Renovating a House in Costa Rica

After recently buying a house in Costa Rica, we quickly got started on some renovation projects to make it our own. Our initial list of improvements was modest, but once we got going, we realized we should get some bigger things done to make it more comfortable. Along the way, we learned a lot about working with contractors and finding the supplies we needed. Today we are sharing our experience to help those who are planning on renovating a house in Costa Rica.

Renovating a House in Costa Rica

Background on Our House

The house we purchased is older, originally dating back to the early 1980s. It has been renovated since then but still had a lot of its original charm. For example, the house was completely open air. There were no glass windows, only openings with wooden bars. There was also no hot water except an old electric showerhead. One bathroom was wall-to-wall blue tile and included a stylish blue toilet. The sink to wash your hands was located outside in the hallway.

Even with the quirks, we got a good deal on the property. We love that it has a typical Costa Rican feel, with plenty of room for some modernization. The layout is really nice, with a big wrap-around porch. The construction is solid, and the ceilings are all finished with beautiful laurel wood.   

Starting the Renovations

We may want to do some bigger renovations a few years down the road. But to get us in the house, we decided to keep the structure intact and mostly do cosmetic and utility upgrades.

In Costa Rica, when you are doing non-structural changes like kitchen cabinets, re-tiling, plumbing, replacing windows, and wall repair and painting, you typically don’t need a building permit or other permission from the town. You may need some other type of permit if you are in a condo or association, but we are not.

Demo House Costa Rica
Jackhammer, ready for some demo

Finding a Contractor

Since we were fairly new to the immediate area we bought in (north of Jaco), we were a bit nervous to find a contractor to help us.

We asked around in our network of friends. Luckily, we found a good honest contractor in the area.

If you are just moving to an area, it is important to work on your network of friends and acquaintances and ask around for referrals.

We did this for the kitchen cabinet fabricator, the window/glass subcontractor, and the air conditioning subcontractor. We used our general contractor’s contact for the solar hot water installation.

Cabinet Delivery
Truck delivering our new kitchen cabinets

Managing the Project

Overview

We had the general contractor but were very involved in the project ourselves. We sometimes used the general contractor’s recommendation for specialized work, but as we said above, we also used some of our own contacts for other things.

Often, contractors and subcontractors will only speak Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish, it is probably best to find a contractor who speaks good English who can help you through the process.

Being Involved

If there is one tip about using a contractor or multiple contractors to help you in Costa Rica, it is to stay very involved in the project yourself. During our renovations, we stopped by the house frequently to answer questions and give the contractor guidance. He always seemed to have a list of questions about where to put this or how to change that. His communication was above normal, which was great.

However, the style of things, design decisions, and how they are implemented can be a lot different from what you are used to in your home country. 

Locally made cabinets Costa Rica
Deciding on cabinet hardware

For the bathroom tile, we had chosen a beveled subway tile, which is somewhat difficult to install. Luckily, we were there for the beginning of the install, since the subcontractor hadn’t really thought about how best to place the tile pieces. We stopped him early on and explained how we wanted the pieces to end before it was too late.

This is why it’s a good idea to know what your team is doing on a particular day to know if you should be at the project to keep an eye on things.

WhatsApp

It is best to constantly be showing your team of workers what you like so that they get an idea of how you want the end product to look.

We found that taking pictures and screenshots of things and sending them to our contractor on WhatsApp worked really well. Costa Ricans love WhatsApp and it is one of the best ways to communicate with them.

For example, when we remodeled the bathroom, we sent our contractor a picture of a finished bathroom we liked with a similar setup and tile. It helped him visualize not only the style but level of quality we were expecting. 

Our contractor also would send us pictures and questions on WhatsApp throughout the day or at the end of the day if we couldn’t make it to the house to meet. For example, he’d ask what height we wanted for specific light switches, shower valves, etc.

One day he really helped us as the solar hot water installers were about to place the large ugly unit right in the center of the roof. With his help, we had them push it back, so it wasn’t the focal point of our new house!

Solar Hot Water
Solar hot water is a great option in Costa Rica, and very affordable to install

Getting Quotes

We found during the process that it is rare for a contractor to provide a detailed quote.

For our windows, for example, the quote didn’t have any breakdown. It didn’t specify what style we wanted for each one, if we needed screens, etc. Our windows were complicated, with various shapes and designs, so this was important. We sent a list back to him to make sure that on installation day, we were getting what we expected.

Putting in windows
The final product – from open air to functional glass

It was the same for our new kitchen cabinets. We didn’t get a detailed breakdown and only received the final price. But the cabinet maker did provide a detailed 3D image of the project. And he was very good at communicating in general, so we felt assured that he knew what we wanted.

Payments

In Costa Rica, there is a big problem with contractor delays and projects not getting done in the time promised. This is why most people only make a partial payment upfront and pay the balance when the work is complete.

In our case, we paid half upfront on each segment of the project, and the remaining half when we were satisfied with the work.

Most contractors want cash or a local bank deposit. Bank transfers are easiest if you have a bank account in Costa Rica. You also can wire money internationally, but there are fees and sometimes paperwork is involved before the bank in Costa Rica will clear the money.

Bathroom Demo Costa Rica
Planning for our new bathroom

Finding Building Materials and Fixtures

One frustration that we had during the remodeling project was the availability of different building materials and fixtures. We have lived in Costa Rica for more than eight years now, so know firsthand that sourcing things can be a challenge. We are fairly used to it, but it doesn’t mean it still can’t be frustrating.

With the bathroom tile, all the hardware stores near us only had very basic choices. We did find more options in San Jose but overall were not that impressed. We made it work, though. We purchased the wall tile locally and the floor tile in San Jose.

A few good options for tile stores in San Jose are ExpoCeramica, Porceramica, and Construplaza.

Porceramica tile store San Jose
Porceramic near San Jose – one of the largest tile stores in the country

Keep in mind that unlike tile supply stores in some other countries, there are no matching edge pieces like a bullnose finish piece. Instead, contractors just round off the grout or butt up against an aluminum or plastic edge trim.

Another tip is to inspect your orders carefully. We were given the wrong color tile (twice). If we had not opened the box before leaving the store, we would have had to make another long drive to San Jose.

For kitchen and bathroom fixtures, like faucets, toilets, and kitchen sinks, we were actually happy with the selection around Costa Rica. We ended up buying several items from KTH Infinite in Santa Ana, whose products are made right here in Costa Rica.

KTH Infinite San Jose
Toilet selection at KTH Infinite, a kitchen and bathroom specialty store near San Jose

Our local hardware store in Jaco, El Lagar, also had a great selection of kitchen and bathroom faucets.

Faucets El Lagar Hardware Store
Faucet selection at El Lagar, a large hardware store

Shipping Specialty Items

For our bathroom remodel, we were dealing with a very small space. Since there was no sink in the room before, we had to change the layout and find a way to fit one.

We were able to find some smaller sink basins in Costa Rica, but the selection was not great. We were looking for something small, but still functional. The choices here didn’t leave much room for washing your hands or were those awkward corner sinks.

In the end, we purchased a sink online in the US and had it shipped down.

If you do this for any of your fixtures, keep in mind that the cost is significant. We ended up paying about twice as much for the sink after shipping and taxes were added. For us, this one item was worth it to make the whole bathroom work.

Bathroom remodel Costa Rica
Figuring out where to put our new bathroom sink

Similarly, if you are making trips back and forth to your home country, it may be good to get some of the harder to find, smaller items there and bring them in your luggage. We have a long list for some family members coming down. Even with extra baggage costs, it is a lot less expensive than shipping.

Just keep in mind when bringing things in through checked bags that you’ll have to go through customs at the airport. We have never had any problems ourselves but have heard of people being given a hard time for bringing in a lot of items for house renovations. It’s always a good idea to take everything out of the package and spread it out between bags.

Where to Buy Appliances

Buying Locally

Every remodeled home needs a new appliance or two to freshen it up.

There are some larger department stores in the Central Valley like Siman that have a lot. More locally, you’ll find appliance stores like Gollo or Monge, which have locations all around Costa Rica, even in smaller towns.

These stores are good because they include a warranty on the appliances and are near your home in case you have a problem. We once had a dishwasher that malfunctioned and couldn’t be repaired by the technician. The Gollo store gave us a brand new one since it was still under warranty.

Gollo Tienda Jaco
Gollo, an appliance store found all around the country

Golfito Duty Free

Many people swear by Golfito for large purchases like appliances.

Golfito is a small town in the very southern part of the country, close to the Panama border. Here, there is a big closed in area with duty-free stores that sell large and small appliances, liquor and wine, etc. It has some of the same stores you’ll find everywhere like Gollo and Monge, but it is duty-free so prices are lower.

Keep in mind that Golfito is quite far from much of the country, so it may or may not be worth it given the cost of gas and delivery charges.

Tips on Buying Appliances

When buying appliances, make sure to do a lot of online research to compare prices. The stores often have sales, and you can save a lot by shopping at one versus the other. Our stove, for example, was $100 cheaper at one store because of a promotion.

When researching, try to find models that have reviews online. We found several good deals on brand name appliances (GE, Frigidaire, Samsung), but they either had no online reviews or bad reviews in other countries.

Many of the appliances are made in Central or South America so it can be difficult to find information. However, sometimes the same models are sold in big North American chains like Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Walmart, and they have hundreds or thousands of reviews. This can give you peace of mind when spending a lot on new things.    

Final Words of Advice

In the end, we spent about a month and a half on the biggest parts of the project and are picking off smaller things now that we are moved in. Overall, we are really happy with the team of contractors and merchants we used for supplies.

If you are planning to renovate a house in Costa Rica, make sure to find people that you trust before inviting them into your home to work. Keep up with the workflow and try to stay one step ahead by researching the small details that can come up as questions later on.

Finally, enjoy your little slice of paradise. We are all lucky to live in such a beautiful place.

Have a question about renovating a house in Costa Rica or want to share your experience? Leave a comment below.

Looking for more info to help you plan a big move to Costa Rica? Check out these articles:

Buying a House in Costa Rica – Learn from our experience about finding real estate, making an offer, and sending money overseas.

Building a House in Costa Rica – In this article, we sat down with a local contractor to learn what steps are involved in the building process.

Starting a Business in Costa Rica as an Expat – Find out what it’s like to have a business in Costa Rica and what to be aware of before you jump right in.

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7 Comments

  1. In early 2021 we finished a whole home renovation and expansion. The original home was around 1200 sq.ft of finished space. Our new home is around 2800 sq.ft of closed in space with a large infinity edge pool. The entire time for our renovation was 14 months during which our builder went out if business, we fired the electrician and many things got built twice. I totally agree with all your comments about the process. We have built 30 homes and to some up Costa Rica.

    There is no true building standard so daily whatsApp or on-site visits are the only way to get a great home completed Costa Rica style but to US standards. Just some fun tips.

    Always check wire sizes and pipe sizes. CR homes tend to use multi thread aluminum wire and small pipes. A waste drain might be 1.5 inches instead of 4″. You can’t assume even with engineered plans anything.

    Switch,plug, towel bar, toilet paper holder, lighting all have standard height and clearance. Google these and use lots of blue tape to mark where items should go.

    Hot water in all sinks is not a standard in CR. Make sure it’s in your contract.

    Stone, tiles, decking have no edge pieces. With our home these items were all cut to 45 degree angles so corners didn’t show exposed edges.

    How tight is tight. When you install aluminum roofing stateside, special roof screws with rubber washers are used every 12″. We found the 48″-60″ was more normal here. The weather here is great. It’s rains a lot but a proper installed roof will drain fine. What will happen is racoons and monkeys might just drop in if a roof is not installed correctly. Both animals are smart enough to lift roof edges. We became a birthing place this spring in our ceiling. It’s all good now

    Drainage. We located are on a very steep hill. Each time we stood in the house during construction while raining, we always found a new way to install another drain. Once done the house drains perfect. We enjoy beautiful storms while not worrying about floods or erosion .

    Safety and security. We choose traditional walls, gates and wrought iron pickets as a deterrent to opportunity crime. It’s very safe here but you also don’t want to broadcast easy wealth targets.

    Wood furniture: every wood item in our home was hand built locally. This included dining tables, chairs, rocker, vanities, armoires, headboard, stairs, kitchen cabinets and islands, etc. The woods and finishes are beautiful. We employed local labor using local materials. In the end this was very reasonable. When I shipped a container down, I added in lots of old tools that I gave to my workers. This a new workbooks goes a long way. Without tools these hard workers can’t work

    We imported soft good items including couches comfy chairs, mattresses.

    Metal work is amazing. If you can dream and draw it they can build it. We created a cabana room where a huge sectional was made from welded steel and a local seamstress created cushions.

    Pools and building. Be very careful on pool plans. They can run from very cheap to extremely expensive. The good news is the labor, materials and tiles are beautiful and readily available.

    We had a very trying 14 months but absolutely love our home in Manuel Antonio. We are crazy enough to think about doing home number two here.

    Twoweeksincostarice has been a fantastic resource to give us the courage to build out of the country. So far it’s be a great investment.

    Doug and Aileen

  2. Thank you that was very interesting and helpful. I would love to see photos of the outside and surrounding area of your new home. We plan to build in the southern zone in the near future, after selling our beach property in Carate. Your tips and advice will be most appreciated.

    1. Hi Helene, We try to keep our personal info off the web. But we’re a little north of Jaco so that should give you an idea. We’re surrounded by rainforest and a short drive to the beach. The Southern Zone is beautiful! Good luck with your project.

    1. Hi Karen, We don’t provide that kind of information publicly but you can get a sense of real estate prices by looking at real estate websites online. Renovation costs can really differ and depend on what you’re remodeling and what kind of materials you’re using. Things that can be made in Costa Rica are generally more affordable than in other countries. Custom cabinets, woodwork (beds, tables, and other furniture), metal work, etc. is also much cheaper here than in North America. Labor costs are also much lower. Supplies are about the same or more expensive if you need to import things. But overall, we’d say it’s cheaper to renovate a house in Costa Rica.

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