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Samuraj

Building a house myself

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I realize that I can't work in CR unless I'm a legally established there. But can I buy a land and build a house myself for my family? Does CR has its own construction standards or I can build something using Canadian / US requirements? Thanks alot!

 

 

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Costa Rica has its own construction standards. You are supposed to have an architect and engineer for plans - but - many people do not. It just depends on where you are in the country. Obviously, the more rural areas will have less chance of having a problem if you don't go through the proper channels but legally, you need to follow the rules.

 

You can certainly build your own house - I built three (yes, with my own hands) with the help of a "peon" (laborer) or two. It's a lot simpler because you don't have to figure insulation for air conditioning or heating or "snow loads" for the roof! (Thank goodness!)

 

When you are visiting Costa Rica, you should look around and maybe stop at some building sites just to see how people are doing things. Construction methods here are generally different as well as materials available.

 

If you are going to build your own house with a laborer or two, it's best if you speak Spanish because otherwise it would be hard to communicate. And you will need some help in figuring out all those construction words and terms.

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As eleanorcr explains many do not get an engineer or have proper plans, but since you do not know what terrain, rainfall that you may run into, I would advise you to heed the advice of an expert... or at least someone who has already built in the area.

Whereas someone who has recently moved into an neighborhood and starts build without the permits, could find themselves reported.

When we first moved to Cost a Rica, we renovated a house with a builder, but a architect/builder we had also consulted but didn't hire, reported us to the municipality. He was also mad we didn't purchased his fathers land....

The building inspector came and told us, that this guy was proving to be a nuisance and kept going into the office to see if construction had been stopped. The inspector told us to "go see his niece who could draw up plans of what we had already done..."

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Thank you All, for a prompt reply. Yes I understand the importance of Spanish as I immigrated to Canada not a long time ago and learned English just the way I learn Spanish right now. Really, I can not imagine how one can live in CR or other LA country w/o speaking Spanish :)

 

May be someone knows official resourses (if they're exist at all) for construction standards in CR. I just started to learn Spanish and having a hard time locating these materials on-line. Any advice would be much appreciated. I'm going to get all the job done myself - just pay architect for a stamp.

Edited by Samuraj

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Friends who have recently built a home here, provided a 'plan' which was taken to an engineer who for a few thousand dollars, made them blueprints and presented them to the national college of architects & engineers. They did approve them, but they did go and check the terrain, etc. You must then take the stamped blueprints to the municipality to apply for permits.

If you intend to build in a small community, you will have problems locating materials, especially electrical.Finding a qualified electrician can prove to be impossible. Again, this will depend on your location.

Even what a North American would call 'basic' goods has to be ordered in...if you can locate them. And the cost could be double.

 

Before purchasing land and starting this project, visit for an extended period and check out hardware stores in an area you are considering. Land is often sold, telling you that utilities are 'just along the road' or will be available 'soon'... but do not believe this!!

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I totally agree with CRF about visiting local hardware stores before you begin the process. You shouldn't think in terms of designing a North American house with North American amenities and all the doo-dads. Visit some construction sites, visit hardware stores and if you are looking at a specific place to build, check for soil/rain/wind conditions there. The best way to do this is to ask the neighbors. If you don't speak Spanish, it would be helpful if you could find a bilingual person who would be able to help you out. You can find someone like this even in small communities. For instance, there are Peace Corps volunteers working all over Costa Rica in small, rural communities in addition to expats.

 

As for supplies - even with small or rural communities, you can usually find what you need either locally or 30 or 40 km away. Look at the houses that are built where you are thinking of building and see how they are built, what materials are used, etc. I built three houses without ever leaving the town where I live for supplies - a remote, rural town of about 2,000.

 

I think there are people who believe they can just transplant their lives here and live the same life, the same food, the same sheets and towels and whatever, the same kind of house. I don't think these people are ever really happy here. It's my belief that to be happy here, you need to modify your wants/needs, find good substitutes for some things, do without others and just go with the Costa Rican flow.

 

If you don't have a lot of construction experience, rather than hire an architect to supervise your building project, you can just depend on the local construction helpers who do have a lot of experience and will know how many rebars to put for a length of wall. I also have found skilled people - electricians and plumbers - in my small town.

Edited by eleanorcr

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Many local tradesmen can provide electrical work if you are building what they are used to! Our friends had a very complicated wish list for their home, and were lucky enough to have 3 ICE workers perform this task. And believe me, I am sure that if a North American electrician has been 'requested' to do exactly what he wanted, they would have refused the job.

Nearly all the electrical material was purchased in a specialty electrical store in Liberia, 45 Mins away...but most items had to be ordered 4-5 days in advance.

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Well, if builder normally has discounts from the materials store and labor relatively inexpencive. Considering all headache one will have building the house with his/her hands .... Does it mean the best bet would be to hire the builder and just control them? What do you think economical benefit (if any) would be if building house yourself VS hireing the builder.

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It really depends on your situation, I believe. In my situation, two of the houses I built were not for me to live in so I had no pressure from that. These little houses were destined to be rented to tourists. And yes, I saved money by not hiring a contractor/foreman (in fact I hired one but fired him after two weeks). My two little houses (42 square meters) cost about $7,000 each to build so to pay a contractor about $1,000 was a significant part of the budget. Please keep in mind that some construction materials have doubled in cost since then so don't get too excited! Of course, I had to weigh getting the things done against lost revenue from rentals but that wasn't really an issue at that point. I preferred to be hands on even if it was a lot slower. I knew what I was getting and I would go "that extra mile" to make sure things were the way I wanted them. My helper thought I was nuts most of the time but then again, he had worked for me for a while and KNEW I was nuts! :D

 

An example: for the ceiling, I wanted pretty, tongue and groove boards known as "tabilla." Often, people would put these up and then varnish them. No. What I did was put the roof joists up, sand and varnish each little board (2.5 inches wide) with two coats of a good quality varnish -- in my workshop. The last thing you want to do with a ceiling is have to repaint it frequently! Or worse yet, sand it. After the little boards were finished (and it took about a million), we nailed them on top of the joists, finished side down and then put the roof on top of that. Beautiful. Just an example of being hands-on rather than turn it over to someone else.

 

In my situation, I had a good contact in the community who is now a good friend of mine, who speaks English, who is respected in the community so that made everything easier. And I had no repercussions from firing the contractor/foreman.

 

Really, I wouldn't decide anything until you have had some time to spend in Costa Rica, looking around and talking to people. Everyone is different and their situation is different. I don't think you can plan this thing too closely until you are here for a while. About all you can do is figure out how much space your family really needs. I lived for six years in a house that was 45 meters square - but of course, I am only one person, no spouse or kids. (The one I live in now is smaller than that.) You can also decide how much "open" space you want in your house and things like this. I strongly recommend you build a porch all around the house -- the roof will be a lot bigger than your living space but this will actually give you more "living" space and help keep the rain off the house. (You will really appreciate this at some point.)

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In our friends case, because they intend to build possibly 2 more homes here, they purchased 2 cement mixers, scaffolding, multiple electrical tools, etc. So, unless you are prepared to mix your own cement by hand as many small construction companies do, you will need to rent them and renting building equipment here is expensive, so you have to take it into account. You didn't mention if you have previous building experience, and actually want to 'build with your own two hands' or are in the construction industry.

You are required to pay both CAJA (approx. 8 workers is $1500 per month) and INS,(approx. $2000 for an expected 6 month project) which is like workers compensation but if you hire a builder, this should be part of the contract stating that he is responsible to pay these. Else you are legally expected to pay them redundancy pay, as you terminating their work.

My husband was overseeing this project, and it was very stressful. You have to be there all the time, because at 11.55 am, just before the local hardware store closes for lunch, they will need nails...

 

Personally, I would advise hiring a builder who has been recommended to you,and as you say 'just control them'.

 

eleanorcr has stated in the past, that this wasn't always required, but these day, it is. The day after you get your permit, CAJA inspectors will be on your property, counting heads to make all your workers are registered. And they will be back....

Edited by costaricafinca

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Thank you everyone for your detailed replies. Yeah, I don't have much hands-on construction experience (not yet) but I'm a project manager who wants to have his own project done. I may consider building more houses for the tourists (like eleanorcr did) after builder build house for my family. I think it would be fun when you don't have time pressure and a good learning experience. This winter I'm planing my first trip to Costa Rica and Panama by bicycle to ride all over and meet local peeps and expats. I'm only 28 and have about 17 years before retirement and moving to CR or area (yes want to retire early, lol :). Thank you for supporting this valuable resourse and sharing all the priceless information you have.

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I think it is great that Samuraj has gotten such an excellent range of opinions. Everyone is different and so everyone's situation is different. Their wants/needs are different as well as skills for doing construction work.

 

And no, David, I didn't push around a wheelbarrow of cement and my workers would have been floored if I had paid them 2500 colones an hour to do so! In fact, it is pretty traditional in my area to just hire a guy whose job it is to mix concrete and cement and he is the lowest paid, right now in my area 800 to 1000 colones. Sometimes two people, depending on the size of the project. One of MY jobs was to ensure that the mixtures were consistent and twigs, leaves, etc were removed. (Although the inclusion of these things does make it more interesting!)

 

I kind of jumped in with some construction information on this thread because the first post implied that Samuraj had some construction experience and would be interested in putting this to good use. Now I find this isn't so - which makes this a whole different thing.

 

With no construction experience, it is pretty obvious that you will need to depend on a reliable builder. Of course, you can always hang around and make sure they have what they need, pick up empty cement bags, answer questions ("Do you want ____ here or ____?") and in the process, pick up some Spanish.

Edited by eleanorcr

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Wow, I didn't even expect this many replies and opinions :) From your experience, how long does it take for builder to build say 1200-1500sq feet house? If I have some long project (building guest house myself) do people in CR steal materials stored on site while I'm away for a week or month? This question might be silly but in the country where I'm from originally it is even dangerous to leave something overnight. The chances are that you won't find half of building materials next morning :)

 

I'm trying to get an idea of what my house will look like. Meaning how close you usually build them to the neighbours, how wide the street, etc. There's no goodle streets in CR unfortunately and pictures I found on Internet are mostly weird and don't give any good idea. Folks, who live in CR, can you show me what the "normal" expat village is look like and what the locals' houses for 40-50 k look like. Basically I want to see "here's what you get for 50k, and this is for 150k). I don't trust those realtors selling homes on-line for 300k+ as I know this may cost me way less.

Edited by Samuraj

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In a short answer, you will not get much for $40-50,000 ... and you probably would rather have something else/better.

If you spend this in construction, plus land, plus getting all the utilities hooked up, you may get a deal.

You really need to visit to see what this country has to offer.

Read the info on theis website, The Real Costa Rica which tells you more facts than fiction.

eleanorcr we both had similar conclusions...

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