COSTA Rica may have been at the center of theCentral American real estate radar for years, but the signalis spreading, and foreigners increasingly are looking to itsneighbors as well.Central America is more and more drawing the eyes ofNorth Americans interested in second homes, according toJeff Hornberger, international market development managerfor the U.S. National Association of Realtors, whichtracks both national and international markets.“We see the entire region going up and up every year,”he said. “I am confident from the interest we have seen andheard, more and more people (from the United States) willmove to Central America in the coming years.”Hornberger said Costa Rica is no longer considered“the bargain place” it used to be.“The up-and-coming areas people will now see boomare Nicaragua and Panama. But Costa Rica is still the mostpopular… and the most expensive,” he said.THE remote coffee-growing town of Boquete,Panama, has seen one of the greatest booms in recent years,according to realtor Kiersten Van Horn (+507 614-0214,+507 720-1343).The area has been named one of the best places to retireby the American Association of Retired People (AARP)and International Living, said Van Horn, who lived andworked in Costa Rica for 10 years before relocating toPanama a year ago.“Panama is what Costa Rica was 20 years ago, with allof the benefits for retirees… discounts on hotels, car rentals,movie theaters, restaurants, national parks, even electric andwater bills. We’re talking about 10-25% discounts,” shesaid. “And the prices (of realty) are a lot less still, if you arecomparing hot areas like San José and Tamarindo.”Van Horn sells property in one of Boquete’s new residentialcommunities, Valle Escondido (www.valleescondido.biz). The gated community features a golf course, 24-hour security, underground utilities, high-speed Internet, aclubhouse and swimming pool, Van Horn said.The 150-acre, 182-unit Valle Escondido project is 90%sold. Two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,435-square-foot condominiumsare approximately $160,000. Three-bedroom, 2.5-bath, 3,000-square-foot duplexes are in the $260,000 range.“We just have one home for resale at $439,000, 5,000square feet, overlooking the golf course. A house like thatin (Costa Rica’s) Valle del Sol would be $700,000-800,000,” she said.“However, it is important to recognize that Boquete isa much more rural area, so it is relative in that respect,”she added.Van Horn also manages Rhino Panama Real Estate(www.rhinopanama.com), which opened last Novemberin Boquete to serve the real-estate demand that has growndramatically over the past three years.“What there is available here is mostly land,” she said.Building costs are approximately $50-60 per squarefoot. Land near Boquete ranges from $0.50 per squaremeter (10.76 square feet) to $30 per square meter, dependingon the proximity to town, Van Horn said.FOREIGN interest has been growing in all parts ofPanama, particularly in Bocas del Toro, Panama City andalong the beaches.“What is driving more people here is…in general, landis half to twice as cheap (as it is in Costa Rica). The cost ofliving is cheaper. Cars cost less, because there is no importduty, and insurance is less expensive,” Van Horn said.Homes in the Panama islands of Bocas del Toro arehardly the great deal they once were, according to realtorand developer Peter Kent (U.S. 510-444-4295, email@example.com), who has lived in Bocas for 10 years.But with the increased popularity and prices in the areahave come increased amenities, he said.“It has become a really nice place to live. There aregourmet shops, restaurants, five flights a day to the city,and a European school is coming in the next couple ofyears. Plus we are living with nature here,” Kent said ofBocas, an archipelago surrounded by the Caribbean Sea,the tranquility of which gives the area a lake-like characterand offers world-renowned snorkeling.PRICES in Bocas vary greatly based on location –both for proximity to town and type of land, such as swampversus headlands – and availability of phone, electricityand water services. In addition, some land cannot be purchasedand can only be leased from the government. For example, land on a rural farm costs $1,500-2,000 ahectare (2.5 acres), whereas a 200-square-meter (2,152-square-foot) plot of land would cost $30,000-40,000 on theoutskirts of town, at least $100,000 in the main town ofBocas, and $250,000 on the water, “if it can be found,”Kent said, emphasizing the scarcity of waterfront property.Kent has a development project of seven 1,000-squarefoothomes, a five-minute drive from town, with all servicesand land titles, at prices between $130,000-150,000.Kent and Van Horn both warned of real-estate scamartists in Bocas, and recommended potential buyers workwith reputable agents and ask locals about the reputation ofanyone they are considering buying from.WITH the distance from its civil war growing everyday, Nicaragua is also becoming increasingly known as amore affordable rival to its southern neighbor.Infrastructure and amenities have helped to improve itsreputation. A new state-of-the-art hospital 20 minutes fromManagua opened last year.“It was the one thing that was missing here, and nowwe have it,” said Charlie Southwell, owner/broker ofRE/MAX Grenada and RE/MAX San Juan del Sur (+505552-3199, www.nicaraguaproperty.com).“Most of the people I saw in the early years of CostaRica were trying to get the good deal; now they are cominghere,” said Southwell, who has lived and worked inNicaragua for seven years and before that lived in CostaRica for seven years.These early investors are reaping the benefits.“If you buy right, from a qualified realtor… then inGranada and on the beach, we have seen property going up$20,000-50,000 a year, for about five years now,”Southwell said.Prices in Nicaragua are “all over the map,” he said.Buyers can find an oceanfront, 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroomcondominium in a two-story duplex, in a gated community,for $125,000-150,000. A 2,200-square-foot, two-storyhome in a gated community would be approximately$200,000.Nicaragua does not have maritime laws similar to CostaRica’s, which preserve as the public domain the first 200meters (650 feet) of coast. It cannot be outright bought,only used as a concession from the government, and governmentpermission must be obtained for construction.“Here we can actually own beachfront property,”Southwell said.PRICES vary in Granada as well. Southwell recentlysold a 3,000-square-foot “fixer-upper” in Granada for$50,000, after it was on the market for just three hours. Anice Granada home with a pool and two patios would range between $150,000-165,000.“They are going very quickly,”Southwell said.While the older homes get snappedup, new development projects are a relativelyyoung trend in Nicaragua, butmore and more are emerging. Gatedcommunities are being built all along thesouthern coastline.Most buyers in Nicaragua opt for thesecurity of a gated community,Southwell said, but some investors buylots. A 2,000-square-meter (half-acre) lotcan be found for $85,000.BELIZE and the Bay Islands ofHonduras have also received attentionfrom foreigners interested in buying orbuilding second homes, Hornberger said.Mainland Honduras has remained out ofthe boom, as have Guatemala and ElSalvador, he said.Those countries have seen their owntype of real-estate growth from nativeswho immigrated to the United States andhave since returned to reinvest in theirown countries.“We haven’t felt a big influx of foreignersyet, but what we do have is peoplecoming back who left during thewar,” said Clelio Arroyo, manager ofCentury 21 in El Salvador (+503 209-8555, www.century21enlinea.com).Arroyo is confident her country willsee in the future some of the foreigninterest that has fallen on El Salvador’sneighbors.“We still have affordable property onbeautiful white- and black-sand beaches,”she said.A two-bedroom, 180-square-meter(1,900-square-foot) beachfront home ona 2,000-square-meter property with aswimming pool would cost about$175,000, Arroyo said. A 1,400-squaremeter(third-of-an-acre) piece of beachfrontland would cost about $90,000.
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