Mi Casa Es Su Casa
At the outset, a clarification: all prices quoted to this point and henceforth are in Canadian dollars, unless otherwise noted in US dollars (US) or Mexican pesos (Mx). Local real estate is usually priced in US dollars, sometimes in pesos, never in Canadian dollars. At current exchange rates, the US dollar is about 25% higher than the Canadian dollar. There are 20 pesos to the US dollar and 15 to the Canadian dollar. Therefore, $1 million (Mx) is about $62,000 Canadian.
A wide variety of real estate is available here for sale or rent. Sizes range from small, one bedroom apartments or casitas at about 500 square feet (sf) up to large homes at 5000 sf or even bigger. There are gated developments and stand-alone houses. Prices are up to 20% higher in Ajijic than in Chapala or Jocotepec due to the expat influence. Views of the lake and/or mountains can command a premium relative to properties that don’t have a view.
Houses are measured differently here and include all construction under roof in the footprint. This tends to inflate the size a bit compared to Canada, perhaps by 10 to 20% depending on the design. For example, after we moved in we found an old real estate flyer from some point in the past when our house had been for sale. It listed the size at 5900 sf, but that’s an exaggeration. Subtract the garage, large covered terraces and pool house and 4000 sf would be a more accurate Canadian comparison. Still the biggest damn house I’ve ever owned by a country mile!
All construction is some variation of cement or masonry; there is no wood-frame construction. Styles range from traditional haciendas to ultra-modern. Most properties are walled or fenced and gated. Roofs are either flat or low pitch and clad with terra-cotta tiles. In this area, there is a common ceiling treatment called boveda which is scalloped brick. It is very attractive. Floors are ceramic tile or polished concrete. Many houses have rooftop terraces (miradors) offering a view, particularly if the property itself is smaller. Onsite casitas, or guesthouses, are also common.
For those looking to rent, either seasonally or long term, there are plenty of options. In general, rents range from about $500 (US) per month for a small apartment or casita to $2000 (US) for a good sized, detached house with a pool. The rent for the house may include some combination of housekeeping, gardener and/or pool maintenance.
Utilities are usually not included. The hydro utility is a quasi-government organization called CFE (about as responsive as the old Ontario Hydro!). Oddly, you need to show your CFE bill to validate your existence here for just about everything. Rates are tiered with a subsidized base rate and large increases for higher usage. Everyone gets excited about the cost, however, our bills are still less than we paid in Canada (but not by much). Nevertheless, it is impossible to run a large house within the base level and solar electric systems are common.
The challenge with seasonal renting is that most landlords prefer long-term. As a result, it may be difficult to get the same place each year if a long-term tenant has been secured during the off-season. However, it’s not a question of lack of rental supply. As the fall approaches, even landlords who prefer long-term will often take a seasonal tenant to kick the vacancy problem down the road. One set of friends rent the same house each year from the church, who use it themselves in the off-season as a retreat center, but this sort of arrangement is rare.
Given the low prices, another alternative for seasonal visitors is to buy a property, much as Canadians used to buy condos in Florida. Friends from Ontario bought a lovely two story, 3 bed, 2 bath house in Chapala four years ago for less than $100,000 (US). With redecorating, it is probably worth twice that now, but there are still houses available in that original range. The townhouse we rented from AirBnB the first time could have been purchased for $75,000 (US).
(As an aside, the couple in Chapala didn’t come down last winter due to the pandemic and only returned here last week. She makes the point that, despite being vacant for 20 months in an un-gated Mexican neighborhood, nothing was disturbed, stolen or vandalized. Don’t tell us that Mexico is unsafe!)
For buyers, the choice is almost limitless. There are houses of all sizes available in town. The advantage to this is being able to walk everywhere; to stores, restaurants and markets. However, Mexico has a vibrant culture and living downtown can be noisy. Bars and restaurants, music and festivals, dogs being dogs, it all adds up!
There are also many gated communities with either townhouse-style homes or detached homes. Some are predominently expats and others are a mixture like ours, although frequently Mexican owners will have another house in Guadalajara and not be in residence full-time. Most of the gated communities have a homeowners association. While HOA fees are very low compared to Canada, the association restricts itself to common area maintenance and infrastructure. They won’t paint the outside or re-roof your unit like a condo corporation in Canada would.
Local developers have realized that many expats are retirees looking to downsize. As a result, there is a lot of new and recent construction in the 2000 to 2500 sf range, 2 bed, 2 bath, typically modern style, open concept with nice finishes and a garden, maybe a community pool for mid to high $200’s (US). Turnkey and maintenance free!
At the other end, the sky’s the limit. One house that has been for sale in Ajijic for the past several months is comprised of the main house and two casitas. There are 8 bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. The total construction is over 15,000 square feet. The lot is over an acre and it has a large pool. The asking price is $869,000 (US). Check out grandajijicestate.com.
We have had some lovely homes in Canada, but this one is entirely beyond my experience. Indulge me for a moment in order to comprehend the possibilities. Our lot is about a half acre with a beautiful garden terraced with massive stone retaining walls. Inside, the principal rooms all have domed brick ceilings with 12 inch plaster crown moldings. The living room is 25 feet square and 18 feet high to the peak of the dome. There are large picture windows overlooking the lake and a pair of 10 foot high french doors opening onto a decorative fountain set in 1000 sf of covered terraces that wrap around three sides of the house.
The kitchen has 10 foot ceilings, a barrel-vault skylight, granite counters, natural finish, solid hardwood cabinets, a corner sink with large windows overlooking the lake, travertine tile back splash and a 12 foot island. The master bedroom has a fireplace (as does the living room) and the en-suite has a sunken, jetted tub (also overlooking the lake), separate walk-in shower, makeup table, travertine tile, leathered marble counters and double, stone vessel sinks.
I realize not everyone will want a house this large, particularly in retirement, but I thought ‘why not’? (You will recall that, for obvious reasons, she wanted it badly!) It cost about half what we sold our house for in Canada and one quarter the amount I estimate it would sell for anywhere in the GTA. By Canadian standards, property taxes and HOA fees are almost non-existent. We have the support of housekeepers, a gardener and pool maintenance at very reasonable rates. With no heating or cooling costs, utilities are not a direct function of size. As it happens, I like to work in the garden and around the house, but if I wanted to play golf or sit in cafes all day, I could.
For those wanting to build, there are lots of lots available (pun intended). In general, they range in size from about 300 square meters (sm) at the low end (30 ft by 100 ft) to 500 sm with a few going as high as 800 sm. Depending on location, cost ranges from about $60-$160,000 (US). Originally, I had wanted to build and I received credible estimates from two different sources quoting $150 (US) per square foot, building to an expat standard. This is about half the cost of custom construction in Canada, even before the lumber price gouging and so-called ‘pandemic surcharges’.
Finally, don’t be afraid of buying a fixer-upper and renovating. Provided you engage qualified contractors, it is amazing what can be done at an affordable price. When we were looking, there was a house in downtown Jocotepec listed for $125,000 (US) that appealed to me. It was built in the traditional style with the front of the house right up to the sidewalk, but had a big lot behind. I think I could have renovated and expanded the house for an additional $125.000 (US) and had a spectacular property in town for $250-$300,000 (US). Not bad, eh!
Given the amount of ongoing development, I think prices will continue to increase making area real estate a good investment in the medium term. With the current overheated market in Canada, virtually any homeowner could move here and buy a house as nice or better for half the proceeds and put the balance in the bank. Even if you had no other investments or pensions besides CPP/OAS, you could live well in Mexico. And never shovel the driveway again!
To see area real estate listings, go to www.pointsouthmls.com, and 1) click Listings, click Sales and Lake Chapala Area or, 2) click Agencies and Lake Chapala Area.