I’m not an expert on real estate in Mexico. But my husband and I have purchased property in Guanajuato, Mexico, so we’ve been through the process. In comparison with our experiences buying property in the United States, buying a house in Mexico is easy—at least the administrative part of it. But that’s not to say that it’s without risk or that it didn’t make us nervous. A lot of things can wrong when buying property anywhere in the world. The following article outlines some of the things we learned from buying a house in Mexico.
When we first arrived in Guanajuato, we set up shop at a vacation rental through AirBnB for one month. Then, we set about the task of finding a long-term rental. For this, we went to Casa Solaris and we ended up in a gigantic 5 bedroom mansion with a pool and an attached apartment for a little over $1000/month. It was an expensive rental and we knew it, but we didn’t have the time or the emotional fortitude to look at a dozen rental properties. We needed someplace comfortable as a Home Base before we could look for property to buy in Mexico.
Our rental house in Guanajuato was located in the posh neighborhood of Pozuelos where the big La Comer mall is. To get down to the centro, we had to walk about 10 minutes to a bus at the glorieta, or we could take the tunnels down on foot (which took about 20 minutes walking). From this location in Pozuelos, we started contacting real estate agents whenever we saw a property on Facebook forums that catered to people selling things in Guanajuato.
Finding Property in Mexico
In Mexico, anyone can be a real estate agent which made the search for a house more challenging. One man who was showing a house in Presa de la Olla was clearly scamming people. The house was amazing. It had 8 bedrooms and 5 bathrooms, but the floor in the living room was “undulating”. It seemed like a pretty major structural issue, but the real estate guy downplayed it as “no big deal”. Then, as we left the house, I asked for the asking price and it was $10,000 USD higher than it had been when we first arrived. Later that night, when I went online to search for more properties in Guanajuato, I saw that this man had listed this particular property in about 5 different places, each at a different price. I’m not sure exactly what the scam would involve, but he seemed shady to me. I didn’t want to find out.
We avoided Casa Solaris when it was time for us to buy property in Mexico because by that time, we were well aware that they were catering primarily to rich gringos. We wanted something really specific, but not luxurious per se and we wanted it to be close, but not too close to the centro. Casa Solaris doesn’t specialize in these kinds of real estate dealings. And most of their properties are marked up because they’re catering to people who can take advantage of currency conversions to get more for their money (sort of, because after things get artificially marked up, they’re not getting as much as they thought). That’s all okay for the right clientele. Honestly, for people who want to find property in Guanajuato and avoid the hassle of dealing with questionable “real estate agents” Casa Solaris is probably a good choice. But for people who want to dive into the reality of life here in Mexico and just go for it, it’s best to do just that because you can get more for your money and learn Spanish while doing it.
Castillos and Cadenas
There was another property that really interested us in Guanajuato. It was a total mess, but it had a courtyard in the middle and it seemed like the kind of place that could be fixed up into something really neat. So we called a local handyman that we’d been working with in Pozuelos on a laundry machine issue (his wife cleaned our house once a week) and he came over to see the property and give us his thoughts on it. This was a valuable learning experience. He told us that the rebar wasn’t thick enough on the 2nd floor to build higher to make a 3rd floor. He also told us that we didn’t want to buy a property so close to Panoramica (the street). This house was about 30 meters from Panoramic down a steep staircase. Panoramica circles the outskirts of Guanajuato and the neighbors in this area bicker a lot. Sometimes the bickering gets a little out of control. So we passed on that property and continued looking.
In Guanajuato, most of the properties are built with narrow-gauge castillos (vertical columns of rebar) and cadenas (horizontal columns of rebar). These castillos and cadenas are visible on the outside of buildings here and in other parts of Mexico that haven’t been covered with the final finishing layer of cement or adobe. The castillos and cadenas are the cross beams and they give the structure of the building flexibility. On building that are going to be more than 2 stories high (as I understand it, though I’m not an architect or an engineer myself), building higher than 2 stories but not more than 4 stories should have either the thicker guage rebar castillos and cadenas. For buildings with more than 4 stories, steel beams are necessary for structural support. Often, when you’re looking at Mexico real estate, the rebar from the floor below sticks up so you can see whether it’s the narrow gauge stuff or the thicker rebar.
Neighborhoods: Safety and Other Issues
We wanted to live close to the city center in Guanajuato, but not so close that the estudiantina groups were singing outside our windows every night at 11:00 PM. We also didn’t want to be situated next to 3 barking dogs. And most importantly, we wanted our property to be in a safe neighborhood. As newbies here, it’s taken some time to learn which neighborhoods are safe in Guanajuato and which ones aren’t. For example: Presa de la Olla and Pozuelos are some of the more desirable neighborhoods for people who have the funds to invest in those areas. But we wanted to be closer to the centro than we could get in either of those neighborhoods.
Marfil is a neighborhood that’s relatively quiet and separate from the centro in Guanajuato but it takes about 20 minutes by bus to get downtown. The housing options in the Marfil are different than they are in the centro. The prices are a bit more affordable for rental properties, but, it seems, they’re more expensive for properties being offered for sale. I don’t completely understand all the sales/rental dynamics in the various neighborhoods here. In fact, I don’t even know half of the names of the neighborhoods in this city yet after being here for a year and three months.
The house that we purchased is right on the edge of Pueblita de la Rocha, which is a fairly run-down little community, but we’re on the edge of it on a quiet street right off the main drag which means that we can drive right up to our front door and walking home at night until about 10:00 PM is pretty safe because the little tiendas are still open and “normal” people (including families and young kids) are out and about until this hour. We went to the house at night to see it and decide whether it felt safe to us before we made an offer on it.
We looked at a house in Valenciana as well as land that was near Santa Rosa, but both of these properties, though they had a gorgeous view, were pretty far away from the city center. It would take an hour or more to walk to the centro and the walk was challenging and a little unpleasant. Also, the further we were from a city, the more difficult it would be to commission help from neighbors if we ran into some kind of weird issue. We didn’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere in an isolated house, but everybody has to decide for themselves what kind of environment is best for them in terms of houses for sale in Mexico and deciding which one is best for them!
Making an Offer
I made an offer on our property through Facebook Messenger. Then, we looked online to find an English-speaking Notario (ours was actually a Notaria since she was female). She didn’t take care of us very well though so I wouldn’t recommend her to anyone. I mean, the documents were put in order, but she failed to show up for one meeting because she took the day off and then, when it came time to sign the papers and actually finish the purchase, we ended up with Spanish-speaking staff to help us muddle through the process. Still, we did end up with a valid title, which was merely luck.
Engineers and Architects
Unfortunately, on the day we signed our papers, I asked the suegro (father-in-law) of the real estate agent for the name of an engineer that he’d recommend. He’d bragged to me about “knowing people” who could help us get our permisos for the construction of our upper floors. I knew better, but asked anyway about the engineers/architects, because I figured it was better to ask for a recommendation than to make a shot in the dark and put up a solicitation on Facebook for an engineer or an architect. I wasn’t even sure what I needed. Did I need an engineer? Or did I need an architect? Or neither? Or both?
In the end, I would guess that this man probably got some kind of “cut” from having recommended an engineer named “Beto” to us. This was a crucial mistake that I wouldn’t make again, but what can I say? We were learning something. What I should have done is solicited online for an architect (not an engineer initially) and asked for them to send me evidence of their credentials. I then should have found someone I trusted to verify the veracity of their credentials. Then, I should have hired the architect to make drawings for me and go get my permits from the office of the General de Desarrollo Urbano. The architect can get things like my alineamiento (basically a specific map of the property) so that I can change my water meter into my name at SIMAPAG. Getting the alineamiento takes about 2 weeks once the process is started and the architect will ask for some things like 1) a copy of your passport 2) photos of the property itself 3) a copy of the predial receipt (the predial is basically property tax—you pay it in January each year) 4) a copy of a water bill (probably in the previous owner’s name since you need the alineamiento first in order to change your water service into your name) 5) a copy of the escritura which is the title, and 6) a signed carta poder which is a document that gives your architect the right/ability to negotiate with the government officials on your behalf to get the necessary building permits. I bought a carta poder form at a papelería for 1 peso. I asked the architect to fill out the upper portion of the form in my presence and signed the document in the proper field.
The process of getting an alineamiento takes about 2 weeks. The process of getting building permits in Mexico takes about 3 weeks here in Guanajuato, but I would guess that this time period is highly variable depending on how busy the government offices are.
People walk up to us and ask if we have work fairly regularly, but finding good workers is a trial and error process. Don’t buy a lot of expensive supplies and leave them alone in the house with workers you haven’t vetted out. And it might be wise to install cameras (if possible) to watch over the work and make sure your workers are truly staying on task if you don’t plan to stay on site every day to manage things. For regular workers, fair pay is just over minimum wage in Mexico. For workers with special skills (maestros), you would pay more. John and I like to be generous, but at the same time, we’ve learned to pay people a wage within the realm of what they expect and reserve generosity for things like bonuses. We like to have some wiggle room to give rewards, so we try to pay just slightly above the going rate for workers we’ve vetted out and who we trust.
Ask people you know if they know people who do masonry, welding, electrical work, or plumbing. Tell them that you’re putting together a list of potential workers so that you don’t get roped into hiring your Spanish teachers 15 year old son (who huffs spray paint) to paint your house.
Ask for Receipts
When you pay your workers, ask them for a hand-written receipt and keep these in a file for your records. If something happens with a worker and they feel like you owe them money, you can pull out the receipts for your records.
Building Costs Mexico: Guanajuato
Here in Guanajuato, as a general rule of thumb as of 2018, the average cost to build a house in Mexico is about $1000 MXN per square meter. But the actual costs vary, of course based on your tastes. And for us, this algorithm didn’t really work out quite right because we had a run in with a bad engineer who took us for a ride for several months. Now that we have our feet underneath us and we’re starting to get the hang of Real Estate, Property, and Building-a-Home Spanish, I can see how $1000 MXN would be the correct figure. Half of that $1000 MXN will go to your workers and the other half for supplies. Again, there’s variability depending on your tastes. The more you can seek out talented people to do things like wood-working and metal-working for discreet projects and avoid the Home Depot, the more likely you’ll keep your costs low. On the other hand though, the Home Depot in Irapuato (which is closer than the one in León, by the way), is a god-send. You’ll need to go to the Home Depot if you’re building a home or renovating one in Guanajuato. No worries if you don’t have a vehicle. Take your list to the contractor area and tell them you want it delivered to Guanajuato. The Home Depot can often have your list of items to Guanajuato capital from Irapuato within 24 hours.
Summary: Buying Property in Mexico
If you have a sense of humor and you can handle a little stress, buy property in Mexico! We’re not the first people to buy a house and renovate it here in Guanajuato, but I wish someone would’ve given me some tips before we started on our adventure. The more you know about what to look for and what to avoid as you shop around for houses for sale in Mexico, the easier the process will be and the more confident you’ll feel about your decisions. Chances are, you’ll make mistakes, but as long as you can afford to make a mistake (financially as well as emotionally), and you can keep your sense of humor, you’ll be fine! We’ve learned Spanish so much more quickly because we decided to buy a house in Mexico. And we’ve learned a lot about the culture at the same time.