Saturday, January 31, 2009

Architectural Plans Take Shape

Voila. The sudden appearance of architectural drawings might suggest this project is leaping forward.

Well, hardly. Or at least it doesn't seem that way to us.

It has taken over six months, and a change of architects, to get where we are. We're delighted with the results, though. Friends keep telling us this is the normal pace of house design and construction. We hope not. We haven't broken ground (that's next week) and already we can't wait to move in.

About the pictures above, from top to bottom: The first is of the front entrance; the second is the back terrace; the third is a side view; the last is a floor plan. Already there have been some changes and I'm sure there will be many more, but this is close to what the house will look like.

For those interested in technical details, the architect made these renderings using a Google program called SketchUp. It's easily downloadable and free for the first eight hours of use. The architect then gave us the file with the drawings and quickie instructions on how to use the program. I imagine that actually drawing a house from scratch must involve several hours of work, probably days, even for an experienced user.

But just viewing a finished file is relatively easy and fascinating. You can flip the house in all angles and directions, "walk" in through one of the doors and roam around inside--look at ceilings, floors, walls, up, down, sideways--or remove the top and get an aerial view of the layout. You can have furniture or not and check out various types of floor or roof coverings. It's a bit hallucinatory, but completely drug-free.

Most amazing was the sun exposure function, which lets you set a time and day of the year. You can then rotate the house and check where sun and shadows will fall on that particular date and time. On my first try, the house turned up all dark, until I realized I had set the time for midnight!

But back to the machinations that got us here.

In Taboada we made a couple more mistakes. We assumed that the purchase was a done deal and so we hired an architect to start working on the plans before all the legal back-and-forths had been sorted out. That bit of impatience cost us a few thousand dollars: When the purchase eventually fell through we ended up with preliminary plans based on that particular site and terrain, but that otherwise were pretty useless, except as concepts.

So this time we waited until we had the deed or escritura to the Jalpa land in hand before going back to the architect we had used in Taboada.

That was another mistake. The architect we had liked so much before this time couldn't come up with a design we could get excited about. We even had a rough maquette, or scaled styrofoam model, made of the house because, quite frankly, we couldn't make sense of the one-dimensional paper sketches.

The architect grew impatient with our questions and lack of enthusiasm and we in turn became uncomfortable with the estimated costs and terms for financing the project. It was not an auspicious beginning for a working relationship that could last as long as year and cost a great deal of money.

So we went looking for a new architect and started over. So far, so excellent.

It has taken some practice to get used to the priorities. I tend to project several months ahead and start worrying about kitchen cabinets or the exact size of the windows. This while Stew, in turn, mentally calculates the correct number of circuit breakers and the location of ground fault interrupters.

Forget about it for now. At this stage you primarily worry about sizes ("volumes"), location of rooms and the general flow of the house. A lot of the decisions, such as wiring, are made and revised as the house goes up.

Next week we are supposed to go to the site and actually decide the exact orientation of the house. One tricky problem has been finding a compromise between capturing the best views--which are all north and northeast--while at the same time getting enough southern sun to help keep the house warm during the winter.

You enter the house through a protected courtyard (see first picture and floor plan) that I hope to turn into a bright tropical garden to provide a respite from the monochromatic desert surroundings during much of the year. The plans above show a large, shallow pond ("a water feature") taking up much of the courtyard. The architect was very fond of this item but we didn't particularly like it, so it's gone though we still want to have water gurgling somewhere.

I also worried about enough light getting into the living/dining room (under the Spanish roof tiles). There are large, south-facing windows in the master bedroom and the study. But the southern exposure into the main room, through a pair of glass doors, is partially blocked by an overhang of bare wood beams that the architect calls a "loggia". We might want to have climbing plants wrap themselves around the wood beams (for example, "Angels Trumpet" or Brugmansia do very well in enclosed patios here).

If that happens there would be very little southern light coming in through the doors. So the solution was to put a series of windows, a clerestory, to let the light in from above the beams of the loggia. These high windows will help with ventilation during the summer too. They are not shown on the drawings above.

The slope of the land has turned out to be a plus. The large terrace on the north side of the house will have underneath a large, wide and shallow cistern (approximately 125,000 liters) to collect rainwater off the roof. This seems like a good alternative to digging a deeper cistern with a smaller footprint, a task that could be expensive and difficult because of the rocky ground.

Rick and Andrea, friends who have a beautiful off-grid house in Taboada that includes its own weather station with a rain gauge, tell us that 125,000 liters of water is enough for a two-person household for a year. The Internet address of their ranch and weather station is
A curious thing has happened during this design. Originally we had talked about a thoroughly Mexican-modern house, in the style of Barragán or Legorreta, though obviously on a vastly smaller and more economical scale.

That modernity seems to have mellowed considerably. During a visit to a new house designed by the architect we've hired we noticed that rounded spaces lend considerable warmth to the house, as if it were embracing you.

Now we have a house with many rounded, rather than angular, corners and spaces. The rounded space off the master bedroom is a shower stall; we think it will be cool.

A traditional Spanish-tile roof, over the living/dining room, came into the design and we like that too. In fact, the combination of the angled, tiled roof and the flat roof elsewhere in the house (the latter needed to place solar panels and other paraphernalia like satellite dishes) seems to us like a nice hybrid of modern and traditional Mexican design.

We also grew concerned about a starkly modern house might stick out of the otherwise pastoral landscape of rolling hills and lazy sheep. So we chose horizontal lines and probably will use more conventional, earthy tones for the outside paint.

Another minor struggle has been to keep the house small, which to us means approximately 1,800 to 2,000 sq. ft. of living space, not counting the garage. As you work on preliminary designs, the house seems to grow on its own, like a fungus that thrives on phrases like "as long as we are building," "we can always use the extra space" or "we need lots of storage."

Unchecked, such thoughts (particularly the one about storage) will eventually take you to a 4,000 sq. ft. palazzo with a studio, breakfast nook, galleria, guest bedroom, his-and-hers walk-in closets and other costly what-have-you's.

A vast, recently completed country house we visited even includes a mini barn for a cow.

And don't forget storage: One can never have enough stuff or storage.

Up next are a string of decisions regarding energy conservation, sustainable design and other buzz phrases that are part of building a house off the grid.

These are easy cocktail party topics until you have to pull out a pocket calculator--and a checkbook--to try to figure out how much they will add to the cost of the house, which features are absolutely necessary, how long it will take to recoup the additional costs, and other nuts and bolts of green design.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fast forward to 2009

When the deal to buy the land in Taboada fell through in late 2006, our home building project went into hibernation for nearly 18 months. We were as exhausted as we were frustrated.

Then in the summer of 2007 a friend who already lived in the country mentioned there was land for sale nearby. We contacted the owner and this time we did buy the land, three hectares or 7.5 acres of it, which is already neatly fenced in. We are ready to start construction in about 10 days.

The deal didn't happen overnight. It took about nine months of haggling and delays, including waiting to close on the property, interviewing architects, presenting our plans and evaluating their proposals. That pause in the project, interminable as it seemed sometimes, helped us hone down our ideas.

Welcome to "Rancho Santa Clara." If all goes well, our new house should be finished within 10 months, roughly in time for Christmas.

In case you're wondering, Santa Clara is the name of my hometown in Cuba. Stew's hometown is Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Rancho Cedar Rapids" just didn't have the right ring.

Stew and I are hardly objective on the matter, but we believe the views from the terrace of our new house will beat any view of the Parroquia. Just check out the photograph above, taken early in the morning on New Year's Day 2009.

The views in that photo take you across farmland and grazing fields clear out to mountains in the background. There are a couple of tumbledown farm houses, surrounded by stone terraces, next to a small lake or reservoir.

Gorgeous as it is, it doesn't strike me as necessarily a Mexican landscape. It could be an impressionist take of the countryside in Spain or France. Particularly in the fall, when the farmers neatly gather and bundle the dry stalks of corn, and the afternoon sun creates stark shadows, the view is somewhat reminiscent of a Monet haystack painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Right now, in the dead of winter, the colors are muted golds and greens. In the summer, though, they will become bright shades of greens, as the now fallow fields are covered with corn and alfalfa, stone fence to stone fence. Rains will cause the lake to overflow creating a creek rushing during the summer but vanishing gradually and quietly as the dry season sets in around November.

The view on the other three sides is not as entrancing but beautiful nevertheless: mountains, a few miles on the horizon, with a couple of small towns clinging to their sides.

A weekend game at a community soccer field nearby breaks the silence occasionally, as might the tunes from a fiesta a couple of miles away, or the braying, mooing or bleating of livestock meandering by. Sound travels over open spaces.

But most of the time, an almost unsettling quiet.

Rancho Santa Clara is located on the opposite side of San Miguel from Taboada. It's on the road to Jalpa, which branches off the highway to Querétaro. From downtown San Miguel, the ride takes about 15 or 20 minutes.

Jalpa, located a few more miles down the road beyond our ranch, is a lethargic little town with meandering dirt streets. The local landmarks are a large reservoir, which I've been assured contains a type of edible fish (no thanks), and a domed church so enormous and out of proportion it must have been designed for a parish ten times the size of Jalpa's. Maybe it was an important depot sometime in the past.

If you kept going straight on the main road out of San Miguel, in about 45 minutes you would enter Querétaro, a kinetic and self-assured city of about 700,000 people. It has brand-new expressways to accommodate all types of SUVs and BMWs, in addition to shopping centers with glistening marble floors, multiplex cinemas and indirect music playing. Querétaro could be a preview of what Mexico would look like as a First World country.

Though only an hour away from one another, Jalpa and Querétaro could be on opposite sides of the earth.

The immediate area around our land is mostly open, but that is already changing. Nearby there are already two ranches owned by Americans, each with five hectares; another home almost finished; a third under construction and ours about to be built. And just last week, a young New York couple closed on a four-hectare parcel on which they plan to build.

Back in Taboada there's been such a construction rush since we looked that some long-time residents now complain about their truncated views or houses going up too close to their fences.

At our new location such problems seem far away. The parcels, including ours, are large enough--we think and hope--to avoid the appearance or reality of crowding. Just in case, we are being careful about centering our house within our 7.5 acres, away from anyone else, and planting trees and bushes around the perimeter for good measure

On the highway to Querétaro, between San Miguel and the turnoff to Jalpa, there are stirrings but no development stampede yet. A lone subdivision supposedly has sold all its parcels but two years into the project there are only three houses built. Isolated homes have appeared here and there, farther down the road.

And there's a rumor--probably started by some wishful developer--that yes, a golf course is about to be built alongside the highway to Querétaro, across the road from San Miguel's municipal office building! There are no signs of any such thing.

Rather, the roads leading to Rancho Santa Clara thus far look more like a sleepy Corn & Alfalfa Alley than a new Golden Corridor.

We hope it stays that way, even though we know it won't.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What's in a Dream Home?

While the paperwork related to the land in Taboada worked its way through the Mexican legal system, we hired an architect who asked us for a description of our dream home. It was a good exercise that forced us to think this project through.

Here is what Stew and I came up with. [Notes in brackets explain the reason for some of the choices, which may not be clear to people who don't live in Mexico. Also some updates.]

Hammer/Lanier House Wish List


The design is unmistakably Mexican, but also contemporary. We are open to all suggestions regarding Mexican detailing, as long as it's clever and creative. We want to stay away from the more clichéd elements found in many new homes in SMA, such as second-quality ceramic tiles and bathroom sinks, coarse clay tile flooring and other such details that are often marketed as “rustic” or “genuine” but to us reflect substandard materials and craftsmanship. Stick to clean, simple, interesting design.

The house should be relatively small; we're into function, not grand ceremonial spaces. We like to entertain but not mob scenes; four to six guests at a time is about right. Construction and materials should be durable on account of pets.

Siting and orientation:

The house should be sited North/South to take advantage of the sun during the winter. Most of the windows would face south to catch the winter sun.

We want to take maximum advantage of the views, with the siting of the house, terraces, windows, etc. Keep in mind sunrises, sunsets.

We also want to maintain as much privacy as possible and guard against potential construction near us that could affect our views, privacy and quiet [even though the lot we eventually did buy is 7 1/2 acres]. That would be reinforced with strategic landscaping, trees and other features to keep out the neighbors.

The main bedroom should face east to receive the early morning sun. We should avoid excessive exposure to afternoon sun from the west.

At the same time we’d like to have lots of sun, windows and skylights without the interiors becoming too hot during the summer. Many houses in San Miguel, particular older ones, tend to be dark.

More about energy conservation later.

Basic components of the house:

--Protected interior courtyard for growing tropical or semi-tropical plants. We’ve thought about having a courtyard as you go into the house, sort of a vestibule of plants, maybe a fountain.
--Lots of terrace space, for eating outside. Some of the space protected by a roof, the rest open. Pay attention to sun exposure, shadows etc.
--Living/Dining Room connected to the Kitchen with counter space or some such partial divider, rather than making the Kitchen totally separate. Kitchens in Mexican homes are often totally separate and closed in. We want a more American-style Kitchen that interacts with the Dining Room.
--Generous size Main Bedroom, with a walk-in closet and a good size bathroom. --Extra-large shower stall flush with the floor (i.e., no steps)
--Generous size studio/office with closet space and also wall space for books and pictures
--Smaller bathroom connected to the studio/office and also accessible from the LR/DR (Tub) so that it performs also as a powder room for guests.
--Kitchen with an island, and perhaps a wall of floor-to-ceiling cabinets to serve as a pantry. A door connecting to the terrace for outdoor dining.
--2 ½ car garage, the ½ being space for a workshop and storage of garden equipment. Connected to the kitchen for offloading of groceries.
--Lots of closets.
--Mechanical room for solar power equipment, water pumps and purification system, washer and dryer. Maybe this room could be combined with the extra-large garage.

Energy efficiency & sustainability factors:

Electricity comes from solar panels, probably about 10 of them, installed on the roof but hidden from view from ground level. There is a room on the first floor to accommodate the storage batteries, inverter and related equipment. We want to have enough panels to produce enough electricity so we can live without heroic or ridiculous conservation measures, like filling the place up with candles like a nunnery.

Likewise, hot water comes from a solar water heater, also on the roof, with on-demand water heaters as backup during cloudy days. Can the on-demand water heaters go on the roof? Do we need two, one on each end of the house, to make hot water available quickly without having to let it run at the faucet.

Lighting and wiring should factor in energy conservation, i.e., task lighting etc.

Sound and thermal insulation are very important inside and outside the house. Insulation material in the roof is important to keep the inside cool during the summer.

A rainwater collection system stores the water in an underground cistern. Sizing of the various components is important: How much roof space is needed to collect how much water, and how big a cistern is needed to hold the water collected? Two separate systems, one for household use and another for irrigation?

[NB: According to the latest design of the house, we have enough roof area to fill a 120,000 liter cistern, or approx. 32,000 gallons of rainwater.]

A BOSS septic tank system (or equivalent) takes all the black and gray water from the building and filters it into water suitable for irrigating the (non edible) garden.

Good quality windows—with good thermal insulation and fittings to keep out the dust are a big plus. Aluminum? Keep in mind security considerations. Lockable windows and doors. Vinyl clad?

The physical design of the house takes into consideration the extreme exposure to the sun in San Miguel and shields the inside to help it keep cool during the summer. In some cases that involves extended overhangs or other design features on the south and west sides that let in some sun in the winter but keep out the blazing summer sun. In combination with ceiling fans, windows located at ceiling (clerestory) and floor levels create an airflow that cools down the house, particularly at night during the summer.

Maybe strategically placed skylights could provide a great deal of the light inside—and cut down electrical use—particularly in interior areas.

--Heating: We could be talked out of it, but right now we favor zoned, hot water baseboard heating. Both of us are allergic to propane fumes, so fake fire logs for heating are not an option. We are dubious about radiant floor heating: We've heard it's not cold enough in San Miguel to make such systems work, and that the temperature is hard to control. Maybe Rennai heaters are an option.

Floor plan:

The house is on one floor, with no steps inside.

The floor plan provides easy, smooth flow rather than sharp turns, inaccessible nooks and crannies or any other obstacles to mobility, including someone in a wheelchair. These and other access features are incorporated discreetly as if they are integral elements of the design.

Throughout the house, built-ins abound to reduce the need for furniture, particularly for storage, such as china cabinets, side cupboards, standing bookshelves, etc.

The two bedrooms have ample closet space, including the room that will be used as an office or library but which may be converted into a guest or extra BR in the future.

Wiring: We want a "smart" house, in terms of wiring. Sound, phones, wi-fi, satellite TV. In addition to solar panels, there has to be room for TV and Internet satellite dishes on the roof. Built in wiring for sound.


We want mechanized, modern, efficient construction methods to speed up construction and guarantee even quality. Powered cement mixers. Back hoes and other excavating equipment. Wheelbarrows, not plastic buckets. This house has to be ready in 9-10 months, max.

[NB: Housing construction in Mexico often is all-manual, i.e. cement is mixed by hand and delivered to its destination in buckets. The reason is that labor is very cheap. The downside is that it takes twice as long to do things.]

--Building materials. We don't want the usual clay brick construction. It's cheaper, but also slower, more uneven and the R- insulation value of common brick and concrete roofs is lousy.

Adobe or Hebel bricks? Don't know. We've also heard about rammed earth construction. A friend has a house made of straw bales. Wouldn't mice would love that?

So that's it. Anyone with any suggestions or critiques is welcome to comment.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A House in the Country

In March 2006, approximately four months after arriving in San Miguel, a tiny two- or three-line classified ad in the real estate section of the English-language newspaper pointed us toward open land outside the city and upended our notions of what kind of house we wanted to build.

Ultimately the deal fell through but along the way we picked up the lingo of off-grid construction--rainwater catchment, photovoltaic panels, Hebel blocks and different types of solar water heaters--and also had learned about some quirky turns in Mexican land deals.

The parcel was less than a hectare, or about 1.5 acres, and had the configuration of an uneven trapezoid. It was located in Taboada, about 20 minutes outside of San Miguel, an area with several popular thermal springs and spas, rolling hills and spectacular views.

The ongoing San Miguel real estate hustle had preceded us. The road to Taboada had already been rechristened "The Golden Corridor", which had a bombastic ring reminiscent of Chicago's "Magnificent Mile."

Actually it is the road to Dolores Hidalgo, a town central to the history of Mexico's battle for independence from Spain. The beautiful shrine of Atotonilco, the site of constant pilgrimages, is also nearby.

What suddenly made this historic corridor also golden was an outbreak of gated residential subdivisions catering largely to wealthy Americans.

Some enclaves feature golf courses, though it's not entirely clear where the water is going to come from to keep all those fairways green. San Miguel is a high desert location where it rains only four months a year and the level of the aquifers is dropping steadily.

The parcel of our affection, a few miles off the Golden Corridor, had no golf greens or even any water. Or electricity, telephone service, sewers or roads. That's when we learned the expression "off-grid". Here, the disconnect was for real--not the result of some virtuous ecological choice on our part or a trendy lifestyle experiment to be featured in a shelter magazine.

Yet the beauty of the location seemed to more than make up for lack of the most basic amenities. In addition to the usual cacti, the parcel had several mature trees, including a centerpiece mesquite with a spread of maybe 40 feet. It's hard to gauge the age of this gnarled yet gracious fellow, but it may have been 50 years old or more, given how tentatively mesquites and other desert trees grow.

On the horizon was a small town that at night looked like nothing more than a smattering of twinkling lights. Beyond that, mountains. No sight of the prized pink spires of the Parroquia, not that you would miss them here.

Several Americans had built around the site, but the size of the adjacent parcels--ours was the smallest--prevented any feeling of crowding. Most of the houses were small and inconspicuous, though a couple had very nearly reached the size of "spreads." Under construction today is a Tuscan-like confection, reportedly with 20 solar panels to feed refrigerators and sundry electric doodahs in its twin kitchens.

But even as we dreamed of the house we would build, the deal for the land became tangled in Mexican laws.

The owner of the land, an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S., had died without a will. In the U.S., his wife likely would have automatically inherited the land, but we were in Mexico where an explicit will is required.

The wife could not readily return to Mexico to claim title to the property or give someone power of attorney to act on her behalf: She didn't have any immigration papers either, and if she returned to Mexico it would be a one-way trip.

So before we could actually close on the property, it had to go through probate proceedings which we agreed to pay for on behalf of the surviving spouse. I can't even remember many of details of the bi-national legal proceedings that dragged on for more than eight months.

And when it looked like the probate question might clear up, another more immediate question arose: How would we get to our landlocked parcel? Two meandering ruts went there from the main road, but there was no legal easement or access through other owners' properties.

One owner, a Boston financial trader, promptly said "no dice" to our request for a 12 ft.-wide easement.

If you then drove along another path, you ran through land owned by, yes, seven Mexican sisters who would have to be rounded up to obtain their approval. And beyond that, you bumped into land belonging to an "ejido," one of hundreds of thousands of collectively owned farms established by Mexico's land reform early last century.

Coursing through the ejido would require approval by its governing council. They did express some verbal approval, we believe, but on one onerous condition: The easement would be more like a boulevard, not 12 feet but nearly 40 feet wide, including the piece cutting the land belonging to the aforementioned seven Mexican sisters.

It seems someone in the ejido council had its own visions of land development and the boulevard would be like its grand entrance. We had our doubts, though, that the council could legally give away a piece of the ejido without some major legal procedure.

The penultimate solution was to create a zigzag easement going through some land owned by the sister-in-law of the guy who had owned our parcel (and died in the U.S.) and another American with considerable acreage in the area.

Problem is, these last two characters were in the middle of their own, very contentious lawsuit concerning a unrelated parcel of land. Neither was eager to cooperate with the other on putting together our easement.

(It's a miracle--or a testament to our very agreeable personalities--that to this day Stew and I remain good friends with both parties.)

The final, and shakiest, solution came from a notario, a type of Mexican lawyer who handles real estate transactions. Under Mexican law, we were told, a property owner could not be denied access to his land. So the solution would be for us to keep driving on the existing but vaguely established easement--two ruts in a open field--which at some point would in fact become a legal easement!

But what if an angry owner blocked our de facto easement? Well, then we could sue on the basis of that old Mexican law.

"Hmmm," Stew and I immediately said to ourselves. "Don't think so."

So after nearly a year of haggling, we walked away from the Taboada land deal, including its majestic mesquite. The land is back on the market for twice what we were going to pay. We hear the probate issue was resolved and that eventually an easement was somehow established.

We didn't walk away empty handed. While the gears of the Mexican legal system ground on, we had been talking to an architect and developed a clear idea of what we wanted to build.

Somewhere else.

Monday, January 12, 2009

San Miguel in a Bubble

Stew and I had visited San Miguel three times before we finally moved here in 2005, and arrived armed with the notion--I'm not clear based on what information--that a house in San Miguel could be had for somewhere around, say, $250,000.

And not any house, mind you, but an authentic, centuries-old colonial with an interior courtyard, stone pillars covered with bougainvillea, and a parrot perched on one of several large trees. We were not alone in our fantasies. Like thousands of other retirement-age gringos, we had been smitten by the beauty of San Miguel and had decided to live here without checking all of the footnotes.

Buying a house is often an impulsive decision and that is particularly true in San Miguel. The beauty and climate of the place, even after living here for a few years, is still intoxicating.

Real estate agents know that well. A question buyers are likely to hear is, "And so how many days are you going to be here, folks?" Once you explain that you live here full-time--and therefore are not going to plunge into a decision--you can expect the agents' enthusiasm to wane noticeably.

It didn't take long before we realized that San Miguel was trapped in a bubble of frenzied real estate speculation, fueled to a large extent by a similar phenomenon north of the border.

American Baby Boomers about to retire, and holding hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity in their homes, could not resist the charm and reportedly great real estate deals in San Miguel. Articles in American magazines and newspapers gushed about the town too, which even made someone's list of "Places to Visit Before You Die."

Stories abound of Americans plunking down sizable down payments after only a few days in town. Almost all real estate transactions are cash deals as mortgages or other type of financing are very expensive and difficult to arrange.

Our mountain air indeed resonated with the sounds of: "And so how many days are you going to be here, folks?"

Real estate agencies proliferated, one source in the business claiming their number had doubled or tripled between 2005 and 2007. Property prices headed for the moon. Yet what made San Miguel's real estate bubble particularly tricky for American was the lack of reliable data buyers commonly use in the U.S.

Stew, who had worked in real estate in Chicago (specifically home inspections) became increasingly aggravated by the pig-in-a-poke style of home sales in San Miguel.

There are no multiple listings of homes for sale (unless you consider the pages and pages of real estate ads in the local English-language newspaper a sort of multiple listing); no "comps" or list of properties sold or for sale in certain areas of the city during a certain period of time; no reliable or public system of property assessments. Not much to go on, in fact, that would help you determine the fair price of a piece of property.

The only way to do that was to trudge through dozens of homes for sale, and begin to develop your own sixth sense for what a house was worth. Impatient real estate agents didn't make it easy, particularly if you didn't pull out your checkbook after a few outings. "And so how many days are you going to be here folks?"

A few realtors in town, including some American expats who have set up shop here, recently have adopted practices, including ethical guidelines, to make buying a bit more transparent and consumer-friendly. But such tools as a central multiple listing service, or disclosure of recent sale prices, never appear to get past the discussion stage.

Authentic colonial houses, even without a parrot, were the first to vanish from our monitor. Prices could surpass a million dollars, particularly if you added the cost of considerable upgrading and repairs. Even if we could afford them, we could not envision living in the few that we visited. Many had more rooms and nooks that we could imagine using, much less furnishing and decorating.

There are hundreds of such manses in San Miguel and peeking into their courtyards becomes a habit after you live here for a while. Some have cathedral-size wooden doors that trumpet the splendor inside. Such doors typically have smaller entrances cut out of them for everyday use.

But even more amazing are the treasures hidden behind small, rickety doors hanging on crumbly walls. Look inside and there might be a huge garden with a sputtering stone fountain, surrounded by flowers, plus a sizable house. Who knew?

Limiting the price range to our original $250,000 then took us to the poorer neighborhoods that make up a substantial portion of San Miguel though none of the tourist brochures. We visited areas with squatter colonies, others with no paved streets or sidewalks, or even sewers or running water. In some, horses, pigs and chickens were common backyard fixtures.

Given that most of the houses we saw in this segment of the market were in nearly tear-down condition, we began looking at empty lots, presumably to build a house from scratch. But the results were just as disconcerting.

In a neighborhood or colonia called Santa Julia, we were shown a piece of land supposedly located next to a designated "green area" where a park was about to be built. Or so the realtor assured us.

Problem was that on the way there signs of urban planning had vanished to the point that the agent could not point to the boundaries of the lot with any certainty. There were no sidewalks, streets, curbs, lampposts or any other visible landmarks. Nothing except swirling dust and an asking price in the US$60,000s for a very modest piece of land--wherever it was.

Yet more than a few Americans, with a limited budget but determined to live in San Miguel, are moving into these colonias, which some Mexicans euphemistically call "zonas populares" or "popular zones."

Many of these new homes are beautiful, if carefully walled-in, enclaves and enjoy far better views of the Parroquia than properties in more expensive areas. That's true particularly at night when darkness envelops the town except for the spot-lit churches and other landmarks.

Many of the gringos already living there rhapsodized about "up-and-coming neighborhoods," rising property values and other signs of American-style gentrification.

But neither the sights nor the ambiance much moved us. We made an offer on a vacant piece of land in a colonia near Santa Julia, and we're glad it was turned down. I couldn't fake much enthusiasm and Stew grew increasingly angry. "This is not the place where I figured I would retire," became his standard line.

So we shifted our sights toward open land on the outskirts of San Miguel--and started talking about notions we hadn't even considered before, like off-the-grid living, rainwater catchment, solar panels and electric inverters.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Jungle Gyms of San Miguel

On Nov. 1, 2005, Stew and I took off from Chicago to Mexico, driving a VW Passat station wagon crammed to capacity with suitcases and sundry junk that spilled over into a shapeless roof carrier held down with ropes. Think "The Clampetts Head for Mexico."

Along for the five-day drive were our two cats, Ziggy and Paco, who meowed non-stop for the first two days and then receded into a terrified silence. Although we had brought two carriers, they insisted in squeezing into one as if seeking mutual reassurance during this incomprehensible ordeal.

Our 15-year-old Pooch seemed to sleep most of the way. We didn't realize until we got to Mexico that he wasn't just his usual well-behaved mutt: Pooch was so old and feeble that didn't much know or cared where he was, as long as he could spot Stew and me through his cloudy eyes. We had to put him to sleep about 18 months after we arrived.

I had flown alone to San Miguel a month earlier to rent a place to live, a nerve-wracking, weeklong jaunt. Carol and Norma, a couple I had met through the Internet, were most warm and gracious. Their welcome was helpful though hardly enough to calm me down.

Through the local English-language weekly I found a house for $1,300US a month. The rent would have been a deal in Chicago, but somehow seemed high in what I thought would be inexpensive Mexico. The second surprise was that this supposedly charming San Miguel residence--most everyone who visited seemed wowed by it--quickly came to represent everything we did not want in a home.

San Miguel has a population of 85,000 (plus the surrounding areas) and is approximately a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. The altitude is about 6,800 feet, which combined with semi-desert terrain, gives the place a climate so pleasant that at times--very rarely, mind you--it feels almost boring. It's as if the Spanish settlers had installed a thermostat in the town square, and permanently set at 40 to 50 degrees at night, and 70 to 80 degrees during the day.

The town is built in a bowl, at the bottom and center of which is the main square and the most important church and landmark, called La Parroquia or "The Parish". It's not a cathedral--a small-fry town like San Miguel doesn't rate a bishop--and its design is a vaguely Gothic-like creation painted a shade of salmon. During a recent round of tuckpointing and painting some residents complained the new color was ugly. City officials assured everyone that it was historically accurate.

Whatever its architectural pedigree, La Parroquia is the center of San Miguel and of every other real estate spiel. "View of the Parroquia" is that magic line in a real estate listing that can pump up the value of a property by $100,000, even if the "view" sometimes is more like a furtive glance, from atop three flights of stairs, and through a narrow space separating the two buildings across the street. No matter.

From the main square, San Miguel's streets and buildings radiate in all directions, up the surrounding hills, in an amphitheater-like arrangement. In between the main arteries, streets often become as narrow and chaotic as those in an old Moroccan quarter. Some San Miguel "callejones" or "alleys" are barely wide enough for two-way traffic--of bicycles.

Don't take any of this as a mixed review of San Miguel. The place is gorgeous. We are reminded of that yearly, when the Santa Fe Photo Workshop brings to San Miguel hundreds of students who walk around town pointing their cameras in all directions, like a pack of excited bloodhounds on the trail of a perfect scent. Particularly during the late afternoon the waning sunlight can transform the most mundane lantern or flowerpot into an ephemeral work of art.

Our rental was located on a "calle privada", or "private street," a fancy name for a callejón, off another two-block callejón, which ultimately connected with the steep Cuesta de San José. Three blocks was about as close as you could come to the house with a carload of groceries.

Though the floorspace was relatively ample--two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, large kitchen, living/dining room, a glass-walled studio, and large terraces--the small footprint of the lot--about 1,500 sq. ft.--created a vertical living space that Stew promptly dubbed a San Miguel Jungle Gym. It seemed as if even the slightest relocation required climbing stairs, which also consumed an inordinate amount of floorspace.

Jungle Gyms are a direct result of both small lot sizes and of houses craning their necks to catch that essential peek of the Parroquia. The view from our house was for real: Off the living room a terrace overlooked some tree tops and neighboring yards, and a bit beyond, the spires of the Parroquia. One more flight of stairs, from a scorching rooftop terrace and studio, was a spectacular view of the Parroquia and beyond, mountains and the presa, a polluted water reservoir best viewed and smelled from a distance.

The constant stair-climbing reminded Stew and me of my elderly mother painfully working her way up to our guest bedroom on the second floor. It also reminded me, constantly, of my already arthritic knees, malfunctioning tendons in my left foot, and my own possible mobility problems in the future.

New House Resolution Number One: A one-level house with no stairs, and an easy flow among rooms, rather than sharp turns, nooks or crannies. We even plan extra-wide doors to facilitate access to all the rooms, without giving the place the appearance of a nursing home.

New House Resolution Number Two: Keep an eye on the sun.

Sun exposure quickly became another issue at our rental property. I've heard a couple of different numbers, but San Miguel gets about 320 days of sunshine a year. In fact, it's hard to think of any completely cloudy days here, like those gray winter doldrums Chicagoans or New Yorkers suffer through in February.

Our rental home was designed clearly without much thought given to the effects of the sun. It was an L-shaped building, with the long leg of the L facing west. Mid-afternoon sun coming through the dining room and kitchen windows made it broiler-hot inside, a problem that could have been alleviated by pointing the building in a different direction or adding eaves to shield the interior and some of the terraces.

The third-floor studio was hopeless. The glass walls made it insufferably hot and opening the windows only invited in the dust that swirls around San Miguel during the eight-month-long dry season. It became storage space.

The small yard bounded by the L of the building was cheerful in the summer, but long shadows during the winter made most of it as gloomy and dank as a mushroom farm. Snails thrived, encouraged by the "gardener" who came with the house and watered all the vegetation into a stupor twice a week, regardless of rainfall or other contraindications.

It gets chilly in San Miguel during the winter, yet passive solar design doesn't seem to be a major concern in housing design. The winter chill is compounded by masonry construction that keeps the homes cool in the summer but makes them hard to heat and clammy in the winter. When we began interviewing architects to build a house, our enthusiasm about building orientation and passive solar design, along with rainwater collection, received mostly uncomprehending looks.

Probably because Stew and I had experience remodeling houses--and Stew was co-owner of a home inspection company in Chicago--the most shocking feature of our house was the shoddy construction. The bathrooms and kitchen had reject-grade ceramic tile reborn into an exalted state called the "rustic Mexican look." Rain came in under the doors. In the master bathroom shower enclosure and floor, water flowed in every direction except toward the drain. Metal windows and doors rattled in the wind. Many stair treads and risers varied in size, almost giving the impression of an optical illusion.

None of this could be blamed on antiquity: The joint was only about four or five years old.

Nor could you blame Mexican ineptitude. As Stew would point out, the construction trades in Chicago were heavily populated by Mexican immigrants who routinely turned out the finest craftsmanship.

The far more likely culprit was the wave of American real estate speculators--some professionals, most rank amateurs--who had swept over San Miguel. Construction was dirt cheap, resale prices and profits sky-high. And taxes on the proceeds, either in Mexico or the U.S., could be open to interpretation by sellers and their notarios or real estate lawyers.

American widows, college professors, former accountants, or in the case of our building a Brooklyn firefighter, all tried their hand at building houses, or failing that, selling them.

That's about when Stew and I decided it was a great time to go buy a house in San Miguel.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Home of Our Own

As long as we have been together--37 years and counting--Stew and I have fantasized about building our own house. But while waiting for that to come true, our lives often seemed like an endless series of remodeling projects.

Our bookshelves clearly revealed our passions: Magazines about architecture, interior design and gardening (lots of those), along with some about the less glamorous but essential arts of wiring, plumbing and home insulation.

The moving van from Chicago carried additional evidence, a mini Home Depot of manual and power tools, and other construction materials. Miter, jig, and radial saws, even a pole pruning saw with a telescoping handle. Another pole saw, this one electric, never made it to Mexico. Dozens of screwdrivers mixed in with strange gizmos for those once-in-a-lifetime construction or repair projects. We also brought plastic containers and little cabinets holding hundreds of screws, nuts, bolts, washers, cotter pins and other odds and ends, some new but most just orphans left over from projects over the years. You never know.

Yet our desire for a distinct, utterly idiosyncratic living space mostly swirled inside our heads.

We bought and remodeled four houses along the way, two in Chicago and the other two outside the city, but never built anything from scratch. Instead we had to adapt to something created by someone else to suit their own fantasies and realities. We always rationalized that we didn't have the money or time to supervise a ground-up construction project.

Even when we finally dove into massive and messy remodeling--gutting a building down to the studs, joists and plumbing stacks was our last project--the results were, at the very best, a mix of personal ideas constantly hemmed in by what we considered realistic considerations.

If our imaginations strayed too far, the Guardian Angel of Real Estate was always ready to whisper, "Yeah, guys, but think resale value. What will the next owners want? What's the payback?"

When we went shopping for real estate, we often thanked Angel for his vigilance. Once we saw a house in which the owner had transformed the dining room into a pleasure dome with a hot tub and shag carpeting creeping two-thirds of the way up the walls. "What were these people thinking about?," we chuckled. We knew better.

Our relatively timid logic wasn't necessarily cheap. In our last home in Chicago we installed a luxurious whirlpool bath in the master bath, whose overall design--psst, don't tell anyone--was a shameless rip off from a spread in a remodeling magazine we found at the supermarket checkout.

When it came to sell the house, potential buyers were dazzled by the master bath with its fancy tile work, marble counter tops and huge skylights. The house sold quickly and at a great price.

Problem is, we never used that expensive whirlpool more than a half-dozen times: It took forever to fill and then made a worrisome racket, or so it seemed, sitting as it was on the third floor of an old Chicago frame house.

The house also had a guest bedroom and bathroom that also were hardly ever used, except by my mother when she came to visit. At other times it was basically a beautiful room in which the cats spent afternoon sunning themselves. During her final few years my mother couldn't even walk up the stairs to the second floor guest bedroom. Had it been more accessible to a handicapped person perhaps she could have stayed with us instead of ultimately having to move to a nursing home.

Our occasional flashes of originality weren't always admired by visitors or potential buyers. Cast iron, wood burning stoves--a no-brainer in frigid Chicago, right? They are airtight, efficient and kick off an amazing amount of heat. We had a slick Scandinavian Jotul stove in one building, and Vermont Castings models in two other homes. We found the crackling and smell of a wood fire an indispensable respite from winter.

Yet most visitors reacted with polite puzzlement or observed how dirty, inconvenient and laborious those contraptions must be. What's wrong with gas logs?

Indeed, the most heavily used space in our house may have been the basement. That's where Stew stashed his hundreds of tools and contraptions, some of them part of his business as a home inspector, but most just components of our endless projects.

Come April, for example, dozens and dozens of spindly seedlings craned their heads toward banks of fluorescent lights we had set up hoping to speed up spring's arrival.

Shouldn't we have built a greenhouse? But where? In our minuscule Chicago backyard? Or at a weekend cottage we had bought about two hours north of the city?

The latter had plenty of space but had turned into such a bear of maintenance, work and fussing that adding a greenhouse seemed downright masochistic. And who besides us would want a greenhouse? What would it add to the resale value of the property?

An old chestnut of Home & Garden sections of newspapers are lists of remodeling projects that supposedly add value to the house and are therefore good "investments." Stainless steel kitchen appliances and central air conditioning always seem to make the list.

But a greenhouse? I could imagine someone buying our property and taking a sledgehammer to the greenhouse as their first home improvement project. Or maybe the second. Surely they'd go after the wood stove first.

Our fears and constipation about house and home remodeling are not really that unusual. Stew theorizes that Americans move so often, and have so much of their net financial worth sunk in their homes, that they are afraid to do anything that might hurt the "value" of the property when the time comes to sell. It's ironic that so many now face foreclosures or mortgages larger than the value of their homes despite all their efforts to play by the rules.

Indeed, if you want vinyl siding your choices are a pusillanimous palette of pastels like "antique parchment," "adobe cream" and "colonial ivory." No fuchsias or burnt oranges. The extreme in group think are gated communities, where aesthetic vigilantes guard against any deviations from accepted rules, down to the type of plants allowed in front yards. Everything must look the same.

Even in Mexico, stereotypically the land of wild, intense colors, homeowners seem to be losing their nerve. Atascadero, an upscale, hillside neighborhood of San Miguel is dominated by monotonous earth hues, except for Federico's house, a guy I met yesterday at a birthday party. His choice of color--a visceral shade of purple--led to prolonged howling by the neighbors, one of whom went so far as to hire two guys to impersonate building inspectors who visited Federico and "ordered" him to pick a different color. The ruse fell apart when Federico asked for official identification.

You ought to build and equip your homestead according to whatever tickles you, shouldn't you? If someone else, even your neighbor, doesn't like your visions and fantasies, well, screw him (or her).

That's the line Stew and I always talked up, but seldom followed. Our homes, wood stoves notwithstanding, hardly stood out as monuments to originality.

That's why we made quite a bit of money in real estate back in the States, and why we vowed to do something different in Mexico.