A million-dollar dream home is up for sale in Guanacaste. Quick! How do you find it? Who do you contact? And how do you check neighborhood prices to make sure you’re not getting hosed?
You would think there might be a single place for a realtor to find all that information, since billions of dollars in property transactions have been sloshing around Costa Rica during the past decade and a half.
In the United States and Canada, it’s called a multiple listing service.
But in Costa Rica, it doesn’t exist. Yet. It’s one of several gaps in a market that has grown too fast for its own good.
Standard practices that are the sign of a mature real estate market have lagged behind the bulging supply of capital and willing buyers in Costa Rica.
But the lack of multiple listing services here is a gap that some people are making efforts to close.
“It has been evolving,” said Bianca Mrazova, the director of the Costa Rican Chamber of Real Estate Brokers’ small-scale multiple listing service, www.mls-cr.com.
“We haven’t given it a big push because it hasn’t been ready.”
A multiple listing service (or MLS, in industry jargon) is a tool that realtors can use to list property, find property and check background information like sales history and the surrounding area’s asking prices.
Multiple listing services are generally regional and require some sort of membership or certification, though they distribute information in a variety of different ways.
The idea, at least in the United States, is for real estate brokers to share information about listings among themselves. A multiple listing service also ensures that only one broker is dealing with a certain piece of property.
But, obvious to anyone who has looked into buying property in Costa Rica, that’s not how things work here.
Property listings in Costa Rica include everything from taxicab advertisements, to sketchy Web sites, to less-sketchy classified-style Web sites like Panama-based inmobiliaria24.com.
Anyone can list or promote property, and everyone does.
“It’s just whoever you know, cousins, aunts, uncles,” said Rene Aoki, a real estate broker who focuses on the LakeArenal area in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
There are at least two serious efforts to change that by forming multiple listing services with the backing of professional organizations.
One comes from the Costa Rica Global Association of Real Estate (CRGAR), a group affiliated with the National Association of Realtors in the United States and made up mostly of foreigners.
The group’s multiple listing service – viewable at www.costaricare.net – allows only exclusive listings from association members. So far, it is limping along with only 18 listings.
“The MLS is being utilized, but not to the extent it was intended,’’ said Linda Gray, one of the founders of the CRGAR and a voting board member. Gray said the group is hiring a consultant and considering upgrading the site next year.
Another multiple listing service in the Costa Rican market is the one backed by the Costa Rican Chamber of Real Estate Brokers. Though it is still small by U.S. standards with only 2,500 listings, the chamber’s multiple listing service lists property in every part of the country – and it’s in English, a big change for an organization that traditionally has catered to local brokers.
Mauricio Castro, the president of the Costa Rican Chamber of Real Estate Brokers, said the goal is for the multiple listing service – which can be used only by chamber members – to snowball and attract more real estate brokers to the organization.
The chamber has about 500 members. A 2002 survey estimated there are 5,000 people working as real estate brokers in the country, as well as thousands more lawyers that act as real estate brokers.
“With this (real estate) boom, possibly there is a certain percentage more” today, Castro said.
That data highlights a key obstacle to effective multiple listing services in Costa Rica: There is no law that requires real estate agents to register or receive any particular training.
Until such regulation is in place, formal market tools like multiple listing services will probably remain elusive, said Les Nunez, a registered realtor in Canada and a long-time veteran of the Costa Rican market.
“Until there is legislation in place that definitely has licensing of brokers as the law, then forget it,” Nunez said. “Everybody here is a broker and when the going gets good, you have Tommy taxi driver and Bobby bartender, you got ’em all.”
Gray called such characters “tailgate realtors.”
But at least one other effort is trying to bring some order and transparency to the Costa Rican real estate market – tailgate realtors and all – using only the sorting power of the Internet.
Texan Ryan Huett founded Buy Safe Costa Rica (www.buysafecostarica.com) after noticing a lack of reliable information about Costa Rican real estate on the Internet.
The Web site so far has only about 150 listings after six months in operation. But Huett’s idea is to grow the site slowly and develop a database of the properties sold through it, including buyer ratings of the brokers listing on the site.
Brokers that get good feedback will get recommendations on the site. Brokers that get bad feedback will get kicked off.
There are no membership requirements and no laws involved. The idea, Huett said, is that “everyone works together to sell property.” “I think it’s only going to get better,” he said.