Back in May, we bought an apartment in Roma Norte. Now, just three months later, the apartment is full of furniture and appliances, we have electricity, gas, Internet, and water service, and we added blinds and balcony flooring. And this past week, we added a bed frame, a TV and TV stand, and some chairs and tables for the balcony. It’s interesting to compare the apartment to what it looked like when it was empty, so here’s a new tour video.
Also, I’m excited to say that we’re heading back to Mexico City next week for several days. This is my first trip there since May, when we closed on the apartment, though Steph was out in June with our daughter Kelly and made a lot of progress on the furnishings. I’m hoping to make more progress on this trip: we still need a base for the bed in the main bedroom, some kind of combo bed/couch/futon/whatever for the second bedroom, a TV and TV stand, and other items. But it’s shaping up nicely.
Also, our son Mark will be joining us. This is his second trip to Mexico City and the first time he’ll see the apartment.
Stephanie is in Mexico City this week with our daughter Kelly, and they have overseen two significant improvements to our apartment: blinds for all the floor-to-ceiling windows and Trex composite decking for the balcony. In this video, we connect on Zoom to discuss everything we’ve added to the apartment across the last two trips and what’s still left to do on future trips. We’ll break down how much it all cost in a future video.
The most common question we get from friends, family, and strangers about our new focus on Mexico is why? This has been phrased ambiguously, or even politely. But with a few close friends, it was blunter and more forthright. Are you crazy?
We’re not crazy. But it should come as no surprise, especially by Americans, that Mexico is misunderstood: Mass media and our government both portray Mexico as some kind of Narco-controlled hellhole. If the U.S. State Department were to cast the same critical lens at the United States, with routine mass shootings, even of children, it would recommend that no one visit that country too. But maybe we can arrive at some less sensational middle ground. There are dangerous places everywhere. And we avoid those places, whether they’re in Baltimore, Detroit, or New York City. Or Mexico.
But this isn’t about places to avoid. It’s about why we pivoted away from Europe after visiting there for at least one month a year for over 15 years. It’s about why we turned to Mexico. And not just Mexico, but Mexico City specifically. And not just Mexico City, but a specific part of Mexico City, the colonia of Roma Norte. And, I suppose, the apartment we chose, with its nearly perfect location.
This is a complicated story. It’s complicated enough that it will require multiple articles, and multiple videos for that matter. But what I’ll do here is lay out the high-level overview. And then Stephanie and I can expand on this later, over time. And it goes something like this.
I’ve been working from home since the mid-1990s, and my wife joined me over 20 years ago. We’re both writers, and remote workers, and have enjoyed the freedom of working from anywhere for much of our adult lives. But our children kept us rooted in the same home for 15 years: they had friends, and school, and activities, and we didn’t selfishly move around when they were growing up.
We did, however, travel. In 2003, Stephanie and I returned to Europe for the first time in over a decade, and the kids stayed with their grandparents as we toured southern Germany for about 10 days. We then visited Paris in late 2005 and early 2006 thanks to some unbelievable cheap airline sticks. And then we started taking the kids to Europe every summer, starting in 2006, usually for three weeks at a time. We also visited Europe at other times each year, sometimes just the two of us, and sometimes with the kids. We were “the family that travels,” as our daughter Kelly described it early on.
During this time, Stephanie and I started thinking about a future in which we’d split our time between the U.S. in Europe. This time was always vague, in the distance, and so we never really worked out the details about how that would work, or how we’d even afford it. Maybe there would be more home swaps, at different times of the year, once the kid’s school schedules were no longer the deciding factor. Maybe we could house-sit. Or something.
We loved Europe, and still do, but over time it became obvious that it wasn’t necessarily perfect. The weather in most of western Europe is as extreme as it is in the northeast United States, where we live, with very cold, dark, and often snowy winters, and very hot and humid summers. Ideally, we would split time such that we would avoid the worst weather anywhere. But the bad times in Europe, weather-wise, are the same as they are in our part of the U.S.
This problem was driven home in the winter of 2015, when we had over six feet of snow on the ground and the relentless back-to-back snowstorms were so bad that we had to replace our house’s roof and windows that Spring. I had had enough, and I began thinking about how I could orchestrate a future in which I never had to experience a winter like that ever again.
We took a baby step towards that future in 2017 when we moved from the Boston, Massachusetts area to the slightly milder Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. By that time, our son Mark was already in college and Kelly was about to finish her first year of high school. I would never have asked her to move while still in school, but she actually initiated the move, and away we went. This move accomplished a few things. It allowed us to financially downsize. It gave us an extra three weeks of Spring and an extra three weeks of Fall, making winters a bit more bearable. And, most important, it proved that this future we had been thinking about was obtainable: moving out of a house you’ve been in for 15 years is daunting, but we went from decision to move in less than four months. I’m still really proud of that.
A few big changes have occurred since we moved to Pennsylvania. First, Kelly graduated from high school and is now in college herself. Mark, our son, has graduated from college, and he lives in Rochester, New York. And the pandemic hit in 2020, ending our annual home swap streak and, worse, any chance of traveling to Europe. And about two decades of regular international travel, 2020 was like getting hit with a brick.
By early 2021, vaccines had arrived and travel was slowly opening up again and so I naturally started researching what we might be able to do. Europe was out of the question, unfortunately. Though it looked like we would be able to go there, we wouldn’t be able to resume home swaps because it looked like the United States wouldn’t allow Europeans into our country. We had contingency plans for a home swap with our friends near Amsterdam, but as the year wore on, it became obvious that would never happen.
Mexico was among the places I began researching in early 2021. (I also looked at Puerto Rico and Lisbon/Portugal) I wrote about that process in The nudge, but the most interesting thing about Mexico, to me, was that this was a place we had never really considered. We had visited the country two or three times, most recently in Cancun with the kids, but there wasn’t anything particularly compelling about the country.
The thing is, we had only visited places on Mexico’s border with the U.S. or, in the case of Cancun, its coastline. And while neither appealed to us, there’s a lot more to this country, as I discovered in early 2021. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that Mexico had a lot of the same qualities that we liked about Europe. And, intriguingly, a lot of advantages that Europe lacks.
As with Europe, Mexico offers great diversity, with wonderful urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas to explore. It has an incredible food scene that is nothing like the sad “Mexican food” we see in most of the United States. It has a rich history and incredible culture. And there is a surmountable level of difficulty, enough of a difference to our home to make it interesting but not so different that it’s off-putting or difficult to manage.
But Mexico’s advantages over Europe are perhaps more interesting. Where Europe is mostly expensive, Mexico is affordable. Where Europe requires tiring overnight flights spanning 5 or 6 time zones and often with two legs or more, Mexico is an easy 4-to-5 hour non-stop day flight away with just a single time zone change from the U.S. east coast. The climate of the interior of Mexico is consistently mild, with little variation between the seasons, the inspiration for the phrase “eternal Spring,” and a sharp contrast to most of Europe. And the people are universally friendly and accommodating to those from the United States and elsewhere, something we’ve certainly experienced in Europe, but not universally.
In researching Mexico, I quickly realized that we’d probably want to focus on Mexico City because of its accessibility. It’s the biggest city in the country and has the biggest airport with the most non-stop flights from the U.S. It’s also centrally located, and an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country. But we still tested this theory when we visited Mexico in 2021 and 2022 by visiting other places, like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Puebla. Each was interesting in its own right, but also remote, and this only reinforced my preference for Mexico City.
As for Roma Norte, that came out of our January 2022 trip, when we spent two and a half weeks in Mexico City with the specific goal of finding one or colonias—or neighborhoods—on which to focus in the future. We visited several, but Roma Norte—where our Airbnb was located—was by far our favorite. And when the time came for a side trip to Queretaro, I suggested that we simply stay in Roma Norte, and Stephanie agreed. We had found the location we liked and didn’t want to leave.
Mexico isn’t perfect, and neither is Mexico City. There is incredible poverty there, and it can be right in your face. And Mexico City is a big city—the biggest city in North America, and bigger than any city in Europe—and it can be loud. Spanish is a requirement, and anyone who believes that they can simply get by speaking English, even in a friendly area like Roma Norte, is out of their minds. We are learning.
But when I compare Mexico City—and Roma Norte in particular—to any place in Europe, it’s clear we made the right decision. We still love Europe, and we hope to visit again and again in the future. But the advantages of Mexico are real, and the disadvantages are surmountable. Roma Norte, for example, is a very safe and relatively quiet oasis in the sea of noise that can be Mexico City. And for now, at least, it seems like we’ve found that place and are setting ourselves up for that future we always envisioned.
We’ll dive deeper into the pros and cons soon.
Our apartment in Mexico City is on the sixth floor of a newly built six-story building in Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood, on the corner of Cordoba and Cualihila. This is the extreme southern border of Roma Norte—the northern boundary of Roma Sur is a block to the south—and towards the neighborhood’s eastern edge.
Location-wise, it’s next to perfect. All of our (current) favorite restaurants, bars, and shops in Roma Norte are short 5-to-15-minute walks away, and the closest Metro stop—Hospital General—is just 7 minutes by foot. You can walk to the desirable Hippodrome area of Condessa in less than 15 minutes as well, opening up a whole new selection of choices. Centro is about 10 minutes by Uber, and we can get to the airport in about 20 minutes.
The apartment is small, maybe a bit smaller than we’d hoped for at about 750 square feet. It consists of three main rooms, a combined living space and kitchen, and two bedrooms, and there are two three-quarter bathrooms and a laundry closet. There’s also a long balcony, accessible from both bedrooms, that faces south.
It’s on the top floor of the westernmost of the building’s two towers, but there is a shared space above us that’s open to the air. This space has storage closets for each of the apartments, which are called bodegas, and through a quirk of fate— it’s in the corner—ours is the biggest. We also have one parking space in the basement parking garage, but we’ll never use it as we don’t plan to buy a car.
The building is new, as noted, and constructed of concrete, and it meets the modern standards for being earthquake-proof. The floors in the living space and laundry are marble, but the bedrooms have serviceable faux wood floors.
Having never been inhabited, the apartment was empty when we arrived save for a small kitchen with a surprisingly nice oven in the back corner of the living space and some built-ins in each bedroom.
Thanks to its location, it is the second-most expensive apartment in the building after the two-floor penthouse, at $280,000. By comparison, the apartment on the floor below us, which is otherwise identical, cost $271,000. We considered it, but we like the idea of not having anyone above us. (That said, anyone in the apartment building can use the shared space, of course, with reasonable limits.)
Of course, there’s more money to spend. We need a refrigerator, various kitchen items, a washer (which will go in the laundry), beds, desks, living room furniture, a TV, and various towels, linens, and other items. We have rough ideas about how we’ll use the space when we’re working, which is based on our years of experience doing home swaps. The second bedroom will need to be dual-use as a home office, too, for example.
But we’ll get to all that. For now, we’re just happy to have taken this huge step into the future. The other minor steps will come in time.
In January 2022, Stephanie and I visited Mexico City for two-and-a-half weeks with one primary goal in mind: find the colonia, or neighborhood, in the city that we would use as a base for future trips. We were pretty sure that Mexico City was the place, so to speak. But we had come up empty on our previous trips—-in June and August 2021, respectively—in part because we had stayed in Centro, the historic center of Mexico City. And so this trip would be different: we had found a terrific Airbnb that was located in one of the more desirable and expat-friendly colonias, Roma Norte.
We told very few people what we were doing. And I’m honestly surprised that only one person asked what the heck we were doing when we started posting photos from the trip to Instagram and Facebook. Sure, there were occasional visits to tourist destinations, and the requisite street food and restaurant meal photos. But our trip must have been puzzling to our friends and family, as most of the pictures were of neighborhood walks from all over the city. Clearly, we were doing research.
It didn’t take us long to realize that Roma Norte was it, but we didn’t voice this to each other until it was time to book a second side-trip outside of Mexico City. We had spent a long weekend in Puebla earlier in the trip and had rough plans to visit Queretaro in a similar manner. But when Stephanie brought this up, I dug in my heels. “I kind of just want to stay here,” I said, noting that we had already found several great restaurants and enjoyed walking the safe streets of Roma Norte at night. Why even leave?
Steph agreed, and that was that. Roma Norte would be our home away from home when we visited Mexico City in the future, and we’d use that as a base to explore the rest of the city, and country. Had that been all we accomplished on that trip, I would have considered it a win, given our past inability to find the right neighborhood. But then it happened.
On our last day in Mexico City on that trip, we had headed over to the airport in the morning to get the COVID tests we’d need to return to the United States. (On previous trips, we’d gotten tested at a hotel, but the airport was less expensive. And we discovered on subsequent trips that there are local places in Roma Norte that are even less expensive.)
After that was done and we had returned to the Airbnb, we weren’t feeling particularly energic, so I offered up an idea: let’s walk down the street and visit the one real estate agency we’d seen in the entire city—they seem to be rare in Mexico City—and find out what we needed to do first should we want to rent or buy an apartment. At that time, this was something that was going to happen down the road, maybe years down the road. But it wouldn’t hurt to get started down that path.
She thought this was a fine idea, so we exited the Airbnb, walked the half-block down to the road where we’d seen the real estate office, and turned the corner. And that’s when our life changed.
The new apartment building on the corner was having an open house. We had walked by this apartment building dozens of times in the past few weeks, but we hadn’t even realized that it wasn’t fully occupied. In fact, the only thing I had remembered about it was that the front stairs seemed kind of steep. But the older gentlemen we met outside—he spoke almost no English, and we spoke only a little Spanish—indicated that we could come inside and take a look. And so we did.
The building consists of 11 apartments, with two towers of 6 stories each, and it had only recently been completed, we learned. In the ground floor office, which would eventually be rented as an apartment, we viewed a model of the building, and the gentlemen, Mauricio, handed me a price sheet listing the available departamentos (apartments). All of them seemed affordable to us, in the $235,000 to $280,000 range, save the penthouse, which occupies the top two floors of one of the towers and has its own rooftop terrace and costs about $485,000. We were never going to buy the penthouse, but he took us there first.
It blew us away. Of course it did. Its rooftop terrace, in particular, is amazing and it offers a panoramic view of the Reforma skyline. It also looks down on the building in which our Airbnb was, and so we took a few pictures of both the skyline and the Airbnb from this unusual vantage point.
I turned to Mauricio and explained, haltingly, that the penthouse was too expensive. Scanning the price sheet he had handed me, I pointed at #601, the only apartment on the sixth floor of the other tower. That one was listed at $280,000, which was a bit more than we wanted to spend, and we weren’t ready to buy anyway. But it would be interesting to see an apartment—a new apartment—in Mexico City that was at least in our price range. Could we see that one?
Of course we could. Mauricio took us over to #601 and let us into the unit. Like the penthouse, it was completely empty, but this one is on one floor, and is smaller, at about 750 square feet. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one off the main bedroom), a large living space with a kitchen area in the corner, a washroom with room for laundry, and a large balcony. We stepped out onto the balcony, which faces south and offers views of buildings and mountains to the southwest. Gorgeous.
Then we walked back down to the temporary office, and my mind was racing. We were absolutely not ready, and I figured we’d plan future trips where we would visit more areas, stay in more Airbnbs, and get a better feel for the neighborhood. Longer term, I thought we would rent first and maybe buy only after were absolutely sure what we wanted to do. But this apartment had thrown a wrench into my brain. Surely my wife would explain, logically, that it was too soon. That we needed to see other places. That we needed more time.
And then we thanked Mauricio, exchanged WhatsApp numbers, and stepped down those really steep front stairs and into the Mexico sunshine. I felt like I had been hit by a bus. And so I asked Stephanie, the voice of wisdom and rationality, what we were going to do next.
“I really want to buy this place,” she said, surprising me. I think she had wanted me to talk her out of it. But I didn’t.
“I do too,” I answered.
And then we did.
You’ve probably seen YouTube videos and blog posts explaining how inexpensive it is to live in Mexico. But if you want to buy your own place and you want that place to be in a desirable location, you should prepare yourself for sticker shock.
Don’t get me wrong: Most areas of Mexico are less expensive than most places in the United States, as promised. And I’m sure you can find properties in Mexico that cost $150,000 or so. But you won’t see prices like that in Mexico City, at least not in any of the more desirable neighborhoods.
We know this because we recently purchased a new apartment in a newly-built building in our favorite part of Mexico City, called Roma Norte. The list price was a bit north of $250,000, but after figuring in all the taxes and other fees, the final cost was closer to $280,000. That was more than we wanted to spend. More importantly, it was more money than we had. A lot more. So how on earth did can afford this purchase?
The short answer is home equity.
But the long answer involves a lifetime of home ownership with years of ups and downs, a few well-timed moves, and just basic common sense when it comes to money. Mostly on my wife’s part, since she handles our finances.
So I’ll start with the homeownership bit and explain how we got here. Not including the Mexico City apartment, we’ve owned four homes.
We purchased our first home in 1998, in Phoenix, Arizona, ahead of the birth of our first child for $99,000. We sold that home about a year and a half later, for $113,000, and moved back to the Boston area to be closer to family.
We bought our second home, a small Cape, in Dedham, Massachusetts, the town I had grown up in outside of Boston, in early 2000. It was no bigger than our first home but because of its location, it was worth over twice as much. We paid $225,000. And then we sold it for $265,000 less than two years later.
We bought our third house, also in Dedham, in early 2002 so we had enough room for our second child. This was a bigger home, a 1600 square foot Colonial, and it was on a nice curved corner lot with what felt like a lot of space for the area. We could only afford it because it was a neglected fixer-upper, and we paid $365,000 for it. And over the course of the next 15 years, we performed an incredible number of upgrades and improvements, until we finally moved in mid-2017. Thanks to the explosive real estate market in the area, we received $635,000 for the home, and we pocketed about $350,000 when all was said and done.
From there, we moved into a large family home in Lower Macungie, Pennsylvania with more land. But because of its rural location, this much nicer home cost far less than our previous one, at $365,000. It also needed upgrades and improvements because of neglect, and so we made a decision I still sort-of regret today and got a small ($50,000) mortgage with a small equity line instead of paying cash. We wanted to make a lot of improvements upfront and felt that having cash made sense.
The next thing to understand is our history with home equity. Throughout the 2000s, I was paid well and we didn’t have much debt beyond the house and shorter-term, 0 percent car loans. We had a home equity line of credit on the second Dedham home which we never needed or touched, figuring it might act as a form of emergency fund if I lost my job or there was a medical disaster.
But then the 2008 financial crisis hit. And this line of credit was suddenly taken away because so many of the bank’s customers had simply taken all the money from their own lines of credit. Inquiring about this, we were told not to worry, and that if we still qualified, we could simply reapply for the line of credit and it would be returned. And so we did so, waiting over a period of months to hear back. When we did, we were told, sorry, the bank wasn’t doing lines of credit anymore because of the ongoing crisis. The money was gone.
This bothered us on a number of levels, but mostly because we had done the right thing and not drained the line of credit just in case. And that impacted what we did years later when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Thanks to the uncertainty and our prior experience, my wife and I decided to take $50,000 out of our equity line and put it in a cash-accessible savings account, just in case, paying hundreds of dollars in interest for the privilege.
Of course, by 2020-21, we were reevaluating things like so many others were. In our mid-50s and with our two kids in colleges we were paying for, we were a long way from retirement—whatever that even means—and had long planned for a future in which we might split our time between two places, one of which we had hoped would be international. We had spent the previous 15 years or more visiting Europe for at least a month each year, and were obviously heading in that direction. But with the pandemic preventing travel to Europe, I started researching other destinations. And discovered Mexico.
We will write more about our sudden shift to Mexico elsewhere, but the two of us visited Mexico City and some other locations in Mexico in 2021, and on the second trip, our kids joined us—in Mexico City—so we could share what we had found. We were definitely leaning in that direction by then. We just needed to find the right neighborhood.
Concurrently to this, my wife walked into my home office one day in late 2021 and jokingly mentioned that the bank that holds our equity line of credit had written to inform us we were eligible for a much higher line of credit—$300,000—than we had had at the time. This was the type of thing we’d normally ignore, and we kind of laughed it off. But sitting there, thinking about it, a thought occurred. And I told Stephanie we should apply. Who knows? Maybe we’d find a place sooner rather than later, and this line of credit would enable us to pull the trigger.
And so we did. And were approved. And in January 2022, we visited Mexico City for a third time, staying at an Airbnb in Roma Norte. We fell in love with the neighborhood and realized we had found the right place. And then, on the last day of that trip, we walked around a corner and our lives changed: the apartment that we ended up buying was having an open house. We had walked by it most days on that trip and hadn’t even realized it was for sale.
Thanks to our equity line increase, we could afford it. And we know that our current house is worth enough now that if we sold it, we would still walk away with some cash after paying off the credit line. This is not the type of risk we normally would take. But it was the right home in the right place at the almost-right time, and being able to do it now just put it over the top. Had we paid for our current home with cash, we would never have gotten a home equity line. And had we not increased the amount of that credit line, we could never have purchased this place. It simply would have been another case of what-if.
We still don’t know whether this will work out over time, of course. And we still have lots of money to spend, since the apartment is empty and needs to be furnished. There are lots of things to learn, about the bills we must pay, and when, and to whom, and how. We’re not ready to move yet and so the next few years will be interesting. But I’m glad we accepted this risk and went for it. Whatever happens, I’ll always be happy about that.