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