How we purchased the Mexico City apartment

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.

Our first home, in Phoenix, Arizona
Our first home, in Phoenix, Arizona

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.

Our second home, in Dedham, Massachusetts
Our second home, in Dedham, Massachusetts

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.

Our third home, in Dedham, Massachusetts
Our third home, in Dedham, Massachusetts

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.

Our fourth home, in Lower Macungie, Pennsylvania
Our fourth home, in Lower Macungie, Pennsylvania

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.

Our apartment building in Roma Norte, Mexico City

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.

The travel bug

I grew up in a typical middle-class household in the suburbs of Boston and were it not for a quirk of fate, my vacation experiences would have consisted solely of drivable family trips to Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Maine, with a once-in-a-childhood trip—on a plane, no less—to Disney World.

But what set my family apart from those of my friends was that my stepdad worked for the Federal Deposition Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the curiously-named U.S. government agency tasked with insuring bank deposits. And because of his work-related training requirements, we spent two summers in Washington D.C.

I’m not sure what my brother and sister took away from those trips. We visited all the sights, of course, and we took driving trips to places like Luray Caverns and Virginia Beach. We even saw the Beach Boys perform on the Washington Mall before the 4th of July fireworks from the roof of a federal building one summer. But to me, the star of the show was Washington D.C., the city itself.

On the second of those summer trips, I was old enough to go into D.C. myself on foot. That year we were staying in a hotel in Alexandria, so I would walk from there across the Francis Scott Key Bridge into Georgetown and either explore that area or take the more arduous trek right into D.C. itself, where I could visit some of the best museums in the world for free.

Paul with family at a White House reception, 1983
Paul with family at a White House reception, 1983

It was on those solo walking visits into D.C. that I got the bug. The travel bug. The insatiable desire to explore new and different places, to extend my understanding of the world beyond the confines imposed by my unadventurous parents. Those D.C. trips were eye-opening in every way, but on a very basic level, they exposed me to the notion that there is an entire world out there occurring without my knowledge, and that much of it is beautiful and interesting.

In an odd coincidence, my birth father reached out to my mother shortly after that second D.C. trip and asked if he could meet me. My parents had divorced when I was three, which I knew, but he had remarried and had had three daughters, and they had moved out west in the late 1970s, first to Phoenix, Arizona, and then to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for work. Long story short, we did meet, and then I headed out to Albuquerque to meet my other family and explore the American Southwest.

Without getting into the pros and cons of discovering you have another family as a teenager, this experience opened me up to further worlds of which I’d never dreamed. My father was affluent, drove luxury cars, and had traveled all over the world, especially to Europe. Was, in other words, nothing at all like the family I had grown up with.

The Southwest, too, was fascinating, an alien world that I couldn’t get enough of. On my first trip there, my father drove me around the Four Corners area, visiting places like Durango and Mesa Verde, Colorado, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Green River in Utah, and of course various places in New Mexico like Acoma, Santa Fe, Taos, and the ghost towns north of Albuquerque. I couldn’t get enough and I returned again and again.

Paul in New Mexico, 1983
Paul in New Mexico, 1983

Looking back on these formative travel experiences, I now realize that I was developing patterns I’d repeat as an adult. When I found a place I liked, I wanted to visit it repeatedly, and I would do so whenever possible, seeing and learning more each time. And I could suddenly consider living in these places, too. Each destination was a potential home, and I analyzed each with that possibility in mind.

By the time I met Stephanie, I had lived in Albuquerque with my father’s family, first for a summer and then for a year, and I wanted to move out west after we got married. And we did so, three years later, moving to the Phoenix area after showing my wife each of the Four Corners states to determine if she liked any place enough to live there. Our son was born there five years after we moved.

Interestingly, my birth father had moved to London around the time Steph and I were married, and thanks to him paying for our flights and giving us a place to stay, we were able to visit London and various nearby places in England on one trip and then expand out to Ireland and Paris, France on a second. These were trips we could have never afforded otherwise at the time, and thus would never have even considered. But here again, I could feel the bug.

Paul and Stephanie in Paris, 1993
Paul and Stephanie in Paris, 1993

And yet another world had opened up to us. And while it would be several years before we returned to Europe—two kids and us moving back to the Boston area would happen in the meantime—once we did return, in 2003, we spent about a month there every year for the next 15+ years between summer home swaps and smaller trips with the kids or just the two of us.

Our experiences were almost universally positive, and we fell in love with Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Lisbon, especially, visiting each several times, especially Paris, a place I now know as well as Washington D.C. or any of the places we’ve actually lived. And thanks to us working from home for many years—I’ve been doing so since the mid-1990s—we had long looked forward to a future when we could split our time between two places. One international, of course, somewhere in Europe, probably, and one back home in the U.S.

That time is rapidly approaching: our son has finished college and our daughter is halfway done and is already spending her summers elsewhere. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made travel to Europe difficult to impossible in 2021, we researched other trips that were more accessible at that time. And that’s when Mexico—more specifically, Mexico City—came up again and again. Not just as an interesting place to visit. But as a potential place to live.

We had never really considered Mexico, having visited some border towns and then Cancun, neither of which left a positive impression. And so the possibility of visiting and even living in Mexico came out of nowhere, a set of events about which we’ll write more later. But the short version is that we’ve now spent over two months in Mexico, most of it in Mexico City, in just the past year. We’ve spent much of our time in Mexico City scoping out different areas, reconnoitering, basically, to see if any felt like they would warrant more time, or made sense as a potential home, part-time at first.

By our third trip, in January 2022, we succumbed to a decision that we had thought might still be years away. We had fallen in love with the Roma Norte neighborhood. We wanted to keep spending time there. And we would, most likely via some series of Airbnb stays or perhaps longer-term rentals over time. But then, on the last day of that trip, we walked out of the Airbnb we were staying in at the time, walked around the corner, and unexpectedly found a home, scrambling whatever plans we had made to that point and instantly changing everything.

We’ll get to all that soon enough. But this is how it all started, with a love of travel, a seed that was planted at an early age. And it’s like we’ve been training for this moment ever since.