Is it legal in Costa Rica to hire someone as a “house sitter” but expect them to work for nothing? And what defines a house sitter from a property manager (or hotel manager) anyway?
Followers of the (many) expat Costa Rica Facebook groups this week can’t help but have noticed the latest shitstorm.
Over the past few days, a poster in Canada (who’ll remain nameless here) has been looking for a “house sitter” for her property in Potrero, Costa Rica.
That’s all well and good. In a country where it’s advised to never leave your property unattended, people often look for house sitters and/or pet sitters to look after things while they’re away.
But in this case, the poster seems to want more than a simple house sitter. Seems like she’s looking for a property manager for a vacation rental business. Check out her post below (copied and pasted verbatim):
“I’m looking for house sitter…. this is a position where there is no pay but a commission can be paid if you bring in groups to my villa….. it’s a very responsible position because you have to be at the property most of the time you have to have an eye for detail and let me know when things need to be fixed and address it to me ASAP… and I will arrange or you can arrange to bring people in…
“… Reach out to me if you want to discuss things further….. Playa Potrero area is where the property is located.
“You have to speak English and Spanish very well…… you have to be able to greet guests and check them in and also check them out but also not be in their way when they are there…. you have to also be willing to take care of the grounds with proper watering twice a day when it’s dry … you also have to be willing to help the maid that is on the property to do the rooms and the floors and other cleaning duties at times….. you have to be able to go and pay the bills on time which is local in the area….. there is no car on the property but there is a bicycle for you to get around ……this position is for somebody who can take orders and instructions and focus to get those things done and come to me if there’s big problems that need to be addressed reach out with a private message and we can go from there thank you.”
Now I’m no expert on house sitting by any means. Never done it in my life. But even a layperson like me would assume that house sitting means looking after a house.
You know, being there as a presense while the owner is away to deter break ins or whatever. Plus watering the plants or feeding the cat.
What house sitting is NOT is having to be bilingual. Or having to be there as a receptionist to greet (paying) guests in your rental home. Or working as a travel consultant/travel agent to bring in groups of guests to earn a commission. And when was house sitting ever referred to as a “position”?
A previous post from the same person goes like this:
“If anybody out there knows of an individual or a responsible couple who’s interested in managing my property in Surfside Potrero let me know… it’s a live-in position so free accomodations with a small monthly salary and an incentive to make more with rental percentage.
“So sorry to say but I’m not interested in having any Costa Ricans.”
In the post above, the author first acknowleges that she’s actually looking for a property manager rather than a house sitter. Somewhere along the way, she changed “property manager” to “house sitter” and dropped the offer of a “small monthly salary“.
I can’t say for sure, but I imagine this is because she realized Costa Rica has stringent employment laws. She didn’t want to get sucked into paying caja, aguinaldos, and so on.
Which is also probably why she says she’s not interested in hiring Costa Ricans.
After a ton of blowback on social media, she then posted the following:
“Any responsible person out there looking for a house sitting position which is long-term…. THIS IS NOT A JOB….. . reach out to me by private messaging only please… you must speak English and Spanish….. thank you.”
In a country where at least one in five people is out of work, all these posts border upon obscene.
What she’s doing is taking advantage of Costa Rica’s dire economic situation in times of pandemic.
She knows there are many desperate people out there who will work for nothing in return for a bed and who won’t complain about it because they’re foreigners. CAN’T complain about it because they’re foreigners.
Which is exploitation at its very worst. The kind of thing human traffickers do.
So what’s the difference between house sitting and property management anyway?
Especially property management at a for-profit business that accepts paying guests? You know, like a hotel or vacation rental?
I’m no expert at all at any of this, so I went to the interwebs to determine what a house sitter and a property manager actually do.
And because her Facebook posts sound and smell like a search for a hotel manager, I also looked up that job description.
According to job listing site Betterteam, a house sitter “takes care of homeowners’ properties while they are away in return for free accommodation and utilities as well as income, should it be agreed upon. They perform basic housecleaning duties, water indoor plants, and collect homeowners’ mail.”
Hmm. Seems like she’s looking for something more than a mere house sitter.
A property manager, says Betterteam, is “responsible for the efficient management of residential and commercial properties. This involves determining rates, marketing and filling vacancies, handling tenant relations, and overseeing maintenance.”
Getting warmer there. And hotel managers? What do they do?
“A hotel manager oversees all operations and day-to-day activities in a hotel organization. They take on a variety of duties including managing everything from accounting, sales, business development, and customer service. Also referred to as a Hotel Operations Manager.”
The hotel manager description most matches what she’s looking for. And that, in anyone’s world, is a paid position.
Look, none of this is an effort to belittle the Facebook poster.
She’s getting enough negative feedback herself on social media without us weighing in as well. That’s why we’re not mentioning her name.
What we’re trying to do is make other property owners aware of what the rules are when looking for help running their investments. They might not know.
Could be they don’t know that hiring a foreigner without residency or a work visa is illegal, especially if they’re trying to deliberately get around hiring a Costa Rican to avoid the legal responsibilities that come with that.
So don’t be that person, please. If you’re looking for someone to look after your house in return for free board, that’s one thing.
But if you want someone to run your tourism business for you, that’s something else.
Don’t ruin your own reputation by trying to avoid local labor and coming off like a total cheapskate.
Beach communities in Costa Rica are small. People know each other, and people get angry at injustices or perceived injustices.
Nothing looks worse than a rich gringo coming down and trying to get away with stuff like this. You won’t ingratiate yourself into the local community, and in these hard times, you definitely need local friends if you’re running a tourism business.
All it takes is a disgruntled maid, gardener, or other service provider to blow the whistle onto your hiring practices and you’ll be in a world of trouble.
Because at the end of the day, bringing in someone to work for you – and what this person wants is work – without pay is illegal. And it’s not down to you to decide what the definition of “work” is. That’s for the Costa Rican Ministry of Labor and Social Security to decide.
If you need a property manager, go through a property management company (many local realtors offer this type of service) and pay them the going rate. For a hotel or vacation rental manager, hire a local professional. There are enough of them out of work right now. And I guarantee they’ll know more about growing your business in your local area than you will as a foreigner living abroad.
The best advice we can give is to not be like this person. Find yourself a good laywer and school yourself on the labor laws. Be a productive member of your new community.
Doing this will pay off in the long run, far more than being cheap and trying to get away with using desperate foreigners willing to work for nothing under the guise of “house sitting”.
James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.