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Florida housing crisis puts dent in couple's Costa Rica dream, but they forge ahead

COSTA RICA

The dream was born at a bar in Manuel Antonio, on a hilltop patio overlooking the Pacific, in the bottom of their margaritas. They leaned against each other that lazy afternoon in 2005, both wishing the vacation would never end. Chuck and Debbie Knight had basked in the beauty of Costa Rica for six days. Just long enough to realize how hectic their lives had become. "We should retire here," Debbie said out of nowhere. Chuck laughed. They weren't even 40. In the morning, they'd fly back to St. Petersburg, where he was a stressed-out architect and she was an insurance underwriter. At the San Jose airport, they bought a book about how to retire in Costa Rica. He read it on the plane — the first book he had finished in years. Okay, he had to admit, maybe they could do this someday. But after a month in his office, where he oversaw 21 employees and logged 60-hour weeks, Chuck didn't want to wait until someday. Let's move to Costa Rica now, he told Debbie, while we're young enough to enjoy it. His plan was to design just one more building: a bed-and-breakfast. An angled split-level shaped like a butterfly, perched on a mountain above the sea. They could run the business together, make just enough money to live in paradise. Happily ever after. They thought they knew the ending.

A real life that's just like vacation: That's the dream, right? Lots of us have spent a week with our toes in some distant sand and thought, Now, this would be a great place to live.

More and more, Costa Rica has that effect on people. The Central American democracy with no army and a stable government had attracted 50,000 American expats by 2007, according to the U.S. Embassy in San Jose. Folks go to retire — or, like the Knights, to open a business and live what they imagine will be simpler lives.

For Chuck and Debbie, the timing seemed ideal. They didn't have kids. They had money in the bank. And Debbie was worried about how hard Chuck was working. His blood pressure was spiking.

If moving to Costa Rica would give them time to relax together, then she agreed: Let's do this.

Debbie's parents, who had never been out of the United States, didn't want their only child living in what they thought of as a third-world country.

Their friends called them crazy. "You guys don't even speak Spanish!"

So they bought Spanish language CDs, researched Costa Rican real estate. Made budgets, spreadsheets, timetables. They were determined.

And, they now admit, a little naive.

Chuck and Debbie, sweethearts since college, knew starting a new life in another country would be challenging. But they never imagined the ultimate cost.

Or that, after 20 years of marriage, they would wind up living a world apart.

They started by looking online for land: mountain lots with flat tops. They wanted to see the Pacific from their porch. They needed enough room to build the B&B plus a small house.

Chuck banked his bonuses. Late in 2005, six months after their first visit to Costa Rica, he and Debbie flew back.

Buying land in Costa Rica is complicated. Owners can sell through as many agents as they want to. There is no central listing of properties.

Then, there's the land itself. It climbs and dips. Roads are steep and curvy. Debbie ruled out some lots because she knew she could never drive there.

They had almost given up — they were flying home the next day — when an agent called about a new property.

It was south of Dominical, a half-hour's drive from the closest grocery, halfway up a mountain. Four acres on a level crest overlooking the ocean.

Debbie gasped when she saw the view: In the distance below them was the beach; behind them, a jagged jungle.

Chuck loved the layout: 12,000 square feet of buildable land.

They drained their savings and paid $278,500 outright for what felt like the top of the world.

They kept toiling away at their day jobs in Florida while they made plans. They called their Costa Rican land Ocaso Cerro: Sunset Mountain.

Chuck created a 3-D computer model of the B&B: four rooms, each its own wing with a private porch. It would have vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, walk-in showers and a round window in the living room that would frame the setting sun.

It was important to them that they have a home separate from their business. Chuck designed that, too: two stories flanked by a vaulted stairway with wrap-around decks. Between the two buildings, an infinity-edge pool spilling over the edge of the mountain.

Debbie couldn't visualize the place on the computer, so Chuck built her a wooden model complete with a tiny tiki bar. She really wanted a tiki bar.

Of all the properties he had designed in his 20-year career, this was the only one he had ever done for himself.

"Two years," he promised. Everything would be done by her 40th birthday.

To get the money to build in Costa Rica, they would have to sell their waterfront home in south St. Petersburg: four bedrooms, two baths, pool and dock, 2,312 square feet.

In 2000, they had paid $343,000 for it. Now it was 2006. They asked $950,000.

The profit would be just enough to finish their future.

Then Florida's housing market tanked. Two years later, their St. Petersburg home still hadn't sold. And their mountaintop lot in Costa Rica was still empty.

Chuck and Debbie were like a lot of people in 2006: They were building their future on the idea that their home was worth a certain sum. When everything changed, they got in trouble. This was their most expensive miscalculation, but not the only one.

They dropped the price to $700,000 and finally got a buyer. Chuck even sold his boat.

But they still didn't have nearly enough money to pay for their plans. They had budgeted $800,000 for the land and buildings. With $250,000 less to invest, they couldn't afford the B&B and a separate house. They would have to wait and save more money. Or just start construction and see how far they could get.

They decided to push forward. The longer they waited, the more building costs could increase. And that empty land wouldn't generate income. They would build the business first.

In August 2008, after selling their Florida house, they put most of their furniture into storage and moved into a condo on St. Pete Beach. They signed a lease for one year. By then, they were sure, the bed-and-breakfast would be far enough along for them to live there.

Chuck hired a Costa Rican contractor. That winter, a crew cleared their lot. The view was stunning from every angle: turquoise waves below; toucans in the trees above.

But paradise comes at a price.

Chuck and Debbie thought electrical lines ran to their property, but they didn't. They wound up having to pay $6,500 to extend them up the mountain. Once they finally got power, someone stole all the copper wire. They had to lay the lines again. Encase them in concrete.

Everything cost more than they had thought. During the three years since Chuck estimated building costs, the price of most materials had doubled. And there was so much red tape: permits and taxes, things they had never thought of. Rejected for earthquake insurance? Bat removal?!

They started asking each other, "What are we doing? How long can we keep doing this?"

And it was so hard managing everything in Costa Rica while they were both still in Florida.

In 2009, they were running out of money. They couldn't afford to keep renting the condo and building the B&B. They either had to give up their place in Florida or leave Ocaso Cerro unfinished. How could they put everything they had worked for on hold?

Chuck decided to quit his job and move to Costa Rica to live on the construction site. The more sweat equity he could put in, the more they would save. Debbie took money from her 401(k) to buy windows so he wouldn't get rained on.

She asked about telecommuting from Costa Rica, but her company refused her request. So, to save rent, she moved back to Tennessee to live with her parents. She would work from their spare bedroom.

"Some people would have drawn the line there," Debbie said. "But we knew it would be worth it in the end."

If she had known how far away the end would be, she said later, she might not have ever moved apart.

Chuck awoke to howler monkeys barking in the trees. Debbie awoke to her parents clanking dishes in the kitchen. After 18 years, it was strange to wake up alone. Stranger, still, not to share each other's day-to-day.

Phone service was spotty so they communicated mostly by e-mail: Debbie had to go to a convention. Chuck had to chase an anteater out of the laundry room. They had to figure out things like foreign residency and drivers' licenses.

Chuck painted walls and set tile. Debbie went to church and played bingo with her parents. He didn't have hot water or a kitchen. He did dishes in the shower. He lost 20 pounds.

She turned 40 without him. Her mom baked a chocolate pie.

Costa Ricans have a saying, "Pura Vida," the simple life.

But for Chuck, nothing seemed easy. Especially since he still didn't speak Spanish. He wished he had paid more attention to those language CDs. He had to rely on his contractor to communicate with inspectors, his lawyer to interpret forms. Now, instead of supervising an office of architects, he had a crew of Tico laborers he couldn't talk to.

There was no Home Depot. The hardware store wasn't even open on Sundays. Chuck couldn't get quantities of anything: Screws, hinges, door handles had to be ordered.

Debbie started shopping online for linens and light fixtures. Shipping was another challenge. Costa Rica doesn't have an official postal delivery service. Mail comes in on the passenger buses. Sometimes. The guidebooks hadn't mentioned that.

By winter 2009, the bed-and-breakfast was halfway done. The interior walls were in, the toilets worked. Chuck still didn't have a kitchen. And he couldn't afford to eat out. He was heating $2 cans of arroz con pollo in the microwave. He kept asking Debbie to send checks for more tile, paint, stucco.

He only had $40 left. They didn't know what to do.

She started getting migraines. She applied for more credit cards, maxed them out. Her mom got so worried, she took a second mortgage on their house. But it wasn't enough.

So Debbie sold her Volkswagen. The last thing that was hers. Chuck said, "It still looks like we'll have to scrap the tiki bar."

She needed to see Chuck. And what was going on down there. She hadn't been inside the B&B, hadn't met Chuck's new guard dog.

In May 2010 she booked a trip to Costa Rica. Chuck e-mailed: "Get ready to be blown away!"

At the top of their driveway on the edge of the mountain, Debbie burst into tears. Everything was so much further along, so much more beautiful than she had expected. For the first time in a long time, that dream they had hatched over margaritas didn't seem so farfetched.

There was the 4,000-square-foot bed-and-breakfast to her right, with its angled roofs and cream columns; there was the infinity pool with a hot tub; and there, just as she had pictured, was her tiki bar — with swings instead of stools.

Best of all was the two-story house with stone siding and wide windows. Their house.

It didn't have a living room or kitchen. The master bedroom wasn't finished. But they slept there that night on their old mattress, looking across the pool at their new business, talking about how much their guests would love the monkeys and the sunsets and the bamboo ceilings.

When she got back to Tennessee, Debbie stopped funding her retirement plan and put that money into their Costa Rican account. They still had to pay for air-conditioning, landscaping, gravel. Chuck thought maybe they could open by fall.

But then the rains came — 56 inches in five days. Supplies couldn't be delivered. Laborers couldn't work. Chuck ordered signs, posted listings on TripAdvisor, finished the B&B's website. He added a new link to make reservations. Posted rates: $100 to $150 per night. But he didn't give people a way to pay online.

He unpacked their furniture they had shipped from Florida. Hung pictures in the bed-and-breakfast. Put up towel racks.

At night, he e-mailed Debbie pictures of his progress.

They had lived apart for a year, spent more than $1 million, borrowed more than $250,000. And they still needed $40,000 to finish.

They tried to take out another loan against their assets in Costa Rica. But with no business and a half-finished house, the bank said no.

"Maybe this is all just a big screw-up and we should just give up," Chuck told Debbie on the phone that fall. "We're never going to open. It was all just a big mistake."

Finally, they borrowed money from a friend. "After a certain point," Chuck said, "it seemed there was no turning back."

He filled the pool, finished the B&B's kitchen. By Thanksgiving, he could finally cook.

Three days after Christmas, Chuck was heading to bed when he saw headlights climbing the driveway. A couple from California with a 3-year-old and infant had seen the sign at the bottom of the road.

Was a room available?

Chuck didn't know what to say. His house was still a shell, but the bed-and-breakfast was almost ready. Except for pillowcases, soap, towels. And he didn't have any food.

He apologized he wasn't prepared, told them they were his first guests. "Welcome to Ocaso Cerro!"

The next morning, he rushed to the market, grabbed eggs, bread and a pineapple. When the family left two days later, Chuck told Debbie, they asked for business cards. "That's a good sign, right?"

On Skype, Debbie smiled. But she looked sad. Now that everything was finally happening, it was happening without her.

"I know it will be a simpler life for us one day," she wrote in her journal. "When things settle down."

She flew back to Costa Rica in late February. They sat on their patio overlooking the Pacific. Hummingbirds darted overhead. Chuck had made margaritas.

Their new home had a bedroom now, though still no living room. The bed-and-breakfast was perfect. Chuck had designed every detail, down to each sculpted door, each custom queen bed. The tiki bar was stocked.

They leaned against each other that evening, marveling at all they had done, wondering when their new life together would begin.

Soon, she had to fly back to Tennessee, go back to work so they could pay off their debt. Soon, Chuck would be alone again in their half-done home.

They don't know when they will be able to live together, full time.

Debbie said, "I need an ending." Chuck said, "I know."

The whole idea had been to slow down and start a new, idyllic life in paradise. They could still envision paradise — it was all around them — but for now it felt like they had just traded their stressful lives for more stress. They were tired of worrying. Tired of being apart.

And business was slow: one guest in January, two in February.

Then, late in March, Chuck checked his e-mail and found a message from a judge in Ormond Beach. He and his wife wanted to reserve a room in April. They had been vacationing in Costa Rica for years. Now they were buying a house just up the mountain. They were going to retire soon, move there for good.

Enjoy the simple life.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Recalculating costs

When Chuck and Debbie Knight first planned their bed-and-breakfast, they started by doing the math. It looked good — but life intervened. Here's how things worked out:

Their original budget:

$800,000

They paid $278,500 for the land, from their savings.

They sold their St. Petersburg home after the real estate crash and got $250,000 less than they expected.

They borrowed $285,000 and still owe $230,000.

They need another $40,000 to finish their house in Costa Rica.

Total outlay so far:

$1.3 million

For more information about Ocaso Cerro, go to ocasocerro.com or check out the site on Facebook. For more information about traveling to or living in Costa Rica, see costarica.usembassy.gov or visitcostarica.com.

Florida housing crisis puts dent in couple's Costa Rica dream, but they forge ahead 04/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 12:39am]

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