© Timothy Scott
“You never know what you’ll find behind the walls,” is a common refrain in colonial Mexico. Homes are built flush to the sidewalks, with few adornments besides carved wooden doors, ironwork on the windows, or a colorful paint job. Once you step inside, however, the foyer may open up to a fountain and a bolveda domed ceiling, or an elegant dining room for 12 with beamed 20-foot ceilings and hand-painted murals.
I toured several homes priced between $1 million and $2 million and was struck by the craftsmanship found at every turn, the mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, and inviting rooms that refused to ever be uninteresting.
What You Get for a Million and Change
© Realty San Miguel
At a home Philip Hardcastle showed me on Calle Zacateros, I marveled first at all the artistic details: a library with custom wood shelving and a spiral staircase, a bath with a hammered metal free-standing tub, and solid wood custom cabinets all hand-carved. Then I started to notice all the modern conveniences worked in as well. There were the Bose speakers built into every room, double ovens, sinks, and refrigerators in the large kitchen built for entertaining; an elevator hidden by another carved wood door, a water purification system; a soundproofed home theater room with surround-sound equipment; and a high-end barbeque grill built into a party deck with a view.
This $1.65 million home is just one of many that unfolds surprise after surprise after you walk through the arches.
One special Allende Properties listing is Tzintzuntzan, a circa 1749 home that has been renting for $3,600 per week—cook included. With four bedrooms and 5.5 baths, it’s a sprawling complex with multiple sitting areas in and out, a huge roof terrace with plants and a view, and stunning interiors filled with mesquite cabinets and original art. The courtyard swimming pool is surrounded by fragrant flowers and fruit trees and it can function as an exercise pool where you swim against a current. Each bedroom is like a suite, complete with big baths and walk-in closets. Like most homes for sale in this region, it’s sold furnished. Just buy it and unpack your suitcases.
© Allende Properties
Nancy Howze brought me into another listed showpiece on the same street, Aldama, a place where one of the four bedrooms is around 300 years old. Like many homes here, this one is a collection of buildings connected by courtyards and terraces. In this case, so many furnished terraces and balconies that you could have trouble deciding where to have your sundowner cocktails. This one had a garage, which is far from a given in the center, but not a pool, which is also hit or miss in this climate. With nearly 6,000 square feet of space though, you and your guests will certainly not be falling all over each other, especially considering the multiple dining and lounging spaces. The home is listed at $1.35 million.
If your tastes run more to open spaces and the sprawling hacienda feel, there are plenty of those styles to choose from as well around San Miguel, especially if your budget runs into the multi-millions. One current listing is a $10 million ranch with a six-bedroom house of 15,000 square feet sitting on 444 acres of land. For half that they can get you into a 17th-century residence with six bedrooms and five baths on 16 acres, complete with a swimming pool and horse stables.
San Miguel de Allende’s Attractions
© Allende Properties
Sure, the selection in San Miguel is impressive—you can’t walk more than two blocks without running into another real estate office with dozens of enticing listings. But with real estate prices in most other non-coastal Mexican cities so much lower than here, not to mention other countries altogether, why does this city keep attracting new waves of first-world immigrants?
“It’s so easy to find your place here,” explains Nancy Howze, who moved from Alabama in 1998. “Everyone is very welcoming to newcomers and it’s easy to find people with like interests. There’s a club for just about anything and the cultural life is astounding for a city this size.”
Most residents hate to admit it, but this is also one of the easiest places in Mexico to get by English is as common as Spanish in this city.
Joanie Barcal counts herself among the original pioneers after living in the city for more than two decades. “There’s a long list of reasons for coming here,” she says. “There’s a great quality of life, a terrific climate, easy access from the U.S., culture, a sense of community, and great health care at an affordable price. One thing I really like though is the lack of anxiety. When people have a house or car here, they own it outright, so almost nobody has a huge debt hanging over their head—local or foreign. It all adds up to a great quality of life.”
There are more concrete factors in play as well. Property taxes are astoundingly low, often coming in at a few hundred dollars a year. Even with a properly assessed mansion and a regular staff of maids, gardeners, and maintenance men, upkeep on a house in central Mexico can be less than what one month of expenses will be in the U.S. “The climate matters for that part as well,” adds Philip Hardcastle. “At the beach resorts you’ve got salt air deterioration, humidity, and extreme heat taking a toll on your home. Here you can lock up your home for months, just paying someone to clean and water the plants now and then.”
Don’t wait too many years longer though if you’re thinking of claiming your own spot in this paradise. All the agents I talked to said there may not be a full recovery in motion yet, but the sleepy market is waking up again. “There’s no MLS system in place yet here, but I’d guess that only five or six homes going for a million dollars or more sold in all of 2009,” says Philip Hardcastle. “But it’s turned around to the point where that many have closed in just the past few months. It feels like people are becoming more comfortable investing again.”
To browse real estate listings in all price ranges:
Story by Timothy Scott.