Many people who are considering the purchase of housing in Costa Rica ask; “What are the Costa Rican Construction Standards versus North American Standards?”
If you have not spent much time in Costa Rica, you may not initially notice the lack of amenities that you have taken for granted your whole life. Many times it isn’t until after a foreigner has rented or purchased a residence here, and had the time to live in it for a while, that they realize how different the local construction standards are.
In Costa Rica, there is much less attention paid to finish details by the local contractors, and the average Costa Rican feels that many of the amenities that foreigners want are extravagant and unnecessary. Such as:
- Hot water from all outlets
- Plumbing drains that are vented
- Installation of plumbing tubes so the shower sprays above your head
- Sufficient electrical outlets in kitchens and baths so all appliances can be plugged in
- Countertops that are large enough to work on
- Kitchen and bath cabinets finished inside with cleanable surfaces
- Garbage disposals and dishwashers
- Wide electrical conduits in floors, walls, and ceilings with three electrical wires from the breaker panel to the outlets so the system is grounded
- Screens on windows that open
- Windows that are large enough for adults to enjoy the views while sitting or standing
- Ample closets with sufficient storage
- Insulation in walls, ceilings, and attics
- Ceiling fans that provide air movement to prevent mildew and mold
- Air conditioning
- Quality roofing, fascias & soffits installations that prevent moisture and pest infiltration
- Ample gutters, downspouts, and flashings to provide proper drainage of rainwater off the roofs
- 9′ minimum ceiling height
Most homes that were built before the year 2000, lack many of the above details and therefore some foreigners are unpleasantly surprised when they move into an older home here. Folks who purchase homes here need to be aware of the local construction standards, otherwise, they will get disappointed.
The local architects and engineers who design and supervise the construction of homes in Costa Rica grew up without most North American amenities and therefore, do not consider including these installations in the construction plans.
The charm of the traditional construction is desirable to many foreigners and the aura of that old world charm sometimes clouds a buyer’s decision making process. Some folks feel that remodeling to upgrade older construction will be easy. Most of the older construction in Costa Rica is concrete with steel rebar reinforcement inside the walls and floors. Remodeling this type of sturdy construction is very labor intensive and the local laborers aren’t as inexpensive as they used to be. There are some serious facts that buyers must consider before buying a home with the idea of upgrading. Such as:
Hot Water – if there are no hot water plumbing tubes inside the walls to the faucets, installation of hot water outlets will be complicated and expensive.
Vented Plumbing – if there are no plumbing ventilation tubes in the walls from the toilet and sink drains to the exterior, installation of new ventilation will be complicated and expensive.
Shower Heads – if there are not sufficient plumbing tubes in the walls to raise the height of the shower spray, installing higher shower heads that are comfortable for full-grown people will be complicated and expensive.
Electrical Plugs – if there are only a few electrical outlets in the kitchen and bathroom, there are more than likely only a few electrical conduits and wires inside the walls. Adding additional plugs involves installing a third grounding wire and with the previous small conduit tubes, there is not enough space to pull a third wire. The only option is to cut all the walls to install more and larger conduit tubes and then re-plaster and re-paint all the walls in the house, and since most homes are solid concrete, this will be complicated and expensive.
Countertops – when there are few countertops in kitchen and baths, remodeling involves removing walls and adding additional cabinetry. Along with the new countertops, you will need to install more cabinetry, electrical outlets, and lighting fixtures as well as new flooring.
Cabinetry – Many older wood cabinets can be charming, but adding additional cabinets and drawers becomes difficult when you cannot find the same wood to match the existing.
Windows – older windows usually have wood jambs and sometimes small aluminum inserts called jalousie glass vents that open out. These old windows make installation of screens complicated. Additionally, if the windows are too small, removal of the old wood jambs, cutting of the walls and solid concrete headers above must be done to expand the window openings and this will be complicated and expensive.
Closets – if larger closets are desired, most times, removal of walls must be done and the additional space will need to be taken from other rooms
Insulation – Attic insulation can usually be installed without a lot of hassle if there is an attic with an opening large enough for workers to enter. Many homes in Costa Rica have open cathedral type ceilings with no attic and this type of construction does not allow for insulation installation from inside. The only method to install insulation between the interior ceilings and the exterior roof surface is to remove the roof, and that will be complicated and expensive.
Ceiling Fans & A/C – without consistent air movement, mildew and mold growth becomes a concern for some folks. If there is no electrical tubing with sufficient wiring in the walls, ceilings or floors for fans and air conditioning, they will be complicated and expensive to install.
Roofing – the majority of the homes in Costa Rica do not have sheathing or underlayment installed and the common corrugated metal roof laminates are the finished roof material. Under the corrugations of the roof laminates, there are many gaps where moisture, dirt, and rodents can enter. Without a flat sheathing product such as plywood or cementitious laminates or a waterproof underlayment under the finished roof surface, there is nothing to stop the infiltration of moisture, dirt, and rodents from entering between the finished roof surface and the interior ceilings. The only method to change the inferior roof structures is a complete removal and replacement of the existing roof or the application of a commercial type roofing membrane on top of the existing roof laminates. Both of these options will be complicated and expensive.
Gutters, Downspouts, and Flashings – small gutters, downspouts, and flashings are common in Costa Rica and they allow water to accumulate in the gutters and flow under the gaps of the roof laminates, inside the overhanging soffits. Water stains on the exterior of the soffits and fascias are very common on older homes and this moisture causes deterioration of the structures and exterior finished surfaces.
Ceiling Height – if the ceilings in homes are low, the removal of the existing ceilings and the installation of higher walls to support new ceilings will be complicated and expensive.
In conclusion; the decision to purchase housing in Costa Rica is a big one. Many times the local construction standards require significant upgrading if the buyer can’t live without the amenities they were accustomed to back home.
It is wise to seek the advice of an experienced home inspector for any property you are considering to purchase in Costa Rica. A smart investor looks for someone they can communicate with in their native language and preferably a professional who has years of construction experience in Costa Rica and North America. A professional with these skills will understand the type and quality of construction you are accustomed and will look out for your best interests.
The writer, Tom Rosenberger has lived and worked in Costa Rica since 1993 and from his travels throughout the country inspecting housing and land he has acquired a wealth of knowledge about construction in Costa Rica. If you would like to schedule a home inspection, click here.