Building with Becky: What to Know About Building on Agricultural Land

agricultral land in Costa Rica main photo

As you have searched for property – especially for building lots – have you ever heard of parcelas agrícolas? This so-called agricultural land in Costa Rica is actually a popular choice for building, even if you have zero interest in any sort of agricultural use.

In fact, I built my home on this type of parcel, so I know quite a bit about its benefits and limitations, possibilities, and considerations. It can be a great option! That said, things have changed and are continuing to change…

So, let’s explore a little bit more about agricultural parcels as building sites for residential homes and other projects: 

What is an “Agricultural Parcel”?

First things first: The laws governing parcelas agrícolas, or agricultural land in Costa Rica, were updated in 2020. As you research the topic, make sure you’re getting the newest, most updated information!

As I write this in 2023, agricultural parcels are defined as those that have a minimum area of 5,000 square meters (1.24 acres) outside the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) – that’s approximately Paraíso, Cartago west to Atenas, Alajuela – and 7,000 square meters (1.73 acres) inside the GAM

In other words, here in Guanacaste, to be considered an agricultural parcel, the property must measure at least 5,000 square meters. Notably, they’re not designated as only for agricultural use: they may be used for agricultural purposes, livestock, forestry, or mixed-use purposes – for example, building your home.

Laws, Rules & Regulations for Agricultural Land in Costa Rica

Laws, Rules _ Regulations for Agricultural Land in Costa Rica

It’s important to note that the rules and regulations surrounding agricultural land are typically divided into urban and rural areas, with a few extra designations for tourism developments

Here in Guanacaste, where I live, we’re considered “rural” because we’re outside the GAM. Some agricultural parcels may also designated for tourism because they have potential for tourism development, including as cabins, day-use facilities (think: event venues), and more. But more on that, in a moment. 

Historically, agricultural lots could only be built at 10% to 15% infrastructure; this meant that if you owned a 5,000 m2 lot, you could only build a maximum of 500 square meters (5,382 square feet). If that sounds generous, consider that Costa Rica measures square footage differently: Any built infrastructure is included. 

That means your open-air carport, your terrace or pool deck, your pool itself, a yoga platform, and similar structures are included within your square footage. And that’s where it got complicated for many owners. 

In August/September 2020, Costa Rica’s Institute for Housing and Urbanism (INVU), among other governmental groups, agreed to new legal regulations for agricultural land in Costa Rica. This updated certain rules, including the 10% rule: Today, the infrastructure percentage for agricultural parcels is 25%, distributed as follows: 

  • A single-family home with a maximum area of 300 m2 over one or two floors; 
  • Additional infrastructure associated with agricultural activities, for a total coverage of 25%; and 
  • Any easements must have a minimum width of 7.00m.

There are additional requirements, as well. They include a soil study (uso de suelo) and water letter, as well as inspections and other authorizations. 

Additionally, agricultural parcels can be subdividable, pending approval from the municipality.  If you do subdivide your lot (which incurs a cost), your building possibilities increase; for example, if you subdivide one 10,000 m2 lot into two 5,000 m2 lots, you can build two homes and other infrastructure. Note that there is no guarantee of water availability until you have acquired a construction permit from the municipality.

Proposals Underway for Agricultural Land in Costa Rica

Proposals Underway for Agricultural Land in Costa Rica

On the one hand, these recent updates are positive: They have made laws more current and shined a light on agricultural parcels and their current uses. 

On the other hand, as a realtor and home-builder myself, I (and many others) recognize that they’ve restricted some uses: For example, whereas previously, a 5,000 m2 lot could accommodate a 500 m2 home (10% infrastructure), today that same unbuilt parcel is capped at 300 m2. 

The country’s legislative body (the Asamblea Legislativa) has already recognized the issue. In 2022, representatives began calling for reform to the laws governing agricultural land in Costa Rica. On the docket: 

Residential-Tourism Classification

One proposal (File 23.200) is to allow the owners of agricultural parcels to apply for a change in land category: Instead of being classified as an agricultural parcel, they would be able to switch their classification to uso turístico residencial, or tourism-residential use. The approval period is 24 months. 

This would allow additional (and yet-to-be-determined) latitude in building provisions, but current recommendations extend to pools, cabins, and other recreational infrastructure. 

Low-Impact Residential Use

Low-Impact Residential Use

Other experts in the field have also called for additional provisions that allow for low-impact residential architecture, similar to much of that already practiced here in Guanacaste. 

If permitted, these parcels would allow for a reasonable percentage of construction (a 15%-20% land footprint) that would help protect and strengthen the parcel’s landscaping, forest cover, and natural beauty of the area. These plots would, of course, be for residential use and would not extend to commercial or industrial use, but would allow for building one or more residential structures within the defined footprint.

Thinking About Purchasing Agricultural Land in Costa Rica?

Thinking About Purchasing Agricultural Land in Costa Rica

The bottom line: After not changing for almost 20 years, the Costa Rican laws and regulations that govern agricultural parcels are changing! In many ways, for the good and in others, hopefully for future good. 

So, here’s my advice: Do not purchase agricultural land without consulting first with 1) an expert real estate agent and 2) a Costa Rican attorney well versed in real estate law. 

Why both? To start, choose a real estate agent with expertise not only in lots but in agricultural parcels; they will have an up-to-date understanding of current rules and regulations for a specific area, as well as current comps to understand pricing under current regulations. Pair that with a real estate lawyer, who will be 100% current with both current laws and those in the pipeline. 

In this way, you can guarantee yourself the full picture of purchasing agricultural parcels in Costa Rica, including in “rural” areas in Guanacaste. 

Planning on Building in Costa Rica? I’m Here to Help!

Planning on Building in Costa Rica_ I’m Here to Help!

Building a home in Costa Rica is a major decision – one that requires meticulous research, discussion, review, and consideration. Luckily, that’s something I have more than a lot of experience with!

Hi, I’m Rebecca Clower. (My friends call me Becky.) In 2006, I did what you’re either preparing to do or have already done: I followed my heart and moved to Costa Rica. 

Over the years, I’ve built over a dozen homes here. I’ve given birth to my two boys and raised them here in Costa Rica. I’ve founded a wildly successful business. I’ve been on TV. I’ve given back to my community. I’ve taken on major positions of responsibility and authority. I am a dual citizen and have completely integrated into Costa Rica and my community. I’ve strengthened my Costa Rican roots.

Along the way, I’ve become both a self-made and professional expert on building in Costa Rica.  And so, for years, I’ve also made it my job to help other people make their own decisions – and successful builds, if that’s how it shakes out! Bottom line: I offer real, honest advice and expertise to my clients. 

I promise not to sugarcoat the hard truths or gloss over the tough parts. I will tell you the whole truth, the full truth, and even the hard truths. I hope that you’ll find the beautiful truths to outweigh them all. So, sign up for updates, download my free eBook, check out my relocation services, and then, please get in touch. Let’s get started!

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