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Costa Rica Land - Squatters have rights too
Hard as it might be to stomach, squatters have legal rights and the longer they sit on your land, the stronger those rights become.
By taking advantage of an old law that allowed people without land to gain title to unused agricultural lands, some organized groups of squatters led by political activists have created problems for landowners, especially in remote rural areas.
The local authorities often support the cause of these squatters and have been reluctant to proceed with evictions. Violence has been used or threatened to intimidate legal property owners not to interfere.
If the piece of land you want has a squatter problem, the best advice you can take is - walk away! You do not want to get into this kind of situation.
Possession being nine-tenths of the law applies in Costa Rica. In a more informal way but just as inconvenient, the previous owner of land may have allowed an individual to use or stay on the land. If those persons have possession for more than a year, they can acquire rights to that property.
If someone has held possession of a piece of land for over ten years, they can claim full ownership and register it in the Registro Nacional. Your remote tract of land that you see as being the perfect site for your dream getaway home may have been used by poor local farmers over the years for some free grazing or space for growing crops. They may not know it, but they have strong claims to that land!
If you still want a piece of property but suspect squatters may be an issue, take action immediately.
There is a scale of 'possession' regarding squatters:
- Squatters must be evicted before they have had three-months' possession by issuing an interdicto (civil procedure) or charging them with usurpación (criminal takeover).
- After three months, squatters cannot be easily evicted and they can demand compensation for any 'improvements' they have made to the land. It doesn't matter if they have chopped down your trees and half-demolished any buildings. These constitute improvements and you will have to pay for it!
- Between one and ten years, it is possible to repossess your property, but you have to go to court and the legal procedures could last for years.
- After ten years, squatters have full rights of title and are almost impossible to evict.
Steps To Take To Avoid Squatters
If the previous owner has left a watchman or a hired odd-job man on the land, be careful to have the former owner pay them off before you close the deal. They must terminate their contracts with the owner.
You can rehire them if you wish, but you must make sure that this is official. Don't even think about paying cash 'off the books.' Make sure there is an official written employment contract signed by both parties and get them affiliated into the Social Security Department (Caja de Seguro Social) system.
Keep a clear record of date of hire, wages, legal bonuses and any conditions of employment. Make them sign receipts of wages received to prove they are hired workers and have no claim to the land.
Why Do We Encourage You to Do This?
If you are away from your Costa Rica property for much of the year and do not have an official employment contract, after three months that 'watchman' or 'house-sitter' could start acquiring certain possessionary rights.
The law will protect you and you can certainly take your property back but, only after your case has been heard and that would probably take a minimum of 18 months. During this time, they are living on your property, not you!
If you worry that squatters might be an issue regarding some property you are interested in, get the lawyer to insert an anti-squatter clause into the deeds of sale. If your worst fears prove true, you then have recourse to back out of the deal without penalty.
Keep your property clean and tidy. Abandoned land is an open invitation to squatters. Fence your land and put up signs showing your name and legal registration number.
If you cannot keep an eye on your property because you aren't in the country, try to have a trusted friend or contact visit it occasionally and let you know of any suspicious evidence of 'possession' or whether your caretaker has taken over!
If Squatters Have Taken Over
- Find out exactly when they trespassed onto the land.
- Take photographic evidence of the squatters and what they have done.
- Bring in the local police or rural guard (guarda rural) to make a written statement of the trespass and get it notarized. It is their responsibility to evict squatters before the three-month limit.
- If more than three months have passed but less than one year, you must apply for an administrative eviction, normally through the Agrarian Development Department (Instituto de Desarrollo Agrario).
- After one year's 'possession' the squatters have a stronger legal hold on the land and you must go to court. If this is the case, you will be in for a long, long legal wrangle. Is this really what you need?
Extract taken from How To Buy Costa Rica Real Estate Without Losing Your Camisa.
You can visit the Squatter's Discussion Forum thread here.