Costa Rica is a popular destination for those looking to live abroad, and the expat community includes people from every corner of the world. Most people come to Costa Rica for the perfect weather, inexpensive luxuries, and easy-going way of life. Although newcomers to this small, tropical country are quick to adopt Costa Rican foods and cocktails, there are still some differences in how expatriates live compared to their local counterparts. One of the major differences is housing styles. The traditional architecture styles have been lovingly named “tico houses” while the modern styles are called “gringo houses.” As the country becomes wealthier and more developed, more locals are opting to living in gringo houses opposed to the traditional styles. At the same time, some newcomers choose tico homes so they can indulge totally in the local way of life. Both styles can offer a comfortable life and safe, clean housing, but depending on your personal preferences and priorities, one may be better suited to you.
A “gringo house” is styled after a North American modern home, but constructed with local materials and local features. Typically, a gringo house will still only be one story, with no basement or attic. However, this one story will include large rooms with big, outward looking windows. It will come complete with ceramic floors, screens on the windows and doors, and the type of roofing and ceiling that you’re used to from your home country. Large modern kitchens often open to the living space, and the living space can spill out into the back porch. While constructed for the foreign buyer, these houses take full advantage of their tropical surroundings. With some of the best weather in the entire world, people settling in Costa Rica often spend a significant amount of time outside, so the back yard will include a shaded area, a large dinner table, and plenty of rocking chairs and hammocks. Typically, the owner of a gringo house will landscape their lot with palm trees and tropical flowers.
In Costa Rica, central cooling is very rare. Instead, most people decide to install air conditioning units in the bedrooms. Much of the country has mild weather and the need for an air conditioning unit is reduced, but if you choose to live by the beach, this unit will make your nights significantly more comfortable. During the day, most people just use fans to keep cool.
This style of home usually appeals to the foreign buyer as it comes with a more comfortable and familiar environment. Although not traditional to Costa Rica, the gringo house is gaining popularity with the locals as well. Often, more educated and higher-income families will opt for a gringo house, especially in the bigger cities.
A tico house is built with traditional colonial architecture, and is most iconically defined by an interior patio with either a closed or opened roof. Rather than looking outward, as you may be used to, a tico house is usually constructed with the bedrooms on the perimeter of the house, all with small windows looking into the interior garden or living spaces. Of course, Costa Rica experiences a wide variety of weather, and the presence of these open, indoor garden patios will depend on where in Costa Rica you choose to settle. While lower income families may just have a small interior patio with potted plants, middle and upper class families often have a large garden complete with tropical flowers, fruits, and even a palm tree.
In this house, the bedrooms are typically smaller, have less closet space, and are less likely to connect to a private bathroom. The Costa Rican way of life is very communal, and families living in a traditional way are more likely to spend all their time in the communal living spaces, retiring to their rooms only for the night. The only outward looking windows may be in the front of the house overlooking the street, and these windows are usually small and have bars instead of screens. This protects the house and allows a healthy air flow. The walls are made with local cinder block covered in plaster, and the roofs are typically zinc or tin sheet metal. Depending on where the house is located and the financial state of the family, some home owners will choose to install terracotta roof panels and a ceiling to offset the heat.
Tico houses are also defined by two extra rooms that gringo houses lack: a large laundry room and a live-in maid’s quarters, complete with a toilet. While gringo houses often have a small closet with a laundry machine, tico houses will have a large room dedicated to washing. There will be a traditional, large stone sink and enough area to hang a clothes line. Surprisingly, even the more modest tico homes have a large wash room, but they are sometimes located in the back patio under an awning. Open aired houses with large gardens are beautiful and tropical, but they do require extra cleaning. With nothing stopping the dust from spreading around your house, a typical Costa Rican family will mop the entire house every day. This extra cleaning has created a culture where live-in maids are extremely common, and not just among the most wealthy. Middle class families, especially those with kids, will often hire a maid to clean and cook. Some maids come just for the day, and others live in the house and offer 24-hour attention. Those without live-in maids often convert these quarters into extra storage space, but new homes are still being constructed with this feature.
There are many different amenities you can choose to add to your house, whether it be tico or gringo. Most commonly, the gringo houses will be the ones with the most amenities. Gringo houses usually have washing machines opposed to large laundry rooms. Dryers are rare in any housing style due to the amount of sun and local preference to air dry clothes.
Air conditioning units are often added to gringo house bedrooms, and are becoming increasingly common in tico houses as well. No house will have central heating, as it’s entirely unnecessary, and only the most upscale of gringo houses will have fireplaces, typically those located in the mountains.
Gringo houses are usually equipped with hot water to all faucets. Tico houses may have hot water in the shower, but typically the water is heated with a small electrical device attached straight to the shower head. Having electricity heat your shower may seem like a risk, but these devices are yet to cause a problem.
The choice is yours
Both housing styles come with their advantages and disadvantages. While you may be drawn to the added comfort of a gringo house, these houses don’t receive the airflow or the tropical ambiance of the traditional tico house. The tico houses are cheaper to buy and easier to sell, and while the tropical scene may entice you, you’ll have to put up with a gecko in your shower and a noisy roof during rain storms. Regardless of your choice, you’ll be living in Costa Rica, so the good life is guaranteed.