Mexican real estate: minefield of unregulated commerce. Mexican real estate: minefield of unregulated commerce.

The adventures of a gringo home inspector

A common device is a showerhead better called a 'hydraulically actuated rain of death'

When I relocated my life to Mexico with only the shell fragments of my modest nest egg I knew I would eventually need to generate a few extra pesos to sustain my high-quality lifestyle, even though I had retired.

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus, swilling cerveza and feasting on shrimp would only hold my interest for several months or so.

After a year of acclimation, during which I watched buyers from the States and Canada gobble up real estate at a level which seemed insatiable, I spotted a niche. After speaking with a number of realtors, I found that no one was offering a comprehensive home inspection report.

Of course, there were a few Mexican architects or engineers who would walk through a house and assure the nervous buyers that the structure would not spontaneously combust or collapse, but there was nothing available which was in depth, and certainly not in writing.

To most North American buyers, Mexican real estate is a minefield of unregulated commerce with the potential to part you from your money quicker than a crooked casino. And a part of that minefield is the total lack of any meaningful disclosure as to the actual condition of the property or any issues arising from it.

Since there are no building codes, no inspectors, no properly licensed contractors or subcontractors, any structure built in Mexico can be plagued with numerous maladies, or not — but how do you know?

With four decades in the construction industry I knew I could provide a valuable service for gringos buying in Mexico. The major problem I faced was that the real estate salespeople did not want a home inspector to kill their potential sales.

ADVERTISEMENT

Since home inspections are not required by law who wants to open that can of worms? The key to getting this enterprise up and running was to convince the salespeople that I was not the enemy and that I could provide positive feedback to the seller.

Of course, north of the border there are laws that govern the actions of home inspectors, which only allow them to provide a detailed list of discrepancies, and never, under any circumstances, divulge information or advice on correcting the problem.

Since Mexico has no pesky regulations restricting the actions of anyone, well hardly anyone, especially home inspectors, I could provide the buyers with solutions to problems outlined in the report. What a bonus!

For example, if I found a problem in an electrical service I could give the buyer detailed instructions on the correction. That way they would not have to trust an electrician who may or may not know what he is doing. In addition, at the end of my written reports, I carefully explained, in detail, how property in Mexico is mostly sold as is, with no guarantees.

This proclamation from an independent source helped to strengthen the relationship between the salespeople and prospective buyers. Therefore, with my strategies intact and the tools of my new trade collected and tested, I was ready to play my part in the Great Mexican Real Estate Boom of the Early 21st Century.

In the inaugural months of my new operation I was continually dazed, often actually stupefied, by what I was finding in both new construction, as well as the 150-year-old relics.

While having a few beers with the boys I raised the theory that a gringo building inspector should never retire to Mexico because the looming specter that some type of code violation would always be staring him in the face, no matter where he went, would be too disconcerting to contemplate.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of excessive government regulation, but a few rules in support of basic health and safety can be beneficial to all.

A favorite device that kept popping up was a high-voltage, electrical water heating showerhead, which I referred to in my written report as the “hydraulically actuated rain of death.” I came across the 120-volt model quite often, and the much older 240-volt models were sometimes found in the older homes.

The difference between the two is that the 120-volt model could knock you on your ass, but if the 240-volt model malfunctioned it would cook you like a Christmas turkey. The most common problem with these lethal devices is the lack of a properly bonded ground connection.

I did an inspection on a place in town that had been continuously occupied for the last 157 years and the owner claimed everything worked just fine. In the course of the inspection I noted the entire upstairs was ancient knob-and-tube wiring with lever style disconnects, each with a glass fuse, which were being used as light switches.

When I got to the upstairs bathroom I noted the high-voltage showerhead was accompanied by its own lever style disconnect switch conveniently located next to the shower control valve. Having 240 volts in a rusty steel box, within easy reach while under the shower, conjured visions of Larry, Moe and Curly in a smoldering heap.

To top it all off, as I opened the disconnect box I felt a slight tingle of voltage. Each time I touched it, in fact. I checked it with the electrical meter and found it to be hemorrhaging 17 volts between the rusty box and any handy ground, including myself.

Just when I thought it could not get any worse I noticed the two fuse sockets were devoid of fuses, and instead held Mexican coins that dated to the 50s. Moreover, the vile contraption had no ground whatsoever.

When questioned about the coins, the older woman who was selling the house told me her father put them in many years ago because the fuses kept blowing, and they were expensive back then. She went on to explain that no one had used that shower in a long time because the shower downstairs had much more water pressure.

Whenever I think back on this incident, I have to wonder if a life was saved because of a gravity flow water system.

This, then, is the first installment of the series “The Joy of Construction in Mexico,” which will chronicle my journey from home inspector to reluctant contractor and the various quagmires traversed in the process.

Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at buscardero@yahoo.com.

Stories from our archives that you might enjoy

  • Stylez

    Good Read, Thanks.

    As a Gringo I am always amazed by the many crazy building issues just left lose in Mexico. Especially the electrical wires dangling here and there, just ready to come undone or zap someone that might bump into them.

  • cooncats

    “Plus, swilling cerveza and feasting on shrimp would only hold my interest for several months or so.”

    Bodie, don’t give up too soon. There are an infinite number of ways to conduct these activities. Use your imagination. For example, doing it under one of those shower heads. That would definitely add some excitement to the mundane swilling and feasting.

  • Walter

    I’ve been zapped more times than I can count, usually in budget hotels. These units are still being installed, usually with open wires directly above the shower head.

  • Geoffrey Rogg

    Many thanks for your account. Just as a matter of interest which could be useful for many resident ex-pats with experience in fields for which they may be a demand in Mexico: 1) What is your legal status, inmigrante or inmigrado with or without the right to work and in which activity; 2) Since your work could incur some sort of liability or responsibility, do you have liability insurance and are you licensed by any authority; 3) Standards and codes are normally a State or Municipal responsibility, the experiences you mention occurred in which administrations? It has been my experience over some 25 years in Mexico that you get what you pay for, there are few bargains and that real estate is very much a caveat emptor activity. If you have the money to buy quality construction there are ways of verification which are common sense. If you buy an old structure needing renovation, you should hire a professional architect/contractor of repute to evaluate what has to be done structurally to bring the abode up to latest standards and codes (which do exist but not always enforced in their entirety due to corrupt practices). I agree that the services you offer are very useful for the uninitiated but, as I am sure you are aware, there are many legal aspects to be checked when buying any property which, if not verified, have the potential to cause you much pain and suffering, not to speak of financial loss. Being a property owner with a lot of experience in business in Mexico, I am not too proud to admit that we purchased a very sound and beautiful apartment in a small condominium built by a Canadian-Mexican partnership which has proven to be riddled with illegalities and post construction falsely permited additions concerning which we are seeking legal redress requiring years of representation through the courts. In retrospect my feeling is that if you are an adventurer go ahead and pursue your dream with the counseling of someone like Bodie but if you are looking for maximum enjoyment with the minimum of heartache, please rent and if you love the place. make the landlord and offer he/she cannot resist.

  • Vernon King

    You can work while on a Perm. visa in Mexico. We have used two real engineers ( one mexican and one gringo) to look at houses here and while both did the job it would have been nice to have a report. One condemned our house and told us to move as the walls were collapsing due to a lack of vertical beams. The other was working on a termite issue. The electrical problems are fairly normal here as very few people use real electrical folks. I got lucky and no big electrical problems but lets talk about 30 leaks in the plumbing system… As far a Geoffrey comment on liability he must be kidding or at least in central mexico no one has liability for anything. I go with the flow and just fix the crap.

  • TioDon

    I was in the real estate business in the US for 40 years before moving to Playa. I sold all my real estate in the US and can now proudly proclaim “I’m a renter”. I’ve seen several “good deals” to buy here but would rather not deal with what’s in this article….so I rent. If something goes wrong, I call my landlord and go to the beach. The thing is: Find some good developers and look hard at the project and talk to the others in the project. I found the best developers in Playa and have a wonderful condo and a terrific landlord.

  • Mike S

    Electrical standards in Mx houses can be an issue. However, put this in perspective of price. You typically can buy a structurally well built steel/brick/stucco house in MX in a good neighborhood with custom wood doors/cabinets and custom steel window frames for 70% less than in the States (hundreds of thousands cheaper) with almost no property taxes. You could have the whole house rewired for $5k. Typical stick-built houses in the US are really junk made out of 2X lumber that rots, composition roofs that fail, siding that eventually shrinks and delaminates, low ceilings, plastic shower-tubs, partical board cabinets, fiber glass insulation packed in attics and walls, cheapo sheet rock, plastic doors, vinyl window frames, mdf interior trim, OSB sub-flooring, etc etc. Those house will burn to the ground in 30 minutes if there is ever a fire; maybe that’s why the electrical is up to code.

  • Fred Jones

    What I noticed after staying 60 days in Mexico is a general lack of attention to detail in both construction and maintenance. The electrical on older structures was absolutely scary. I never saw a door that lead to the outside that had seals/hearth to keep the weather and bugs out. I showed one owner that the business front door had daylight around the edges/hearth which would allow the bugs to march right in. The next trip the owner had replaced the door but I could still see daylight all around the outer edges/hearth of the door. I decided not to say anything about the poor quality installation. In my mind I cannot understand why the demand for better craftsmanship is not higher.

  • steve_in_mexico

    Holy crap– we had one of these ‘shower head water heaters’ in the last house we rented in San Miguel !! (around 2009)…
    it was in the “third floor” bath (basically a toilet and shower on the roof) and it was wired in via two green wires and electrical tape… (I was fascinated.. I had never seen such a thing!). Of course, it wasn’t grounded.

    I ran a test on it —
    and at least there wasn’t any leaking voltage or reversed polarity, but… I noticed that it only gave lukewarm water at best under shower conditions. Made in Guatemala. The Mexican homeowners told me to ‘please throw it away!’ (I guess they were suspicious of it, too.) The wires wrapped around the shower pipe all the way down to the faucet handles, and then off to the electrical plug. Good times!

    Imagine standing under a shower stream of electrified water!
    Soon after that, I drove my own grounding stake into the earth, below the main box.. i think everyone should do this!

    I always wished I had brought it back to the US with us as an “oddity.’ But, I thought it would run afoul of US Customs.

    Oh, memories..

    -steve
    (no longer in Mexico)

FreeCurrencyRates.com
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT