We got a couple of emails this week on US residents who own property in Costa Rica and suddenly were informed that their property was claimed by squatters rights. Well, we do not give out legal advice, nor do we get involved in stuff like this – all we could do is refer them to several Costa Rica attorneys who might help them. However, we did some online searching from several government agencies and thought we would post some info.
Squatters or precaristas, as they are known in Costa Rica, can be a real problem. The greatest potential danger for land ownership in absentee and at times even when the landowner resides on the property is the problem of squatters. Before investing in large expanses of land or even a cottage in the countryside, knowledge of the legal procedures along with due diligence is necessary to maintain one’s property rights.
Technically, squatters can only attempt to gain legal rights to a non-maritime property by peacefully occupying non-cultivated, unimproved land over an extended period of time. The difficulty of maintaining one’s rights over those of the squatters is due to the nature of the law and what legally passes as “non-cultivated” or “unimproved” land. It can be equally difficult to establish the duration of the squatter occupation, which is a crucial piece of evidence in the eviction process.
It is imperative to understand that, according to the law, in case of doubt, “good faith” is presumed on the side of the squatters. The eviction process is divided into three phases.
- The first phase is the eviction of squatters during the first three months of occupation. Such early discovery is key, as during this period one need not go to court. Theoretically, one need only alert the local police, who are then obliged to evict the squatters. The catch is that it can be extremely difficult to get the police to carry out their duty, and if one is not in the country, actual eviction is very difficult to verify. Even though eviction within the first three months is a rather straightforward procedure, at least in principle, early recognition can prove to be difficult if one is not residing on the property.
- The second phase is after the initial three months of occupation but before one year. If squatters are “allowed” to squat on property for this duration of time, one must go to the courts and start the process of “administrative eviction”
- The third phase is continued occupation for more than one year. According to the law, squatters have then achieved a “legal assumption,” and the owners must go through an ordinary lawsuit process. Such a process has been described by one attorney as “kind of like a root canal” In order for the court to grant the property rights to squatters, they must prove that they have been on the land “uninterrupted,” “non-challenged” and “peacefully” for ten years.
Although there are no foolproof, preventive measures for eliminating the problem of squatters on land owned in absentee, there are a few somewhat helpful steps that can be taken. Firstly, the property should not appear abandoned and signs should be posted with the owner’s name. Second, hire a property management group that will watch over the property and in some case provide a caretaker.
A word of caution is dealing with squatters: BE CAREFUL! There have been numerous reports of armed, dangerous and organized squatters — predominantly in the southern and northern regions of Costa Rica. So don’t be a vigilante and take matters in your own hand.