Linking up with the Chapala Lakeside: to rent or buy?

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Marvin West

Marianne's home in Chapala
Marianne’s home in Chapala

Once upon a time, in the previous century, an old journalist and his still-beautiful bride were pondering retirement and escape from Washington, D.C.

They had roots and land on the original TVA lake in Tennessee and that was going to be home, sweet home for spring, summer and football season. But Tennessee winters can be a deep freeze and the old journalist had already slipped and slid and thrown too many snowballs.

So, for a winter home, they scouted Hilton Head. They knew all they wanted to know about Miami. They checked Phoenix. If San Diego had been anywhere except California, they might have gone there.

An old friend, even older than the old journalist, had moved to southwest Mexico. Good weather. Good exchange rate. Good food, if you leave out half the heat. Come on down.

This was a time in history after Al Gore had invented the internet and Allyn Hunt had already developed liberal leanings. A Google search delivered a very young Mexico Connect. Interesting information source, even in infancy. There were facts and figures and surveys and the cold, hard truth about how many pesos per kilo of squash. Best part was Michael Scott Long. He could write.

The old journalist dispatched a personal e-mail, saying he knew a good story when he saw one. The response came from Gordon Weaver, remarkable talent behind the MSL name. He had decided Lake Chapala was near enough to paradise. He had purchased a house in Ajijic without seeing it. OK, there was a Chamber of Commerce tone to his guarantee of daily sunshine and hospitality and he didn’t bother to mention career years spent hyping Hollywood.

The old journalist and his bride thought they knew the basics about Mexico. They had seen the border towns and had done Cancun in ages past (not to mention Honolulu and Seoul and Barcelona and Calgary and the French Alps and the British Virgin Islands and Dayton, Ohio). So, why not another adventure, another scoop of frequent flyer miles?

Charles and Ginger Rudder were waving Tennessee orange pennants and chanting “Go Vols!” when this Washington couple emerged from the red-light experience at the Guadalajara airport. Others meeting that particular flight must have wondered about the strange pep rally.

Colorful conversation was finally interrupted by the first glimpse of Lake Chapala, around the curve and over the last hill on Highway 23. Not bad. The late-afternoon sun made it look like a painting.

La Nueva Pasada, relatively new but built to appear old, also made a stirring first impression. The second-floor room offered a splendid view of the lake. Dinner in the courtyard was better than expected. Mother Eager sounded sincere when she said welcome to our hotel.

The Rudders were embarrassingly gracious. They provided sight-seeing tours. They introduced the visitors to their best friends, Ray and Bev Morrison. They grilled hamburgers on their patio and invited Alfredo Zavalo and his young family as entertainment. What else could they do?

It was Charles Rudder’s way of making up for past sins. He had been dreadful in his youth, had bragged about catching more fish and had grown up to be the then-young journalist’s family dentist. Even with discounts, a small fortune had changed hands.

Those first days at lakeside made an indelible impact. Better than Azteca soup, white pelicans and sensational sunsets was a car-rental experience with Michael Moore and Lety Vera. Somewhere along the Carretera, near La Floresta, the car misbehaved. It wouldn’t start. Lety rushed to the rescue. She exchanged her personal car for the problem one and stood at the curb waiting for delivery of a new battery. That gesture, better than Hertz at its best, remains unforgettable.

Hilton Head never had a chance. Phoenix fell from contention. The old journalist and his bride were immediately linked to lakeside. So it has remained.

To rent or buy?

This is the voice of experience speaking. Do not — repeat do not — purchase a lakeside house anytime during your first day in paradise.

Look around. Say hello to somebody. Ask about water pressure. Enjoy barbecued ribs, sweet beans and potato salad at Jose’s Place on the square in Chapala. Listen to the bus stop and go on the Carretera. Knock before entering the glorious grounds of the Lake Chapala Society in downtown Ajijic.

We waited to buy a house until our third serious visit, near the end of our first full winter. Our adventure as renters pushed (well, shoved is a better word) us toward ownership.

From the comfort and security of our 11th-floor office in Washington, D.C., through the awesome power of the internet and a credit card, we contacted a lakeside realtor, exchanged expectations and rented a house in Chula Vista. Totally furnished, three bedrooms, three baths, one pool, maid and gardener, flowers, fruit trees, cable TV, more than enough room for us and our friends, a Canadian couple.

Mexico, here we come.

This needs explanation. It is not easy to rent a house for one month. That this house was available for such short-term occupancy should have been a flashing caution signal. Alas, we were inexperienced and wearing rose-colored glasses.

We arrived to discover one small problem. The house was occupied. We reconfirmed the address. We learned to use the calling-card phone near Salvadore’s. We interrupted the realtor in a very important meeting and found that the previous renter was a little slow to go. Something about nobody else would tolerate her dogs. So, how about spending a night in our bed ‘n breakfast, no additional charge of course?

After a short period of steaming and screaming, and with no real alternative, we surrendered. One night. Understood? Agreed.

It turned out to be two — but the breakfasts were good. We moved in time to walk in on the maid and two helpers sweeping and scrubbing and carrying out empty dog food cans. The mess made us think the previous guests had been hungry — or perhaps there was a crowd, a fox hunt or a sled team.

The house was fine. Well, we didn’t find any fleas. And no electricity on one side. And two toilets wouldn’t flush. And the pool pump wasn’t working. But the flowers were as good as advertised.

The next year, from a different realtor, we rented for three months, three-level brick house in Ajijic, a work of art, corner of Bravo and Septiembre. The mirador was worth the cost. We framed one of God’s special sunsets.

Things happened that winter to inspire ownership. You’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle? This was Awake in Ajijic.

A little restaurant across Septiembre stayed open late, six nights a week, until the musicians were exhausted or the customers had almost lost their voices. It was “almost” because there was always a little something left for the sidewalk.

We learned to read until the wee hours and then sleep fast. At 5:45 a.m., the neighborhood baker fired up his ancient station wagon for early delivery. There was much chugging, clanging and wheezing before the putt-putt-putting. Many airplanes and some fire engines make less noise.

The dog on the roof of the corner house across Bravo factored in our eventual flight from the village and conversion to ownership. It was serious about guard duty long before homeland security was in vogue. This Doberman raised unshirted hell if so much as a shadow stirred a block away. Lovely neighbors, really good people, deadly dog

The old journalist made a little noise one morning, when the trash truck collided with an overhang corner of the house. If the driver was bilingual, he learned new words. You can still see the scars (from the truck) on the brick.

How to buy a house at lakeside

On the bulletin board at the Lake Chapala Society, in the winter of 1997-98, was a penciled note about a house for sale in San Juan Cosala: Great stone wall and garden, secure parking, two bedrooms and a bath downstairs, one great room, bath and great view of the lake upstairs. Great price. Great hurry to sell.

Hmmmm, better check it out.

After a sincere commitment to lakeside and two rental adventures, the old journalist and his bride were in the mood to buy. We had looked in Vista del Lago, Brisas de Chapala, Chapala Haciendas, Riberas del Pilar, San Antonio Tlayacapan, all around and above Ajijic and on down the lake to the west (naturally). We liked the Racquet Club but it was having water problems. We liked the peace and quiet of Las Fuentes. We looked at lakefront homes in El Chante and even considered open land with the terrible thought of building our own.

Our technique was to drive around and look for signs and shade trees suitable for picnicing. We took notes on better possibilities. Sometimes we questioned residents or neighbors. If a house was really inviting, we chased down the listing agent for a more serious inspection. It was an enlightening experience — and fun. Of all the people we met, Judy King was our favorite.

A few hucksters actually tried the hard sell. They had no way of knowing that the old journalist was trained in hand-to-hand combat, that he had survived encounters with countless wild-eyed sports fans, 410 newspaper editors (wire service customers) and assorted Pentagon colonels who sought to extract more and more from the media forced to follow Air Force One.

There were several fishhooks to the San Juan Cosala house — big, ornamental hooks dangling here and there from a chain stretched along the front porch. Unusual decorations, maybe a reminder that the lake had once been a big fishery, or that there had been whales in the neighborhood.

In the garden was a glorious plot of white lilies, a terrific tangerine tree, a large lemon tree, even a fig tree. All around the stone wall were a variety of flowers. A well, dug and walled by hand, was the focal point in the courtyard. There was a bucket and a rope (and a pump carefully hidden to not disturb the ambiance). The house had rustic furniture and several handsome paintings, all by the same artist.

The package looked to be worth considerably more than the asking price.

There had to be a catch — and there was. The young renter, from Austria and Greece and maybe Miami, was trying to help the old Guadalajara owners make a sale. But, she wanted to find a buyer who would reimburse her for the phone and other improvements and pay a discreet, modest finder’s fee.

She said another person wanted to buy the house but was determined to cut the renter out of the deal. We must move quickly. Oh, so a conflict is brewing. And what about ethics? Sorry, no time to rationalize, said the renter-turned-realtor. Better hurry if you want the house — and bring pesos. No, not that many, just a small down payment. Incidentally, the owners will sell for less, more than enough reduction to pay the secret commission.

The renter arranged a visit with the owners, provided transportation in a gas-guzzling SUV and served as interpreter. We were treated to lunch in their home. We met the cook and supporting staff. We were invited from room to room to see the lovely furnishings.

We were told all about the San Juan house and the bunk beds that had once filled the great room — so nine children and their friends could be checked in at sleepy time. No, none of them wanted the old house but the old folks still loved it.

The lilies were family treasures, handed down from generation to generation. The elderly senora was the artist. Her husband didn’t say much but he had a rich background, 51 years in the newspaper business.

Well, here’s our offer. OK. Settle on Thursday? OK. Could she transplant three lily bulbs to her Guadalajara garden? Of course. And could he have one painting off the San Juan walls. Certainly. There were smiles all around.

Through the renter-salesman-interpreter, the woman said how much they received didn’t matter much, what they really wanted was somebody who would appreciate the old house.

Then, the old señora turned to the ambitious facilitator and said: “Thank you for selling it. How much should we pay you as a fair commission?”

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2003 by Marvin West © 2003
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