Before you purchase property in Costa Rica you may want to know more about so-called squatters rights.

These are formally referred to in legal terminology as prescriptive rights and adverse property possession. Over the last 120 years, they have largely been abolished by statute in English common law jurisdictions such as the U.S., Canada, and English Commonwealth countries.

Unfortunately, that same transformation has not taken place in civil law (Roman law) jurisdictions such as Costa Rica.


What are squatters’ rights?

Squatters’ rights are the rights to occupy and possess land without taking formal title to it. These rights arose from the original settlement of Costa Rica as an agriculturally based Spanish colonial nation. In the settlement process, large tracts of land were granted by the Spanish monarchy to their friends and other members of the Spanish nobility.

Most Spanish noble owners of these lands never came to Costa Rica to occupy or develop them, not wanting to associate themselves with “a bunch of heathens” in the New World.

Accordingly, third parties willing to occupy and convert the lands into sustainable agricultural production were allowed to cultivate these somewhat abandoned properties. This was seen as a good thing for the Costa Rican society as a whole, rather than to leave the lands fallow.

Therefore, such third parties were granted the rights of property possession and occupation in return for their farming labor; hence, “squatters’ rights” came into being.

200 years later


Now, we’ll fast-forward to what squatters’ rights mean today in Costa Rica. In modern times, they stand for nothing more than a perversion of the law. Agricultural production is conducted in a completely different manner than it was 200 years ago when colonial settlement took place.

Albeit, there are many more legal restrictions associated with acquiring such squatters’ rights today than previously. Vacant land in rural areas is more at risk. There are organized “gangs” of squatters ready and willing to occupy such lands. Their sole purpose is to acquire squatters’ rights over time. This allows them to essentially “steal” the property from the rightful, registered property title owner.

The practice of acquiring squatters’ rights has become nothing more than a quasi-legalized business of land thievery. This practice is conducted in many cases by wealthy and influential members of Costa Rican society who back these squatter gangs.

90 days


Such rights begin to be acquired after only 90 days of uninterrupted occupation of the land by the squatters, in a publicly open and peaceful manner. This culminates in an application to the court by the squatter(s) to acquire a registered title to the lands, following a 10-year uninterrupted period of such occupation.

How to protect the property

Here are some tips to protect yourself as the registered owner of the property title of such at-risk lands:

  1. Fence the perimeter of the property.
  2. Place “Private Property/Keep Out” signs (in Spanish and English) every few meters around the perimeter.
  3. Hire a caretaker under a written contract to watch the lands and report to you as the owner of any observed squatter activity.

Caretaker – employer relationship

The irony of having a written contract with the caretaker, is that if the legal relationship between the land owner and the caretaker is not clear, the caretaker can in fact, acquire the squatters’ rights the owner is trying to protect.

My opinion

Obviously, the solution to the perversion of these squatters’ rights laws is to abolish them by legislation. There are cases currently before the Costa Rica courts regarding land theft arising in this manner. When finally adjudicated, this may ultimately force the required legal changes to be made, to protect the land owners of such at-risk properties in the future.

For more information and answers to your questions on diverse legal topics, visit Costa Rica Canada Law:

What are Squatters’ Rights in Costa Rica?

¿Qué son los derechos de los ocupantes ilegales en Costa Rica?

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