This situation posed by squatters is more theoretical than practical. We are often asked about squatters, probably because of a visceral response stimulated by such a danger – someone is taking over my land and I might lose 100% of my investment.
In practice, this is extremely rare in Santa Teresa, Mal Pais and Manzanillo. What do I do if I am an absentee owner; how do I protect my land from being occupied by third parties? The answer is simple: have someone responsible check on your property once a month while you are gone. You can also have someone live on the property as your caretaker. If you hire a caretaker, draw up a written agreement and have it notarized by a Costa Rican notary. Handshake agreements can be full of good intentions but may be a problem later. Always get it in writing.
Articles in the civil code outline Costa Rica’s Homestead Law (Precario Law). Basically, the law allows peaceful occupation of untitled and unattended land unless there is opposition by the existing owner. If your land is unattended and someone moves onto the land, they begin to establish certain rights after 3 months. Action for removal from the property is required before the end of the third month but the process is less complicated than if they occupy the land for a longer period. If squatters have occupied the land for more than 3 months but less than 1 year, the process of eviction called desalojar or desalojo, and becomes more involved. Although eviction is more complicated, you are not yet required to reimburse the occupants for their “improvements” to the property. If the land is occupied for more than a year but less than 10 years, you may still be able to recover the property, but the legal process may take years and you will be required to make a settlement for the “improvements” made by the occupants. “Improvements” can range from the construction of shacks, planting of crops and even cutting of trees to clear the property. The value of the improvements and level of compensation are established by the court. In most cases, it is best to negotiate an out of court settlement. If someone is living on a property you are interested in buying, be it the owner, a relative, a worker etc., you must be sure this is addressed and settled as a condition of the transaction. Homestead rights can affect both titled and untitled land but the process of eviction for titled property is in theory, faster and less complicated.
The department of IDA, The Agrarian Development Institute, was established in 1961. This government agency was formed when Costa Rica was trying to develop and expand its farming production. The institute was designed to represent landowners in cases where legitimate possession rights were being challenged or where land was not being utilized for some form of productive agriculture. One job of the institute is to defend the rights of the possessor as outlined in the Precario law – sort of a public defense body for peasant landowners unable to defend themselves against larger landowners trying to expand their territory. However, there are many cases today where the system is abused and people fall victim to de facto tenants. That is why it is important to know the history of possession and, above all, follow the rules. If property ownership is legitimate, it must be demonstrated within the guidelines outlined in the law. It is important to remember that the Precario law and the recognition of possession rights is considered the first step in the titling process and is the basis of how many lands were originally settled and eventually titled in Costa Rica in a legal manner.