If you plan to buy a house in Bolivia, take a moment to read through the some of the experiences we've had with house hunting in Santa Cruz, where we are based. If you’re considering moving to Bolivia from somewhere like the US or Canada, you’ll find that looking for a house to rent or buy is an experience you’ll never forget. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of what buying a house might be like in Bolivia. We'll touch on renting
Finding a house in Santa Cruz used to be very easy. But this city is currently the fastest growing city in South America and Bolivia has been the fastest growing country in South America since 2015.
First let me say that you could easily hire an “inmobiliaria” (a real estate agency) to help you find a house. But even then, there are things to consider that you probably wouldn’t think of taking into account if you’re not from Bolivia. Here are some of the things we’ve learned about buying a house from our own house hunting adventures in Bolivia!
When you use real estate agents:
• Almost anyone can be a real estate agent in Bolivia. There are no pre-qualifying exams; no studying to learn all the tax, real estate or land-ownership laws; no state certifications to acquire.
• Sellers are not required to sign an exclusivity agreement with their chosen real estate agent. A real estate agent may see a "House for Sale" sign or newspaper ad and ask the owner if they can show the house, if they have a client who might be interested in seeing it.
• Sometimes homeowners clearly state in their ads that they do not want any real estate agents to intervene or contact them. Often people looking to buy a house will also place "House Wanted" ads in the newspaper. Potential buyers may also specifically state in their ads that they want real estate agents to abstain from contacting them.
• You can of course also hire your own real estate agent to help you look for a house to buy (and they will charge you). But neither you nor the seller are not beholden to a single real estate agent, unless you choose to use them exclusively.
• Before you actually buy a house, it is imperative that you hire a lawyer familiar with real estate to work with the government properties office (Derechos Reales) to investigate whether or not anyone else owns the right to the property or there is any other type of lien on the property that may prevent you from owning it, because...
• There is a huge problem with illegal settlements in Bolivia, especially in Santa Cruz. Migrants from other cities simply show up in large groups, settle on land or plots of land and begin to build. They have usually paid a corrupt official to extend them a title showing them as the owner. These land grabs have caused many land ownership disputes which often take years to resolve, if ever.
• Once the ownership of a house or property has been verified and authorities have confirmed that there are no outstanding liens, your lawyer will then guide you through all remaining paperwork that must be presented to authorities and help you register the house or property in your name.
• If a bank is involved (if you've taken out a loan to buy a house) then the bank will guide you with lawyers who are contracted by them to do the aforementioned steps, as the bank will own the title to the house or property until you've finished paying the loan.
• There is no such thing as a single, central real estate listing service in Bolivia. There are some half-hearted real estate websites where homes are listed by sellers, buyers and realtors, but there is not really a single complete, combined, or certified listing service per se.
When you try to buy a house on your own:
• When you call to ask for more information about a house that is for sale, your first question might be “Are you the owner or a real estate agent?” Knowing who is selling the house (the owner or an agent) will give you an immediate feel for what your possible bargaining abilities and limitations might be. If it’s an owner you might have more leeway. If it’s an agent, they’ll do anything they can to keep the price high because they earn by commission as a percentage of the sale.
• As you’re looking for a house to buy, don’t skip over the listings in the anticrético and rental sections. Some homeowners may be open to renting a home they listed for sale, or selling a home they listed for rent, and some ads say “For sale or rent” but are listed only under one of the sections, etc. By reading all the ads, you have a greater variety of homes to look at.
• Not all homes are listed in the newspaper. One of the most time consuming (but often very effective) ways to find a home is to get in your car (or call a radio taxi and hire him/her by the hour) and go directly to a neighborhood you know you’d like to live in. Have the taxi drive slowly up and down, back and forth on each street until you’ve covered the area. Many homeowners and inmobiliarias know that people do their house hunting like this. They don’t bother paying to put an ad in the paper. Instead, they simply clip up a sign on the front gate. We’ve seen more houses this way than through ads. And we’ve not felt like it was a waste of time because we’ve gone directly to areas we know we want to live in.
• Pore over the websites that contain houses and apartments for rent. They usually have color photos. Newspaper classifieds don’t. Be aware that usually only the most expensive offerings are listed and shown on websites because it’s costly to list them. Most classified ads glorify a house. When you see it, it may not be as nice as the ad says. There are no laws against “false advertising” in Bolivia that we are aware of. (Let’s not get into our experience with the “beautiful, elegant, very well located, bright and airy” house we once viewed that had dead rats on the lawn, gaping holes in the ceilings, and a tin-roofed mechanic’s workshop for a back yard, but here's a picture of it.)
• Be aware that homes are sold and/or rented “as is” and without many of the commodities or amenities that we take for granted in the North America. Most homes sold directly by owners may be stripped completely of all appliances, light fixtures or bulbs, air conditioning, etc. The same is true for many of the newly built homes in "urbanizaciones" (housing projects or gated communities), even if you view a fully equipped model home. Be very sure your contract stipulates what will and will not be included. Read more about what houses in Bolivia are like here.
• About Santa Cruz specifically: be aware if you are looking to buy a house, that at this time, in Santa Cruz it is very much a seller’s market. If many people are viewing the same house you are, or the owner’s cellphone is ringing off the hook during your visit, the chances of requesting a price break are almost null.
So when do you "show them the money"?
Overall, if you’re house hunting you’ve got your work cut out for you. Your best option is to rely on recommendations from friends, co-workers and people you trust and if you choose to use the services of a real estate agent, use one that comes very well recommended or is accustomed to helping foreigners buy a house. Your experience will largely depend on the support group you have. Mostly it will depend on your budget and the area you choose to search in.
• As anywhere else, houses are priced by the perceived quality of the location. But the truth is, there are no zoning laws in Bolivia, or if there are any, they are not enforced. So you may find that the beautiful home you see in an ad is next to a discotheque, store, mechanic shop... to save time, you should pay very close attention to the surroundings before you agree to buy a house, and ask what is planned for the area in the future.
• Don't be wowed by location (which translates into high prices)! Plenty of very exclusive neighborhoods have very high crime rates - like Equipetrol, Las Palmas and Urbarí in Santa Cruz, or Aranjuez, Obrajes, Sopocachi and Calacoto in La Paz. In these neighborhoods, robberies are frequent precisely because they are perceived as wealthy and exclusive and foreigners are especially targeted. The general consensus in Bolivia is that "all foreigners are rich."
• Don’t be afraid to be creative! For the right price and the right buyer, people are willing to make some allowances, negotiate prices, and even work on exchange! See this ad? The homeowner is offering to accept a vehicle as part of the payment on the house that is for sale. You can place ads or make creative offers too.
Have patience, don’t be pressured, take a look at a nice large variety of homes, and go ahead and lose an opportunity with a house or two. New options will come up every day and there are lots of very nice ones. Be calm.
Go with your gut. We viewed over 50 houses in 1 month to research this article for you! When you finally do find a house that gives you that warm-and-fuzzy feeling, you’ll know it. That’s when you pull out your wad of bills, hand them over fast and say “me! me! me!”
Continue to These Important Pages on Housing
What are Bolivian houses like?
Is rent free living possible (and worthwhile)?
Everything you should know about renting.
Everything you should know about setting up utilities.
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