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Building a house in Mexico – the reality – PART 1

by Steve McKee on February 15, 2009

Sometimes I think I could become a guy who spends his days building houses by the beach in Mexico. It’s not that life in Benicia isn’t working. I’m just fantasizing about a parallel universe where I took a different path.  (Like you don’t do this sort of thing?) It’s actually pretty easy for me to entertain this idea, because twenty years ago I actually was that guy. For six months (until my tourist card ran out) in my pre-kids, pre-house payments phase.

It came about when my parents became deeply enamored of Mexico and bought some beach property in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle near Puerto Vallarta in 1985. I designed two houses for their two lots and then Melody and I, newly married at the time, lived in one of the houses for half a year in 1988 and oversaw construction of the other house next door.

The maestros, the ayudantes, and the architect - March 1988

My dad was quite happy to have found “La Cruz,” a little fishing village on the north end of the big bay it shares with Vallarta, at a bend in the coast where the Pacific ocean swell was softened.  Half of its streets were paved in cobblestones, the other weren’t paved at all. Dogs often slept in the street, confident their naps would be undisturbed. A stone breakwater created a small harbor where the fishermen anchored their ponga fishing boats.  Sailboats of Americans cruising south would anchor there for weeks on end, attracted there by the gentleness of the ocean swell. Almost every afternoon small whitecaps could be seen beyond the breakwater, palm fronds rattled in the steady breeze, and the polka beat of Mexican music would be carried on the wind from a jukebox at a cantina further down the beach.

It wasn’t perfect – the beach was sort of rocky and occasionally the skeleton of a gutted fish would float by as I pulled my windsurfer into the water – but those sorts of flaws were all mitigated by the atmosphere of easy relaxation that saturated the place. It was pretty fantastic.

My dad passed away five years ago, but he had quite a good life in La Cruz for all those years when he and my mom migrated there every winter. In addition to the two houses, there remained a vacant portion of our land that would occasionally rouse the imagination of my dad and me about what to build there.

Over the decades I completed three fully developed designs for this empty lot. The first scheme was drawn up before any of us had lived in that part of the world for any length of time and before we understood what was at stake in the tropics. But we eventually passed enough time there to understand the how and why of things.

Things like how a shady patio with a view and a fan overhead was where you spent much of the day. How such a patio was in fact the very heart of how you lived and entertained. How you should make sure this patio could seat at least eight comfortably and, by god, keep the kitchen nearby. An ocean view was total gravy. Get that patio right and the rest was easy. You also needed sleeping rooms with good insect screens and maybe a small air conditioner blowing in enough cool air that you would want to sleep under at least a single bed sheet. Make all the showers open-air and all the kitchen storage open with shelves made of concrete and tile. Those are most of the basics.  Oh yeah, and do your roof beams out of concrete because the termites are murder. No wood anywhere, except for super-hard bocote wood that the Mexicans use for doors.

My third design for our lot finally got it right. Unlike the first two designs that would have had my parents rambling around in a mega-house, the new scheme called for a sort of hacienda wrapped around a large courtyard that was actually five different villas, each highly individualized with a dash of the exotic to them like you would want in a tropical getaway (with stone or brick arches here and there, a patio atop a little tower for one of the villas, a palm frond palapa roof for the patio of the beach villa.) In the central courtyard we would have a swimming pool so that it would appear to hang over the ocean. The villas could be rented out or used for family or even sold individually, thus giving us options.

We never pulled off the construction of these villas and now our potential for an on-site supervisor from within the family is gone with my dad’s passing and me firmly anchored to a life in Benicia. The need for good supervision needs to be emphasized: to build in Mexico you need an overseer that lives right there (or close by) and is completely dedicated to watching out for your interests and is willing to perform endless chores.

I remember being slightly stressed fairly often about staying ahead of the construction and having to always run errands like the multiple trips to the welder who was making all the steel window frames, or visiting places out in the middle of nowhere like the ranch where they made big roof tiles out of clay and laid them out on the ground in row after row to dry in the sun, and there would occasionally be a dog footprint in one of the tiles.

In my next column: how to hire a builder in Mexico; the plusses and minuses of the five-and-half-day work week; how it’s possible to pull off a massive concrete pour in one amazing day by using only shovels, a few buckets and about thirty guys to hand mix the concrete on the ground; the way to “own” land in Mexico. In other words, all the stuff I should have got to in this column, but instead I couldn’t resist all the nostalgic reminiscing.

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