Tales of a homeowner in Mexico 2008
Last year I explored the desert in Mauritania by truck, traveled overland between Ghana and Cote dIvoire in a taxi-brousse (communal and crowded) and in the moutains of Toga,was squeezed between two Togolese guys on the back of a motocycle as a rain storm was approaching. Through all of these rough rides, I knew there was an end in sight and felt confident it would all sort itself out. However, on my third return visit to our tropical dream house in Puerto Escondido, I had mostly frustration and little trust that I would be able to resolve all our problems.
I had returned to Seattle in time for the presidental election, hoping but not trusting that enough people had finally understood that we needed to elect Barack Obama, not McCain and the incredibly ignorant Sarah Palin. Relieved that Obama had won,I started packing my suitcase again for a stopover in New York on my way down to Mexico. Flying is like going to the dentist,a tedious experience that is necessary. The luggage took over forty minutes, finally arriving as I was about to report it missing. The next challenge was to find a taxi driver that understood enough English and knew how to get Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As the meter ticked away,I argued with my Pakistani driver over whether to go past Laguardia airport to get to the BQE or take a different route. Finally when the meter reached $40, we arrived on Jackson Street. My friends live in a delapidated three story walkup, built in the early 20th century for poor immigrants. Now the area has been taken over by artists, students, and the hip set who are paying high rents for rundown, pre war housing. Williamsburg probably has the distinction of being the ugliest expensive neighborhood in America.(from everything2.com)
I acclimate quickly so within a day I was pushing my way onto the subway during rush hour. Clutching my shoulder bag and grabbing along with four other people, onto the same pole,I realized how happy I was that I didnt live in New York anymore.. ..there is something called quality of life, and it is missing from this city. It is a cultural megapolis with some of the best museums, art galleries, theatre, restaurants, and shopping in the world but the day to day existence is oppressive. So after five days of complaining to my friends how much I really hated the city, I got up at 5am to take a taxi to JFK to catch my flight to Mexico City.
My cab driver was an friendly 45 year old Mexican who willingly shared his story of broken marriages, his new younger girl friend, his first job in the States working as a cook in a Greek diner and after opening his own restaurant which eventually failed, he became a car service taxi driver. Tipping him generously for being so friendly at 5:30 am, I dragged my bags over to the American airlines counter only to discover I had come to the wrong airport. If only I had checked my ticket,I could have slept longer and spent $50 less in taxis. My friendly cabbie was gone by now so I searched for a reasonable decent substitute to drive me back into the city to LaGuardia airport. This was one time I was thrilled that my plane was leaving an hour late and as it turned out every plane I took that day, three in total, were all late. So by the time I reached Huatulco, Mexico, I had been traveling for fifteen hours.
As I walked off the plane onto the tarmack at Areopuerto Huatulco, I felt the warm, balmy breeze surround me and I knew why I had returned to the tropics. Coming off the plane I met a bunch of Canadians, one of them a woman who needed a ride to Puerto. Not expecting to find my car rental agency open at 9 pm, I was thrilled to be able to get my car a day early. The midday flight had been canceled so the Hertz employees had to wait for the evening flight bringing their earlier reservations. Everything was falling into place. The guy working at Hertz remembered me from two years ago when he had worked for another company, so I was upgraded to an air conditioned car. The Canadian woman, Louise, was ready to keep me awake while I drove the 100 km to Puerto on a dark curvy, one lane highway. The challenge driving in Mexico is to glide over the topos (speed bumps) in the road and let everyone pass you, as they speed by at 140km an hour. As we rode into Puerto around midnight ,the streets were deserted and I was wired without having drunk any coffee. We never take people home we meet at an airport in the U.S. but it seemed the right thing to do in Mexico.. So Louise moved in for a week while she sorted out where she wanted to stay for the rest of her two month holiday.
My friend Aaron, one of the property managers in town, had promised me that the woman he hired to manage our house was excellent. I had some disagreements with our German manager before I left in December 2007, so I trusted his judgement. From the moment I entered the house the first night, my blood began to boil. There was no hot water, the stove was turned off and we did not have one roll of toilet paper in the house. The telephone was dead as well as the cable television. By mid morning, I had made a full page list of everything that wasnt working. Our hot water and cooking fuel is supplied by propane tanks which are connected to the hot water heater and the gas lines. I dragged my neighbor Jerry over to light the pilot which had singed my hair last time I attempted to turn it on. Jerry is not a small guy, neither in height or weight so by the time he finally lite the pilot light, he was sweating profusely. We then realized that the pump motor that pumps the water from the lower cistern to the roof tank was struggling to maintain power and the metal lid, covering the water tank, was so rusty that pieces of metal were falling in to the water tank. When I tried to open the value to send water up to the roof tank, the plastic knob broke off. I couldnt fill the water tank on the roof which pumps water into the house. And the finale was the broken timer which turns a different pump on to clean the pool.
The next day I spent looking for an electrician, a welder and a new manager. I was told to go look for Raimundo at the local ferreteria, a hardware store. He was friendly, helpful and had a twinkle in his eye, a bit overweight and of course macho but he brought Hymie, who he promised was the best electrican/plumber in Puerto.
So after eight hours and three guys working, we had a new water pump for the cistern, new fan switches, rewired breakers and a functioning pool pump located in a little cement room hidden at the edge of our property behind a bunch of palm trees. My next job was tackling our disconnected phone line. I drove down to Telmex, the government owned phone company and discovered the phone bill had
never been paid since I left last year so they had closed the account. I remember the first thing we had been told when we bought the house.; a land line was almost impossible to get so always keep the account active. I called Aaron who had been managing the manager; a bit embarrassed, he said he didnt know we had a land line as he had never looked through the folder I had given him with all our monthly bills. I asked him if Natalie, the woman supposedly managing our house, had seen the folder at which point he said she said it wasnt necessary. After we got off the phone, Aaron appeared at Telmex within minutes. Apologizing profusely, he paid the 4800 peso fine and convinced the manager to reinstate our phone line and put the new account in my name. His family I am told is very well connected in Mexico City so within seven days we had our land line back. The bonus amid all the frustration was that we were not billed for the last twelve months as the phone was transferred to my name. As with all of our utility and tax bills still in the name of Berry, the previous owner who was still on paper the owner, I felt we had made a step forward in claiming our property.
Extremely angry with Aaron and Natalie, we set a time for a meeting so we could discuss the past year. As we sat discussing the myriad of problems and necessary repairs I had encountered the first few days after I arrived, Natalie had an excuse for everything. The only thing she was able to do during the past year, was collect her $150 each month as well as add an extra $20 a month charge for all the cell phone calls she had to make to keep the house well maintained. She actually could not come up with an excuse as why she failed to pay the water bill until Justina, our cleaning lady, had called her to say we had received a turn off notice.
I demanded a refund of $240 for the phone charges and $75 for the first two weeks of November for managing nothing. She sneered at me, contesting that she had no money left and she would give us nothing back. I had the locks rekeyed as I knew she would never return her keys. An honest locksmith charged $17 to come to the house twice and install the new locks.
I realized that finding a property manager in Puerto who could be trusted was almost impossible. The expat community did not pay attention to the accounting by these managers or believed they had no other choice but to look the other way. I decided I would approach Jerry, my helpful neighbor, who had been in the weed growing business in the States until one of his best friends turned on him, and he had made Puerto his permanent home. When I approached him with the idea, he told me he had just become a permanent resident with a work permit and was partnering up with a Mexican real estate broker. He was thrilled with the opportunity to build up a clientele and get paid as well. I had great trust in Jerry but I knew that I had to manage the accounting and spread sheets. I made a list of everything he must know and do relating to the house and called it Jerrys bible.
As I was working down my list of repairs still to be done, my friends Jan and Louise from Seattle arrived. One of Jans pleasures was figuring out how things worked and that is exactly how the house was put in order.. He also discovered that Hymie had installed used, fan switches, charged me for new ones and had not really fixed the timer or jets on the pool. There are no refunds in Mexico, even if a repair is done wrong or a document is prepared incorrectly. It is never their fault. Hymie was no exception. We did get the guy who had disconnected the wiring that controlled the overflow valve on the roof pump to return and fix it with Jan hovering next to him,giving directions. The welder made a new steel cover for the water tank, replaced rusted window sills, and a new awning to catch the rain. We replanted, moved other plants and rearranged the entire terrace, moving huge ceramic pots with Jerrys collapsible dolly. The ceramic tiles covering the patio and next to the pool were black with mold so we scrubbed for two days with comet and ammonia until the tiles were restored to their original color of terra cotta. I spent two afternoons the following week,running around in my bikini with a roller and sealer to preserve all the work we had done. The biggest challenge besides getting ownership of the house,was to figure out why our electric bills were ten times higher than everyone else. After two visits from the electric company, metering when the pool timer was running, it was confirmed that the pool pump, big enough for an Olympic pool,(Berry,the owner had big ideas) had consumed a few thousand dollars each year unnecessarily. It took over two years and thousands of wasted pesos to learn that it was necessary to run the pump for 30 minutes, three times a week to keep the pool clean,not three hours a day seven days a week. This was ridiculous in a town with so many swimming pools and workmen maintaining them.
During this period I had been visiting our new notary/lawyer to try and finalize the papers which would finally give us title to the house. The powers of attorney from Berrys two sons had been done in English, contrary to what was asked for over a year ago and needed a Mexican apostille (seal). The original bank deed had only declared the land purchase for $3000. Berry had never bothered to add the house or the extra garden with the cold pool. We needed to hire an architect to survey the existing structures, redraw the plans, submit the pool addition to the county and do an appraisal for the bank. The notary gave me a rough estimate, including his fees, of the cost of getting the fideicomiso,the deed to the house we bought 2 Â½ years ago, registered with the bank in our name; at least $7000. I hired an architect, sent a threatening letter to Brent Berry, and tried to enjoy the tropical setting. But at this very moment the stock market was in free fall everyday, terrorists had attacked Mumbai and killed over 180 people and I wasnt sure how I was going to survive financially.
When I left Puerto in mid December we still did not own the house, but we had renters through March of 09 and at the end of the month our electric bill had dropped dramatically. Jerry has done a good job as manager, but I am constantly being harassed through email by our ex German manager, who unfortunately is the one who gets us most of our rentals. Just as we were about to hire a lawyer to validate the powers of attorney for a minimal fee of $1000,Berry emailed my partner( he has blocked all emails from me) to notify him that his sons
will be mailing the powers of attorney from the Mexican consulate in the States within a few days. So when I left the States in mid February for my sojourn in Cameroon, I was still getting vicious emails from Martina, complaining that her clients, renting our house, had been without cable TV and a blender for margueritas for a week. As I am living in a dank, dark basement dwelling in a rural village in Fundong, Cameroon, eight hours from civilization, I found this email more absurd than annoying. Hopefully by this November, when I make my yearly pilgrimage to Puerto, we will finally be the legal owners of our tropical paradise.
As I reread this saga I realize there are not many rays of sunshine so I want everyone to know there are some positives to this story. Last year in 2007, I met my other neighbors in el Pueblito, Hans and Dorothy,who became dear friends and listened to all my trials and tribulations endlessly. Because of them I began to enjoy our beautiful home and being down in Puerto. As well, the visit of my friends Jan and Louise provided many days of great dinners and entertaining conversations. So beyond all the struggles,I am looking forward to my yearly pilgrimage this year.