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Buying property in Nicaragua: scams and pitfalls

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Everything you need to know is included in our Nicaragua Property Pack

Nicaragua's stunning landscapes and affordability are attracting more foreign buyers to its real estate market.

Navigating the local property market can be a bit of a puzzle though, especially for non-residents. There are several hurdles and surprises that you should be ready for.

Our group of property buyers and local partners have shared various problems with us. We've listed them all in our Nicaragua Property Pack.

This article provides a brief overview of potential pitfalls that may arise during the property buying process in this country.

Is it safe or risky to invest in real estate in Nicaragua?

Over the past two decades, the real estate market in Nicaragua has seen a mix of genuine opportunities and unfortunately, scams.

San Juan del Sur, a popular coastal town, witnessed a surge in foreign investors in the early 2000s.

There were instances where unsuspecting buyers purchased beachfront properties, only to find out the land was within the maritime zone, making it government property and ineligible for private permanent ownership. Such scenarios underline the importance of due diligence and local expertise.

Historical land ownership challenges have cast shadows on Nicaragua's property market. Post the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, a significant number of properties were seized from their owners by the state. While many have been returned, the provenance of some remains murky. The town of Granada, for instance, is riddled with colonial homes that changed hands during this era. Today's buyer must be astutely aware of these shifts, lest they purchase a property still embroiled in historical disputes.

Foreign buyers often encounter a dichotomy between "right of possession" and "title ownership". In areas like the Corn Islands, "right of possession" properties are common. While cheaper, they are not backed by a formal title, making their long-term ownership risky.

The property purchasing process in Nicaragua is not as streamlined as in Western countries. There's a degree of transparency, but also layers of bureaucracy. For instance, while acquiring a property near Lake Nicaragua, one might need to obtain permits and clearances related to environmental protection, given the lake's ecological significance.

Property disputes can be tiresome. The Nicaraguan legal framework is exhaustive but can be painstakingly slow. A case in point is the foreign investors in the Tola region, some of whom have waited years for land dispute resolutions, with the balance often tilting in favor of local inhabitants.

Government policies have been somewhat welcoming. The Law of Promotion of Foreign Investment, for example, offers legal guarantees. Yet, policy shifts are not uncommon. In 2014, there was significant buzz about the proposed Nicaragua Canal, a rival to the Panama Canal. Many properties were earmarked for it, affecting their value and status. Though the project has since stagnated, it serves as a reminder of the ever-evolving landscape.

Due diligence in Nicaragua should involve using local experts to trace the title's history, understanding the Sandinista era implications to ensure there are no lingering disputes, and hiring a local attorney familiar with nuances, such as those found in the booming beach town of Popoyo, which can make the difference between a wise or regrettable purchase.

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Avoid these pitfalls when purchasing property in Nicaragua

The concept of "derecho de vía”

When buying residential property in Nicaragua, one unique and often overlooked aspect you should be aware of is the "derecho de vía" or "right of way" issues.

This is particularly relevant in coastal areas or near bodies of water. In Nicaragua, there are specific regulations about the public's access to these areas, which can affect property lines and usage rights.

For instance, in areas like San Juan del Sur or along the Pacific coast, the Nicaraguan law mandates a public access zone, typically within the first 50 meters from the high tide line of the ocean.

This zone is considered public land and cannot be owned or exclusively occupied by private entities. If you're considering a property near the beach, you should be extremely cautious about this regulation.

Failure to understand or adhere to this law can lead to significant legal challenges and potential loss of property or investment.

Another unique aspect is the "Indemnización por Mejoras" (Compensation for Improvements). In some cases, if a property has been improved or developed by someone other than the owner (like a tenant or a squatter), they might be entitled to compensation for these improvements if the property is sold.

This is a concept deeply rooted in Nicaraguan property law and can surprise foreign investors who are unaware of it.

These issues are not necessarily frequent, but they are significant when they do occur. It's crucial to conduct thorough due diligence, possibly involving local legal experts, to navigate these unique Nicaraguan property laws and ensure a secure investment.

The risks related to "Afectación Familiar"

Another unique and often overlooked aspect when buying residential property in Nicaragua, especially for foreigners, is the concept of "Afectación Familiar."

This is a legal provision specific to Nicaraguan property law, designed to protect family homes from being easily sold or mortgaged without the consent of both spouses, regardless of who holds the title.

In the context of Nicaraguan culture, family is paramount, and this law reflects that value. When a property is declared as "Afectación Familiar," it is legally designated as a family home, and therefore, both spouses must agree to any sale or mortgage of the property, even if only one spouse is the registered owner.

This can catch many foreign buyers off guard, especially if they are single purchasers dealing with a property that has been previously declared a family home.

For instance, if you are buying a property in a city like Granada or León, and the property has been previously declared as "Afectación Familiar," you must ensure that both spouses are involved in the sale process. Failure to do so can result in legal complications and possibly invalidate the transaction.

This issue isn't frequent in every transaction but it's a critical factor to consider. It underscores the importance of conducting a complete legal check on the property, which should include verifying its status regarding "Afectación Familiar."

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"Propiedad Comunal" or communal property

A unique and crucial aspect to consider when buying property in Nicaragua, especially for foreigners, is the concept of "Propiedad Comunal" or communal property.

This is particularly relevant if you're looking at properties in areas inhabited by indigenous or ethnic communities, such as the Atlantic Coast regions or in areas like Bluefields or the Corn Islands.

Communal property in Nicaragua is land that is collectively owned by indigenous or ethnic communities. The land rights for these properties are governed by a different set of laws compared to regular private property.

Even if a piece of land within a communal area appears to be privately owned, the underlying ownership may actually belong to the community as a whole.

This can lead to complicated legal situations for unwary buyers.

For example, if you're interested in a property that seems to be individually owned in an area like the RAAN (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Norte) or RAAS (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Sur), it's crucial to delve deeper and understand whether the land is actually part of a communal territory.

In some cases, land transactions in these areas might require approval from community leaders or local councils, in addition to regular legal procedures.

This issue isn't widely prevalent across Nicaragua, but it's highly significant in the areas where it applies.

It's a mistake to overlook the potential communal nature of land ownership, as it can lead to invalid transactions, legal disputes, and loss of investment.

The awareness of the "Confiscation Laws" risk

When purchasing residential property in Nicaragua, an often-overlooked aspect specific to the country is the potential for unresolved land disputes, particularly related to the "Confiscation Laws" from the Sandinista period in the 1980s.

These laws led to widespread confiscation of properties, which were then redistributed to individuals loyal to the Sandinista regime.

Many original property owners, especially those who fled the country during this period, did not formally lose their property rights, leading to a complex situation of disputed ownership.

For example, if you're considering buying property in Managua or another area that experienced significant upheaval during the Sandinista period, there's a chance that the property's ownership history could be entangled in these historical disputes.

Even if the current seller has a seemingly clear title, there might be previous owners or their heirs who still have a legal claim to the property, which can resurface and lead to complex legal battles.

While these issues are less common now, given the passage of time since the 1980s, they still occur and can represent a significant risk.

It's crucial to conduct a detailed history check of the property, going back several decades if necessary, to ensure that there are no lingering disputes or claims.

Engaging with a local attorney who has expertise in Nicaraguan property law and history is essential to navigate this potential pitfall.

This aspect of Nicaraguan property law underscores the importance of comprehensive due diligence, especially when dealing with older properties or those in areas significantly affected by the country's political history.

Ensuring clear and undisputed ownership is key to securing your investment and avoiding future legal complications.

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"Zonas de Alto Riesgo" or high-risk zones

In Nicaragua, a unique and often overlooked aspect in residential property transactions is the potential issue with "Zonas de Alto Riesgo" or high-risk zones.

This is particularly relevant due to Nicaragua's geographical and climatic conditions, which include vulnerability to natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, and volcanic activity.

For instance, if you're considering buying property in areas like Managua, which is near several fault lines, or near the volcanoes like Masaya or Concepción, it's essential to be aware of the risks associated with these natural features.

Properties in these areas might be subject to higher risks of damage due to natural disasters.

This can not only affect your property's value and safety but also impact insurance costs and resale value.

Unlike some countries where such information might be readily available or disclosed as part of the property transaction process, in Nicaragua, the onus is often on the buyer to investigate and understand these risks.

The government does designate certain areas as high-risk, but these designations might not always be clearly communicated or easily accessible to foreign buyers.

Therefore, you should conduct thorough research into the geographical and environmental risks associated with any potential property purchase in Nicaragua. This might include consulting with local environmental experts, reviewing geological surveys, and understanding the local history of natural disasters.

Moreover, it's advisable to check whether the property is in a zone that has been officially designated as high-risk by the Nicaraguan government, as this can have significant implications for your investment.

"Servidumbres" or easements

Another unique consideration when buying residential property in Nicaragua, particularly for foreigners, is the issue of "Servidumbres" or easements.

This aspect can be especially pertinent in rural or semi-rural areas where properties may have informal or traditionally established access routes that are not officially recorded.

In the context of Nicaraguan property law, an easement might grant access to a third party across a portion of the property you are interested in purchasing.

For example, if you're looking at a property in a more remote area, like around Ometepe Island or in the mountainous regions of Matagalpa, it's possible that neighboring landowners or local communities have historically used a part of the land for access or for utilities like water lines, without a formal agreement in place.

This issue might not be immediately apparent during the initial stages of purchasing a property.

Unlike in some countries, where such rights are clearly delineated and registered, in Nicaragua, these easements might be based on long-standing community practices or informal agreements.

As a result, you could unknowingly purchase a property that has existing access rights for third parties, which could affect your use and enjoyment of the property.

To navigate this potential pitfall, it's crucial to conduct a thorough investigation into any existing easements or access rights associated with the property.

This process should involve consulting with neighbors, local community leaders, and, importantly, a legal professional knowledgeable in Nicaraguan property law.

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"Vicios Ocultos" or hidden defects

A specific and potentially overlooked aspect in the process of buying residential property in Nicaragua, particularly relevant to foreigners, is the issue of "Vicios Ocultos" or hidden defects.

This term refers to problems with the property that are not immediately apparent or disclosed at the time of purchase but can significantly affect the property's value and usability.

In the Nicaraguan context, given the varying standards of construction and less stringent regulatory oversight, properties, especially older ones or those in rural areas, might have structural issues, defects in electrical or plumbing systems, or even problems related to land stability that are not immediately visible.

For example, if you are considering a property in a historic area like Granada or a more rural setting, there may be hidden issues related to the age of the property, previous renovations, or local construction practices.

The challenge with "Vicios Ocultos" in Nicaragua is that the legal recourse for buyers in such situations can be limited or more challenging to navigate compared to some other countries.

This means that the responsibility often falls on you, as the buyer, to thoroughly inspect and investigate the property before completing the purchase.

To mitigate this risk, it's advisable to engage a reputable local property inspector or a construction expert who can conduct a thorough examination of the property. This should include a detailed check of the building's structural integrity, utilities, and any other potential areas of concern.

Additionally, ensuring that your purchase agreement includes clauses that address the discovery of hidden defects can provide some legal protection.

"Ley de Costas" or the Coastal Law

In Nicaragua, a unique and often overlooked aspect of buying residential property, especially for foreigners, is the potential complication related to "Ley de Costas" or the Coastal Law.

This law can have significant implications for properties located near the coastline.

"Ley de Costas" is particularly relevant if you're looking at properties on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts of Nicaragua, including popular areas like San Juan del Sur or the Corn Islands. This law regulates land use and ownership within a certain distance from the high tide line.

The key point here is that the first 200 meters from the high tide line is considered public domain, and private ownership is restricted in this zone.

The first 50 meters are absolutely inalienable and must be left open for public use, while the next 150 meters can be subject to restricted use and special regulations. For a foreigner considering purchasing coastal property in Nicaragua, it's crucial to be aware of this law to avoid investing in a property that you may not be able to develop or use as intended.

Properties that fall within this 200-meter zone might come with substantial restrictions, and in some cases, might even involve legal disputes over ownership or land use rights.

To navigate this issue, you should conduct thorough due diligence before purchasing a coastal property. This includes verifying the exact location of the property in relation to the high tide line and understanding the specific restrictions and regulations that apply under the "Ley de Costas."

Consulting with a local lawyer who specializes in Nicaraguan real estate law is essential to ensure that you fully understand the implications of this law on your potential property purchase.

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"Indígenas y Afrodescendientes" communities risk

When purchasing residential property in Nicaragua, especially as a foreigner, a unique and critical aspect to consider is the issue related to "Indígenas y Afrodescendientes" communities, or indigenous and Afro-descendant community land rights.

This is particularly relevant in areas where these communities have historical and legal claims to land, which often include large swathes of territory, especially in the autonomous regions on the Caribbean coast.

In Nicaragua, these communities have specific rights to their ancestral lands under national and international laws.

For example, if you are looking to buy property in the Autonomous Regions of the North and South Caribbean Coast (RACCN and RACCS), you must be aware that the land in these regions might be collectively owned or claimed by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

Even if a property is being sold by an individual or a company, there might be communal claims to the land that are not immediately apparent.

These communal land rights can lead to complex legal situations, where the ownership and use of the land are contested.

Buying property without a clear understanding of these communal rights can result in legal disputes and potential loss of your investment.

To navigate this potential issue, it's crucial to conduct extensive due diligence before purchasing property in these areas. This should include consulting with local authorities, community leaders, and legal experts who specialize in indigenous and Afro-descendant land rights in Nicaragua.

They can help you understand whether the property you're interested in is subject to communal claims and advise on the legal and ethical considerations of proceeding with such a purchase.

"Titulo Supletorio" or Supplementary Title

An often overlooked but significant aspect of buying residential property in Nicaragua, especially for foreigners, is the issue related to "Titulo Supletorio" or Supplementary Title. This aspect is particularly relevant in rural areas or places where formal land registration might not have been rigorously implemented in the past.

The "Titulo Supletorio" is a form of property title used in Nicaragua to regularize land ownership in cases where formal land titles are missing or were never officially recorded.

This situation is common in rural areas or regions where land has been informally settled or passed down through generations without formal legal documentation.

For example, if you're considering purchasing land or a property in a rural area of Nicaragua, such as near Matagalpa or Jinotega, you may encounter properties that are being sold with a "Titulo Supletorio." While this title can be legal, it often requires a more thorough investigation to ensure the legitimacy of the ownership claim.

The main issue with a "Titulo Supletorio" is that it might not provide the same level of security and clarity of ownership as a standard property title.

There could be disputes or claims against the land that are not immediately apparent.

To address this issue, it is vital to conduct a comprehensive legal review of the property's title history. This should include verifying the origin of the "Titulo Supletorio," checking for any outstanding disputes or claims, and understanding the complete ownership history of the property.

Working with a local attorney who specializes in Nicaraguan property law is crucial in these situations to ensure that you have a clear and legally sound understanding of the property's title status.

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