The Burning Barn

This website has sought, amongst other goals, to help inform those who are considering expatriating either their assets or themselves, to reach informed decisions. In doing so, we sometimes comment on the results that have been achieved by others who have already expatriated. In this article, I would like to touch on a facet of this subject that is not often addressed by any publication - repatriation.

Let's profile three individuals who made a decision to expatriate. Two were Americans; one was a Canadian. Each one chose to expatriate to Costa Rica over the last five years. Each has subsequently left Costa Rica.

The first point to be made is that their decisions do not mean that Costa Rica is necessarily a poor choice as a destination. At the end of the article, the reader may determine whether that may be the case after reading the experiences of the three individuals in question.


Desmond is a successful Floridian businessman who bought a small hotel in the Costa Rican countryside in his late 50s. Intending to be an absentee owner, he installed a manager who was less than honest, and the problems that ensued were typical of what the reader might imagine. In addition, the hotel was frequently burgled by locals.

Desmond then moved to Costa Rica with his wife to manage the hotel himself. Although the hotel had potential for success, he continued to have problems, especially with locals. He stated that burglaries were common and that people who had been paid to perform one task or another often did not deliver. If they did, they often were extremely late in doing so.

In dealing with the financial losses created by the criminal activities, he attempted to bring charges but was advised that convictions for such small crimes are rare. He was told that, Costa Rica, as a relatively low-income country, had fewer than 8,000 jail cells in total, and that they were chronically over-filled, leading judges to avoid imposing prison sentences. In addition, small crimes were so common that judges routinely refused to even try cases in which the loss was under US $250. Desmond was further advised that crimes by locals against "gringos" were rarely resolved.

He decided that his hotel was a dead end business venture and put it on the block, but he has had no serious offers, as most potential buyers live in the first world and are experiencing their own financial difficulties.


Jack is an American who retired at age 60, having received an inheritance in the six-figure range. Seeing problems in the US and envisioning warm weather and an inexpensive destination in which to live, he and his wife moved to Costa Rica. They chose a gated community (complete with guard) that included many other expats. Jack's community also experienced a spate of burglaries. The guard never seemed to see the burglars. However, the community was surrounded by jungle, and the burglars did not necessarily come through the gate. Jack's home was never burgled, but he lived with the worry that it might be.

In addition, Jack and his wife missed their two grown children in the States. The children were living their own lives there and had little time or money to visit their parents. Jack found himself spending much of his time phoning and emailing the States.

After initially enjoying the laid-back pace of Costa Rica, he found himself annoyed with the fact that workmen also enjoyed the laid-back pace. When he wanted a service to be performed, he realized he was living under a different standard from what he had been used to. Finally, he became bored with the lifestyle and decided to return to the US, in spite of the fact that, even if he could sell his Costa Rican home, he would take a sizeable loss and would need to start anew in the US.


Don was a Canadian supervisor in his mid-thirties, living on an upscale Caribbean island, when he decided that he wanted a more rough-and-ready lifestyle. He bought property in the country in Costa Rica and built a home on it. Although Don confirms the problems that Desmond and Jack mention, he sees them differently. Having made one major move already (from Canada to the Caribbean), Don may have been more adaptable.

In any case, he found that if he were to enjoy the laid-back pace of Costa Rica, he needed to recognise that those who provided services to him would also be laid back. He therefore simply assumed that if he called a plumber, the plumber might take a few days, or even longer, to show up. In addition, Don found that locals were burgled along with gringos, so he became friends with locals, visiting the local bars and eating at local restaurants. (A steak dinner at a local restaurant cost him the same as a Whopper meal at Burger King, where locals never went.)

Consequently, Don became a local of sorts. Word got around that he would assist the locals when justice was meted out to scofflaws, and locals would, in turn, assist him if he needed to "carry out sentencing." As a result, his worries over crime diminished. Don had plans to do a development, but found that he had squatters on his land that had preceded his ownership. Under Costa Rican law, the squatters had some rights that he was not accustomed to, and he had difficulty with his development as a result. Don is an adaptable man, and he and his wife created other business opportunities. However, they were not productive enough, in the low-income structure of Costa Rica, to sustain them. Don has recently returned to the Caribbean to make money for a period of time, but hopes to save his pay, then return to Costa Rica at some point to move ahead with his development.

So - what can be learned from these three cases? Do they tell us that Costa Rica is a terrible place? Not at all, as many people (North-Americans included) have expatriated to Costa Rica over the years and loved it there. The lessons to be learned by others who are considering expatriation to Costa Rica are similar to those that would apply to any potential destination:

  • When selecting a new home country, do your homework. Find out as much as you can before moving. Visit first, if you can, and, when you do, don't visit like a tourist. Do things that would be in keeping with living there.
  • Find an advisor if possible - an expat who has been there for five years or more. Ask him what he had to overcome in order to be happy there, and, more to the point, what he has not been able to overcome.
  • Assess whether you can live comfortably with the locals. If not, you probably will never be at home, no matter how long you live there. The locals are not simply colourful additions to the landscape; in many ways, they are the country.
  • If you choose a country because it is inexpensive, plan on the negatives of such a condition, such as low-quality amenities and poorly-educated locals.
  • Take your time making the decision. Weigh all pros and cons carefully.
  • If you are expatriating due to a negative future in your own country, remember that if you decide to return, you may be returning to a country that is in even worse shape than when you left it. It is apparent from these and other cases of expats that, when things don't go well in the new jurisdiction, it is not uncommon for them to simply return home.

Anyone who has ever owned horses knows of incidents where someone's barn caught fire and the owner ran into the barn to let the horses out of their stalls, but the horses ran back in and burned to death. The horses equated their stalls with safety, with "home," and it cost them their lives.

Expatriating may possibly be the best thing you ever did, but it will depend upon how carefully you have assessed the situation in your home country and how it compares to your new country. Failure to conduct a thorough assessment has resulted in many expats returning to the burning barn in desperation.

Tags: expat, costa rica,