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.

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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.

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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 [email protected].

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  • 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.

    • pedrochapala

      this is a miracle. you have shown that you have an actual sense of humour at least in this post.-SNORK!

  • 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.

    • Dave

      Demeaning the construction materials used in the U.S. certainly does NOT excuse the lack of electrical codes or safety standards in Mexico. It is a matter of a LACK of education and the concern for safety In Mexico that is the problem.

      • Mike S

        Electrical can be a problem in Mexican housing because homes typically don’t have attics and crawl spaces and walls are solid making wiring a challenge. However, getting a private house inspection and fixing electrical problems doesn’t cost much in Mexico. On the bright side, Mexican house are not fire traps like so many US stick built houses. Fires caused by stupid homeowners in the US overloading circuits and faulty breakers kills thousands each year. I would guess very few if any Mexicans are killed annually from un-grounded circuits. If you want to live in Mexico, realize it is a “buyer beware” society and inspections and references are required for services and products like homes. mechanics, maids, dentists, doctors, construction contractors, restaurants, etc all require doing a little homework. Reputations are critical. You won’t get very far suing someone. The US is a sue-happy nanny society that is expensive.

        • Dave

          Mexico is a country where thieves and corruption run rampant. I wouldn’t live there for ANY reason. It may cost more to live in the USA, but I’ll pay that price any day rather than live in a country where Government, Law Enforcement, and its people rip each other off constantly. YMMV!

          • Mike S

            Mexico has its problems; the US has its problems. They are very different countries and cultures. In a strict “by the numbers”, the US economy is far more prosperous. On a “happiness” index, Mexico wins. The lower 30% in both countries has a tough time. Mexico has lots of abject poverty, but the US has a 20% child poverty & a high gun violence rate. Food, music, climate, fishing/scuba, beaches, fiestas, art, people friendliness…Mexico has a lot going for it. If it weren’t for the drug cartels warring against each other and the government- Mexico would rate one of the top ten countries in the world. You can argue the culpability of the US drug usage contributing to that. 85% of Mexico is as safe as the US for expats/tourists and the 15% that is dangerous is easily avoidable. Longevity for a 50 year-old is about equal. The reality on the ground is a lot different than the picture the news media constantly fear-mongers. Mexico is where dogs run free and the kids soccer team shows up in the back of a pickup. It is the land of millions of small shops and not so much chains like MacDonalds and Target. It is not for everybody. If you don’t like Mexico, why do you read this website and rant against Mexicans?

          • Dave

            My perogative!

          • Vernon King

            True its your choice but I find my costs to be half of Seattle area and in eight years have had no problems with government or law enforcement. People are people some good and bad in both countries. One needs the right attitude to live in Mexico. I seem to get along and have no problems. As you say YMMV.

          • Smartalec

            Dave is right. He can rant all he wants about the article. That’s what ‘posting your comments’ is all about. I agree with Dave. Ive been traveling and living part time in Mexico for years. Americans and other foreigners must understand that the Mexicans price gauge on everything… everything, because they can; especially if you’re American. I am dealing with them now on real estate. It’s sad to see such corruption because so many innocent locals over there are effected by this too. It keeps the poor very poor. While we are not ‘poor’ they are draining as much as they can. If they have nothing to do they’ll create an issue and tell you to pay for it. We are clearing out of Mexico. Never deal with these people unless you have a bottomless pit of money. How ironic !!!

          • Mike S

            Different people have different experiences. When a cost is 80% lower than in the US and somebody “gringo gauges” you 30%…it’s not the end of the world. I had a home extensively remodeled near Guadalajara and everything turned out great. It was a father-son team and I checked out other work they had done and talked to other ex-pats who had used them. They hired reliable and good labor and did some of the work themselves and were on the job site daily. I use same MO for my car mechanic, dentist, doctor, and other services. I’ve been over charged for many things over the years in the US. Mexico requires educating yourself and knowledge of basic Spanish helps although you can get by using reliable translators you trust. Petty theft is a constant in poorer countries world over and is easily avoidable. Bribes for driving violations doesn’t bother me too much…they can be negotiated way down. Mexico is definitely not for you and Dave. But ranting against a whole culture that you don’t understand is a bigoted pass time. Dave apparently needs something to hate and I guess Mexicans fulfill that need.

          • Smartalec

            80% lower? Are you kidding? Try 80% higher than the USA. Perhaps not that high but well above the standard. Mexico is not cheap to live and it would be nice if you were honest. On a small scale buy 32 oz or 64 oz protein powder and it’s double the price over there. Every day items that we take for granted are outrageously high priced over there. Gas and water etc. Need someone to manage your property? They charge me 800% higher than the management I use in Hawaii. My point is that it is NOT cheap and inexpensive to live in Mexico unless you want to be in the unsafe areas. Even then what a corrupt place to live.

          • Mike S

            Items only available imported from the US are maybe 25% higher if you shop around. Equivalent housing including property taxes is 70% cheaper. Price something equivalent on the beach on the West Coast. Food and equivalent restaurants are 60% cheaper- same for drinks. Dental work is 70% cheaper as are most medical visits and procedures. Maids and gardeners are 80% cheaper. Massages 75% cheaper. Taxis are way cheaper. Car insurance and mechanics 80% cheaper as is any body work. Movies, cable TV, internet, are far cheaper. Many locations in MX require very little heating and cooling. Public transportation is far cheaper. Of course you can go to so some tourist destinations and pay a lot of money, but there are hundreds of beautiful, safe, interesting places with expat residents that on average will cost you 70% less than something equivalent in the US. There is a lot more to MX than Cabo, PV, Mayan Riviera, and expensive gringo enclaves. Give up those cold winters and hot summers. Give up your bourbon for tequila. There are plenty of good Mexican and Chilean wines also. So much better food on average. You have to make the effort but it can be worth it.

          • Vernon King

            Yep much of the stuff we have in the US is much more expensive in Mexico. We don’t buy the stuff you buy obviously and I wouldn’t own a house in Mexico for all the tea in China. I don’t live in an unsafe place and I try to live more like a Mexican as much as I can. I have never paid a bribe in eight years. Never been harassed by police or government officials in fact my experience has been positive working with them on many projects. I agree with what Mike S. says below. Not meaning any offense but probably Mexico is not for you Smartalec. Many people leave our area for health/insurance reasons but many leave because they can’t find a balance in life here. Mexico is not for everybody but it works for my wife and I.

          • pedrochapala

            you’re so full of crap your back teeth must be floating. i’ve lived here 11 years and our costs are 40% of what they would have been if we stayed in canada which means even less than a comparable area of your vaunted excited states. our savings keep getting larger even though we have medical expenses which we didn’t have in canada. we live way better here. btw my water costs about $120 cdn annually and my property taxes are about that too ya dummy, smartalec indeed-SNORK!

          • Smartalec

            Says the Canadian who speaks German dressed as a mexican thug gang member. Go sit down pal.

          • pedrochapala

            Fekking bigoted xenophobe,happy ta see ya go

      • MortimerSnerd

        Not to mention standard single phase to neutral voltage is 127V… you can get a pretty good kick from that….and it’s 240V not 220V. I put in one of those electric showers, ummm 127V… properly installed and grounded they work OK Brodie. They are put in because they are cheap or in my case there isn’t quite enough static water pressure from the tenaca to operate a gas fired heater. I purchased a bomba for that very reason, so soon things will change. And maybe this is unmentionable, but have you not noticed a significant number of ‘bypass the electric meter’ wiring installations during those home inspections? I have seen some.. That could get an unknowing new home owner in deep trouble

  • 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.

    • Dave

      Lack of education regarding such matters!

    • pedrochapala

      60 days and yer an expert on construction-i laugh in your face. no amount of messing with doors is going to keep bugs out. we leave all our doors open so that our 6 street rescue dogs have the run of the whole property which was built in the 40’s. we had our electrical grounded and 3 wired for same plus 220 and after 11 years it’s all good for far less than some jackass would charge us in canada.masons in canada and the us could not even hold the mud or hod for the maestros here. as to education for trades people,you are full of it. the people here actually can fix things and not just replace parts and almost nothing electronic gets thrown away because there are small shops that can fix those too. so before spouting yer nonsense,open yer eyes next time yer here or jest shut up.

  • 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)

  • RebelWithACoz

    Great article, Bodie. Wish you were in San Miguel de Allende. I’ve been in a long distance construction nightmare for months and found one problem you didn’t mention: just because you have a contract and pay a builder, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to actually build. I’ve been lied to so many times, my head is spinning – and this is with lots of visits to Mexico during the process and lots of contacts watching over the project. I agree with everything Mike S says but he assumes the house will actually get built, which turns out to be a pretty big assumption.

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