Published in CRA Magazine Inside Winter 2003 Edition
From the depths of the Canadian winter, it is tempting to consider the delights of relocating or retiring to Mexico. Canadian expat and real estate agent Kevin Collins explores one aspect of the dream – buying a house in the idyllic village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala.
Buying Into Mexico Fifty years ago, the first North American expats settled in the Lake Chapala region of Mexico. Today, the best estimate of the foreign population is between 5,000 and 6,000, about half of whom are Canadian. I came to Ajijic eight years ago and found what was, for me, an ideal combination of location, people and weather. Ajijic is a small town, with little tourist traffic. However, proximity to cosmopolitan Guadalajara and to the international airport ensure that the town is not isolated. A four-hour drive will take me to the beautiful Pacific Ocean or to one of at least ten historic and charming colonial cities. The people of Ajijic could not be kinder or more tolerant of the expats who share their town: being polite is an art form here. So many Mexicans speak English that it is possible to get along with very little Spanish (mine is limited to the topics of food, beverage and golf), but I know that I have missed a great deal by not taking advantage of the many opportunities to study it properly!
REAL ESTATE REALITIES
To provide stability against the fluctuating Peso, houses here are priced in U.S. dollars. More that 95 per cent of home sales are cash deals. Occasionally owners are willing to take back some financing for a year or two but this is unusual and any problems can be tied up in the local court system. While there is a misconception that you cannot obtain a direct deed in Mexico, this is only true of areas close to a border or the ocean. Establishing clear title is handled by a specialized lawyer or notary appointed by the government to deal with all real estate transactions. While remarkably few problems arise, you may wish to get references from recent clients.
Since there are no disclosure laws to speak of, make sure your agent informs you of any problems with the physical structure of the home you are considering. While this sounds very scary, the truth is that there aren’t that many major problems with the homes here, and repairs are relatively inexpensive. Closing costs, which are the responsibility of the buyer, are largely based on the fiscal evaluation that the municipality puts on the property. You must sign an application as a foreigner buying property under the laws of Mexico (this costs approximately $430 (U.S.) for each person buying the property). Other costs include the notary fees and the taxes, which are 2 per cent of the fiscal evaluation. Generally speaking, if you are using a reputable realtor and a good notary, the buying process should be quite painless and straightforward. Because of the region’s popularity with expats, housing prices have risen in recent years. Land in the prime areas is limited because there is a fairly narrow strip that runs along the lakeshore and up the hillside above Lake Chapala where you can purchase and build. Above this land is “Ejido” property, set aside for the use of the indigenous population. Most stories about foreigners having problems with their property in Mexico involve people illegally selling Ejido land. While housing prices may be steeper than you expected, property taxes are rarely over $200 (U.S.) a year and domestic help averages around $2 (U.S.) an hour. Few people bother with air conditioning or heating (other than ceiling fans and a fireplace), and utilities are much less expensive than in Canada or the U.S. Combine these benefits with the tax advantages of living abroad and you’ll agree with a client of mine who said, “I’m not wealthy but I always wanted to live like a rich person, and I can do that here.”
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION
People here will say with great conviction that wherever they live is the best place to be. Many people initially look for property in the old village of Ajijic, but later realize that they are unlikely to find lake views in the village, and it can be noisy at times. While newcomers tend to harbour the romantic notion that they can walk everywhere, most people find they do need a car. Areas such as La Floresta and Villa Nova are walkable to the village but quieter, with wide streets and good quality homes. Up the hill there are more gated communities with wonderful views, and it’s a little quieter (Mexico can be a noisy place: dogs, roosters and music are everywhere, but you do get used to it after a while!). The Racquet Club has wonderful views, nice common pool area and lots of tennis activities, but it is a 10- to 12-minute drive from town. That does not sound like much but your world shrinks here and it is too far out for some people. You get more for your money outside the prime areas, but resale becomes a real issue if you get too far out. The exception to this rule might be the Chapala Country Club area, which has a nine-hole golf course and a good social scene. However, it may be too far away from the amenities of Ajijic for non-golfers. No two homes in Ajijic are alike. The houses are as eclectic as the people who choose to settle here, and while that makes living here fun, it takes some getting used to. Even the best neighbourhoods will have a series of wonderful houses and then a cornfield in the middle of everything. The local custom of building houses behind walls enhances privacy and security, and maximizes utilization of space.
The best way to begin gathering information about the Lake Chapala region is to get on the Internet, starting with . While common sense would suggest renting for a season to two before buying, it can be difficult to find a long-term rental; most people use their homes here for at least half the year. It is hard (but not impossible) to find a decent rental from American Thanksgiving through Easter. The only slow period is from Easter till the middle of June, when people from Texas, Arizona and Florida arrive to escape the heat during the summer months. An excellent accommodation base for a fact-finding mission to Ajijic is La Nueva Posada, a small, charming hotel located in the village of Ajijic right on the shore of Lake Chapala (e-mail: ). It is owned and operated by the Eager family, Canadians who have been here since 1975. The Eagers are a good source of information on any number of subjects. You might want to book early because they have only 19 rooms and four garden suites (the latter with kitchens and living rooms). As someone once said, ”People buy with their hearts and then justify it with logic.” So if you fall in love with a place, don’t fight it. You don’t have to make a hasty decision, but remember, paralysis through analysis could keep you from moving anywhere! Meanwhile, “Hasta lo mas pronto posible!” (Spanish phrase for “See you real soon, eh!”).