Friday, December 1, 2006

Gas, Solar and Electric - The Inconvenient Truth

I'm guessing energy conservation is not a new concept for you, and it's not a new concept here in Mexico, either. Matter of fact, many developing countries conserve energy and minimize waste because it also saves money.

So, just to review a few basics:

1) Municipal electricity is provided by the CFE - Comision de Federal Electricidad - a national company that has some connection to the federal government. According to CFE, although they have the capacity to generate about 70% of electricity from renewable sources (thermal, geothermal, wind and hydro), they currently produce over 40% from hydrocarbons (oil, diesel, and natural gas) and over 8% from coal. I have found electricity prices to be surprisingly low (our 3-bedroom/3-bathroom monthly expenses are less that $40 USD/month) and generally cover all of your plug-in electric appliances and lights.

2) Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG, or LP gas) is most often delivered in 4ft canisters to your door step via a variety of local sellers (Gas el Lago, etc) for about $35 USD. LPG is often called a "clean" fuel because it has less particulate emissions and lower carbon emissions than petroleum. Some homes have a large gas tanks and have them filled a few times a year. LPG generally fuels water heating and stoves here in Mexico.

3) Solar power is used quite a lot here in Patzcuaro. For example, solar clothing dryers (aka - clothing lines) are quite popular, as is putting your water tank up on the roof and painting it black. Both of these services are basically free from the sun. You can also pay a little bit more to construct integral passive solar water heater or even hire a local company to install solar panels. But let's get to that in a few.

So, now that you know, basically, what your different options are, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1) Reduce, reduce, reduce
- Build a home with lots of natural light and insulation
- Make sure you save some room on your property for a cloths line
- Buy energy efficient appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers
- Buy low flow shower heads, put aerators on faucets and purchase
- Install a water saving toilet or use toilet dams
- Install energy efficient light bulbs
- Keep your water heater turned down
- Turn off water while shaving and brushing teeth
- Use cold water for wash and wash full loads
- Use the right size pot/pan on the stove burner
- Do not preheat your oven except for baking
- Cover pots/pans when cooking

2) Remember the best things in life are often free
- Collect and reuse rainwater
- Dry things out in the sun
- Compost your food and garden waste
- When it's warm out: close curtains on the sunny sides of home, open windows on the cool sides of home, wear loose, light colored clothing, use fans to circulate air in the home
- When it's cold out: keep curtains open on the south side of the house during the day, keep curtains closed on north windows, dress in layers

3) Maintain, maintain, maintain
- Clean refrigerator coils
- Switch refrigerator to power miser setting
- Set refrigerator temperature to 36-39F (2-3C)
- Set freezer to 0-5 F (-18 to-15C)
- Keep refrigerator/freezer full
- Drain some water from your water heater to remove sediment
- Insulate water heater
- Insulate electrical outlets and switches
- Caulk on the inside of doors and windows
- Insulate/caulk all pipe penetrations in walls and ceiling

4) Go the extra step - go completely solar
Here are two companies that have offices in Morelia:
Energia Solar Mexico

Monday, November 20, 2006

Water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink

So, I'm guessing you already know not to drink the water here in Patzcuaro. Why? Well, there's lots of different theories, includng but not limited to:

1) Tap water in Patzcuaro, like tap water in other parts of Mexico, is home to many and various single-celled organisms, which, as a group, are generally considered to be parasites. Although some locals have built up a tolerance to these parasites, visitors often experience 'Montezuma's Revenge' - which can include Diarrhea, Stomach cramping, Nausea, Light-headedness and/or Fever.

2) Tap water in Patzcuaro is contaminated with sewage water because the pipes run very close together and can mingle or there are damaged and ick just gets in via the soil. Montezuma's Revenge or other ill effects result.

3) Tap water in Patzcuaro just doesn't task good. It probably won't kill you, but it may taste like chlorine or metals (from the old pipes).

I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I'm willing to pay $17 pesos a liter to have purified, tasty water delivered to my door every few days.

There are two major water companies that deliver water in a large jug (called a "garrafon") a few times a week to your door and are also available for special deliveries:

Agua Ciel - a Coca-Cola product -

Agua Santorini - 01-800-2373-734

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Everything old is new again

I wouldn't have thought that worm holes on 400-year old pine wood would be one of my favorite local decorations, but they really are.

I have found and heard a lot of conflicting information about "old wood" or "troje" wood, but I'm going to believe the government on this one, and guess that pre-Hispanic Purepecha people built homes entirely out of wood and these wooden cabins were/are called trojes.

Starting about a decade or so ago, it became fashionable to take the wood from abandoned trojes and use it to make furniture and put it in modern construction. You can spot troje wood by its tell-tale worm holes. There is also a lot of beautiful work done with old wood doors.

Our friends Meg and Fred Snyder of Copper Instincts do beautiful work using copper and troje wood to make high-end furniture. We hired a local guy, Nacho,to build our lovely kitchen table and cabinets.

A quick google search also found Patzcuaro Fine Mexican Furniture.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Tiles, Tiles, Talevera Tiles

I like to think of myself as the un-gringo gringo, but I'm as big of a sucker as the next guy for crazy (cheesey) talevera tiles.

There's a wonderful local artisan in Capula who makes beautiful tiles, and can custom make you whatever you want. They run a few pesos a tile, and at the time we purchased tiles from her, the price was the same whether she had them in stock or had to make new ones.

To design our kitchen and bathrooms, we consulted with a few really great books, including our favorite, Mexicocina

Then we went to the website Tierra y Fuego and literally cut and paste the tiles we wanted into our interior designer's sketches.

It was that easy.

Don't believe the hype that tiles are super expensive or hard to come by. Just order early and don't be afraid to be cheesey.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Building Your Dream House in Patzcuaro

If you're like me, you will end up buying a property that is, well, far from inhabitable.

We were lucky enough to meet an architect/general contractor during our real estate search, and decided to just hire him (and pay him in 3 easy installments) to run the whole show. Luis Stamatio, from Re/Max, built our house, and it is truly beautiful.

We learned a lot in the process, including the importance of having an honest and competent general contractor. This person is often called the "numero uno" on the project. Because we paid for a complete package (under the delusion, I suppose, that this would make us less micro-managing and neurotic), our general contractor had a tremendous about of responsibility and power. When his staff (engineer, interior designer, foreman, etc) fell behind schedule, or did something we didn't like, we only had to deal with one person. Unfortunately for our house, our general contractor fired both his engineer and his interior designer towards the end of the project, which caused us a few months delay as well as some shotty workmanship that had to be redone.

Thankfully, our foreman was a saint and helped us tremendously. We adored him so much, that we have helped him expand his work to general contracting, and partner up with us and his architect brother, to found R&R Construction.

So here's the plug, we can now help you build your dream house here in Patzcuaro.

Under the auspices of Patzcuaro Property and R&R Construction, we offer a variety of services, including:

Architectural Drawings
Our architect will work with you to choose an appropriate layout for your dream house, making sure it meets your functionality and personality requirements.

Weekly Reports
Via reports by the general contractor, we will send you weekly updates (in English) with digital photos to report on the progress of the construction and make sure things are coming together as you envisioned. There is usually room to make modifications and we will do our best to meet your every expectation.

Interior Design
Our interior design team will work with you to choose bathroom and kitchen tiling and cabinetry, doors and windows, & floors and patios...and even your furniture, decorations and appliances if you'd like.

In partnership with Mexatua Designs, we are building a variety of websites that highlight local stores, design websites, and pictures and suggestions for books to get you started. We are also happy to work with your own designer.

Costs and payments for the above-mentioned services will reflect your comfort zone. We can create a single lump sum payment for all services rendered, an "a la carte" system where you will be involved in every purchasing decision, or something in between.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Buying Your Dream House in Patzcuaro

There are many things to consider once you've actually decided on a house or a property and are ready to take the plunge.

I am not an expert in real estate, but Mexperience has a great guide to buying and selling in Mexico that I highly recommend.

To hire a lawyer, or not to hire a lawyer, that is the question.
The reasons to hire a lawyer are many, as are the reasons not to. We felt strongly that as first time home owners, we wanted to do everything by the book. Here in Patzcuaro, I highly recommend Liliana of Mexatua as a local bi-lingual lawyer you can trust.

We actually bought our house from Mexatua, so we decided to hire outside counsel. We ended up paying about 10% of the value of our house to our Baker & McKenzie lawyers in Guadalajara.

Some folks find a "Notario" that they deal with most directly, but I found (and continue to find) Patzcuaro notarios to be easily influenced by under-the-table money, and I didn't feel comfortable with that.

Our lawyers did a lot of the work for us, which was great. And since they were completely bi-lingual, were able to keep us up to date, give us copies of all documents in English, and go to battle on our behalf when push came to shove. Here is a list from Mexperience on some of the common checks that should be done either by your lawyer and/or your notario.

The most important things that our lawyers did for us were:

1) They made sure the property actually belonged to the seller. Here in Michoacan, Ejido land is common, as are big families that collectively own property. Our lawyers did an extensive title search and found, thank goodness, that the sellers owned the property.

2) They made sure all taxes and utilities had been paid. Under Mexican law, the new owner is liable for all debts associated with the property (unpaid mortgages, utilities, taxes, etc). We found that the sellers owned a few thousand US dollars worth of bills and taxes and our lawyers made sure those were paid.

3) They made sure that the actual price we paid for the property was recorded. Max Guerrero wrote a small piece on this issue, but the gist of it is: tax evasion. The sellers may not want to pay capital gains tax and may try to convince you that by recording a lower value, you will save money. That may be true in the short-term, but not so when you sell. Plus, remember: it's tax evasion.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Patzcuaro Real Estate

I had never owned a house before moving to Mexico, so this was a big deal for me and my family. Because I've been working in non-profits for the last decade, I also didn't have a lot of money to spend. Although, lucky for me, I had really good credit, most US-based lenders were only doing mortgages in beach resort areas in Mexico and not in Michoacan when I wanted to buy.

I met with three different real estate companies, including Mexatua. I saw houses that were right in the center of town, ones in the middle of nowhere, vacant lots, abandoned houses and a few places that were ready for move in immediately.

Prices varied from a few hundred thousand pesos ($10,000 USD) up to $1.6 million US dollars. I really didn't know what I was looking for until I actually found it.

After 5 days of solid property scoping, my sister-in-law and I came across a small lot (300 m2 or about 3000 sq ft) with a dilapidated house on it. It was right off of the small plaza (Plaza Chica) and we loved the colonial lay-out and the quiet narrow street.

Having gone through the process, I would advise the following:

1. Meet with lots of different real estate agents to get a feel for what's on the market. Remember that all prices are negotiable, but it's good to see different asking prices and different types of properties. I never thought I'd get involved in a remodel, but I eventually realized that was the best bang for my buck.

2. Once you have a feel of the market, decide what your goal for the property is: winter or summer home, investment property, retirement home, etc...I originally thought that I would build a B&B and live on part of the land and rent out the rest. I quickly realized that properties of that size were really out of my price range, and that building a house for my family (and then renting space at a B&B for guests) was much more do-able.

3. Based on your goal, decide what the most important features are: location, parking, lot size, street traffic, view, flexibility, etc...Since I now live full time in my house in Patzcuaro, I have found that being 2 blocks from the market (I go shopping for food most days), on a quiet street (our street has only local traffic and is blocked on one side), in the center of town (we get lots of friends stopping by while they're running errands) has been ideal. I wouldn't trade it for anything. That said, the next time around I would have invested in a spare bedroom as we have a lot of house guests and it's hard to accommodate them.

4. Now that you have a list of the most important features, go back and see your top properties again. It's great to have a second pair of eyes with you - a friend, a partner, an architect, etc. If you're like me (and I think most people), buying a house is much like falling in love - and is a very emotional experience. It's good to have someone grounding with you to make sure you're not just buying based on your gut.

5. Once you have a short list of 1-3 properties, make an old fashioned pros and cons list. At this point in my search, I was deciding between two properties that were just two blocks apart from each other. One perfect for a storefront, the other perfect for a home. It wasn't really until I made a pros and cons list did I realize that having a beautiful home was what my family and I were really after, and the business plan could wait until later.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Patzcuaro Living

Patzcuaro Living is my attempt to make your move to Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico, a little easier - to share lessons learned, recall funny stories, and help you along the path of moving to Mexico as a foreigner. I hope you'll feel free to send me your thoughts and experiences as well.