numerous variables, and unforeseen circumstances can arise despite meticulous planning. These may include changes in material costs, unexpected site conditions, or alterations to the initial finishes and selections based on evolving preferences or the availability of specific finishes.

By budgeting wisely and incorporating a contingency fund, Project Owners can navigate unforeseen challenges without compromising the overall financial stability of the project. This approach provides a safety net, ensuring that unexpected costs can be addressed promptly and efficiently, allowing the construction process to proceed smoothly and with financial confidence. It aligns with the principle of being prepared for the unexpected, contributing to a more prosperous and stress-free construction journey in Costa Rica.

5. Importance of North American Electrical, Mechanical and Plumbing Design

As a North American Construction Consultant in Costa Rica, I frequently encounter Electrical, Mechanical, and Plumbing (EMP) design and installation as the primary areas where significant issues arise. Including comprehensive EMP design pages in your building plans, considering your input and preferences, and ensuring effective communication and understanding are crucial for success.

Electrical Considerations

Designing an efficient and effective electrical system is essential when constructing a home in Costa Rica. While the country has adopted the 2014 National Electrical Code standards of the United States, it’s noteworthy that many builders and installers lack a strong understanding of these standards and their importance. Beyond safety concerns associated with code compliance, the planning and layout of lighting, switches, and plugs significantly impact functionality. A thoughtful approach and thorough electrical design review ensure compliance and optimal use of electrical components.

Perfecting the lighting design for your home is essential to ensure its appearance, ambiance, mood, and functionality align with your vision and lifestyle. Beyond serving practical purposes such as task lighting or outdoor illumination, thoughtful lighting choices profoundly influence the atmosphere of your home. With careful planning and foresight from your architect, well-designed lighting solutions will enhance your home’s design and improve your quality of life as a homeowner.

Mechanical Design Considerations

Improper sizing and layout of your home’s air conditioning system in Costa Rica could lead to discomfort, condensation issues, and a hefty electric bill. Costa Rica has many different aesthetic style options for air-conditioning units, including forced air units, cassette units, and in-wall thermostats, offering choices beyond the common mini-splits and wireless remote controls.

Suppose you’re not sure you want AC. In that case, provisions for the future installation of AC units should involve the installation of conduit for electrical and PVC pipe for condensation drains, allocating sufficient space on the electrical service and panel for additional current, and planning wall space that meets all requirements.

Plumbing Considerations

Basic plumbing principles are frequently disregarded in Costa Rica’s residential construction industry, resulting in significant issues. Common problems include slow or often clogged drains, sewage odors, off-gassing, liquid backups, low water pressure, scalding water temperatures, inadequate hot water supply, extended wait times for hot water, broken water lines in walls or under the house, cross-contamination between drinking water and sewage, and depletion of potable water.

To tackle these concerns, it is crucial to integrate essential elements into the plumbing design of a new home in Costa Rica. A proper plumbing design entails appropriate pipe sizing, correct rise and fall of drain pipes, p-traps, sufficient venting, backflow prevention, and durable, corrosion-resistant materials suitable for varied climates. Thorough supervision during installation is essential to ensure compliance with design specifications, prevent potential issues, and guarantee optimal plumbing system functioning.

6. Supervision and Inspection Tips

Homeowners who have already navigated the construction process in Costa Rica often emphasize the importance of visiting the job site daily. This guidance is invaluable because on-site workers frequently encounter design-related questions requiring personal preference responses.

Without direction, they will likely default to what’s most accessible, which is usually not what you envisioned. However, for most builds, more than the regular presence of the project owners is required. Most individuals lack the trained eye and construction expertise of construction leaders. More than being physically present throughout the day is needed to ensure quality work.

This underscores the importance of selecting the right builder. Opting for a seasoned local builder who visits their job sites and monitors their crews daily is a wise choice. However, even with a diligent builder, achieving North American quality, functionality, and safety standards in your new home will require additional expertise.

Engaging a reputable Construction Consultant or Owner’s Representative provides valuable protection for your investment. These professionals take the time to understand your vision to the finest detail and advocate for the homeowner’s interests. Their expert advice is based on years of education in construction science and hands-on experience.

Their knowledge of materials, processes, and specialized testing equipment uncovers hidden construction issues before they become more significant problems. This ensures that construction aligns with the given timeline and your desired standards. This proactive approach safeguards your investment and contributes to the quality and longevity of your Costa Rica dream home.

7. Complete and Detailed Blueprints Save You Money

Have comprehensive building plans (blueprints) before sending your project to bid. A complete and thorough set of plans minimizes costly changes, uncertainties, and change orders, providing a clear roadmap for the builder. This approach allows the builders you are considering to submit thorough and accurate estimates, leaving nothing to assume or be decided later and facilitating an apples-to-apples comparison.

Project Owners, typically not experts in design or construction, benefit significantly from an experienced architectural and design team. Such a team ensures the project is crafted to meet your current and future needs as you settle into your home. A reliable design firm alleviates the burden of independently generating all your home ideas. They will extract your vision of your dream home and guide you through the design process.

Engaging your Construction Consultant or Owner’s Rep during the process will ensure the North American Standards you are used to are integrated into the design from the start, saving time and money on revisions. This collaborative approach culminates in a unique and complete setup. You will achieve your desired results through fine-tuning and the revisions process, reducing the likelihood of costly afterthought change orders during construction.

Key Benefits of Investing Time in a Thorough Design

1. Less Risk of Additional Costs: Thorough designs minimize hidden costs by thoroughly evaluating design decisions and considering weather conditions and future modifications.

2. Better Documentation: Thorough designs provide detailed and exhaustive documentation, which is crucial for obtaining permits and avoiding delays and increased costs.

8. The Different Climates and Construction Considerations

Despite its small size, Costa Rica boasts 12 diverse microclimates, each presenting challenges and considerations. The unique climate of your specific building location in Costa Rica is crucial for creating a home that is not only resilient but also comfortable.

Regarding climate considerations, several factors are vital in a home’s design, comfort, and longevity. Here are the top factors mentioned by those who have already built their homes in Costa Rica:

1. Adequate Roof Insulation: Effective roof insulation is essential in almost any area of Costa Rica. Proper insulation helps retain warmth in cooler regions while preventing excessive heat absorption in warmer areas.

2. Cross Ventilation: Capitalizing on natural breezes is essential for passive cooling. Strategic window placement allows for cross ventilation, promoting a comfortable indoor environment. Additionally, adhering to static room sizing based on Bernoulli’s Principle contributes to efficient airflow by managing air pressure differentials.

3. Incorporating a Dry Room into Your Design: In regions with high humidity, designing specific dry rooms with proper provisions for placement, storage, electrical connection, and condensation drainage helps consistently mitigate moisture-related issues without compromising the functionality of the room.

4. Extended Roof Overhangs: Providing extended roof overhangs serves the dual purpose of protecting the house’s exterior walls from harsh sun and heavy rain, enhancing the structure’s and outdoor furniture’s longevity and functionality.

5. Oversized Stormwater Management: Costa Rica’s diverse climates include areas prone to long rainy seasons with heavy rainfall. Implementing oversized stormwater management systems to direct water away from your structure helps prevent flooding and soil erosion.

6. Consideration of a Fireplace: Certain microclimates, like those at higher mountain elevations, have temperatures that drop below 60°F or 12°C at night. A wood-burning fireplace adds warmth and a cozy ambiance.

By tailoring the design and construction of your home to the specific microclimate, you ensure that it stands resilient against the challenges posed by Costa Rica’s diverse weather conditions. This thoughtful approach contributes to your home’s durability and enhances the overall living experience, providing a comfortable and sustainable haven in this tropical paradise.

9. How to Communicate Clearly

In construction projects, effective communication, from the project owner to the builder to the contractors and laborers, is crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page, reduce misunderstandings, and promote a smooth workflow. The significance of clean communication is magnified in international projects, where language barriers and cultural differences can add complexity to the construction process.

Overcome Construction Communication Hurdles Using These Strategies

1. Use the Construction Chain of Command: The construction chain of command is a hierarchical structure within a construction crew where authority and responsibility flow from top-level leaders (The Builder) to lower-level employees (laborers). It establishes how decisions are made and directives are communicated, ensuring clarity, efficiency, and accountability throughout the team.

Address all changes and construction issues with your builder, allowing them to relay that information and provide proper instructions to the superintendent and, from there, to the laborers. Speaking directly to the laborers can cause confusion on the task’s specifics and create financial issues on how the changes will be addressed.

2. Written Instructions: Eliminate ambiguity by putting instructions in writing, especially when changes involve additional costs. Written instructions serve as a crucial reference point for all parties involved and help prevent misinterpretations. After verbal communication, following up with an email outlining specific details and agreements is advisable.

3. Visual Communication: Bridge language barriers effectively by sharing photos or sketching a picture. A photograph or sketch can convey details that might be challenging to express verbally or in writing, even if everyone speaks the same language. Visual aids enhance understanding and provide a tangible reference for the expected outcome.

4. Proactive Approach: Clean communication isn’t just reactive; it’s proactive. Address potential issues, concerns, or changes before they become problems. Regular check-ins and updates ensure that everyone is informed about the project’s status and any adjustments in the plan, fostering a proactive and collaborative approach.

5. Cultural Sensitivity: Recognizing and understanding construction-related cultural differences is crucial. Different cultures have their norms, expectations, and approaches to construction practices. Being culturally sensitive in communication fosters a positive working environment and builds trust among team members.

By prioritizing clean communication through written instructions, visual aids, a proactive approach, and cultural sensitivity, construction projects can successfully navigate the challenges posed by language barriers and cultural differences. This contributes to a more transparent and collaborative working environment, ultimately enhancing the overall success of the construction venture.

10. The Best Strategies for Keeping Your Cool

Even the most meticulously planned construction project may encounter challenges and surprises. The beauty of construction lies in its adaptability—virtually anything can be fixed or adjusted. Adopting a mindset that prioritizes progress over absolute perfection, embraces patience and flexibility, and is equipped with backup plans is crucial when navigating the construction landscape in Costa Rica. Here are essential strategies for managing the stress associated with the building experience:

1. Prioritize Progress Over Perfection: Acknowledge that construction projects can face unexpected challenges, and not everything will go as planned. Embrace the mindset that progress is sometimes more important than achieving absolute perfection. Recognizing that adjustments and modifications are part of the construction journey allows you to focus on the progress and successful completion of your dream home.

2. Cultivate Patience: Construction projects often require time and patience. Weather conditions, material availability, and unforeseen issues can impact timelines. Cultivate patience and maintain realistic expectations, understanding that certain aspects of the construction process may take longer. By embracing tolerance, you can navigate delays more effectively and maintain a positive outlook on the project.

3. Be Flexible and Adapt: Flexibility is a valuable asset in construction. Plans may need to be adjusted based on unexpected discoveries, changes in preferences, or unforeseen challenges. By remaining flexible and open to adaptation, you can navigate changes more smoothly and ensure that the construction process remains on track. A willingness to adapt fosters resilience and contributes to the project’s success.

4. Have Backup Plans: Construction projects are dynamic, and having backup plans in place can be instrumental in addressing unexpected situations. Whether it’s an alternative material option, a contingency budget for unforeseen expenses, or backup solutions for specific design elements, having contingency plans enhances your ability to overcome challenges and keep the project moving forward.

5. Maintain Open Communication: Clear and open communication with your design and construction team is essential for managing stress. Regular check-ins, updates, and discussions about concerns or changes contribute to a collaborative and supportive working relationship. By maintaining open communication, you can address issues promptly, seek solutions collaboratively, and minimize stress throughout construction.

By prioritizing progress over perfection, cultivating patience, embracing flexibility, having backup plans, and maintaining open communication, you can navigate the construction process in Costa Rica with a resilient and positive mindset. These strategies contribute to a more enjoyable and successful building experience, allowing you to create the dream home you envision.

11. Why Costa Rica is Worth the Journey

Building a home in Costa Rica is not just about constructing a physical space; it’s about creating a lifestyle that aligns with the beauty and richness of the country. Despite the challenges and cultural differences, the journey of building a home in Costa Rica is a transformative experience filled with unique opportunities and rewards. Here are some compelling reasons why Costa Rica is worth the journey:

1. Natural Beauty and Biodiversity: Costa Rica is renowned for its unparalleled natural beauty and rich biodiversity. The country offers a diverse and breathtaking landscape, from pristine beaches and lush rainforests to majestic mountains and active volcanoes. Building a home in Costa Rica allows you to immerse yourself in the splendor of nature and enjoy a unique connection with the environment.

2. Pura Vida Lifestyle: The Pura Vida lifestyle, meaning “pure life” or “simple life,” is a central philosophy in Costa Rica. It embodies a laid-back and positive approach to life, emphasizing happiness, well-being, and harmony with nature. Building a home in Costa Rica allows one to embrace and adopt the Pura Vida lifestyle, fostering a sense of tranquility and balance in everyday living.

3. Warm and Welcoming Culture: Costa Ricans, known as Ticos, are renowned for their warmth, friendliness, and welcoming nature. Building a home in Costa Rica allows you to become part of a community that values interpersonal connections, creating a supportive and inclusive environment for expatriates. The sense of community adds a significant dimension to the overall experience of living in Costa Rica.

4. Outdoor Activities and Adventure: Costa Rica is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Whether you enjoy surfing, hiking, zip-lining, or exploring vibrant marine life, the country offers many outdoor activities. Building a home in Costa Rica provides easy access to various adventures, allowing you to embrace an active and fulfilling lifestyle.

5. Health and Well-being: Costa Rica is renowned for its commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable living. The country prioritizes health and well-being, offering many opportunities for holistic living, including organic farming, yoga retreats, wellness centers, and affordable healthcare. Building a home in Costa Rica allows you to embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, promoting physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

The journey is ultimately rewarding and fulfilling despite the challenges and uncertainties associated with building a home in Costa Rica. By embracing the country’s unique opportunities and experiences, you can create a life of abundance, adventure, and joy in this tropical paradise.


Building a home in Costa Rica is a journey filled with challenges, cultural differences, and unique opportunities. By embracing the insights shared in this article, individuals embarking on the construction process can navigate the complexities with confidence and clarity. From selecting a trustworthy design and building team to prioritizing clean communication, managing stress, and embracing the Pura Vida lifestyle, each step contributes to the overall success and fulfillment of the construction endeavor.

As a North American Construction Consultant with firsthand experience in the Costa Rica construction industry, I am passionate about empowering individuals to achieve their dream homes while fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Costa Rican culture and lifestyle. By sharing valuable insights and practical advice, I aim to guide and support others on their construction journey, ensuring a positive and rewarding experience that culminates in realizing their vision for a home in this vibrant Central American paradise.

Building a home in Costa Rica is more than constructing a physical space; it’s about creating a lifestyle that reflects the country’s beauty, richness, and diversity. By embracing the challenges and opportunities inherent in the construction process, individuals can embark on a transformative journey that leads to creating their dream home and a life filled with abundance, adventure, and joy in this tropical paradise.

This comprehensive guide covers essential aspects of building a home in Costa Rica, offering valuable insights and practical advice based on firsthand experience and expertise in the construction industry. Whether you’re considering embarking on a construction project in Costa Rica or seeking guidance to navigate the process more effectively, this article provides information to empower and support you.

11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Building My Home in Costa Rica

One Comment

  1. An important point to note in the home construction process, is that whatever guarantee is offered by the Builder and/or the Architect in a written contract, it is in addition to the Statutory Guarantee of five years from the date of delivery of the completed home for materials and workmanship, provided for in Article 1185 of the Costa Rica Civil Code. Article 1187 states that this Statutory Guarantee obligation cannot be contracted out of by the parties.

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