Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why it's so hard to find a good rental property in Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, etc; How to avoid scams & Why Poker Refugees can help

Yes this is really a photo from one of our client's rental properties in Costa Rica

Finding a rental property... it seems so deceptively easy, doesn't it? Anyone can do it, right? Alas, finding a rental property on your own can be one of the most frustrating, time consuming and expensive tasks you undertake when relocating for online poker, especially in 3rd world developing countries like Costa Rica and Mexico. Realtors and rental agents' behavior is akin to that of politicians - they say one thing and do another; they are supposed to be representing you for free but in reality they are working for money behind the scenes. Enter: Poker Refugees to save the day. 

Why did we write this? Because we believe that individuals and consumers should be aware of the forces at work both for and against them in the real estate/rental industry and no one really talks about this. Below we will detail some of the most common problems, issues and mishaps that occur when poker players (and most normal, unsuspecting people) look for a rental property abroad, and then how Poker Refugees services are structured to resolve or avoid them.  

Danger ahead... Don't walk off the cliff
#1 - Systemic, fundamental problems with the real estate/rental industry: To begin this conversation, we have to look at the foundation of this industry and how it came to be. You may have already had some pretty horrific rental experiences with your landlord, rental agent or realtor in a variety of countries. That's because the entire industry is BROKEN. It's inherently flawed. We don't know whose idea it was to structure things this way and it doesn't make sense to us, but that's the way it is today. Here are some of the reasons why: 

  • Representation & Conflict of Interest: Realtors, property managers, rental agents etc all work for the property owners, not the renters. Here we have a [crazy, backwards] situation where the agents represent both sides of the deal, yet get paid by only 1 side. Their best interest is to get paid under any circumstance or they are basically wasting their time. Their intention is to minimize the time they spend with people who don't rent from them and "qualify" renters in advance. Their goal is to keep properties rented because when they're empty, they aren't making money. Because of this, they don't care who ends up renting the property they represent, they just want it rented. It is impossible for them to ethically represent the renter/tenant, who they are "working for" for free. As a result, if there are any problems after you move in, they almost have to side with the property owner, who pays them. Renters think that renting a property is a free service, but in reality as the old sayings go, "there is no such thing as free lunch" and "you get what you pay for". The bottom line is, they are supposed to help you find the property that is the best fit for you within your budget, but in reality they are going to help you find the best property for you that they represent and it will probably (conveniently) cost more than your stated budget.  
  • No Licensing & High Turn-Over: In most developing countries (read: all of the Caribbean, Central and South America for example), there is absolutely no licensing, training or credibility needed to become a real estate broker or property manager. As a result, anyone can set up a real estate or rentals company with very low start up costs. While some companies are serious and have long term accountability to both buyers and sellers, renters and landlords, the majority of these types of businesses are illegitimate and set up almost overnight by both expats from all over the world and locals alike. Most of the time, they don't know what they are doing but it's a way for them to make a quick buck here and there. The market of renters and buyers are not educated to ask anyone for his/her rental or sales license because (although they do exist), they aren't required. 
Things are not always what they seem!!
  • Lack of Accountability: Due to zero requirements for having a license in this industry, it inevitably attracts a lot of bad people. It happens to also attract a lot of well-meaning people who are looking for a way to support themselves while living in an exotic location like Costa Rica or Mexico. The problem is, many of the people posing as agents may be living on a tourist visa just like you, while others are out to explicitly rip people off. They are there one day, gone the next. If anything goes awry, it's most likely that they won't be there to help you because they've already been paid, and they may actually not be in the country anymore. Real estate offices have arguably one of the highest employee turnover rates among industries in these countries because there are no barriers to entry or and they aren't considered employees but independent contractors or business owners. The brokers of the offices aren't much better, but that's a whole 'nother story. Anyone with or without a work permit can decide to be a real estate agent or broker one day and that's it. Because these are vacation destinations, they also know they'll probably never see you again anyway. It's more important for them to think short term and make money today because the chance that you will rent from them again or refer any other clients in the future is probably pretty low. These same countries aren't known for having iron-clad legal systems anyway, or realistically enforceable tenancy rights. 
Where did your realtor go???
  • Disregard for Recurring Business: Many people don't understand why rental agents tend to act in ways that seemingly only benefit them for the short term, when in the western world we are taught to think long term when building a business. This is reflected in how the agents treat the renter/tenant (with respect or a lack thereof). In fact, while it doesn't appear this way to us, the agents actually are thinking long term because they will probably be renting the same property out over and over for years. The tenant is likely only going to inhabit the property for a short term comparatively, so the rep (by design) has more motivation to keep the rental listing - where their commission comes from - over keeping the tenant happy. In fact, it's almost in their best interest if the tenant is moves out before his/her lease ends (for whatever reason), because then the agent can turn the property over and rent it again, making another commission.  

  • Limited Selection of Properties: With the current model, the burden is on the tenant to do all the work to find a rental property. This means that you may have to go to 10, 20, 100 different agents, all who represent only a few properties each. All of them will try to convince you to rent their property regardless, because that's their job. This takes hours, days, weeks and even sometimes months for renters to do correctly. It's supposed to be the realtor's job, but they will only show you the properties they can get paid on, and they won't show you anyone else's listings because then then only make 1/2 the commission. This is called co-brokering and realtors and rental agents try to avoid it at all costs. 
Do not trust this man
  • Fake Properties, Outdated Websites & SEO: Because the job of the agents is to attract as many potential renters as possible, the longer they leave properties on their sites, the better for them and the worse for renters. Agencies purposely leave their websites outdated with properties that are sometimes years old because it is better for their SEO and can lure in a click or inquiry they wouldn't otherwise get. Have you ever been surprised to hear that every property you like was "already rented"? This is because it was likely never available to begin with. This also benefits the agent because it establishes a false sense of urgency that all the properties are flying off the market so you need to rent fast. Agents may also post properties with amazing photos, unreasonably low prices that are too-good-too-be-true, just to create leads. Most of these properties don't even actually exist or aren't available but work to generate business for sites. 
Renter beware...
  • Misleading Photos: Similar to the point above but in real life versus online, a property may look outstanding online but when you show up to get the keys, you quickly realize those images were edited or photoshopped to look great and exaggerate the quality of the property. Prepare for a let-down in advance. Likewise, if you are thinking of renting a property that has more photos posted of the common areas, beaches and monkeys than the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, run the other way. Fast. They are hiding something. There is a reason there are only 3 photos of the actual property. 
Only $500 per month! (not)

#2 - The Commission Model: We already talked about this a bit above, but people are naturally going to care more about how they get paid than doing a good job or being a good person. The actual terms for "real estate agent" or "rental agent" in Latin America are: corredores (literally, runners - people who are running frantically trying to move properties) and comisionistas: aka people who make commissions. These literal descriptions paint a picture of what actually goes on here in most cases; we have people running around trying to make as many commissions as possible. Once they make a commission, they move onto the next one. Every day they stick around to help you with any issues, their hourly goes down. You could say it's actually minus EV for them to help you, based on their career structure. 

#3 - Stolen Security Deposits: One of the most common complaints among renters and especially poker players is not being able to get their security deposits back. The reason for this is multifaceted. First, they probably rented through an unethical source who doesn't care much about whether you get your deposit back or not because it doesn't affect them. Second, this person may be an unlicensed agent who doesn't know the proper protocol for renting a property, taking an inventory and documenting any pre-existing damages. Third, the contract is probably not iron clad, or it's written by the landlord/landlord's lawyer and biased toward the landlord. Or it could be written in a way to protect the rental agency while leaving the tenant vulnerable. If you're going it on your own, see #3 below for the best ways of ensuring you get your security deposit back

#4 - The Case of the Disappearing Realtor: That realtor you thought was so incredibly nice before? S/he's now ignoring your emails. Don't take it personally, but your rep was being fake nice to close the deal and get paid, now they don't want to deal with any problems you have at the rental property. It happens and it's not your fault. They may have even paid for your smoothie or taken you out for a beer or a coffee. You thought they were your new friend. You were mistaken :(

#5 - Inflated Rental Prices: In the cases that more than one rental agent is sharing 1 property listing, they still all have to get paid. Who pays for that? The tenant - more than once over. If 3 or 4 agents are sharing the same listing, they don't want to split the commission 3 or 4 ways, so they add to the price of the rental to ensure they get paid their full commissions instead of 25% of what they are accustomed to. The owners are ok with this because they make more money per day/week/month over the term of the contract. So unbeknownst to the renter, the actual price the owner wants can be much less than the renter is being charged. If it's a 1-year rental for example, the agents share 1 month of commission. If the commission is inflated, the rent is thereby inflated for the other 11 months of the contract by default. This is no bueno for the tenants, many of whom never realize this even happened. It all goes back to the structure of the industry itself. 

You may be depressed after reading this far and wondering, SO WHAT IS THE SOLUTION HERE!? We have some answers... 

Don't worry! We got this

After working in the real estate industry for 7 years and seeing how backwards it is, I founded Poker Refugees and decided to invert the process and my past experience to beat the system and represent my clients' true interests when it comes to the simple notion of finding a rental property. What does this mean? 

What are the benefits of our model to tenants versus searching on your own or with a realtor/estate agent? 

#1 - Beating the Systemic Industry Problems:

  • Someone is purely looking out for your interests: We don't represent any rental properties. We don't have a website of properties. We only represent tenants. Instead of working on commission, we charge our clients a retainer or consulting fee that covers our time and resources. Clients can have peace of mind that we are doing an honest search for them that actually fits their needs and will have the result they expect. Most of the properties we source for our clients are directly through owners or classifieds and don't have any realtors or comisionistas involved. 
  • We are licensed: At least, we were for many years, in a couple countries. I've gone through the training, paid all the licensing fees and voluntarily kept my license active since 2006 for the Costa Rica Global Association of Realtors (CRGAR), which is recognized by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in the United States and thereby in Canada as well. Long story short, we know what we're doing. 
    Yay for good people! We have your backs
  • Accountability & Recurring Business: We admit that it's tough to work for such a polarized subculture like poker relocation, sports betting and gaming clients. Even after nearly 500 poker and gaming relocations, we have to make sure that we are doing a virtually perfect job or any actual or perceived mis-step or disappointment will end up broadcast in the poker forums. Our business model also depends on word-of-mouth and referrals, so we rely on this solid reputation to stay in business. We know that poker players have very high standards for customer service and so do we, so it works out well.  We are proud of our testimonials, feedback and track record since Black Friday and we depend on this, which is the opposite model of how realtors in Costa Rica, Panama or Mexico operate. They have to work on volume more than customer service. We don't disappear after you move into your property, we represent you from before you move in until the day you move out and get your security deposit back. We remind players when their rent and bills are due for the first couple months then contact them again 30-60 days before their contracts expire to make sure we can support them if they want to renew their lease or check out when the time comes. 

  • Your exposure to the Properties and Market Inventory is Unlimited: Because we work for you and not property owners, we don't have any hidden motives or bias to limit your selection of properties in any way, shape or form. We are neutral to who and where you rent from, we just want to make sure it fits your specs and budget. Because of our experience, we are a single portal to hundreds of sources per destination. For each client, we do a comprehensive search starting with our database and ending with up-to-date listings available on the Web. The reach that we have for each search has years of experience built in. It is virtually impossible to duplicate without putting in the time that we have and without the contacts and relationships we have built over the years. We are also fully bilingual which lifts any additional restrictions. 
  • Real, Legit Properties: We will never send you a fake property because we can usually filter them out before they get to you. We know the markets, we know common scams, we know all the websites and we know who is legit and who isn't. We also know which sham properties are posted regularly and to avoid them. Each property must match our detailed, multi-page checklist before we allow our clients to book it. Our clients will receive a copy of this list with their top 3-5 properties so they can see where each property aligns with what they want and where they may fall short. Full transparency, because we can't and wouldn't ever disappear after you move in. That wouldn't make any sense. To-date, because of our careful due diligence, none of our clients (poker players, corporate employees or otherwise) have ever been scammed. In any questionable cases we will send a rep to view the property on our clients' behalf. How can you get around this on your own? You have to know the market and visit the property before putting down a cent. Make sure there is a history of positive online reviews if applicable.
Rosarito, $1200/month (for real)
  • Misleading Photos: We filter out all the, ahem, BS properties before they get to you, so that in the end you have a reliable list of 10-20 realistic property options to choose from out of of 1,000s. How can you protect yourself from fake properties on the internet or misleading photos? The only way is probably to visit the property in person first or read online reviews if available. 

#2 - Commission-free: Our business model is not a commission-based model, so this pretty much neutralizes this entire issue. As a relocation company, we are simply operating under completely different conditions as real estate and rental agencies. Sometimes this confuses people because it's a completely different way to approach a property search, but we feel it is in the best interests of our clients and frankly, makes our jobs easier and more fulfilling. Because we genuinely try to find the best properties for our clients without commission being a factor, we end up doing a better job than rental agents themselves and our players are happier and in properties that are the best fit for them. But because we know the rental industry, prices and comps, we can act as a buffer for our clients and better ensure they have a positive, enjoyable experience instead of a nightmare. In turn, we get better reviews, more referrals and return business. Win-win. 

It's important to point out that rental agents can never, ever show you a property they are not guaranteed to earn a commission on (it would be completely counterproductive and counterintuitive for them), so this greatly limits the scope of properties that prospective tenants are shown by said agents. We take this limitation out of the equation because frankly, commission is not a factor in our search or in evaluating a property. A way that the reader can get around this is by booking your rental through a secure site like Airbnb, although there are still booking fees but less than rental commissions. Be aware that rental agencies also use these "by owner" sites so you still may not be getting a direct deal. Use your best judgement. 

#3 - Security Deposits: We use the same protocol every time to ensure our players are treated fairly and have the best odds of receiving their security deposits back in full. Below are the steps we take in representation of our clients, that others can also follow on their own: 

  • Be informed about local laws. Know how much your landlord is allowed to charge as a security deposit. It may be less than you think. 
  • Be proactive. Discuss the terms for retaining and paying back the deposit before you move in. Agents will jump as high as you need and bend over backwards for you (before you pay any money) to make sure you will rent their property over others. Once they are paid, you're probably on your own, but make them work for it in advance. 
  • Have an independent party or your own lawyer review the rental agreement. Specifically check for language regarding the security deposit and make sure you're in agreement with the terms.
  • Make sure you know who is responsible for the bills and what the timeline is to return your deposit upon check-out and the method in which it is being returned (should be returned in the same way you paid it: cash for cash, transfer for transfer, same currency, etc) 
  • Do an inspection of the property upon check-in and take photos of anything that is broken, dirty or damaged. 
  • Fill out an inventory upon check-in and keep this for the first few days while you adjust to the house, then email a copy of this and any photos to the rep and landlord with all pre-existing damages documented. Make sure the rep or owner also signs and acknowledges this! 
  • Abide by all the clauses in the contract, especially notifying if you are extending or when you are moving out accordingly (usually there is a 30- or 60-day clause about this). Make sure that the owner and rep know when you are moving out and that they are there for check out and to facilitate return of your deposit. 
  • Make sure all bills are paid and up to date (if you are responsible for them) so these won't be deducted from the deposit and provide receipts to avoid delays in returning your deposit. 
  • Return the property in the same condition it was provided to you in - hopefully clean. Don't give them an obvious reason to charge you for any damages. 

Oh yeah!

#4 - The Disappearing Realtor: This usually becomes a non-issue because we know so many people personally. It's much more unlikely that a realtor disappears and avoids us because they know that we will be there tomorrow, we have mutual contacts and we are always looking for rental properties so we are a source of income for them. If they try to scam you, they are scamming us by association, and we will hold them accountable to the maximum extent possible. To treat one of our clients poorly means they are burning a bridge with us, so most try not to do it because frankly, it's not worth it for them under these terms. By working with Poker Refugees, you have 1 central point of contact to reach out to should you need to in the future versus a variety of property reps who are acquaintances at best. The only practical way for the reader to avoid this situation is to go only rent through people you know and trust, ask for ID and make sure you have all the contact info of your local rep and mutual friends in common for accountability. If you are renting from a large real estate company, Google reviews of them if at all possible and make sure there is an owner or broker you can escalate problems to if your rental agent disappears. If you can't find anything about them online, it may be a sign they haven't been around that long and won't be around tomorrow. 

One of our former beach abodes
#5 - Rental Prices: Because we don't work on commission, your budget isn't a factor. We completely eliminate this conflict of interest. We charge a rate based on a variety of inputs such as destination, timeline, level of difficulty, high/low season, etc, but we don't care what your budget is because again, we don't work on commission. This means we have no motivation to show you properties that are above your budget, something realtors and rental agents commonly do to increase their commissions. If your budget is $250/month for a shared room or $10,000/month for a luxury penthouse, we will charge you a very similar fee and do the same work. We think this is pretty outstanding (and unheard of) compared to the status quo. Regardless of your budget, we will also show you comps above and below so that you have a comprehensive understanding of the market and where your favorite properties fall. Many players, especially European and Canadians from countries with high cost of living come to us with $X budget and we immediately tell them to lower it (sometimes by 50% or more) and they can still get what they want. We would imagine that it's rare for a rental agent to tell you you're budget is "too high", no? Likewise, we will also be straight forward with you if we think that your budget is too low for your expectations or if any adjustments need to be made (as much as we wish that oceanfront luxury condos that accept pets existed for USD$500/mo). To keep prices low on your own, do a lot of research before booking anything and use as many sources as possible to preview properties before you make a decision so you are familiar with comps if you're going to a destination you've never been to before. Check sites for dates that the properties were posted if possible to make sure they are up to date. Check classified sites for sublets or rooms to rent but make sure you never wire money to anyone remotely as it could always be an internet scam and we have read of even 2+2 regs getting caught in such property scams. 

We hope that this common pitfalls, explanation of industry-wide issues and rental tips are of use to you on your next property search. 

At Poker Refugees, we are happy to draw on over a decade of international real estate and rental experience helping foreign investors, retirees, multinational corporate employees, executives, poker players and sports bettors move abroad and find properties since 2005. 

So you can sit back, relax, save some time and money! 

The Hammock Calls...

¡Siesta Time in Playa del Carmen!

Bonus: Here is a story from a poker player, Ray, who was not our relocation client but contacted us yesterday to tell his story. This experience includes multiple examples of the unethical behavior described in the post above. 

Players' stories, direct emails and posts in Skype groups & forums inspired us to write this blog so that others could benefit and avoid common issues in searching for a rental property abroad.

[11/17/14, 3:41:56 PM] Ray B: Kristin, I just wanted to tweak my recommendation a bit on this...
[11/17/14, 3:41:57 PM] Ray: On 10/17/14, at 10:20 PM, Ray wrote:
> kristin, i highly recommend you try...
[Thursday, October 16, 2014 11:50 AM] Ray Baker: 

<<< Micheline Latorre from Paradise Real Estate
she was great

Ray: i still think she was better than most (from what i have heard) but there were some surprises for sure after i moved in and definitely some things that she knew but decided to withhold
Poker Refugees: aha, yes this is normal
Poker Refugees: shady people
Ray: yep say anything to close the deal
Ray: and then when you want to discuss issues after, they don't have time for you
Poker Refugees: I hate to say it but just such a typical story
Poker Refugees: they only care about the commission
Poker Refugees: that's why we don't work on commission; it's an inherent conflict of interest
Poker Refugees: the entire industry is backwards (whoever set it up this way)
Poker Refugees: the concept of realtors who work for owners on commission and that's the only way they get paid, also representing the other side (the tenant) who is getting a "free" service is completely flawed
Poker Refugees: so we charge everyone a flat rate, so that way it doesn't matter if your budget is $250/month or $10,000/month
Poker Refugees: the service is exactly the same
Poker Refugees: and we have no motivation to up-sell or limit the property selection or anything that realtors normally do
Poker Refugees: we need a property revolution
Poker Refugees: I'm going to blog about this because it's been coming up so much lately
Ray: yeah are absolutely right...i wanted to go directly to the owner/property manager but it seemed more difficult than i time i will make sure i go direct or i talk to you first
Ray: I would definitely prefer to pay a fee upfront and pay lower rent and also learn about the in's and out's of a place ahead of time too
Ray: yeah she was super cool and seemed to be honest but when it came down to it she just wanted the of the big things was i told her that i had no car and i needed to rely on calling taxis to pick me up in playacar sometimes she never said anything about taxis not being allowed in to pick people up...they are only allowed in with special permits or if they have a passenger...she has lived in playacar for 3 years and probably longer and she definitely knew that...there were other things too with the unit...then i called her up with concerns about the unit and the like and she said contact the rental company since there was nothing she could do...
Ray: she lives in my building too and i was taking out the garbage one day and she was in her car...i didn't notice it was her until she went by but i was right in front of her and knew she was looking at me...and obv she didn't stop to say hi...also, she has never made a follow up phone call or anything ever
Ray: just so lame
Poker Refugees: wow I'm sorry to hear that
Poker Refugees: I wish it were the first time...
Poker Refugees: for them it's -EV to tell the truth about properties
Poker Refugees:and then -EV to spend any time on the tenant after they get paid
Poker Refugees: it's not just that they are overall bad people for the most part (who are attracted to the industry) it's that the system is broken
Poker Refugees: so it's not all their fault
Ray: yeah because they are short-sighted though
Ray: because if they treated people with respect, etc then they would get repeat and referred business
Ray: so i do blame them for being at least naive or the like or dumb, haha
Ray: and then using that short-sightedness/idiocy as a reason to treat people like (cash)
Poker Refugees: yes yes of course
Poker Refugees:they don't care about that though
Poker Refugees: they only think about today
Ray: yep sad and pathetic imo
Poker Refugees: it is
Poker Refugees:: I'll incorporate your experience into my blog as an example
Ray: yeah and if you are mentioning names...Nicolas Lew of Sun and Sea Sentals (his name is def correct and i think the name of the company is) is a complete scumbag but at least he was somewhat upfront about it...i looked at a place and told him i was interested and he changed the price on me to $200 more a month and told me the owners wanted 6 months upfront but he waited until the end of the showing to drop that stuff on me...he was super weird in general too
Ray: and he said he worked for the property management company too!
Ray: but i assume on some kind of a commission obv
Poker Refugees: yeah definitely
Poker Refugees: we never add anything on top of the rent
Poker Refugees: and we frequently work with owners who don't deal with realtors so the price isn't inflated
Poker Refugees: because we charge the players for the service
Ray: yeah he just added it on and he said it was an old price but the posting from 1-2 days earlier on craigslist and so i checked it again and it was right the price but even crazier was the 6 months rent who would pay that!?!? haha
Ray: actually like a few hours later he posted the property again and made it 200 more and i got some message from him saying that he thought it was going to go soon and some other garbage
Ray: he said you probably won't be able to find anything even though i told him i had other appointments
Ray: so funny these guys
Ray: but in a very irritating way obviously
Ray: at least, that guy gave me the courtesy of letting me know that he was not trustworthy and that i shouldn't rent from him a short while after meeting him
Ray: another thing too with this realtor [Micheline] is i called her about a week after I moved in about something and never heard back or anything...I think I texted her also

And there you have it people, straight from the horse's (er, poker player's) mouth.  
Be careful out there!

-Kristin Wilson, Poker Refugees

Kristin scouring the land for rental properties in Central America