Buying a home in Mexico
Who would have thought that buying a house in Mexico would be such a scandal? Maybe it should have occurred to me beforehand that I would encounter some very unusual problems while trying to acquire property here, but I think I still had faith in the goodness of people and the future of Mexico at that point. I've become somewhat jaded through this experience, and the constant trials and tribulations have taken away from the pleasure of being a first time home owner. In any event, I have learned about Mexican culture yet again, and I would like to share my experiences with anyone interested in buying property somewhere within the Mexican border. Don't be scared away; the bottom line is to plan ahead and know what you're walking into.
When I first arrived in Mexico, I accompanied my sister-in-law and her husband to look at some houses in Guadalupe, a city that is adjacent to Monterrey and is basically part of Monterrey. It is much poorer in general than Monterrey, although it does have its rich sections. We were not looking, however, in the rich sections. When I first saw the houses that they were thinking about buying, I have to admit I was horrified! The neighborhood slightly resembled something straight out of Levittown. All the houses were the same. There were lines, and lines, and lines, and lines of houses. Did I mention they all looked the same???? Well, in all fairness, every other house had a different façade so I guess they weren't all exactly the same. They looked like propped up shoeboxes: tall and skinny. When we went in the model homes, I was equally as horrified. They were painted and decorated to look appealing, but you could still see where the window frame was crooked, the tile was cracked, or the roof was leaking. They were cramped even with small amounts of furniture, and forget about fitting a typical Mexican family in a space that small. I don't think even Carlos's immediate family would fit comfortably.
Then, there was the neighborhood. Although it was relatively green and well-kept, the street to arrive there was horrible. Rundown houses and businesses line a pockmarked street congested with beat-up old cars and their choking black emissions.
I had a splitting headache by the time we got back to the cleaner part of Monterrey.
Now, it's not that I want to sound spoiled. I wouldn't even be in a position to buy a house in the States for years. More than anything, I was just shocked at the lack of quality. I can't imagine anyone buying a new house with crooked windows in the States. The other teeny tiny drawback to houses here is that what you buy is literally the four main walls of the house. There are no frills, no extras, and as I mentioned before, sometimes even the bare necessities aren't up to par. I was surprised to find out that the houses are sold without closets, kitchens, and in some cases even bathroom facilities. The preparation is there, such as a nook where a closet should go, but there is not so much as a bar hanging. Some houses don't even have grass in the front and back yard. The "yard" is pure, inert dirt that needs to be broken up with a pick axe and carted out before anything - even a weed - will grow.
All disadvantages aside, there was no doubt for Carlos and me that buying a house, albeit a small crooked one, was better than flushing money down the drain on rent. Mortgage payments here are often less than rent for a small apartment, so we began to look for ways to buy our own house. Our first strange experience with Mexican house-buying started when we solicited credit to buy the house. I couldn't get the credit in my name because I had not lived and worked in Mexico for over a year yet. We were going to get the credit in Carlos's name, but when they heard he was a lawyer, they immediately said, "No credit for lawyers." Neither Carlos nor I could believe it. We were applying for FOVI, a type of credit offered by the government that supposedly can't discriminate by profession. Obviously we wanted to know why lawyers were excluded, and the construction company told us that they had had problems with lawyers in the past because they had found loopholes in the contracts and then sued for the value of their homes. The sales lady with us the house was able to get around the "No lawyers" policy by emphasizing that Carlos teaches law and does not practice. However, I think this whole incident should have set off warning bells with us.
When we first started looking at the houses in this neighborhood, we assumed that they would look just like the model houses - completely separate from each other. The house separation factor is a given in Massachusetts, where I am from, and houses are often separated by sprawling green lawns or at least a fence or trees of some sort. Here in Monterrey, houses are very often build right smack next to each other, with only a meter of distance between them. And, in some cases, houses are even attached. Unlike duplexes where two houses share one whole wall, the houses in our neighborhood shared an upstairs wall only. On the first floor, the houses were separate, which made room for a skinny passageway from the front yard to the back yard.
At first, we hadn't even noticed that some of the houses were joined. But as we got more serious about buying, we drove through the neighborhood quite often. Some of the houses were completely separate and others were attached as I described above. It seemed so foolish to us to join houses in that manner. Carlos's sister is an architect, and the first thing she mentioned to us when she heard was that having our house attached to another could cause us huge problems down the road. For example, the bathroom wall of our house would be the same as the bedroom of the other. What would happen if we had a problem with the plumbing and needed to break into the wall? We would have to also break their bedroom wall.
Carlos and I were completely disillusioned because this was the only neighborhood within our price range that was halfway decent and that was able to find a way to get us credit given our special situation, but we simply didn't want our house attached to another. Then, we got lucky. The sales lady offered us a house on the corner of the street. It had more land than the attached houses (although not much more) and it was completely separate from the neighboring house. We agreed to buy this house.
We were about a month away from signing papers on the house when the sales lady called to say that they were missing a document from us. Apparently we were supposed to have gone to la Secretaría de Asuntos Exteriores to ask for a very special letter. This one-page letter, stating my FM3 (my immigration document) information and not much else at all, granted me permission to buy property in Mexico. It was a simple letter that cost me $4000 pesos (about $365 USD) and is valid only for this specific piece of property. Anytime in the future that I wish to buy some sort of property on Mexican soil, I have to solicit yet another shockingly expensive and ridiculously simple letter. Sometimes I honestly think that there is some bitter Mexican sitting somewhere inventing ways to steal money from "rich" gringos and put it directly into his corrupt pocket. All I know is that I was out 4000 pesos at a very crucial time. What would it have taken for someone to warn me about the need for this letter sooner? Four months had passed since we had started to buy the house and according to the construction company, ALL our documents were in order-until the last minute. **Sigh.**
When the house was finally built and ready for us to sign papers, we had a meeting with the neighborhood architect to check out the house. We were to identify any problems we found with the house and they would be fixed by the next day. The architect gave us an appointment at 5:30pm, by which time it was almost dark out. There was no electricity in the house yet, so we could barely see. We went around looking at pieces of the plaster wall that had been gouged or scraped, windows that didn't shut or slide correctly, and so on. The next day, we went back to check that everything had been fixed. Once again, the architect told us to come at 5:30. We were not smart enough to bring a flashlight so we were bumping around in the dark trying to see if any improvements had been made on the house. Of course, hardly any improvements had been made, but we couldn't see well enough to find out until we actually signed papers and moved into the house a few weeks later.
Our first week in the house, it rained pretty hard outside. We ended up with a big, wet spot on our bedroom wall. Either the window or the concrete block had not been sealed correctly, and water was entering. The following day we called the architect and someone came to seal the outside of the house. Luckily, we haven't had water since. The second week in the house we reported a window that was clearly defective because we could barely slide it shut. After a few more weeks, the window suppliers came to install windows in some other houses, so they replaced our window free of charge. These were things that worked out well for us because they were taken care of relatively quickly, but at the same time, it was a brand new house. These things should never have been issues in the first place.
After two months in our new home, we had already settled in and were starting to feel comfortable in the neighborhood. We met another young couple who lived a few houses away, but aside from that, our neighbors were rather reclusive; we had hardly met anyone. Then all of a sudden a neighbor came by and invited us to a neighborhood meeting in the park the next night. There was a pretty good turnout at the meeting, and for the first time we got a good look at our new neighbors. There were a lot of young couples like Carlos and me. It turned out that the reason for the meeting was that it had become obvious that the neighborhood was going to be left open and not closed off by walls as we had originally thought. This was a problem because there is a terribly run-down, generally awful neighborhood right behind ours. With our neighborhood open, it would become a main street connecting the thousands of houses behind us with the main street into town. We were picturing literally hundreds of cars and buses passing through out quiet neighborhood every day.
We also had issues with the park in our neighborhood. It was being used by everyone within a 5 mile radius. We had a brand new playground that was already showing signs of wear. Droves of cars come in on weekends and are parked around the playground/park. The people make a day of it, bringing food and everything. The problem is that they do not clean up their mess. We have found lots of garbage in the park, from plates to tin foil to soda bottles to soiled diapers. It's disgusting, and since it's not their park, they have no interest in keeping it clean, only in using it. One day while walking our dog, Carlos and I even found a used condom in the middle of the street. It's likely that this was left by carpenters, not necessarily park-goers, but it still seemed to stress the point that if access to the neighborhood were left unlimited, we might be finding a lot more trash around.
Over the course of several more meetings, we discussed other points that were bothering us. It seemed that the construction company was selling houses with lies. Their very own brochure stated that the houses were "completely separate" and the neighborhood was "private." Furthermore, the brochures and plastic models offered only two different designs of houses and plentiful green areas, and in reality, there were four different house designs and very few green areas in the neighborhood. Carlos and I were particularly angry about the presence of other house designs that were never advertised or mentioned. In fact, we didn't even know about their existence until we noticed the house going in behind us was similar to ours but part of the construction had been removed to make a balcony instead. So, from the second floor balcony of the house behind us, our future neighbors will have a view into our backyard, kitchen, and two upstairs bedrooms.
How come no one ever told us that this style of house would be built behind us? Maybe we still would have bought our house, but we certainly would have thought twice about it.
After a lot of talking and strategizing, we finally decided to take the construction company by surprise on a Monday morning. Six people representing the neighborhood went to the office and demanded to speak to the head engineer. He talked to us and patiently answered all our questions. We didn't come out winning exactly what we wanted - only one entrance to the neighborhood from the main road - but we did get the construction company to agree to put up fencing and keep the neighborhood closed off until another alternative street from the neighborhood behind us to the main road could be built. The idea was that even though our area will be open to through traffic, with this wider, faster road, cars and buses will avoid crossing through our neighborhood.
So in general, things are quieting down as we are adapting to life in a Mexican "fraccionamiento" or neighborhood. In some ways, all these unexpected problems have been good things because they have served as a cause to unite us neighbors. A neighborhood is always a much nicer place when you know the people around you. As for buying a home in Mexico, I hope someday I'll have enough money to build my own house, so that I can make sure the windows are straight. But until that day, I'm overjoyed to be in my own little house. It may not be perfect, but it is ours, and that's a step in the right direction.