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Costa Rica Guide - Costa Rica Real Estate

How to Avoid Landowners' Worst Nightmare: Squatter Invasion

By Brian Harris
The Tico Times

March 17, 1995

It's a property-owner's worst nightmare: to awaken one morning and find squatters have taken over your dream property in paradise.

The problem has gained increased attention in investor circles, and even reached the U.S. Senate. Clashes between foreign landowners and squatters have occasionally gotten violent, and even resulted in murder. Squatters have invaded land all over Costa Rica, with differing degrees of effectiveness and confrontation.

No centralized statistics indicate exactly how much land is invaded annually, but invasions are not that common, and a bit of prevention, good sense and care can keep squatters off your land.

Title insurance is not available in Costa Rica, and local laws give the benefit of the doubt to squatters. That means buyers and owners must be especially careful.

Attorney Robert Wells, who represented foreigners in land purchases here for 20 years and is considered a local expert on the legal aspects of squatting, says squatters can be a problem for investors who rush into land purchases. He urges potential buyers to go slowly.

According to Wells, buyers should consult a good lawyer recommended by several other landowners the buyer trusts. He also says you should never drop your guard, even with your lawyer.

"Ask yourself, 'would you do at home what you are doing here?" said Wells, warning against signing documents you don't understand.

Wells says it's important to buy land that is officially registered in the National Registry. If the land is unregistered, it only invites more hassles.

"It's very risky for a foreigner to buy untitled land in Costa Rica," he said, because courts may favor local squatters' claims on such land.

Even if the land is registered, Wells warns that further homework may be needed before assuring squatters will stay away. He says it's important to make sure the property's boundaries are well defined and that the plans in the Registry reflect the reality of the property. Also, he recommends talking to neighbors to see if there are any problems with the land, and making sure the property doesn't look abandoned.

"If you do your homework, you're not going to run into (the squatter problem)," he says.

Once you've purchased the land. Wells suggests placing signs at the entrances and corners of the property declaring it private property, with the name and phone number of the owner or person with legal power over the land.

If you plan to use the property only part of the time, he suggests you hire someone to care for it. But beware: caretakers have been known to claim rights to land they've been hired to watch. To avoid that, Wells says, you should demand signed receipts every time you pay the caretaker, and, if possible, register the person as an employee, which means paying at least minimum wage, plus Social Security requirements.

If you're not in regular contact with the caretaker, as is the case with many owners who live abroad, Wells says you should try to have a friend here with some type of power of attorney stay in monthly contact with the caretaker and be available at all times, in case the caretaker runs into a problem.

But even with all these precautions, squatters could still decide your dream retreat is the place for them to establish their farms.

If squatters invade, your best hopes of getting them out are in the first three months. As soon as they arrive, Wells suggests getting a still or video camera, a notary public and the local Rural Guard to go to the property to make an inspection whose results the notary certifies in what is known as an acta.

This will help establish the exact date of the invasion and shows prior possession of the land. If all legal paperwork is handled properly, this should get the courts to issue a summary eviction.

"The first three months (of an invasion) are critical, and that's why it's important to have a caretaker who can get in touch with the owner," Wells says.

If more than three months but less than a year have passed, you'll have to start the process of "administrative eviction," which means property registries and bills of sale become vital, as does proving the exact date of the invasion.

"Watch out for false bills of sale," Wells warns.

If more than a year passes before you take legal action to evict squatters, you must go through the ordinary lawsuit process, which Wells describes as "kind of like a root canal."

Recently, some owners of invaded land have turned to their local embassies for help, although the role diplomatic missions can play is limited (see separate story).

Even with swift action and a solid legal case, it may take several years to get squatters evicted. In rural areas, biased judges and increased legal and court costs due to transportation may hinder the landowners' desire to fight the legal battle.

Despite such risks, many foreigners have successfully purchased land here and had no squatter problems. By strictly following the legal regulations and looking after your purchase, you, too, can own a piece of paradise.

Embassies' Help Limited

When squatters invade foreign-owned land, the landowner often turns to his local embassy for help.

But embassies are limited in what they can do.

"When someone's property is invaded by squatters, what we do is refer them to the appropriate Costa Rican authorities, in hopes of finding a solution," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth McKay said.

Embassies generally won't pressure the government unless a government agency is involved in the invasion: the land falls within the 200-meter public beach zone (under the jurisdiction of the municipalities); or the government fails to send in police to evict squatters.

At the Canadian Embassy, the general procedure is to watch to insure the citizen's due process is respected. Consul Giliane Lapointe said.

However, embassies are interested in knowing about squatter cases and their end results.

Attorney Robert Wells recommends the list of local lawyers available at the U.S. Embassy as a resource for people whose land has been invaded by squatters.

The issue of squatter invasions came up in U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Ambassador Peter de Vos. In response to a question from Sen. Jesse Helms about a squatter problem in the Pavones area, de Vos said Costa Rican authorities "do not provide adequate protection" to landowners.

"The U.S. Embassy has repeatedly emphasized its concern for the protection of legal property rights of U.S. citizens," McKay said. "When their rights are violated by the illegal invasion of squatters, the Embassy stands ready to assist in whatever way possible. We also expect the government of Costa Rica to comply with its obligation to protect the rights of legal landowners."

Copyright 1995

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

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