Wow, what a nightmare!
I have been driving around Panama for the past six weeks looking for a home for my father. I’ve lived in Panama the better part of a decade and know it well. It is a beautiful country that offers many benefits for American, European, and other retirees from around the world. I am in Love with Panama and call it home, there is no place in the world I would rather live at the moment. And it is the best place to live on a boat with endless islands to explore, no hurricanes, great fishing, and long-term visa options.
Bocas Del Toro made the most sense as there are many waterfront properties where I can keep my sailboat (home) close to a house for my father where he can grow old. He is 83 and I’d like to keep an eye on him in his old age.
A few months back, I started contacting Bocas brokers online to get an idea of what was available. I was surprised they were all Americans. At first I was pleased that I didn’t have to muddle around with my poor Spanish. It seemed plenty of property was available and the brokers were all pleasant enough to deal with.
As soon as I got to Bocas, I contacted my first broker. I thought it a bit strange that she asked me not to contact any other brokers there and that I should only deal with her. She promised it would be easier on me as “she knew Bocas and had been there for many years” and knew how to “protect” my best interests. Uneasily I agreed. She took me out on a boat which I had to pay for to show me a few properties, then took me in a taxi, which I also had to pay for to see another property. She has been in Bocas for “many years” and hasn’t learned how to speak Spanish so I also had to do all of the negotiating with the taxis and boat captains myself. I wondered how she was going to protect my interests when she couldn’t communicate with the locals, and didn’t have a car or boat to show me properties?
Nevertheless, my father and I fell in love with a small 800m2 piece of beachfront and proceeded to try and buy it. Our “broker” referred us to our “lawyer” and we retained him to purchase it.
The first thing the broker asked is that we should make a $1,000 “good faith” deposit on the property and forwarded a contract to our lawyer. It was also the first thing I asked our lawyer to do as we didn’t want to lose the property. He told me “not to worry about it” as nobody else was looking at the lot and it had been for sale for a long time.
So two beautiful weeks went by. We visited the property every day, we had a new survey done, talked to the maritime authorities to know which steps to take to protect the land from erosion, got a quote for gabions to build a sea wall, had picnics, talked about house designs, and waited for our lawyer to return from his holiday to finish the contract on the property so we could pay for it. My father’s dream of a beach house was coming to fruition.
Our lawyer was coming back on Monday. On Sunday, our broker started insisting we put the faith deposit down. We told her our lawyer was coming back the next day. But that evening, only a few hours before we could do anything about it, she told us that the property was no longer available, that it had been sold. Dreams were crushed, tears shed, but we decided to continue our search. I had previously informed my broker that I in fact would speak to other real estate brokers as she was obviously pushing to split the commission with the broker who actually had the listing. I should have been dealing with the listing broker all along, my own fault :(
Not wanting to deal with any more realtors, I asked on the Bocas Buy&Sell Facebook page if anyone knew of an inexpensive house for sale. A guy replied saying he had something and would work with me on the price. An hour later, Carla and I went to see the house ourselves first as we didn’t want to put my father through any more stress and heartache. He had just got out of the hospital with heart issues (Tachycardia) and keeping him happy and stress-free was a priority to us.
The house was perfect and we sat at the table and cut a deal with the owner before showing the property to my father. Excited, we told dad about it and we all spent the next night at the house. Dad shook the owners hand and said “Thank you, I want to retire here”.
The owner had the house listed with a different broker in town and informed me that they would be involved from this point forward. I had a long talk with my lawyer as I really liked him, but wanted him to acknowledge that he lost our last property for us and that I expected more from him moving forward, he agreed.
The following morning the sellers met us at our attorney’s office after having met with their broker. A “mysterious” new buyer appeared and they said they wouldn’t sell the property for the price we had negotiated the previous night but they were doing us a big favor by giving us the opportunity to buy their house. Dad got very nervous as they wanted more money and really felt taken advantage of as did Carla and I. We agreed to the new price even though it left a very bad taste in my mouth. It was a stretch for my father as he had to liquidate everything but he was willing to do so as we all really loved the house.
The most important time in buying property in Panama is the “due-diligence” period where the history of the property is closely examined. This is particularly important when buying ROP (rights of possession) property which hasn’t been titled. Most of my friends here in Panama bought ROP, then spent the time and money to have the property titled. A lawyer must carefully examine the history of the property to make sure no other claims have been made on it, and to insure its validity.
We met with the owners at the realtors’ office. They drew an informal “buy-sell” agreement. We felt confident as the new realtors were the “oldest and most respected” firm in Bocas and they assured us the history of this ROP property was “super-clean”, and that they had a folder with the whole history of the land and the corporation who had owned it for over ten years. The owners signed the contract, and we asked to see our attorney to check the paperwork and the contract before we did. They agreed and so we went to his office.
Our lawyer informed us that he would be traveling (again) to Bali the next morning to go surfing. He briefly looked at the property paperwork, said it
looked very clean, read the contract, pointed out a few things that needed to be improved on, said he would draw a proper legal contract before we put down the 10% deposit in a few days, and that he would be back before we closed the deal. He also told us that he was going to do all his research during his trip and that his firm would stay open with another attorney, “no worries”. We went back to the brokers’ office, gave them the folder back, signed the agreement and gave them $700 (good faith deposit for 10 days). They gave us a copy of the survey of the property and we happily left to celebrate with dad.
photo we had to send the owners and realtors
However, as soon as we got home, Carla pointed out the fact that our lawyer didn’t have copies of any of the paperwork so obviously he wouldn’t be able to check anything for the next 30 days, we were on our own again. I opened the land survey and downloaded a satellite image of the island to compare it to the survey and blueprints.
I wish I had a photograph of my face when I realized the the house was built on a piece of property about a half a mile away from where the survey said it was built, $#!T !!!!!!!!
The survey showed we were buying a piece of water on the northern tip of a peninsula instead of a house and 2 1/2 acres of property on the western side.
How is it that a realtor has been selling the same piece of land for 10 years and has never bothered to look at the map on the blueprints to the house or land survey? How is is possible that the previous or the current owners never bothered to check either, really?
The lawyer told us by email not to worry, that everything would be fine. They realtor told us not to tell anyone about our finding, and that they would make a new survey with the correct geographical location of the property right away.
After a few days, we received a call while the surveyors were on the land and the owner, upset, told us that there was nothing wrong with the survey, that we had made the whole thing up. The surveyor’s translator literally told me that “everybody knew that the satellite photos of Bocas were wrong”. Something like Google had taken the time to mess up the satellite photographs of the islands and cut-and-paste properties to put them in other random locations.
We were so tired of being lied to, being taken advantage of, and dealing with incompetent people that we asked for our deposit back. The owners were hesitant to give it back to us because they had taken the house out of the market for a few days. After a few phone calls and emails, last Friday we fortunately received a message from the realtors saying that they would give us the deposit back, and asked us not to have any further contact with the owners.
Let me take a moment to say that I really love Bocas Del Toro. Most Americans complain about Panamanians being slow, late, nonchalant, and not very thorough. And in most cases it’s true, but their laid-back and tranquil life is what calls us. The philosophy of a slower, less complicated life is the honey that draws us here.
But when you don’t even try to learn the local language, how is it you can expect any respect from the locals? People get along just fine in Panama without a real postal service and marginal infrastructure, truthfully I prefer it. Bocas is great and there are plenty of Americans who do good honest business there like The Flying Pirates (quad rentals), and Casa Abundancyah which is a great little inn that I would highly recommend for your stay in Bocas. The quads are also the best way to see the island.
If you plan on buying property in Bocas Del Toro be prepared for a tough go at it. You will have to deal with vultures and incompetence. I’m sure the real estate firms I dealt with do honest business, but all I can do is write about my own experience, and my own experience was terrible!
It had nothing to do with dealing with Panama or Panamanians. Most of the problems I had were dealing with gringos that move to paradise and try to capitalize on it, making it difficult for everyone else.
After two weeks of driving all around the country, a week of hospitals, and a month of running around Bocas del Toro, we finally made it back to Splendid. We found a beautiful beach rental for my dad near the boat. He has a nice two bedroom house on the beach with A/C and a priceless view. It is owned by a local family who is bending over backwards to make him comfortable and welcome.
The moral of this story is:
Once again, Carla and I had been reminded of how much we love life on a boat, how much simpler and healthier it is to live with little and in nature. If you manage to get yourself to paradise, enjoy it. Don’t bother yourself with trying to accumulate as much land or money as humanly possible. Don’t ask for more than you need and take the time to engulf yourself in a foreign culture. There is a big difference between trying to make a buck, and trying to make as many bucks as possible no matter what or who you take advantage of.
Bocas has a very predominant American community which, in my very humble opinion, is the least appealing part of Bocas. The realtors have made large investments and are over-inflating a bubble that they have created themselves. The vibe almost everywhere else in Panama is much more tranquil and peaceful.
After 12 years traveling on the boat this has proven to be a very good lesson for me. I don’t want a house or to deal with land-people problems. The freedom of the sea and living on the boat is priceless. The pursuit of peace and freedom is where I will continue to focus my path.
I apologize for not writing or being present lately.
Sail far and live slowly.