Thursday, January 23, 2014

moving to mexico -- check the sewer and water

When I started scouting in Mexico for property in 2007, I was looking for a compound where my brother, his wife, my mother, and I could live.  I was on a buying mission.

As you know, I am not a planner.  But when it comes to dumping a lot of money merely to buy my own piece of dirt, I like to, at least, know the pertinent questions to ask.

So, I read every book I could find on retiring in Mexico.  And what to look for in purchasing property once I chose where I wanted to live.

I quickly discovered Mexico is filled with enough property landmines to make Bosnia look like a children's playground.  If you come from most western countries, you assume that each piece of property is precisely delineated with its own recorded deed.  We think of real property the same way the Westminster Kennel Club thinks of a golden retriever.

Forget it.  Mexican property has a far different heritage.  It is a conquered land where the Spanish attempted to superimpose a proto-feudal title system on a preexisting Indian concept of property ownership.

That hodgepodge was then subjected to over a hundred years of war where any piece of property could morph overnight into someone else's traditional heritage. 

It's ejido.  Now, it belongs to the Roman church.  Now, it belongs to that Indian farmer.  Now, it belongs to the hacienda owner.  Wait a second, he's dead.  It's ejido -- and 437 family members have an undivided unequal interest in it.  Of course, there is the claim that the wife of the former governor has on the thousands of hectares that surround the tiny lot in which you are interested.

I knew all of this when I headed south with a five page list of questions.  It was a bit like my own auto-da-fé.  After all, Mexico was subjected to the niceties of the Spanish inquisition.

I would pelt each realtor with my 126 questions.  In most instances, I already knew a few of the answers.  If you are trying to regularize land through the La Manzanillo ejido, your children may see the results of your efforts, instead of you.  In the Melaque area, pick Villa Obregon for a quick switch in ownership.

Or you can pick a large neighborhood in Barra de Navidad where the lots had been transferred out of ejido ownership in a big block.  And that is exactly where I started looking.  Everything seemed so easy.  At least, from the title standpoint.

I looked at several houses in 2007.  And asked my questions.

Two of the answers caught my attention.  "Is there a neighborhood Association?"  "Yes. It's very active.  It takes care of everything for about $20 a year."

"Are there any problems with the water or sewer systems?"  "No.  All of that is included in your homeowner association fee."

My "Really!" must have sounded a bit incredulous.  But she reassured me it was a good deal -- even though there were some negotiations going on to modify the arrangement.  But they were moving right along.

There was something about both answers that made me feel very uneasy.  And because I was already leaning toward renting, I dropped the purchase idea.

About two years ago, I heard that there were rumors concerning the water and sewer arrangement in the neighborhood -- questions that arose when raw sewer started bubbling up into the streets. 

I thought it might be an interesting post.  But, when I talked with a realtor acquaintance, she assured me there was no story to tell.

It turns out, she was wrong.  There is a story to tell.  And it is causing problems for the people who live in the neighborhood.

Here it is.  The developers of the lots included a home owner association requirement in each deed when the lots were sold.  But there never was an operating association. 

The developer collected the fee and then paid for neighborhood services of garbage, street lights, sewer, and water.  The sewer is a separate system from the rest of Barra de Navidad.  And the water comes from privately-owned wells.

For over thirty years, the developer has been negotiating to have the "county" take over the services.  The residents would then pay the same as other property owners do in Barra.  One point on which they cannot agree is where the water for the neighborhood should come from.

The developer had had enough this year (after incurring almost $900,000 Mx in debt for the services) and threatened to not pay the electricity bill for February.  No electricity would mean no pumps for either water or the sewer.

That caught the neighborhood's attention.  There have been a series of meetings, including one yesterday with the developers and the president of the "county."

The president should get an award for his political skills.  He had people applauding sentences that expressed views they opposed.  I am convinced they did not fully understand him.

Most of the people at the meeting are opposed to forming a new legal entity (a homeowners' association) for numerous reasons that I fully understand.  They want to hook up to the city's water and sewer -- and pay the same rates as their neighbors.  Of course, there is that problematic water source issue.

If I understood the president correctly, he has several non-negotiable conditions.

  • He "insists" (his word -- and a rather emphatic one for a Mexican politician who avoids forceful verbs) that the neighborhood form a neighborhood association.
  • That association needs to be established under Mexican law (a process he described as being rather easy).
  • The residents would then need to determine how to pay for services for the current year -- effectively asking for an off-cycle payment.
  • When that is done, he claims to be more than "happy to do what you want me to do" (a phrase that a lot of people seemed to believe he was not really serious about his primary point -- the one on which he "insisted").
The good news was that the water and sewer will continue after 1 February -- the original drop dead date.  And negotiations would proceed when there was a legal entity, a homeowners association, with which he could negotiate.

Of course, I knew none of this when I decided not to buy in 2007.  All I knew was something did not seem quite right with the answers of the realtor.  And I am willing to bet this same conversation will be going on for several more years. 

All of that adds another layer of worry for people who are trying to sell their homes.  These are not the type of stories that make people feel confident about trading a handful of cash for a lot of uncertainty.

And that brings me to a point a local realtor told me when I started looking at buying property around here. 

"If you cannot tell yourself you would feel comfortable to lose the purchase price of your house, the coast of Mexico may not be where you want to buy.  Being a local homeowner is not for sissies."

I wouldn't have put it that bluntly.  But, after listening to what I have heard about sewer and water this past month, he does have a point.

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