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Dateline: Where a Giant Sucking Sound is Heard in My Bank Account

Not my fuse box, but not far off

What the hell have I gotten myself into? I’m back in Mexico City, now on my 15th day. As you’ll recall, I had to return to the USA the day after I signed all the paperwork to buy my house. Since my international wire transfers didn’t clear for a few days, I wasn’t so much as given a key to the house. So until last week, I had only spent a few hours inside, under the watchful eye of the owner’s son.

Now I’ve spent many a day in the past two weeks carefully examining what I’ve bought. I won’t go so far as to say that I wouldn’t have bought the house if I knew as much in October as I know now. But it’s pretty clear that the house needs just about everything.

Take electricity. While anyone from the United States of Overkill will likely view nearly any Mexican electrical system as suspect, older systems can be laughably inadequate. Or dangerous. In my case, it’s both. Power comes in from the street and goes into a big, old-fashioned blade-type switch, which also contains a pair of 30 amp fuses. From there the wiring goes back out via a conduit to a small, but modern circuit breaker box which protrudes from the wall to the entry. From there the wires go back to the garage, where they run up to a box on the wall near the ceiling. The two wires supplying power are there connected to 3 sets of wires which then feed the rest of the house. A fourth set of wires in that box is ominously not connected to anything, though I suspect the unconnected wires “power” the kitchen.

So if some dangerous condition were to “want” to trip the breaker, well, good luck. None of the wires downstream of either the 30- or 40-amp breaker is rated to carry nearly that much power. I don’t know the specific wire gauge of the downstream wiring, but I’d be surprised if it’s any thicker than 14 AWG, which is rated for 15 amps maximum. So in the event of a short-circuit, the wires would melt down way before the breaker tripped. So I’ve essentially got a completely unprotected set of house wiring. From the 1930’s. Thank God it’s not a wooden structure.

I had an object lesson in this a few days ago. I had wanted to see what in the house worked, so I went around testing fixtures and plugs. When I got to the blue, Art-Deco bath, I switched the switch, and immediately heard a bang. I immediately switched off the switch, and an acrid cloud of black smoke rose from one of the sconces that flank the medicine chest mirror. Later I switched off the main breaker and discovered the remnants of a fried bulb base stuck inside the fixture. I removed what was left of the bulb socket and taped off the wires with electrical tape.

Fortunately, that’s the worst that has happened. Surprisingly, much of the wiring in the house “works,” though I’m probably going to have to replace the bulk of it. Certainly I’m going to need more than a single circuit with a too-large circuit breaker controlling it. And absolutely nothing in the kitchen works. No plugs, lights or switches do the slightest thing. At least they don’t do anything bad like my bathroom light. So there’s that.

While I learned to do wiring in 1997 when I bought my house in Boston, I’m at least going to partially rely on an electrician here. A friend recommended a guy who had not only rewired his apartment, but did the entire 20+ unit building. I called him yesterday and we’re supposed to meet Saturday morning in the house. Part of what we’re going to discuss is what I need to buy, which as you’ll see below is a somewhat pressing question. Unlike in the USA, I have a “monophasic” supply here, which basically means plain, vanilla 120V with no possibility (at least without an upgrade from CFE) of 220V. This also affects the layout of the breaker box, something I need to discuss with the electrician.

Meanwhile, I’ve got an unwanted “opportunity” to buy electrical supplies in Laredo, TX. When I crossed the border nearly a month ago in my overloaded car, I was granted an FMM Visa for a “canje,” basically a very temporary visa that is granted so that you can get to the Instituto Nacional de Migración, where (if they feel like it) they exchange this for a Visa Temporal. This FMM “canje” visa has a term of 30 days. Despite my protestations at the border, the agents would give me no longer than 30 days temporary importation of the car either. But they said I’d be able to extend that visa in Mexico City at the SAT, basically the Mexican IRS. I was suspicious of this, and asked several folks independently. All said the same thing.

Yeah, right. On Monday I finally got my Visa Temporal, a literal green card. Then I spent a fair amount of time on Wednesday running around the metropolis desperately trying to find a place that would be able to extend my car’s import permit. No dice. I have to drive back to the border to get the car’s import permit extended there. I even had a long conversation with someone at ITV (Importación de Vehiclulos Temporales) about this. He unhelpfully suggested that I could save a few hundred kilometers by driving to Reynosa instead of Nuevo Laredo. I replied that that would take me though some pretty “conflictivo” territory and that I wasn’t game. He had nothing to say about that, probably because he’s just as aware as I am of the myriad carjackings, robberies, and worse that take place in that part of the country.

So Sunday I will set out for Nuevo Laredo. I figured Sunday was the ideal day. There’s little traffic here on Sundays, and thus I can escape the traffic-infested grip of Mexico City fairly easily. After that, the rest of the trip should be a breeze, except perhaps for the Monterrey Metro Area, which is tied with Mexico City for awfulness of driving. Also Monday I can’t drive due to “Hoy No Circula” and Tuesday is too late to get to the border on time.

After I get my car paperwork settled, I’m going into Laredo for a shopping trip. Not only is much of what I need for wiring my house more expensive here in Mexico, it’s also worse quality. Large circuit breaker box kits with 24 slots and a handful of circuit breakers included can be had at Home Depot in Laredo for $95 USD. Here? Such a thing seems almost impossible to find unless you walk the streets of the Centro Histórico and find a dealer. At Home Depot Mexico, small, 8-slot breaker boxes without a main breaker can cost $60-80 USD. Individual circuit breakers in the USA run around $5, while here they run about $9. I also want “Romex,” a type of three-conductor wire that can’t even be easily found, and on Amazon Mexico, it runs about 40% more expensive than here. Not to mention the myriad of power outlets and light switches I’ll need.

So I did a quick calculation. Just buying 3 main circuit breaker panels, some spools of wire, and a few other things, and then fully declaring my purchases and paying the 19% import tax, I can save $500. Since I’m actually going to buy much more than this, I’ll probably save a thousand USD or more. Along with electrical supplies, I’m going to buy a shop-vac and a microwave. The microwave will be a big (2.0+ cubic feet), powerful US-style model. Sure, I could probably find such a thing here, but I have yet to see one in a store. And my friends say that here it’d cost triple. The vacuum here would cost double what I’ll pay in Laredo. And many other things will be cheaper and better in Laredo. While it’s overall much cheaper to live in Mexico, lots of manufactured goods can be surprisingly expensive here.

So as much of a pain as it is to have to drive back to the border, at least it comes with some benefit.

And that’s where I am at the moment. Looking forward, I’ll try to detail my remodeling process. Big jobs to come include plumbing, flooring, and tile, the latter of which is already becoming problematic. But that’s for the future. For now, saludos, and thanks for sticking around.