Nuestra Señora del Viaje Inverso
19 March 2023 | 9:32 am

Years ago I would wander around this particular neighborhood in Mexico City with friends and marvel at how magnificent the architecture was. Equally impressive was how many of these structures were left to decline for decades to the point that they were no longer functional. Some were occupied by the elderly who had aged along with their accommodations. Others were used as low value storage facilities, vehicle parking, or budget workshops. Locals would explain that the city simply stopped maintaining the sewers in spots so the neighborhood would sometimes smell bad. It was one of those chicken-and-egg situations. Low property values induced less attention from the government. Less government attention induced lower property values. But clearly poor people didn’t build such gorgeous places. At one time these were premium addresses.

But this decline was also an opportunity. Spectacular properties (give or take decades of wear and tear) were readily available at deep discounts for the risk oblivious. That often includes me and my demographic cohort. We all have our tribe. Some cluster within the surveilled walls of the beige suburban gated community - huddled around the covenants, codes, and restrictions for warmth. “The Villas™ at Retention Pond© Phase VI.” In sharp contrast, this semi abandoned urban landscape is the natural habitat of my people.

We stopped by to visit a friend and were greeted from above as our host lowered a key down on a string. I love a low tech workaround. That was the perfect entré to a charming home and art studio that sprawled across two floors. One could - and my friend often does - have dozens of guests over without filling the space.

The high ceilings, French doors, and architectural flourishes date back a couple of centuries. The faded glory was counterbalanced by makeshift plumbing arrangements. I got flashbacks to my youth in Los Angeles, New York, and London. My friends and I lived in low rent formerly grand old buildings, the husks of industrial warehouses, and defunct dental clinics for pennies on the dollar. That world is long gone, but a version of it is alive and well in Mexico City - with much better weather and a favorable currency exchange rate.

The risk for my friend now is that this neighborhood is working its way back up the value chain towards revitalized luxury properties with rising rents. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can pivot and benefit from the change, or you can get squeezed. Personally, I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. I’ve advised my friend to get with the program and take action to secure his future. It’s a tricky business for someone who has spent years leveraging a modest income in a benign landscape. But it won’t last forever - and we aren’t young anymore.

Across town in a completely different neighborhood we arrived at the home of other expat friends. They had just moved in to a new flat two days earlier and were still organizing the furniture and hanging pictures. There was frustration over the WiFi installation process which vexed all concerned. My better half lent a hand and it was eventually sorted.

This was a comfortable well laid out space with gentle cross breezes and pleasant views. There were two big bedrooms, two full baths, a third room for guests or lounging, a terrace, and so on. Right outside were all the restaurants, cafes, shops, and parks within a two minute walk. This, of course, came at a somewhat higher price point than the artist’s studio, but still not at all bad compared to anything equivalent back in The States.

These friends have an enviable economic situation. They’re receiving steady income from rental properties back home. They have savings. They have salaries from ongoing employment in semi-retirement. And they’re of an age that collecting pensions is an option. A lot could go wrong and they could still manage just fine.

I’ve known them since the mid 1990s and followed their trajectory with great interest. They began in San Diego, moved to Los Angeles, then Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle… I joked they were destined to end up in Alaska given their northern march. Each time they moved they would buy an inexpensive property that needed work in a questionable neighborhood. And each time they would improve the place and sell at a profit after a few years. A single family home led to a duplex. A duplex led to a couple of single family homes. Then a triplex and so on. Along the way there were larger national economic booms and busts, but they were both smart and lucky.

They are my patron saints. Not quite the Virgin Mary. More like a cross between Saint Sebastian and the Hindu Lakshmi. Their boomerang south to Mexico City gave me the encouragement to start the immigration process and plan my own possible future with the ultimate reverse commute.

Slowmadding CDMX
7 March 2023 | 11:57 am

One of my oldest friends from my youth moved to Mexico City after she finished university. I would visit her and we’d have adventures together. On one trip her mom was also visiting from Spain and we explored all the amazing spots in the region. The Zocolo at the center of the city, Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, museums, and so much great food. She eventually moved back to Spain after thirteen years. What remained for me was a deep fondness toward Mexico City. I thought… I could live here.

Then Covid hit. Our kitchen in San Francisco was ground zero for a fast and dirty mobilization as the work from home thing kicked in. The table became the home office, the Amazon box processing zone, the bicycle repair station, and absolutely everything except a proper kitchen table. What had always been a very pleasant and functional one bedroom apartment became a place I didn’t enjoy living in anymore. For months I kept trying to get things organized, but at the end of every day there was a new pile of stuff in the place I had just cleaned and sorted. Eventually things settled down and were less chaotic. But by then a new pattern had emerged. Dinner? Let’s get Chinese food around the corner. Guests? Noooooo. I relinquished my claim on the space. I stopped caring about it.

The “solution” presented by just about everyone at the time was to put on your big boy pants and move to the suburbs like a grown up. “Think of the joy of a generously proportioned home with a yard!” The thing is, neither of us have ever wanted to live in the suburbs. We like being in the city. We also like being in the country. The stuff in the middle just isn’t for us. I look at a cul-de-sac and I get depressed. Rural properties just about everywhere were both hard to find and suddenly ridiculously expensive. What we wanted was to stay more or less where we were, but with a bit more space.

We approached our trusted real estate agent, explained our needs, and she patiently showed us all kinds of properties around the city. But even during the worse moments of the pandemic getting even a tiny bit more space was going to cost an enormous amount of money. We kept running the numbers. While we “could” theoretically manage a jumbo mortgage if we liquidated everything… that was insane. The options presented to us were limited. We were going to have to give up on life in the kind of walkable mixed use neighborhood we love in order to get the price down. We weren’t interested in that.

Enter Mexico. We started the process of securing legal residency at the Mexican consulate in San Francisco. Most of the tricky part was getting the correct documents from various American government agencies. There was the official notorized marriage certificate from the state capital in Sacramento, renewed American passports from the feds, and so on. Once we had all our papers in hand the Mexican authorities processed us in one day. There were fingerprints, a criminal background check, and proof of solvency. We paid $51 each and we were in and out faster than a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. You don’t need to be rich to immigrate to Mexico. You just need to prove you won’t cause trouble or be a burden. The average middle class American can meet the basic requirements. Once in Mexico City we attended our appointment at the immigration office and were issued our residency cards. $250. In order to navigate the system we paid a Mexican lawyer to smooth things out for us. $700. So for about $1,000 each we were good to go in three weeks.

Here in Mexico City we’re currently renting a 2,000 square foot / 186 square meter apartment. Two really big bedrooms each with a private bath. A third full bath next to the office. A generous living and dining area. A proper kitchen with a laundry room. And a wide terrace overlooking a quiet street lined with jacaranda trees. Mexico City has the same year round climate as Honolulu. And we’re paying less for this than our one bedroom place in San Francisco. It’s a classic arbitrage.

Walking around parts of the city it feels like Brooklyn and Savannah had a love child. There are row houses and funky corner shops, sidewalk cafes, and tidy parks. It can be bougie. It can be hipster. It can be working class. It can be artsy. This is far more to our liking than a McMansion in a far flung American suburb.

The pandemic accelerated an already existing trend in global digital nomads. These are people who can earn a living from a laptop computer and a cell phone regardless of their location and they’re choosing certain places to congregate. These are typically younger people looking for adventure. News reports in the US have described relatively well paid Americans descending on Mexico City (see also, Australians in Bali, etc.) and distorting the local economy.

There’s no question that rents and property values have increased in select areas and that has an effect on anyone with a tighter budget. But that increased money supply is also making a lot of other locals richer. The Mexicans I talk with say it’s no big deal. There are 10,000 Americans living in Mexico City. Keep in mind, this is a metro with a population of 21 million. It’s the size of Tokyo. Foreigners are clustered up in a handful of neighborhoods. The rest of the city is unaffected.

Mexico has a reputation for crime and violence. I’ve had all sorts of friends and relatives express their concern that spending time here is a bad idea. Personally, I’m completely comfortable in Mexico City and don’t hesitate to take long walks in the evening. There are good and bad neighborhoods in every city. It’s no different than London, Paris, or New York. What’s interesting to me is the view Mexicans have of the US. I’ve had more than a few people tell me they fear visiting the States because it’s so violent. You could walk into a post office, movie theater, or elementary school and be killed when someone randomly decides to kill thirty people for no particular reason.

For the moment we’re easing into a part time one-foot-in and one-foot-out arrangement. Our lives are still anchored in San Francisco, but we’re slowmadding our way into a possible future life in Mexico City. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Watching Paint Dry
5 February 2023 | 12:09 pm

In February of 2020 I sanded and stained the back deck and bought some new outdoor furniture. I was on the fence about whether I was going to rent the property again. This house was always meant to be a country retirement destination. In the meantime I was renting it for extra income to help fund each new round of improvements. I had just had a fantastic experience with the previous tenants. They were a wonderful family. I’d come up on the weekends and we’d work on little garden projects together. Eventually they had their third child and moved on to buy a larger home of their own. We’re still in touch. It was the kind of arrangement I was looking forward to replicating with new tenants, but I wasn’t in a rush about it. A neighbor recommended friends who were looking for a rental. I ran their credit history, income verification, and background checks. They were solid. In March of 2020 they moved in.

We all know what happened next. Covid lockdowns, social distancing, masks… People in the city insisted that I stay away from the county. People there might not be as vigilant as city people and no one wanted me to bring back the virus. When I communicated with friends in the county they made it abundantly clear they didn’t want city people coming around bringing city cooties to them in the countryside. My new tenants were ambivalent and said I was always welcome.

I had a gardener for a decade who would come by to cut the grass and such. He died which reinforced the idea that Covid contact was genuinely risky. Getting a new gardener was basically impossible during the pandemic. There were lulls and flare ups with the virus. Each time I thought we could get back to normal there was a new variant and my friends read me the riot act. I made the decision to stay away for the duration and trust that my new tenants would manage on their own. They paid their rent on time every month and the neighbors all said they were quiet and pleasant.

Those renters just moved out a few days ago. February is the tail end of winter in Sonoma. Spring is a couple of weeks away. I joke that I bought a half acre garden surrounded by vineyards and orchards that came with a free house. I’ve always been very keen on building up the soil and cultivating as much as possible. I arranged for professional pruners to stop by to assess the fruit trees, vines, and general garden situation before I even arrived at the house for the first time in years. I was eager to get back into the swing of things.

Walking around the garden gave a hint as to the condition of the interior. The landscape had clearly been neglected. The shed was in disarray and the tools were scattered around rusting in the rain. The outdoor furniture was funky.

Everyone has a different personal standard of cleanliness and organization. My Danish mother-in-law has a house so clean you could perform surgery on any surface without fear of infection. My Japanese father-in-law doubles down on the organization. No one can touch anything unless he’s there to supervise. I’m from a family of Brooklyn Sicilians. We’re a little Italian, a little Greek, a little Arab… Pick an empire and they probably stopped by at some point over the last 2,000 years. We don’t live up to the Calvinist standard, but we’re not too bad with the housekeeping.

My tenants? Oooof. I looked around and wondered if they had been part of a hostage negotiation or if the Feds had whisked them off into the Witness Protection Program. I don’t think it ever occurred to them to clean any part of the house - ever. They left dirty dishes in the sink, laundry inside the washing machine, food in the fridge and cupboards, and furniture scattered about. I don’t think they understood the concept of removing the fluff from the dryer lint screen. Were they bad people? Drug addicts? No. They just had a different standard.

There had been hints of this when the chimneysweep I hired to clean the wood stove each year sent this photo. The lady of the house was keen on seasonal decorations. I had to send her text messages explaining why covering a wood stove with highly flammable stuffed toys, paper Halloween ornaments, and electric string lights was bad. Bad and wrong. Bad and wrong together. It’s a miracle the house didn’t burn down.

At first I thought there was an electrical problem because half the light switches in the house didn’t work. Then I realized the bulbs had burned out and no one had bothered to replace them. This was particularly weird because I left a case of new bulbs in the garage and pointed this out to the tenants when they moved in. When the sun set on the first evening I was cleaning I realized both the front and rear porch lights only half died. They’re LEDs and in their failing state they were strobing like a 70s disco. I don’t understand how anyone could live with that flashing, particularly when changing the bulbs took me less than a minute.

They had installed an air conditioner in the window next to where their bed used to be. The thin plastic side wings weren’t even pretending to keep the cold and damp out of the room in winter. The wind whipped right through. It just didn’t occur to them to remove it when the seasons changed - or when they moved out.

When I had the windows replaced I didn’t skimp. They’re solid wood, double glazed, with aluminum skins on the exterior, and tilt-in for easy cleaning. They cost $1,000 each a number of years ago. They were part of my energy efficiency plan along with generous amounts of insulation. The air conditioner completely undermined all that for no good reason. It took me five seconds to remove it and start washing the windows.

I decided to break down the restoration into small manageable pieces so I wasn’t overwhelmed by the entirety of the task at hand. I’m going room by room, one at a time. I thought I could clean and paint one bedroom in a day. Instead, it took three. At this rate the house will be clean and fresh in a month. Then I’ll be able to turn my attention to the exterior which needs a power washing and paint.

I need to make something clear. As I watched the paint dry I realized these aren’t the worst tenants I’ve ever had. As I already mentioned, they always paid their rent and never bothered the neighbors. Everything that’s wrong with the house can be fixed with soap, bleach, elbow grease, and paint. Fifteen years ago I would have lost my mind over this sort of thing. But now I understand it’s just part of the deal that comes with being a landlord. You have to take the rough with the smooth.

I’m now back at the same point as February of 2020. Do I rent the property again or keep it as my part time country home? This time there’s no hesitation. I’m leaving it vacant so visiting friends can come and enjoy it as I spend my days puttering in the garden. Call it a kind of early semi-retirement. If I happen to find the absolute perfect renters or really need the extra money I can always revisit the option in the future. But for now, it’s off the market. Sonoma has a critical housing shortage, but that’s just not my problem to solve.

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