Sometimes you have to fall in love and then fall hard to learn a lesson. This happened to us two years ago on Calle 78, when we saw a well-kept, appealing property after a long, tiring day with our real estate agent. Our eyes were glazing over by the time we saw it, but the next day we kept thinking about this handsome house and its pleasant street. We asked to see it again, and a whirlwind courtship began.
It was our first or second time touring Mérida, and we were still getting to know the neighborhoods while gauging our budget and needs. We were keeping our minds open. Probably too open, because we were traipsing the four corners of the Centro with no constraints other than budget. The unremodeled house on 78 was priced at $150,000 and under 9 meters wide (meh) by 55 meters deep (ooh!), and not walkable to any store or restaurant that I’d visit often. Four-plus blocks to the zoo or Santiago park was OK, but the Paseo de Montejo would be so far away. We were seduced, however, by the fact that it was relatively clean. It even smelled good. Lots of pretty wood doors in the traditional style, in good shape. The high ceiling had those exposed beams I’d lusted after; I could almost overlook the water damage. The tile floors were in pretty good shape, and they were designs we actually liked. A sturdy, charming stone wall out back was covered with creeping bougainvillea. Reviewing photos of it as I write this, I’m almost falling in love all over again. We visited the area at night, and the block was so blissfully quiet. The car wash and bodega operation at the end of the street seemed innocuous. (This is when we learned that a bodega here is a storage area, not a corner store, as it would be in New York.)
First red flag: the price tag. I knew what it cost to renovate a house, and I can see what they’re selling for. Buying an unremodeled home, some of it qualifying as a ruin, at that price didn’t add up. That is, the sale price plus the remodeling costs would exceed its potential sale price on the market should we list it in the next five years. Still, we wondered. Was the price negotiable? Probably not, we were told by the sales agent. Someone had offered $14,000 less and was rejected. I Googled some key words in the real estate listing and found a duplicate of that listing on another website − a site that date-stamped their posts, aggregated from various real estate companies. Now we could see this baby had been on the market for a few years. Not negotiable, really? We didn’t want to spend more than $100,000 tops for something that needed a new kitchen, bathrooms and probably a new roof. That much we knew. But what would an impartial expert say? The real estate agent introduced us to an architect, one of the city’s better-known and well-respected ones, to give us an opinion.
I was hoping the architect would help me navigate around the second red flag: the property’s dimensions. Plenty of depth, but not quite wide enough for a garage or an inside courtyard. Several interior rooms were trapped with only a smudgy skylight to bring in the sun. The center hall was lined by a wall that obviously lopped off its right side. The residence split off from the original house added a second floor with a window that fixed its unblinking gaze over the rear yard. The architect agreed that the dark rooms were a problem, but I’d be within my rights to brick over the neighbor’s window. Might that not complicate the relationship with the person on the other side of the wall? We could put in an offer to buy the neighbor’s house, but then we’d be astronomically over budget.
The architect’s visit lasted a few hours (we were impressed with how generous he was with his time) and the visit was fruitful. From this visit, we started to learn what to look for in a home, and he was frank about what repairs would be necessary and expensive, and what flaws couldn’t be easily overcome, like the fact that the rear of the house faced west, bringing the most punishing heat and glare to the areas you’re most likely to spend the most time. The real estate agent was squirming a little as we listened to the architect. I wonder if he still invites him to meet clients.
He emphasized the importance of air flow. I’m not sure how much we were thinking of air flow up until that point. He pointed out rooms with windows on only one side, which isn’t enough to achieve proper ventilation. We’d need to build an updraft on the opposite wall for a breeze to pass through. The backyard had a small casita, and we could imagine tucking in a hidden garden. But the cramped courtyard would be impractical for a pool because sunlight would rarely hit it. Also, there was no garage and scant potential to install one. Had we even discussed between ourselves that we wanted a garage? It occurred to us that we wanted one, even where street parking is easy. The architect didn’t tell us not to buy, but he revealed to us how problematic the property was. Almost everything that attracted us to the house was cosmetic. The architect burst our bubble. Somebody had to, eventually.
Our enthusiasm cooled and we let go of the house on 78. We had gone there three times only to walk away without offering a bid. Did we waste our time? Not at all. We finally got schooled. Considering a property truly, madly, deeply forced us to reconcile our needs with the property with a little more sophistication. Someone else finally bought that house, and for them I’m sure it will be lovely. I hope they got the price down.
We worked on looking at properties as blank slates. This is more difficult when the property is ramshackle, but a critical skill for any Mérida house hunter. We focused on its dimensions, orientation, and who the neighbors were, looking past the tiles or the peeling paint. Now we’re under construction and we’re building a casita of our own. It’s up against the rear wall, but notches in twice to create small hidden gardens to let in air and light. We are building our own walls and planting our own bougainvillea. The property is wide enough for a garage, and the rear terrace faces east. We applied the lessons we learned 13 long blocks west.
You might ask if we hired the architect who schooled us on Calle 78. Sadly, no. He got much too busy by the time we were ready to go. I doubt he’s got time these days to help buyers the way he did for us two years ago.
I’m still not ready to reveal who the architect is. What we went through to find one.