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Building a House in Mexico

How to Construct Your Own Cozy Casa

“Outside of the major cities, good rentals are hard to find, and honest landlords are even harder to find. I think owning your own home is more important in Mexico than in the US.” This is one of the reasons a trusted source gives to explain why he designed and built his home in Lerdo, Mexico. Rolly took the expat plunge in 2000, moving from Los Angeles to his newly constructed casa in north central Mexico. 

Many Americans dream of a simpler life in the land of flowers and long siestas. But few turn that dream into a reality by building their own home south of the border. If you think about it, though, it is one of the best ways to complete the dream: choosing exactly what you want and working hard to get it.

Building projects in Mexico are not fairy tales waiting to happen. If you want to create your own home, brace yourself for a long road paved with delays, confianza (trust) issues, and cultural surprises. But it is not an impossible task. In fact, since labor and supplies are generally cheaper, you can usually get more for your peso by building, as opposed to buying, a home.     

The Perfect Location

Whether you’re a beach bum or prefer the solitude of mountains, you’ll find your niche within Mexico’s borders. While it’s a good idea to check out popular expat gatherings – Baja California, the Lake Chapala region, and San Miguel de Allende,– don’t rule out the areas less tourist-laden. One expat family has lived in Torreón, an industrial city in northern Mexico, for the past forty-five years. While Torreón usually takes up no more than two pages in guidebooks (sometimes beginning with “if you must travel here”) some find it to be the perfect fit. 

Generally speaking, people in the south are fairly reserved; those in the north have a reputation of being more engaging (though they are still more reserved than boisterous gringos). Before purchasing land, begin by renting in your desired location. You’ll quickly learn if you feel comfortable in the area and with the people.

Purchasing Property

Foreigners can own land in Mexico. If you find property in the restricted zone (within 50 kilometers of the coast or 100 kilometers of the border), you will need to apply for a fideicomiso.  In this trust agreement, a Mexican bank takes title to the property. You, as the owner, will still enjoy virtually all rights, including using, selling, and naming a beneficiary to the land. In the interior of Mexico, you can own property in your own name. To do so, you will need to have an escritura (deed) prepared by a Mexican notary public.

The notary public will play a very active role in the purchase of land. In Mexico, all legal documents must be signed before the notary public to be legitimate. Ask yours to check that all debts and necessary payments have been made on the land. If you are purchasing land from a developer, have the notary public affirm that there are permits for development and construction included. Do not sign anything until you have a clear understanding of what the document says.

In addition, consider the following:

  1. Avoid purchasing land labeled as “egido.” This is communal agricultural land and can be a legal headache. It is best to stay away from it.
  2. Ask about water, sewer, and electrical connections. If these are not readily available, it can be very expensive to hook them up.
  3. Check into city ordinances. Some areas, such as Cozumel, only allow construction on a certain percentage of the property and issue height limits.

Avoid getting wrapped up in “margarita fever” (initial excitement upon seeing the advantages of living in Mexico). Instead, take the steps one at a time. Do plenty of research, ask questions, and stay away from anything that seems suspicious to you. Pacing yourself throughout the process will help you find land you are ultimately satisfied with. 

Finding Local Workers

Once you have land, there are a number of building options. If you are familiar with construction, you may consider heading up the project. If not, and even if you do have plenty of experience, it might be wise to find an architect and building crew.

Whatever you decide, you will hear the term confianza, and if you don’t, you will soon learn its meaning. Finding workers that are “de confianza” (trustworthy) is key. Taking on a building project without good local connections is foolish.

Fortunately, Mexicans are masters at networking. If you rent in an area before building, use the time to build relationships with dependable friends. They will connect you with someone they know, who knows someone else, and so on. This networking system exists because of problems of confianza, and will help you find a reliable architect and workers. 

The Need for Supervision

Maintaining a regular presence on the site is essential. Stopping by on a daily basis, or spending all day on location, is not uncommon.   

The “sí Señor” syndrome runs rampant on construction sites. Workers tend to avoid telling you “no.” While this may sound ideal (your orders are always followed!), it can quickly turn sour. Even if the architect, plumber or electrician, does not agree with your idea, chances are they will give it a resounding “yes.” They may do so, knowing in advance that your plan is impractical, terribly expensive, or simply not doable.

The attempt to please is highly regarded in Mexico. Unfortunately, the moment may be pleasant, but it will quickly pass. Then the headache of rebuilding a wall or reconstructing cabinets will set in. To avoid this, do ample research yourself. Stay on the site to oversee the progress. And don’t get bogged down if you do have to rework part of the construction; make sure the end result is what you want. 

Take it Times Two…and then Some

While building projects often run over budget and take longer than expected, you can anticipate even more delays in Mexico. In fact, the waiting and dealing with the inevitable bumps are what drive some away from building here. Plan for delays and pad your budget before starting. It will be easier to tolerate the changes and delays, as well as the complex, and often infuriating, bureaucratic system. Occasional bribes are embedded into this system. They can help speed things up, but use them wisely.

Realistic Expectations

Tour houses before beginning construction on yours. Depending on your workers, your house may not have a “clean cut” finish. Some expats describe completed construction as a shoe that has already been worn in. View it as character; it is what makes a house a home in Mexico.         

As an outsider, expect the unexpected. Even with experience and local connections. Your position as a foreigner increases the risk that you will be overcharged. Obviously you will need a grasp of Spanish to reduce costs.

When building a home in Mexico, remember the popular phrase “sí se puede” (yes, you can!).

For More Info

Furnishing your Home

Furnish your new home with Mexico’s finest, and often inexpensive, décor. Here are some of the best markets to shop at:

Ciudadela: Located in the heart of Mexico City, this semi-covered market has over 200 stalls and boasts handicrafts from throughout the country. Address: On Balderas Avenue, between Reforma and Chapultepec. 

Puebla: Headquarters for Mexico’s top Talavera dinnerware, you can purchase already-made dishes or order your own. Shops are dispersed throughout the city. Two to try: El Parián, a pedestrian-only shopping area located between Avenidas 2 and 6 Oriente, and Centro Talavera Poblana, located on Calle 6 Oriente 11, between Calle 2 Norte and Avenida 5 de Mayo. 

Tlaquepaque: If your budget allows, this artist-haven will provide all you need to add charm to your home. Shops will ship purchases to your desired destination. Located eight kilometers southeast from downtown Guadalajara.

Tonalá: The distributing center for glassware, this mile-long market also specializes in cloth and wood furniture (and it’s easier on the wallet than Tlaquepaque). Thursdays and Sundays are Market days. Located eight kilometers east of Tlaquepaque.

Employee Information

Should you hire workers on your own, you’ll need to pay them. Take the following into consideration for employees in Mexico:

  1. Construction workers typically work 48 hours per week
  2. Pay is given in cash at the end of each week
  3. All employees (unless exempt) must be registered with the IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social), which provides social security, medical care, government housing, etc.
  4. You’ll need a certified public accountant to set you up with the IMSS. They will then send you bills each month.
  5. Hold on to receipts – you may need them at a future date.

 For more information, visit rollybrook.com/employee-pay.htm.

Resources

Bowers, James Daniel. "Buying Property in Mexico and the Notary Public."

Brook, Rolly. "My Life in Mexico."

"Buying Property in Mexico."

 
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