Although the classified ads in Costa Rica’s daily newspapers may seem like gibber-jabber to many foreigners, forcing them to head to the more easily deciphered Tico Times, finding the perfect apartment often takes using as many sources as possible, from supermarket walls to real estate agents.
The search can begin by flipping to the back of this publication, an option recommended by realtor Les Nunez for people who don’t speak Spanish. But even someone who hasn’t mastered the Spanish language can browse the classified ads of Spanishlanguage newspapers armed with a little understanding.
The first, bolded word in the classifieds is the location of the house or apartment for rent. The second word is often additional location description, such as the particular neighborhood. Prices may be given in colones or dollars, so pay attention. (See sidebar for a key of different abbreviations found in classified ads.) Rental apartments come both furnished and unfurnished. Unfurnished often means completely stripped, lacking even kitchen appliances.
“What you see is what you get; if it doesn’t have a refrigerator when you see it, don’t expect that your landlord is going to get one.
This is something that surprises a lot of foreigners,” explained Nunez, who gives seminars on renting and buying real estate to new residents through the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR).
Beyond classified ads, Nunez suggests visiting neighborhoods in which you wish to live and browsing supermarket bulletin boards, particularly for apartments that are $200-400 a month. While walking around and looking for “For Rent” signs is an option, Nunez says it is not the most time-efficient.
For people whose budget is a bit larger, real estate agents are an option. Property owners often turn to realtors to rent out homes if they are not selling. The rental price is typically directly related to the sale price – for example, a house on the market for $200,000 would rent for $2,000.
“Most realtors wouldn’t touch stuff under $800 (a month) because the owners don’t want to pay the commission,” explained Nunez, who is an agent for First Realty Pacific North (672-1181), in the north-western province of Guanacaste.
Most landlords require a security deposit of one month’s rent, and are allowed to do so by law. Sometimes, foreigners worry that they will not get the deposit back, and therefore don’t pay the last month’s rent, saying the landlord can use the deposit.
While Nunez says renters should consider their relationship with their landlord in making decisions, he does not recommend the practice.
“The law is very straightforward: the deposit cannot be used as the last month’s rent,” he said, adding that a lot of foreigners think their landlord is not going to return the deposit because it takes a couple of weeks to get the money. The landlords are often waiting to get the latest electricity, water and phone bills to make sure they are all paid in full, he explained. In fact, the law gives landlords 30 days to return the deposit.
Landlords also sometimes ask for security deposits just for phone connection. Because in Costa Rica the phone line is in the name of the homeowner, landlords ask for a $100-500 deposit as a guarantee against unpaid bills, Nunez said, citing cases in which tenants have left their landlords with $1,000-13,000 phone bills.
The Ley General de Arrendamientos Urbanos y Suburbanos (General Law of Urban and Suburban Renting) defines landowner and tenant rights.
Under the law, landlords must provide tenants with facilities that allow for peaceful and quiet enjoyment. They must make emergency repairs within 10 days of receiving notice. Failure to do either of these can result in the tenant terminating the rental contract, as can failure to provide premises in a habitable condition, altering the premises without tenant authorization and failing to pay agreed upon utilities, among other things.
This is all according to “The Legal Guide to Costa Rica,” a 346-page book by Roger A. Petersen that deciphers Costa Rica’s legal code on a variety of topics, including real estate, civil law, criminal law, the labor code and financial transactions.
Petersen explains that
tenants are required to pay rent on the date specified in the contract, may not alter the use of the property without approval, must maintain the premises in good condition and return it in the condition it was received, and allow the landlord to inspect the premises during reasonable hours once a month.
Failure to do these things can result in the tenant being evicted, as can other things.
As far as increases in rent, in residential leases the law allows for rent set in colones to be raised up to 15% a year. If inflation exceeds 15%, the government will set a different limit. The law does not allow an annual increase for residential leases set in dollars during the lease term, Petersen writes. For commercial leases, the parties are allowed to set the period and amount of rental increases.
Rental contracts must be for at least three years. If a landlord signs a one-year lease and the tenant does not wish to leave after one year, the tenant has the right to automatically renew for three years. In order to end the lease, the landlord must give the tenant three months’ notice, or the lease will automatically renew for another three-year term.
According to “The Legal Guide,” a written rental contract must include: name and personal data of the contracting parties; legal description of the property; detailed description of the property and its condition; furniture or items to be included in the rental contract; the specific use for the property (for example, residential); price, method and place of payment; the rental term; legal domicile for service of process; and the date of the contract.
More information on rental laws can be found in “The Legal Guide to Costa Rica,” available at 7th Street Books (256-8251) in San José; Art Depot (289-7249) in the western suburb of Escazú; through Jaime Peligro (816-4169) in Tamarindo, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste; and online at www.costaricalaw.com/order.html.