Six yeas ago we purchased our home in Naguabo Puerto Rico (PR) in the barrio of El Duce. Some of the lessons we learned are shared in this article. I do not mean this to be an all inclusive guide to purchasing property but rather an introduction in what to look for when considering a home on the Island.
Where do I begin to look for property in PR?
Puerto Rico is diverse in both culture and climate. In the south, there is an arid; almost desert terrain while in the northeast there is rain forest. The north and west coasts have great surfing. In the central regions there are mountains spotted with coffee plantations and in some places, views where you can see both the north and south coasts of the island from one vantage point.
Where you decide to look for a home will depend on your priorities as well as your needs. When we decided to look for property the first thing we knew we needed was time. It’s a big island with a lot of diversity; make sure you give yourself enough time. We took six months. I know this will not work for everyone but I would say that 90 days would be the minimum. Remember, you are not moving to another State, this is a foreign country. Even though PR is part of the USA, the culture and infrastructure can produce a shock that many people find hard to deal with. Taking 90 days will also let you live as a resident instead of a tourist.
Rent a house in an area you think you will want to live in while you are looking for property. We rented a magnificent home on the water in Yabucoa. It was modern, had a pool and a hot tub, custom furniture, exotic wood on the floors and was for sale for three times what we could afford to pay. It also had tarantulas, was unbearably hot, had faulty wiring, terrible air conditioning and was close to a noisy bar! We would have never known the downsides of living near the water in that part of the island if we did not rent! There is a reason the Spanish lived in the hills when they occupied PR, it’s cool up there, fewer bugs and there is plenty of water.
Make a list of what is important to you. Some of the things on our list were, access to an international airport, close to a Veterans Hospital, accessibility to a pharmacy and grocery store. We also wanted to be near a dealer who serviced our car and have access to emergency services like fire and police. We take these things for granted in the States, but in PR they do not always exist. We still have to drive twenty minutes to get drinkable water. The water in our home comes off the mountains in the rain forest and although it tested as drinkable, it gives us a mild case of dysentery. If internet and television services are important, make sure you can get them, very often television service is by satellite only and internet is not available. Every time a heavy rain comes through the satellite will go dead, and it rains almost every day in some parts of the Island. I think you get the idea, make a list, use it as a checklist when you look at property.
To Gate or not to Gate…
There are basically two options other than condos, these are gated communities and houses outside the gates. You will need to determine which one works best for you. In our case we chose to live outside the gates in a very rural area even by PR standards. We enjoy having dozens of fruit trees, some land for privacy and above all solitude. All this sounds lovely until you count the cost. We are responsible for all our own maintenance. In my opinion there is more maintenance on a Caribbean home than say a home in New England. You also can’t choose your neighbors or the way they keep their homes and there is no such thing as zoning in PR. Land ownership and property rights can be tricky outside the gates and even simple clear cut disputes can take years to settle. Gated communities have none of these problems, but you give up a lot of the uniqueness and beauty of living in PR when you live within the gates. If you think you prefer living in a gated community, rent outside it, if the opposite is true, rent inside the gate. This will give you a better perspective on the island and it’s availability of living conditions. Gated communities usually command a higher price than those outside the gate. If you prefer to live gated and money is an issue then wait until it isn’t. It takes a special kind of person to live in the “campo”. Between the lawn, fruit trees, house, pool, guest house, neighbors, insect infestations and normal house maintenance, our issues never end. Unless you enjoy keeping busy and are handy, a gated community might be a much easier life. I have never regretted our decision to live in the hills. Right now we have two types of oranges, breadfruit, guava, avocadoes, plantain and dragons eye ready to picked. Most people would think our little home a paradise. What they would not notice is all the work it takes to keep it that way!
It’s the little things
Almost nothing in PR is built to code. Here in the States we have a building code that regulates how things are built. When examining a house in say Florida, you can rest assured that the same standards will be met in Rhode Island or California. Not so in PR. I am in the construction field and know a bit about code and home construction. We saw three houses out of fifty that came close to code. We bought one of them and still had six winters of work to do on it. Take nothing for granted or at face value. Here is a list of some of the things to look for.
Electrical- check how many amps come in to the house, this is listed in the breaker box. Standard in the States is 200, in PR 60 is common. This means a lot of your appliances, computers and all the other modern electric gadgets we North Americans like will not work or will not work well. Ask about brown outs. PR has a terrible electrical grid especially in the back country. We went through two refrigerators, a laptop, scores of light bulbs and two televisions in four years due to power grid problems.
Plumbing- What kind of waste system do you have. It’s common for houses in the country to go through a makeshift septic system and drain into a stream. Do the toilets work? What is the water pressure like? Do you have water from the town or do you need to buy it. In many places, water is scarce and residents purchase water not only for drinking but also for bathing, especially during the dry season. Almost everyone buys drinking water. Where is your cistern, is it on the roof or on the ground. If on the roof are you comfortable climbing up there when there is a problem? How new is the water pump and pressure tank, are they on the roof or on the ground? Is there hot water? Many PR homes do not have hot water, again, where is the tank and how old is it? We recently had our cistern, water pump and pressure tank moved to ground level. I am very comfortable on roofs but am getting older and know at some point I will not be able to safely climb ladders. If there is a pool, ask who services it. If the answer is no one, beware. Pool pumps and the associated piping take a lot of abuse and are expensive to replace. Some homes receive water from a common or shared well. Examine the pipes that feed the house, are they copper or PVC. PVC is affected by the ultraviolet rays of the sun and will weaken, we just had all our piping changed over to copper after years of PVC patching. Remember, PR houses have concrete walls, replacing pipes is a labor intensive job. It’s much easier to start off with a good set of pipes!
Windows and Screens- This is a commonly overlooked area. Many houses in PR do not have windows, they use folding metal panels with screens…get windows! The metal panels fail and do not close well after a few years. When looking at windows, check the cranks to make sure they are not stripped. Look at the windows and make sure they are weather tight, we get lots of rain in PR! Insects, especially ants are a constant problem. You MUST have good screens that fit tightly in their receiver. At our home we have mosquitoes, three types of ants, lots of small flying things like June bugs and katydids as well as geckos, centipedes, tarantulas, smaller spiders and several things I could not begin to categorize. All except the tarantulas try to get in through the screens! I re-screen everything every three years and use a clear caulking around the receivers to keep out the little sugar ants. We have cats and they love to go after what ever is trying to get in. Their claws make small holes in the screens and it is enough for the beasties to enter…get good screens!
Roofs- Most roofs in PR are concrete. Some are wooden but they are usually on less expensive homes. Wooden roofs should be avoided because they will not stand up to hurricanes and can be prone in insect infestations. Concrete roofs require a special sealer that resembles a thick paint to keep the water from leaching through to the house. Sealing a roof is hard work and requires some experience to do correctly. If you hire it out it is expensive. Look for stains or discolorations on the ceiling of the house, this will indicate roof leaks. Inquire how long since the roof has been sealed, about every three years in rainy areas is about right. Houses with pitched roofs are harder to seal than those with flat roofs. Our house has a pitched roof and we have had endless problems with it. I have since gone with panels made in Israel that I secured to the roof and it is working quite well. Check the roof drains, these are usually pipes sticking out of the roof that allow the water to drain. Make sure they are cleaned out and not spilling on to the lawn and making holes. Some older homes use these roof drains to fill the cisterns used for non drinking water.
Most of what we have discussed applies to properties outside the gate. Gated communities usually have a higher standard of construction but not always. If I were to emphasize one point it would be to take the time to rent and live in PR for at least three months. North Americans come to the island, fall in love and want to purchase as soon as possible. We all believe that our experience as property owners will be the same as our tourist experience. Unfortunately this is not the case. PR is truly a foreign country and although my wife and I love it dearly, it is not for everyone. There is no shame if it is not for you. Some places are meant to be visited instead of lived in. I hope that our experiences in purchasing property and the lessons we learned will help you in your search for your own piece of paradise. Who knows, maybe someday we will be able to sit down and complain about how long it takes to get an error on our electric bills corrected. By the way, the poorly kept secret is that they never get resolved!
Happy house hunting.