you think you’d like to own a home in your newly adopted Mexico.
You’ve overcome your fear of all those horror stories of years past that
the government could somehow reclaim the property. You’ve found a city
that meets all your climate, cultural, cost-of-living and required services
criteria. Now you’re faced with another major decision: build or renovate?
the first in a series of tales recounting the experiences of four couples
who opted to renovate.
in Morelia, the Spanish colonial capital city of the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Located between Mexico City and Guadalajara, Morelia’s million-plus residents
enjoy temperatures that are a bit cooler than the perpetually spring-like
Guadalajara and a bit warmer than Mexico City, while escaping the pollution
and crowded conditions that plague each.
have settled into the city and its diverse suburbs, making friends and
engaging in activities with the locals who live there and employing many
others in their homes. They are in various states of bilingual fluency
and involvement in the larger community. A uniting factor is their membership
in Morelia’s ex-patriot group and their active support of a local orphanage.
Two of the
renovation projects constituted efforts to restore the original character
of the homes. One of these represents the finca or country estate style.
It is located in Santa Maria, a neighborhood that sits more than a thousand
feet above the city, offering residents amazing views of 15th century buildings
fitting themselves nicely into the rush of a modern society.
second is a classic, center courtyard style Spanish colonial in the historic
city center. The other two homes represent sweeping
changes that turned what were basically unlivable spaces into homes of
current convenience. The first of these is decidedly upscale and sits among
other equally elegant residences, again, in the Santa Maria neighborhood.
The second is a modest home in the midst of a lively suburb that’s within
walking distance of several new shopping centers, restaurants and entertainment
Ask any of
the participants if they would do it again and they say yes, but they also
note that they learned a lot along the way that would most likely make
any second attempts less emotionally and financially trying.
Retired orthopedic surgeon Hank Duckman and wife Lacey who had lived in
and loved Mexico for five years during the sixties when Hank was in medical
Back in the
States, they often spoke of returning after their children were grown and
they could think about retirement.
and her now deceased husband, Jay, a New Mexico businessman. They and their
four children discovered Morelia on a family vacation and after several
trips back decided that buying a home would probably be more sensible than
renting the amount of suites required to house them all.
found what they called a shell of a home that had been abandoned for years,
spent two years renovating it, enjoyed vacationing there for many additional
years and the house subsequently became Sarah's permanent residence.
Krondorfer and his wife Karin, German nationals whose professional assignments
in the U.S. and Mexico led them to choose Mexico as a place to retire.
Why Mexico? Economically Mexico was a better choice than the U.S. It took
vision and a huge investment to create the home they have today from what
they originally bought, but the result is truly a showpiece.
Ed and Ruth
Postel, one time professional ballet dancers whose later careers in corporate
America left them longing for retirement someplace warm, culturally vibrant
and affordable. Friends turned them on to Morelia
and they took turns visiting and studying the language.
They then began
annual visits during which they rented and/or house sat.
found a property where the purchase price and renovation needs exactly
suited their budget. A few stumbles and a year later, they were settled
cozily into a home that they suspect they could have built from the ground
up for less. Still, they are happy there and, like the rest, were happy
to share the trials, tribulations, and successes of their venture with
those who might be contemplating a similar move.
with the Duckmans and their experiences.
and Lacey’s journey toward owning a home in Morelia began within days of
Hank’s decision to retire from his medical practice in New Jersey. They
narrowed their search to a choice among five cities, allotted six weeks
to travel around, vetting locations, and found the house they ultimately
bought during the third week (in Morelia, the fourth city). They cancelled
the remainder of the trip to return to the States and begin organizing
things were involved in your opting to own property in Mexico vs. renting?
living in Mexico City during the sixties we rented and therefore were well-acquainted
with the pitfalls. Also, no longer being in our twenties, we had well-developed
ideas of what we would and would not put up with.
specific things were you looking for or hoping to avoid?
We were looking for a house and garden that were in reasonable condition
(little did we know) and would require a minimum of restoration. We also
hoped/planned to avoid to the very best of our ability the nasty little
problem of being without water at any time. Our previous experience in
Mexico City of being without water for from twelve to twenty hours a day
every day – with children, houseguests and mountains of laundry – left
me with an abiding determination to avoid that fate at any cost. It was
another reason, at the time (although, sadly, not now), for choosing Morelia.
What was the purchase price and the currently estimated market value?
purchase price was $130,000 (U.S.) and if we were to offer it for sale,
the asking price today would be between $500,000 to $600,000 (US). Realistically,
most Mexicans would not be able or willing to pay that amount, although
the unique architecture (there are only four other houses by the same architectural
team in Morelia) and the view would make me stand firm until my last gasp.
Q. How were
you able to estimate the investment that would be required to bring the
property up to your requirements?
first I should explain a little about why we bought this house so soon
upon our return to Morelia. Using our hotel as a base, we contacted
the architect who, acting as a real-estate agent, had shown us the home
on our original visit. He had been highly recommended, presented himself
well, appeared to be around 60 years old, was always well-dressed and personable.
Though we knew he had built several homes in the area, we found out later
that his architectural and building skills had not kept up with the times.
He was also afflicted with that trait that forces some people to shrink
from admitting they don’t know or can’t do something.
we loved the house. It was over forty years old, built in the finca or
country style of rough-cut pink hued cantera stone (for which Morelia is
well known) and massive hand-hewn wooden beams known as vigas supporting
the ceilings. When we walked through the front door Lacey nudged me and
whispered that she was sick to her stomach. That was a code phrase between
us telling me she was getting that tingling reaction in the pit of her
stomach indicating she is in the presence of something very special.
we stood there in the 60-foot long living room or estancia with its 25-foot
ceiling, we stared out a floor-to-ceiling wall
of window panels over a walled-in garden and panoramic view of the city
spread out 1,000 feet below us. We were so enchanted with the house that
we barely noticed its failings. To be sure, there were many exposed electrical
wires. The bathroom fixtures needed replacing. There were bare gas lines
in many locations because the first floor and lower level estancias and
the master bedroom had gas heaters. The garden looked like a miniature
tropical jungle. There were other small problems. But the house had a name,
set in wrought iron letters above the driveway doors: Casona de Tzintzuntzan
– “the manor house in the place where the hummingbirds gather.” The place
had bewitched us.
we had hired told us there would probably be some small renovations needed.
“Like what,” we queried. “Well, the plumbing, water and electric systems
have to be checked and some of the fixtures look a bit worn out, but don’t
worry. I can help you with that. I know how to do these things.”
We trusted that this man knew of what he spoke and began the renovation.
One thing led to the next as one invisible-to-the-naked-eye need after
another became apparent. We just decided to do it and not obsess about
it. The cost was actually less than one might suppose, as it all took place
before prices in Morelia began to escalate. Now, the city is the third
most expensive city in Mexico in which to live, after Mexico City and Guadalajara.
What were the major areas of anticipated expense?
As I said, almost everything was unexpected because very little was visible,
but then, that is Mexico for you – like the chile – insidious in its allure,
its intoxicating aroma, and searing in its bite. Probably the most unexpected
development is that we are going to have to put in a second large alhibe,
or holding tank, because of growing concern about the water supply.
Hank: The architect
did supply us a professional looking and detailed written estimate of all
the work that needed to be done. He charged us a fee for the survey done
by his expert plumber and his master electrician. He said he would
collect a weekly amount from us for labor and materials and would match
it up with the written estimate so we could keep track of the work’s progress.
We quickly learned that we could set our clock by that collection time.
And about the original alhibe, that was a good example of why, after some
six months, untold expense and a growing suspicion that the architect’s
experts were not, in fact, very skilled, we changed architects.
Since one of
our major concerns was an adequate water supply, we listened closely when
the architect told us that there didn’t appear to be one of the in-ground
water tanks required to assure that. We thought this was strange – the
house being quite large for the tinaco (small water tank) on the roof.
This might hold enough water in reserve for a day, but with an underground
reservoir water could come in from the local municipal supply, go into
the underground tank, be pumped up to the tinaco and then be distributed
to the house for days. After checking with the former owner, the
architect said there apparently was no alhibe, but that we “shouldn’t worry”
he would have his men dig one. Thus three men arrived and with heavy sledge
hammers, picks and shovels began breaking the brick floor in the driveway
about four feet from the side wall of the house.
later, after a two-and-a-half foot deep area about six feet long by six
feet wide had been dug, the architect said his workers had hit solid rock.
would be better, he said to excavate a hole for the alhibe in the garden.
It took another two days to refill the driveway hole and patch the brick
surface. That same afternoon the workers noticed a metal trap door at the
side of the house about three feet away from where they had excavated.
It covered a square shaft about two by two feet wide that opened into a
three square meter cistern full of water. Probing with a long stick indicated
a depth of about one and a half meters. So much for no aljibe!
wasn’t enough for the architect. No, he had his
mason drill a hole through nearly impossible to replace old tile in the
closet floor of the bedroom above the now suspected alhibe’s presence.
The drill hit nothing but cement and dirt. “Maybe he missed it,” the architect
said, as we felt our confidence in him slipping away. The shaft was emptied,
and a worker crawled inside to verify that we, indeed, already had an alhibe,
large enough to hold a week’s water supply.