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The boomer real estate boom reaches Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua

By Unmesh Kher

March 19, 2006

Judy Sadlier and Gene Budinger wanted to spend their retirement adrift. Over the last years of their working life in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Judy, 69, a financial adviser, and Gene, 67, a real estate agent, had daydreamed of taking a few years to explore the Caribbean in the Skylark, their 36-ft. sailboat. But when a sailing buddy told them two years ago that he was giving up an apartment he had rented in Antigua Guatemala and asked if they wanted it, they jumped at the opportunity.

After sailing up the Rio Dulce, Guatemala's "Sweet River," the couple made their way to the central highlands. "We fell in love with Antigua," Sadlier recalls. Within two months, they bought a partially built house in the charming, volcano-ringed colonial city.

Legions of retiring baby boomers, troubled by the high cost of living--and aging--at home, are venturing far south of Florida and Arizona to make their golden years extra mellow. Although places like Playa del Carmen and Cancún in Mexico have long been retirement havens, ever venturesome boomers are settling deeper into Central America, lured there as much by the laid-back ethos as by the lush forests and beckoning beaches. Costa Rica alone, according to the foreign-retiree association Casa Canada in San José, plays host to 50,000 Americans. That migration has spawned a real estate boom in scenic coastal and mountain towns from Honduras to Panama.

Savings still go far in Central America. "I know people who live here on less than $1,000 a month," says Sadlier. Even in tonier Costa Rica, $1,500 buys monthly comforts (including $150 for a full-time housekeeper). Many doctors in Guatemala City, the capital near cosmopolitan Antigua, have been trained in the U.S. or Europe, and they make house calls. Retirees in Costa Rica can qualify for a $500-a-year version of Medicare or use private hospitals that cater to fussy foreigners. Is your ticker tuckered out? Open-heart surgery can be had for just $45,000, says Ryan Piercy, general manager of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica.

The boom has its ugly-American side. Beachfront development has devastated parts of the reef around the diver's paradise of Roatán, the best-known of Honduras' storied Bay Islands. And although Antigua and Costa Rica are relatively safe, burglaries are up in Honduras, driving the development of gated communities. But Bill and Judith Allred, who in 1998 bought a pod-style home in Roatán conceived by the Canadian designer Hal Sorrenti, say common sense helps ward off crime. "This isn't St. Barts," says Judith. "You don't go out at night wearing jewels."

As the gringo migration grows, so do real estate prices. Ocean-view lots and houses in Costa Rica start at $200,000 today and range up to seven figures, says Edgar Santamaría, regional director for Century 21. So retirees in Costa Rica are moving to Guatemala and Nicaragua, the latest frontier, where similar plots cost a tenth of that. But home building can move at a tropical pace: 18 months after Sadlier and Budinger bought their house, and a year after they were supposed to have moved in, they're still waiting for the builders to wrap. "Mañana might mean one week or one month to Costa Ricans," muses Jerry Tucker, 64, formerly of Seattle. "But then that's why we enjoy life here. It's so much more laid back."

With reporting by Reported by Mishelle Mitchell/San José, Jill Replogle/Antigua, Melanie Wetzel/Roatán

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc

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