Our Green, Mortgage-Free Home in Costa Rica

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Photo by Nita Kemsley
Nita (the author) and Marty Kemsley hired out the labor on their home, and supervise its construction to ensure that each detail suits their desires.

We built our first green home (our “casita”) in Costa Rica in 2008 and 2009 and are in the process of building another home on our property now that will become our primary residence and a bed-and-breakfast upon completion (our “hacienda”). We’re doing this project piecemeal, on a pay-as-we-go basis. No standing debt, no mortgage. We are very proud of our efforts to build and sustain a totally green home in a tropical rainforest environment. We strive to be carbon neutral, we employ hydroelectric power, and we have a source of pure fresh spring water, as well. Many baby boomers are looking for alternatives to living in the United States in their golden years.

We have been planning to move to Costa Rica permanently in 2015, but are currently living in Park City, Utah, while we build our dream home. When we aren’t in Costa Rica, we rent out our home as a vacation rental and luxury hostel, which helps us maintain the project and contributes to our building fund.

Initially we used the equity in our home in Park City, Utah. From there, we refinanced and pulled the money for the Costa Rican property purchase and casita construction. That way, the property in Costa Rica would always be free and clear. When we sold our Park City home, we no longer had the debt. When we started the hacienda project, we took a small loan on our 401(k) balance and are paying ourselves back the amount over three years at 10 percent interest. But the rest of our construction is strictly pay-as-we-go. It took us only nine months to build the casita, and it will take us about four years to complete the hacienda B&B. Our target move-in date is late 2015. After we have made the move, we will continue to work on finishing the hacienda and then the rental units and the swimming pool.

The casita is a simple two-bedroom cottage, about 900 square feet. It is made of concrete block and natural woods. The hacienda will be about 3,500 square feet, and is Spanish Colonial style. We purchased 2 acres of farmland that had spectacular views of Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano, a stream, and a corridor of primary and secondary rainforest. We wanted to protect that corridor and its myriad monkeys, toucans, birds and other wildlife. The water rights to the stream, the spring water and the hydroelectric power were part of the deal. We are completely off-grid.

Labor costs are relatively cheap — the most important thing is having a crew you can communicate with. Material costs and availability can be a challenge, as material costs fluctuate with the exchange rate. When we built the casita, the final building cost was about $40,000. Materials and excavation were about three-fourths of that.

We didn’t do any of the labor ourselves. Labor costs have been scheduled by the meter, and we have averaged out to about $50 per square foot.

We would do this again in a heartbeat! The casita was built long-distance. It panned out OK for us, but we’d never build from far away again. Construction only happens on the new house when we are there to supervise.

If you are looking for an adventure and have the ability to roll with whatever comes with building and living in a foreign country, then I would advise choosing a place, renting it for a while and then deciding whether being an expatriate will work for you. If it will, then go for it.

Read other debt-free home reports like this one by perusing Debt-Free Living in Your Dream Home or visiting our Debt-Free Home Reports collection page.