Building Costa Rica – Permission to Project Start

Building Costa Rica – Obtaining Permission to Project Start Part 3

The waiting is over. We are finally starting our house building project. This article covers the steps we took to get permission, how we prepared the posts to go directly into the ground using re-bar and images of the site after the first day of work.


We had applied for permission to start building at the end of September 2012. At that time were told that we should know something by October and as most things go here in Costa Rica, it is the end of January and we recently were handed a paper to post on the building site that stated that we could start the project. The official charges were:

Engineer  – $600

Insurance Policy – $550

Municipal Tax – $440

Various Fee’s – $100

So about $1700. I believe that these should have been less but I missed a critical piece of information early on in the process. The College of Architects and Engineers had given the project a monetary value, actually it was a colon value but it didn’t have a $ or a C symbol. So I assumed that they valued the small project at $22K when actually they valued the project at $44K, which is well above my budget and should get us a house about double the size. When I asked the person at the Municipality if everyone who builds this size house has the same value he said “No”. Now given that I had taken a neighbors advice and said that the house was only going to be about half the size (all Tico’s do it he said), I couldn’t exactly complain. If I had submitted the entire plan the amount would have been about the same. So we didn’t save any money and I have the guilt of fibbing. A different worker in the same office told me later that “People with foreign names don’t build small houses”. Game, set, match.

Building with Wood using Post & Beam

In a previous post (Building Part 2), I showed you the Manu Negro posts that we will be using for the structure. As these pictures show, the first step of our process was to plane the post with a hand planer and then to insert 3 pieces of re-bar into the end of the post that will be in the ground. rebar in post

*Those forearms are what first attracted me to you husband! Nice.* Securing post beam with rebarThe re-bar gives the posts “roots” and like a tree uses roots the house should be able to withstand more wind, water and shake. 

We then put the posts in the ground using a very rough mix of concrete and a layer of rocks around the bottom so that water can drain through. The bottom of the posts are touching soil directly. The concrete in the middle is basically just giving it a bigger surface area and adding a little bit of weight. Manu Negro post

Cement in post holeThis is the building site after the first day of work. There will be 17 posts total to install. They will be supporting the second level and the roof. 

House site Building

A couple of notes on building in the country or maybe it’s just Limon. I can’t be sure.

1.) The closest hardware store never has the blade, screw, part that you need. But, you still have to spend 20 minutes greeting and talking with everyone in that store before you can leave. Be prepared that “runs” take a lot longer than an hour and use a lot of gas.

2.) Tico builders aren’t known for thinking ahead. So if you just ran into town yesterday to get 50 screws he probably forgot to tell you that you also need some nails for today.

3.) Every time you buy something for the house you MUST talk about how expensive it is and how Costa Rica is so poor because prices and taxes are so high. If you end this conversation with an Eye, Yi, Yi and a head shake you gain points with the workers.

I love the comments that this series has been getting so if you have any advice or have comparison numbers for building in other countries we would love to hear about them.

22 comments on “Building Costa Rica – Permission to Project Start”

  1. Dan Reply

    I am not the most experience builder, but I was wondering why you didn’t dig the hole for your posts a little deeper and put in 4 to 6 inchs of gravel or small rocks or granite rocks then hand mix some cement and pour a pad for your posts to sit on to keep them out of the dirt? not saying your way is wrong, just asking how come?

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Dan – We learned from several “Elders” here that this particular wood, manu negro, can not be completely encased in concrete. The wood needs to breathe. So while the lower sides of the posts have concrete to increase the buried surface area the bottom end of the post is touching the dirt.

  2. Christopher Dunn Reply

    $1700 doesn’t sound bad to me at
    all- so you overpaid your tax by $200? I am one foreigner who is coming to build a small house. I want to get as many supplies as possible, get a crew in there, and get er done.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      $1700 seemed a bit shocking to us considering that we didn’t have to pay any permit cost to build our first two structures. We wish you the best of luck in getting her done. One thing that may help s whatever you do put a roof over everything first. You will have shade to work under, the rain won’t tear up your materials and you can store extra materials there when you leave. Keeping the elements off of your project should be one of your top concerns. I made a $7000 mistake on our very first project and had to scrap everything but the roof!

  3. Dave Y Reply

    Looks like you did well with permit costs. Standard fee of 10% of assigned value to college of architects and engineers is what keeps most of my neighbors from applying. How did you get them to accept $600?

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      That is what the engineer at the Municipality said it was going to cost. Maybe it’s because this costs less in Limon Province? I don’t know. There was a guy who left a comment on a different post that said he could get a permit to build less than 30m2 in Montes de Oro area for just a 250 colons. I questioned him and he said that he had verified it. So I assumed each municipality had different percentages.

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  6. Joseph Reply

    This is great! I’m excited to see what’s going on. I like the posts with rebar roots!

    Also, I noticed the soil looks orange. Do you need to amend it when you plant vegetables? I’m assuming fruits will grow without amending.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      J – We have an area that we grow on that is close to the stream down the hill. The soil is dark and great for growing. Our farm is one that has a little of everything, lucky us! I know that people do grow stuff in the clay and yes they have to add fertilizer and things like coconut husks for air & nutrients. Fruit trees here will generally grow anywhere though.

  7. Casey Reply

    Hi Kim,

    Looking forward to the building story as it unfolds. I think the $44K for 900 square feet is about right, $50/sq. ft. That’s about what it cost for ours, the standard block and re-bar construction, though ours is far from the standard Tico style architecture and has several upgrades in materials.

    A lot of people contract for a set sq. meter price, but we decided to pay by the hour, which was a very good decision for us as there were a lot of changes and absolutely no anguish from the builder about any of them and the cost was still lower than those who used a set price.

    Here’s another tip to ingratiate yourself with the workers and to also show who is boss. If you pay them weekly, pay them in cash and pay them each directly from your hand. 🙂

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      C – We have always paid by the hour and have been happy that we did, always paid cash too. Well except when our builder, who has family in Guanacaste, needed me to deposit his money into his brothers BNCR account! Building here is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you gonna get. I do sometimes ask our workers if I can bring the money to them later because I don’t have that much in the house, especially if a new peon is working. This way everybody knows that we never have a bunch of money in the house.

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  9. Jim Rankin Reply

    This is wonderful info. Gracias. I have been trying to find out costs on for example building a house vs say a 4 or 6 unit apartment building. Good quality but not over the top. I have gotten cost estimates from $50 to $90 per foot. In and around San Jose. What has been your experience?


    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Jim – San Jose is a whole different ball game than Limon. I am keeping a spreadsheet of our costs though and I can tell you what our place cost after the project is over if that will help you at all.

  10. Art Sulenski Reply

    I bought a Tico house with a plan to remodel the home. I did the same thing here that I have done for many years, if I needed 50 screws I bought 200 and many times I would buy the size larger and also the size smaller. It never failed to work out and saved me those extra trips to town. As far as other materials, I generally bought an extra 10% of the necessary materials, surprise, there was hardly any materials left over. The vehicle I bought was an Isuzu Amigo with a trailer hitch, that with my 4’X8′ trailer saved a lot of time as well even thou the delivery cost were small sometimes time was the factor. Something that is also a factor, a new home would have been less money but in this case the housing crash in the states took our main nest egg so the remodel wasn’t exactly a choice but was the only way, we did everything CASH, no owing anything for anytime.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Thanks for the advice Art! I’m with you on the cash thing. About buying the extra screws though, we have to be careful as one of our workers subscribes to the 5 finger discount program and with so much going on it is hard to keep track of everything.

  11. Anna Webb Reply

    I don’t have experience in other countries – but in Hawaii it’s MUCH higher and much slower. I’d say you’re doing well 🙂 Congrats on the groundbreaking!

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      I think Hawaii even charges you to step off the plane ; ). I still think that Costa Rica should be cheaper for these things (investments, etc.). Not many people even apply for permits and/or follow the rules because the $1700 that I paid for the permit was more than my entire roof.

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