San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Land registry overhaul advances

First in a three-part series on a national cadastre project

Property fraud in Costa Rica has long been a problem for foreigners, but the government is making efforts to improve the legal security of property rights.

The Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project is a massive operation to map and register all properties in the country. It is ongoing since 2005, and aims to develop an integrated system housing both an officially mapped, physical definition of every property, along with a legal registry of the owner or owners who go with it. Officials say the integrated system is a way to improve the legal security of landowners and protect buyers from getting scammed in fraudulent sales schemes.

“The fundamental advantage of this program is that once the program goes through its processes, we will know the exact and unequivocal location of every property,” said Alexander González, coordinator of the formation component of the catastro, or national land registry.

González said the project is something never undertaken in the country before. In the past, he said, the physical description of a property came via a plano catastrado, or property map, held by a separate office in the National Registry where the legal registration of ownership resided. His job is to oversee the integration of the two systems into one.

“This project is an effort by the country to have a more secure system,” González added. “If I’m going to buy land [when the project is completed], I can check on a cadastre map and see exactly where it is.”

The benefits of improving the system of property registry extend not only to potential buyers and long-time property owners, but also to the cantons and provinces where properties are registered. A more uniform system, González said, will allow for better tax collection, provide a go-to resource when property disputes arise and present a way for property buyers to be sure who actually owns the property they are considering buying.

The government has ordered aerial photographs of the entire country, and unleashed legions of cartographers and data collectors throughout different cantons to get to the bottom of what lies where, and who owns it. The operation is like a census, but instead of counting and measuring data on people, registry employees are counting, photographing and surveying property.

Residents might see a cartographer tromping up their front walk one day, clutching a clipboard and pen and asking questions about property. Or, those who live in a canton in which the cadastre project has finished the surveying stage might hear about or see a flier for a public presentation about the project.

The public exposition is a chance for community members to see the results of the cadastre in their area and check on the status of their properties, to make sure there are no discrepancies in data, González said. If things look good, property owners will sign, confirming the information and making it official.

 “Incompatibilities in information about properties arise because, basically, in the past different institutions handled the different descriptions of properties,” González said. 

In the event discrepancies are discovered, the cadastre project has a staff of lawyers to help landowners get things sorted, or the parties involved can take the case to court.

“It isn’t a generalized problem,” González said. “But obviously, a system of improving legal security requires going through and debugging those inconsistencies, because those inconsistencies are weaknesses that can influence the market in properties.”

Debugging and reconciling two old systems into one isn’t easy, though González added that, percentage-wise, the number of cases with inconsistencies is fairly small.

Of the properties encountered with data that doesn’t jibe between the two systems, González said, most of the problems are minor. 

Data provided by the Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project indicate that approximately 85 percent of properties surveyed so far have had no problems, and only about 14.6 percent presented inconsistencies between the two systems.

At the public exposition, which represents the last phase of the project in an area, property owners can check the final, official map integrating the two former registry systems into one. Information available at the exposition includes the name and identification card of the owner or owners of every property in the area, a physical description, location and dimensions of each property, and notes about any inconsistencies discovered regarding the property’s registration. Advisers and lawyers will be available at each exposition to help landowners resolve discrepancies free of charge. 

González said the project will wrap up in 2013.

In the meantime, it is important for property owners to regularly check the status of their properties online at the National Registry ( Fraudsters may sometimes file false registry paperwork on a property in an attempt to illegally sell or co-opt the property. Owners can check the status of their lands using the owner’s name, the land’s parcel number or the owner’s identification number.

For more information, contact the Cadastre and Registry Regularization Project at 2527-9500. The project’s website,, is currently under construction.

Next week: National Registry officials tackle the task of mapping and registering Costa Rica’s protected areas.

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