So 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? 

This is the first in a series of tales recounting the experiences of four couples who opted to renovate.

Each settled 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. 

The couples 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.

The 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 venues. 

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. 

The couples: 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 school.

Back in the States, they often spoke of returning after their children were grown and they could think about retirement. 

Sarah Ramos 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. 

They 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. 

Engineer Werner 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. 

Finally, they 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.

Let’s begin with the Duckmans and their experiences. 

The Duckman’s Adventure 

Hank 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 their move. 

Q. What things were involved in your opting to own property in Mexico vs. renting? 

Lacey: While 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. 

Q. What specific things were you looking for or hoping to avoid? 

Lacey:  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. 

Q. What was the purchase price and the currently estimated market value? 

Lacey: The 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?

Hank: Well, 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. 

Nevertheless, 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. 

As 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. 

The architect 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.” 

Lacey:  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. 

Q. What were the major areas of anticipated expense?

Lacey:  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. 

Two days 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. It 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! 

But that 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. 

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Still, as I said, it took us six months to finally reach the end of our rope with our initial architect/job supervisor.  Looking back, we suppose we had trouble admitting to ourselves and our friends that we had made a terrible mistake. Besides, we worried, if we extricated ourselves from him, how would we go about finding reliable people to complete the necessary work. 

Next, electrical upgrades were needed. There were only two circuits for the entire house, each controlled by a single ancient fuse box. The supposed master electrician started work that day. He looked strangely like the plumber. He wandered around yanking wires out of walls. I finally realized he was the plumber. The architect assured me that this electrician had approved the adequacy of the fuse box. 

Then there was the news that all of the original galvanized iron plumbing should be upgraded to copper. The master electrician/aka master plumber was in charge, but not capable enough to have properly capped the pipe when he removed the sink nor to have shut off the water. Since the water pressure from the street was low at the time, he didn’t notice any water moving up the pipe. I was in New Jersey on business. Lacey was summoned from our temporary quarters to deal with a torrent of water flooding the kitchen, the dining room, down the steps into the living room, out the gallery door, down the steps into the garden … a terrible mess that damaged some of our furniture and many boxes of books, bedding and clothes. 

Then there was the problem of the drainage system. All of the effluent from the house flowed into a septic tank in the garden out under the rear garden wall and down the mountain. The architect told us it was necessary to put in a cement drainage pipe connecting our effluent to the municipal sewer system on a street about 400 feet below. We had to pay for a permit. 

His men worked for two weeks digging a ditch and connecting and burying the cement drainage pipes down the mountain to the street. Next the architect called to say that the people living on that street might try to stop this because his men would have to break the cement around the sewer drain to do the connection. Even with a permit, he said, the residents could stop it in court. I asked him what we should do. He chuckled and said, “You know there is a Mexican saying that the rooster on the roof of the chicken coop doesn’t worry about what falls on the chickens below. We’ll just leave the cement drain here so whatever comes down will go into the shrubbery. Don’t worry.” 

Thus, I had paid for two more weeks of wasted work and materials and a useless permit. But the crowing event was finding out that neither the architect nor his electrician had a clue about the proper grounding of electrical circuits. One day as a thunder and lightning storm raged through the area, I saw lightning strike about 300 yards away from the house.  Blending with the clap of thunder was Lacey’s scream from the bedroom. She had seen flames shoot out of the electric receptacle into which my laptop computer was plugged. My computer modem was fried and so, at last, was our relationship with our original architect. 

Suffice it to say that we were rescued by some friends who referred us to a knowledgeable electrician, an experienced plumber and a talented architect who appreciated the unique style of our home and seemed to be as enthusiastic as we were about preserving it. Challenges continued, but they were met professionally. 

Q. What would you say is the most important aspect in managing the progress of a renovation?

Lacey:  The first thing one does upon purchasing a house in Mexico is hire a good architect who will supervise the project, even if only minor adjustments are contemplated. Unlike in the United States, he acts as a general contractor and should be a fountain of information ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. As you can see from what Hank says, above, our first architect proved an utter disaster. The second was a gift from God. 

We were also fortunate to hire, on our own, a marvelously talented carpenter who “lived” in the house for a year, moving from room to room!  He helped us enormously with many of the extra details, i.e., hiring house staff, termite control, watch dogs, the ins and outs of shopping in Morelia, recipes. He even found us a tailor! We also found an incredible electrician, a fascinating man who appreciated and understood the rarity and particular design issues of the house and who never moved a stone or laid a wire without my express and definitely quisquiosa okay. He is a marvelous and gifted man. 
Q. How long did the project take, from purchase of property to move-in? 

Lacey: From time of purchase to the time when we were actually able to live in the house and unpack the first half, 15 months elapsed. It took another six months or so before I could unpack the rest of the house and it could be completely used. 

Q. Is there anything you would do differently if you were to do this again? 

Lacey: We would make certain to select and verify the credentials of an excellent architect from the get go. As it was, we lost six months and had to redo nearly everything as well as suffering extensive damage from that flooding incident.

Q. With which portions of the project were you most pleased/most frustrated?

Lacey: We understood Mexico and its ability to infuriate and enchant simultaneously. If one is going to be frustrated one does not belong here. The wait was worth it. We are extremely happy here and completely satisfied with the finished project. However, one must also understand that in Mexico deterioration is rapid and extreme and the householder must be vigilant so that things do not get out of control. We are now in our sixth year here and for the last 18 months have had to begin to make repairs. That is the way of things here. 

Q. What advice would you give others contemplating renovating a home in Mexico? 

Lacey and Hank:  In addition to the overriding importance of selecting a good architect, we would give the following three pieces of advice: 1.) Don’t dispose of all of your belongings from your original home. Bring what you can and store the rest just in case things don’t work out; 2.) Do NOT try to come here to live unless you have previously rented for at least six months, preferably for a year. This is a third world country and not for everyone; 3.) One definitely must have a working knowledge of Spanish – to make friends, to shop, to deal with tradesmen and contractors, to go to the doctor and dentist, to take care of immigration issues and to be an aware and informed member of your community. This is not a user-friendly city, although it is a very beautiful one. 

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