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Dateline: At the Corner of Insanity and Bankruptcy

Sample money pit

After more than a decade of real estate “fantasy shopping” online here in Mexico City, I’ve finally decided to pull the trigger and buy at the top of the market. At least it feels that way. There’s a ton of property available, and more every week. The weeks before the 2017 earthquake marked the peak of residential real estate turnover here, and sales have been in a gentle decline ever since. Except for the early days of covid, of course, when sales fell off a cliff for a few months. They’ve since bounced back somewhat, but it’s not clear if a bottom has yet been reached. Despite the swelling inventory of places for sale, asking prices remain high. Only rents have budged at all. And according to friends, not much at that. Instead, buildings across town are festooned with “en venta” or “en renta” signs. If you inquire, there are many more units available than what’s advertised on the façade. Oh, and builders continue to construct new condo apartments at a breathtaking pace. So what better time to buy, right?

As some of you know, I’ve been, uh, a little “indecisive” for years about really moving here. So much so that I’ve become something of a laughingstock on certain blogs. In my defense, I had basically started the process in 2016, and then it was interrupted first by my mother’s illness, and then covid. But now that I’m back, I’m loving it, and feeling very comfortable living here. I’m seeing someone I’m enthusiastic about, and am developing a circle of friends. So over the summer I decided to start looking to finally, really buy a place. But after having looked for a few months it became clear that the market was depressed, and no upside catalyst was in evidence. Nor were any compelling discounts. So I decided to wait until spring, hoping prices might start to move down under the sea of unsold inventory.

And then an opportunity fell into my lap. I was out walking around the northern reaches of Roma Sur in mid-October, when I came across a handsome, three story, Art Deco house with a “for sale by owner” sign on it. I stopped to look, and took a picture of the sign. A guy sitting in a car leaned out and asked if I spoke Spanish, and if I wanted to see the house. Once inside, I was immediately captivated.

The property consists of three floors. On the first two is a 2,500 square foot, 4 BR, 3.5 BA house. On the third floor is a spacious apartment with a fireplace, and a good-sized cuarto de servicio on the roof. Built in 1930, the place is practically oozing Art Deco Charm. It’s filled with glass blocks, and a glittery black quartz baseboard. It has an asymmetrical Art Deco fireplace made of the same stone, and on the second floor it has an amazing blue Art Deco bathroom. Ceiling heights are 3 meters, about 9½ feet, and the ground floor feels incredibly spacious.

Of course it’s an old house, and needs a fairly thorough remodeling. The kitchen is a complete disaster. I’ll also have to update the electrical system, plumbing, and redo several of the floors. While the center of the ground floor has interesting pasta tile, it’s quite worn, and may not be salvageable. And the front room and dining room both need new floors. The front room has a wood floor, and I think it’d be nice to replace that with tile that matches the center of the house. The back/dining room floor had its wood replaced with concrete, but slopes down to meet the kitchen. I’d rather everything be on the same level, so that too will likely need to be redone. And I’ll have to paint every visible surface, inside and out.

Now if I can only get a gas burner that will burn blue, geometric flames

Still, the house overall has very good “bones,” with a spacious layout and surprisingly good light given that it has almost no garden or yard, just a 9-ish foot space at the back of the house, towered over by the apartment building behind. In the heart of the building, there’s a light well with a super-glamorous spiral staircase to the third floor, and it does a lot to brighten the house. And there are lots of internal windows and glass blocks which allow more light than you’d expect. It also seems very solid, with nary a crack to be seen.

It’s sort of a shame this staircase isn’t in the main house

But the main stairway between the first and second floors is no slouch either. Imagine it painted gray, with a glossy black railing, and some Art Deco stencils along the side.

Black Quartz Stairway leading to second floor landing shown below
Upstairs hall. Note baseboard and glimpse of Art Deco Bathroom. White door (missing door knob) opens to spiral stair. Looking toward the back of the house.

I have rather mixed feelings about the kitchen. To put it mildly. Obviously it needs to be remodeled, but how much? At some level, the green tile is charmingly period-correct. But as you can see from even this relatively bad photo, there are a lot of holes drilled in the tiles. And who knows how well the grout might clean up? There’s a LOT of color there. And it’s one of those ‘operating-room’ Mexican kitchens where every single square inch is covered with tile, including white tiles on the ceilings. If nothing else, I’m going to have to figure out how to get more electricity and lighting in there. And of course cabinets, etc. Those period floor cabinets are very interesting, though. Imagine them painted with an automotive metallic color like silver.

It’s not easy being green

The main bath on the second floor is the real charmer. A good size, it has some very nice tiles, to which the composite photo below does no justice. The floor was replaced somewhere along the way, but I’m thinking of replacing the boring beige with something in either blue or gray. Otherwise, I want to preserve the bathroom as much as possible. The existing tiles are really amazing, with a translucent glaze, and it’d be a crime to get rid of them. And of course I’ll paint the walls and ceiling something besides cold white, maybe a light gray, or tone of blue. It’s also going to need more lighting, though I’m definitely going to keep the flame-style sconces. However, the bidet (not pictured, but right next to the tub) is going to have to go. I’d much rather have a heater in its place.

Turning back to the mechanics of buying this place, it turns out that the guy showing it to me is the son of the owner, an elderly lady who had just spent two weeks in the hospital for a non-covid lung infection. Since she was still weak and recuperating, I wasn’t able to see the apartment on the third floor that day. But after seeing the two-story house underneath it, I was truly interested in buying this place. The asking price is in the ballpark, and I’ve frankly wanted something I could remodel to my own taste. Not to mention that I’ve always thought that it would be beyond fabulous to live in an Art Deco house. So we arranged for me to see the house when she was feeling better. I told the son, Marco, that I was very interested but in no hurry, and that if she wanted a couple of weeks to recuperate before I came by, that it was no problem.

So I went back home and waited for his call and fantasized about the house. I figured it’d be at least two weeks before I got to see the apartment. But no. Thursday of that week, Marco called and said I could come Saturday. “By the way, we are also selling the house next door too, if you want to see it,” he mentioned. “What the heck?” I figured. “Sure!”

To be continued…

Saludos and thanks for stopping by!