Everything You Need to Know About PR Real Estate

By
James Greaves
May 4, 2020

Finding the perfect Puerto Rican pad can be tough.

This is particularly frustrating if you're moving in a hurry (as many tend to do), and especially now that Act 60 requires you to buy a house within 2 years of your decree if you are claiming personal incentives.

Real estate agents on the island can be hard to find because most of them are not online. When you do find an agent you can work with, you quickly realize real estate here is not the same as it is on the mainland — despite first appearances.

If you're looking to do online research the picture is not much better. There's not a lot of information online, and what is online is mostly outdated.

Where to Start Your Search

Luckily we've been here a while and taken a bunch of hard knocks so you don't have to.

In this guide we'll take you through the Puerto Rico real estate market and housing in general, then look at neighborhoods, online listing options and tips for how to work with local agents.

If you just want to dive into a search, start on our neighborhoods page, which will give you a list of the areas you should probably be looking at and the agent to work with in each.

(We'll talk more about why we recommend you do it this way in a minute. Just know there is a method to our madness.)

1. What You Need to Know about PR Real Estate

Puerto Rico has been in a depression for the past decade. Hurricanes Irma and Maria, followed by the 2020 Ponce earthquakes and COVID-19, haven't helped one bit.

There has been net emigration from the island for a number of years, with the population declining by 5% to 20% since 2010 (depending on which numbers you believe). This means in theory there should be a ton of opportunity for great deals. That doesn't really translate into reality, however.

In fact, in the areas you are going to want to live, prices have more than doubled in the past 2-3 years. Probably for good reason — more on that later.

If you drive around most areas you will see abandoned, run-down buildings, often in such bad condition that all that remains is a roofless concrete husk with empty window holes and trees growing inside. On the mainland that would be a sure sign that good deals are possible.

There's not.

Think about this: You're not the first gringo to drive past this week looking for deals, let alone in the past 10 years. If there are trees growing in it, it's been sitting as inventory for a long time.

The real estate market in Puerto Rico is incredibly patient. I have seen people sit on properties — either livable or not — for decades, or generations, waiting for them to come into price.

For example, in Old San Juan, the charming 500-year-old cobblestone-street city, you will see broken husks of houses every 5-10 houses. Inventory is high — just walking around you could estimate that 10% of the town is "available." But prices haven't come down in living memory and they won't unless something even more unprecedented than simultaneous government insolvency, double cat-5 hurricanes, and a global pandemic occurs. (A giant lizard attack, perhaps, or the unsealing of the 7th seal in the book of Revelation?) Any house in Old San Juan is going to set you back about a million dollars. Common sense be damned (or at least, the kind of common sense that serves you well on the mainland be damned).

From a Puerto Rican perspective, this is probably the right approach. The constant stream of gringos passing through looking for deals is an opportunity, not a risk.

You'll look at the property and think, "This is going nowhere, I'm the only one that can help. No one else has been able to use this." They look at you and think, "At some point there will be a gringo that steps off the plane who has enough money and not enough data, who will do this deal. I'll wait."

And they'll be right.

The last point I'll make on this is that there is very patchy data on the real estate market. Whether you're looking for listings or closings, purchase or rent data, it's not available — or it's sketchy. So arguing with data is not going to be possible. It will be your emotions vs. theirs.

Quick facts:

  • The Puerto Rico economy has contracted 19% over the past 14 years and no turnaround is in sight
  • 83% of land in Puerto Rico is raw land — but much of that includes mountains
  • 55% of housing on the island is informal — no title, no codes
  • Average house price in PR is $160,000
  • House prices are on the rise

2. What You Need to Know about PR Construction

Wherever you go you're going to get a concrete box. That's just the way it's going to be. But some concrete boxes are nicer than others.

At first I was a little put off by the concrete boxes, with their ductless air conditioners sticking out of the wall. It all seemed so tacky.

But, like most things around here, there is a reason for this even if it doesn't immediately occur to our own common sense.

Houses in Puerto Rico are built of concrete because everything on the island is trying to destroy them.

PR suffers from hurricanes, aggressive (often flying) termites, fast-growing invasive jungle plants, salty humid air, and plenty of rainfall. And the humidity. The only thing that can survive all of these simultaneous threats is concrete. Everything permanent here is built of cast-in-place concrete or concrete blocks, both of which are then plastered over and painted in bright colors.

There is a wonderful charm about it.

The styles are generally modern or modern-colonial.

The average Puerto Rico home costs about $160,000, but a large percentage of the inventory are smallish concrete boxes with 1-3 rooms, no AC, and bars on the windows. Many of those still have blue tarps on their roofs from Maria and Irma. In the areas you're going to want to live in prices will be between $600k and $1.2m — although you can definitely find cheaper and more expensive if you want that.

Finishes are not going to be as quality as they are on the mainland. I've not met a single person on the island who can lay quality tile, which is ironic considering all the floors on the island are tiled. (This doesn't mean they don't exist.)

3. What You Need to Know about PR Barrios

Before you can start the search for your perfect home it's best to narrow down the region and neighborhoods that are likely to fit your needs. Puerto Rico neighborhoods vary hugely, even within the same municipality.

There are 78 municipalities on the island. These are self-governing local authorities with less authority than a state, but more than a county on the mainland.

Of course, you can live anywhere on the island, but act recipients chose to live in a few main areas, perhaps for:

  1. Safety: The perception is that Puerto Rico is a dangerous place and it certainly feels that way. The data is not as clear. Houses in PR either are in gated communities with guards or have bars on their windows. FBI data shows that violent crimes and burglaries are lower than most states, but the narrative — and the vibe — is that murders and carjackings are much higher. For this reason, Act recipients tend to be careful where they move.
  2. Language: If you live anywhere other than San Juan you will need to speak Spanish, and you'll probably need some Spanish even there. English fluency on the island is low. So if you're thinking about living somewhere less popular, hopefully someone in your house can get by in Puerto Rican Spanish.
  3. Community: Depending on your lifestyle, whether you are looking for schools for kids or a good nightlife, community is important. Gated neighborhoods such as Palmas del Mar and Dorado Beach have just under 2,000 residents each and provide a community of people who have made the same move you have and can therefore help your transition — because living in Puerto Rico can be challenging at times.
  4. Beach access: The almost overwhelming choice of those moving here is to live on or near the beach. If you're looking for mountains you can get those in any number of mainland states, but tropical beaches are harder to come by.

Perhaps because of the above reasons and others, we estimate that a large majority of Act recipients choose to live in three main areas:

  • San Juan. 50% of the population of Puerto Rico lives in the greater San Juan area, which includes places like Carolina, Santurce, Bayamón, and Guaynabo. Here you will have plenty of choice, including 90% of the best schools, and the best dining, transport links, and access to shops and services.
  • Dorado. The Atlantic coast to the west of San Juan, which includes the high-end area of Dorado, is a very popular area that attracts a good number of Act recipients. Dorado is still only 20 minutes from San Juan and has resort-style living, but it is among the most expensive areas on the island.
  • Palmas del Mar / South East. Palmas del Mar is a popular community

Of course, you can live anywhere on the island you like, and there are people from all walks of life and backgrounds spread throughout the commonwealth.

Check out our neighborhood guide to explore in more detail the best areas to live.

4. What You Need to Know About PR Online Listings

Once you have come to grips with the market and the areas of the island you'd like to live in, it's time to find actual houses. These days 93% of people go online to find their home, but that's a little more tricky in Puerto Rico.

The main home listing sites in order are:

  • Clasificadosonline. Yes, that's a real website name and yes, this is really the #1 bienes raíces (real estate) listing site on the island. Despite having a name that's impossible to remember and takes 10 minutes to type, and despite being stuck somewhere in 1996 with terrible layout, no English version, tiny pictures, and long load times, this site has the most up-to-date listings site on the island and has great coverage. If you're really serious it's worth taking a deep breath and dealing with it. (Perhaps a good warmup for life in the commonwealth in general.)
  • Zillow. A well-known site from the mainland, this site has much better usability, but the listings are not kept up to date and the coverage is poor. It can have good listings in some small pockets, but be careful relying on it to do anything serious. Perhaps, just as on the mainland, Zillow's best use is for researching but not so much purchasing.
  • Point2homes. Recently given an overhaul and much more usable than it was just last year, Point2Homes is a listing site that predates Zillow by almost a decade and has seen traction in a few pocket markets such as Puerto Rico. Like Zillow, listings on here are easy to navigate but can also be outdated by several years or more (I recently found a listing that was 8 years out of date.) But, saying that, their coverage is much better.
  • MLS and other systems. There is no official Multiple Listing Service or realtor association on the island (although several have tried). You may find some listings on any number of sites.
  • Individual agent sites. This is where you will find the best listings, but you have to find their sites, and that is the hardest part. Which is a good segue into working with PR agents ...

5. What You Need to Know about Working With PR Agents

Working with a real estate agent in Puerto Rico is exactly like working with one on the mainland — except for all the ways it's different.

PR agents work on commission, generally 3% for buyers and 3% for sellers. They have listings. They show you around properties. They deal with most of the logistics. They take you through the closing process. They help you negotiate. They are professional and courteous.

However, there is no MLS and no realtor association to standardize behavior, so despite their best efforts, processes and practices vary wildly. Listings can be written up any number of ways. Contracts for rental or purchase can be different every time. Closings require lawyers as well as agents. Everything is custom and relationship driven.

But the biggest difference is there is not really such a thing as a buyer's agent out here. They exist, but not the way they do on the mainland.

Again, nothing is consistent, not even this rule, but as a rule of thumb the logic goes something like this:

  1. Listing data and comp data are hard to come by, and lack of transparency encourages local territories (called pockets).
  2. Agents differentiate themselves by owning these pockets, and focus on barrios rather than towns or even municipalities. They hold onto the listings they generate within their own territories tightly.
  3. It is hard for agents to collaborate across territories because standard processes are not in place, so agents will tend to show you only their listings — this is easier for them, and also means they keep the whole 6%.
  4. Additionally, the requirements to officially be a real estate agent in PR are onerous, with difficult paperwork and maddening restrictions, so for every 1 "qualified" agent there are 3-4 unofficial agents. These unofficial agents are generally doing the best they can, but they do weird stuff sometimes like using their own bank accounts for escrow, or writing up bad contracts.
  5. Mixed into this are a few rotten fish who will rip you off in 3 seconds flat doing some unethical and often illegal behavior that is too much hassle to prosecute.

As you get here, if you assume your agent will show you around all the different areas you are in for a shock. The very best ones will drive you around very small neighborhoods (for example, the 3-4 blocks of their territory) where they can tell you the names of everyone in every house and when they last sold. They'll sell you anything within that territory, listed or not, because they know the buyer's "sell it now" price.

The Key to Picking Agents

It sounds wrong to our sensibilities, but you don't need one agent, you need 5 or 6. You need one agent for every neighborhood you are looking at. They shouldn't overlap, and don't ask them to show you neighborhoods they don't usually show.

They won't hold it against you.

The majority of agents will treat you very well, as far as their capability to do so permits. Most frustrations come because of mismatched expectations.

(If you're renting, for example, your agent may represent that they will be your property manager, but they won't be, not because they don't care but because they won't get paid for it. Doing tons of free work is a bad way to run a company.)

Our guide can help point you to the right agents in the main areas mainlanders tend to move to.

In Conclusion

If you're moving to Puerto Rico, understand that the market has tons of inventory but is far from free-flowing and good deals are not generally available.

You are among a growing pool of mainland investors trying to buy the same gated, resort-style, beachfront property, so the kind of real estate you are looking for has doubled in value in the past few years.

All houses in Puerto Rico are built from concrete and most finishes here are below mainland quality.

You need a realtor for every barrio you are interested in. The realtors you are working with may claim to take that personally, but they won't really — because at the end of the day, someone relocating from the mainland could move to any corner of the island, while a local Puerto Rican client is more often than not only interested in a certain area, and they know they can't meet all your needs.

Online information is hard to get to and hard to trust, but is still worth exploring.

All those cautions aside, the island is a great place to be and you can find any kind of property or lifestyle you are looking for, with a little patience.

At some point you're just going to have to come here and do the hard work of driving around and exploring for several week to work it all out. Our checklist can help.

Is there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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