Coffee heat rising

Why Am I Here?

Look at this. And this. Or maybe this.

A hundred and ninety-five grand for that first hacienda, and I’ll bet you can get it cheaper. Matter of fact, I’ll bet I could rent something like it for less than a 5% return on investment from the proceeds of sale of the house I’m living in right now.

Gardener in: clean up courtyard, plant flowers, plant una jacaranda. Owner’s furniture out. Local purchases in.

Aquí: all my furniture goes to my son. The junk, like the books and the piles of trash I never even look at, goes away. Dog gets a double dose of every vaccine known to veterinariankind.

I throw my clothes, a few favorite pots and pans, and the dog in the car and drive to San Miguel…never, with any luck, to return.

Why in the name of God am I still in this place?


I don’t want to work anymore, but I can’t live here without working. I have to work like a horse to keep a roof over my head in an aging tract bordered on two sides by increasingly dank and violent slums, under siege by pistol-waving thugs pursued by legions of cops. The central part of the city, except for three or four small, elite, and expensive enclaves, is steadily deteriorating; it’s already reached the point where young adults say they would not live in a home south of the Loop 101…that’s nine miles to the north of here. If you covet middle-class neighbors and infrastructure, you have two choices: you can live in a sea of elbow-to-elbow cookie-cutter houses built so shabbily that by the time they’re ten years old they’re falling apart, or you can mortgage your first-born son to live in Scottsdale or Carefree. There really is surprisingly little in between.

The U.S. is turning into a third-world country. Why not move to a real third-world country and enjoy the amenities?

Amenity numero uno being that I could live like the Queen of Sheba on my Social Security in this place.

Amenity numero dos: For as little as half of what I would clear from my shack, a fun and original and downright unique place awaits.

 ← Go ahead. Just try to find a detail  like this in the US for $135,000…

How about a brand-new colonial-style hacienda? ↓

For just a few…

…thousand dollars more than I could get for my house…

Amenity numero tres: Hired help in Mexico comes even cheaper than the real estate. Much cheaper, as our industrialist friends know, the folks who have sent our jobs down there. You and I could own a place like this and afford to have someone come in and clean it and take care of the grounds. And still have enough left to go out to eat!

Just imagine: this for about what I can get for my dowdy little tract house…

Okay…whence this little frenzy?

Welp, in the aftermath of the most recent little drama, a strange blue funk settled over me. Weird, because there’s really little reason for it: I was not harmed, was not even especially alarmed…although I surely would have been had I not moved myself to go check the locks on the garage and back doors. The could’ve been, it develops, is more disturbing than one would expect. So, too, is the bizarre irony that as the most recent episode was coming down, I was cruising the Web looking for “better” places to live. Whatever those might be.

Know how long I’ve been looking for a “better” place to live?

Not weeks. Not months. Years.

Because the houses in this neighborhood are solidly built of masonry (unlike the standard stick-built Phoenix-area tract house, which is ticky and tacky), because they are well designed, because they’re a block from a very nice park, because they abut a tract of $500,000 to $1 million homes, because they’re centrally located, you can’t find a thing that’s a few blocks further from the Conduit of Blight for anything like what a normal person can pay. Yes. I could sell my house and apply the proceeds as a down payment for a comparable (but not as nice) house further from Crook Central. But for what looks like an even exchange but is not, I would end up owing about $60,0000, get a teensy little lot with about six feet between buildings, and drive halfway to Yuma, Prescott, or Tucson for the privilege.

In the unlikely event that I could get a 30-year loan for such a balance, I’d add $304/month to my already straitened budget; more likely, the best I could get would be a five-year loan, with a monthly payment of around $1100. Let’s say I netted $200,000 on the sale of my present home and invested that in instruments that return, on average, around 6% (as has been the case with retirement savings…with, alas, some notable exceptions). That would pay $1,000 a month…less 15% taxes, for a net of $850. A $200,000 loan at 4.5% would cost me $1,013 in principal & interest alone, meaning I’d have to come up with an extra $163 a month from someplace.

This means I don’t have much choice but to buy a house for no more than what I can net on the sale of this house. After closing costs, the best I could do would be around $190,000. Right now, not counting foreclosures (which are problematic), there are 12 houses in that price range in one North Central zip code, none of them in good areas (one does not want to be in Sunnyslope; one does not want to be east of Seventh Street or west of Seventh Avenue); thirteen in another (including a house in my neighborhood but closer to the Conduit); in another, one kinda cute little patio home that backs onto a shopping center; and in two in the last—one of them a decrepit patio home and the other one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise. I’ve looked at the latter; if claustrophobia is your preferred state of mind, it’s perfect.

Following the white flight, we find one, count it (1), house in the $150,000 to $200,000 range north of the Loop 101; several in Scottsdale but most are apartments and most overlook the freeway; quite a few in the cookie-cutter tracts in Mesa, Chandler, and Gilbert (invest in oil futures to fund your driving habit!). On the west side, where you have to go past mile on mile on mile of blight to get to middle-class tracts, there are about three trillion vacancies in Sun City; several new tracts are (still…) under construction on the far, far, far west side (more oil futures!), and KJG and I saw some gorgeous new houses going up on large lots for around $265,000…plus.

Moving to these distant suburbs requires you to invest in a reliable vehicle and resign yourself to spending half your waking hours on the road. I could no doubt afford a tract house sitting on top of five adjacent neighbors’ houses out there. But it would mean I would have to give up seeing all my friends, give up choir, give up teaching at Paradise Valley… For heaven’s sake! If you’re going to move away from your entire life, why move into a tract where the houses will be “old” and need renovation in ten years? Why not move to Mexico?

* * *

A day or two ago it occurred to me that my paradigm is wrong. Something is wrong with the search paradigm. But what?

Could I be searching for the wrong thing (should I be looking for an apartment, not a house? How about a big RV?).

Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong place (somewhere other than Phoenix, for example? Like…say, Mexico, the south of France, Yarnell?).

Or…maybe the search should not be for new-to-me housing but for better ways to secure this house and for more accuracy with a pistol.

Maybe the reason I can’t find anything I care to live in and that I can afford in an area where I want to live is that I really don’t want to move. Possibly I’m complacent. Or possibly I actually have found housing that’s as ideal as it’s going to get at this time in my life: paid off, relatively low in maintenance, centrally located, and except for the occasional moment of drama, mostly pleasant to live in.

On the other hand…in Mexico, one could live reasonably well on one’s Social Security benefit alone.

13 thoughts on “Why Am I Here?”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this too. I wouldn’t buy, however. I read somewhere that you can live in France (not Paris, of course) for around $3000/month. That includes apt rental. Health care is very cheap, even for those not covered by the French system.

    Of course, you don’t want to be TOOOO far away from your son.

    Mexico, South and Central America–all have well-established expatriate communities, so you wouldn’t have to do the legwork.

  2. I own a home at Km 70 between Ensenada and Rosarito in an ex-pat enclave. I would not recommend to my own Mother that she buy property in Mexico.

    It seems to be part of our culture that we seek to possess all we covet. That inclination is an artifact from our past, I think — a product of a different financial reality.

    The less you own, if you ever really own anything, the less to pack when it’s time to go.

    Mexicali MaryAnn is a woman who moved to Mexico for reasons similar to your own. She has a blog by that name with good info for those considering such a move.

    Ensenada is much closer and with all the amenities of San Miguel. Big ex-pat community, local art and wine scene, and beautiful bay front that SM lacks. And you can be back in the USA in an hour!

    But keep your money in your pocket! Why buy when renting is so much easier and so much less a burden on the psyche? Travel light, tred lightly; that’s all I’m saying.

    • And P.S.: Living anywhere along the US-Mexico border is contraindicated. It’s extremely dangerous. Some areas of Mexico are still relatively safe, but they’re deeper in the interior.

      There is a civil war of sorts going on in Mexico. And for those who imagine they’d like to buy property there, there’s no way of knowing, really, where the violence is likely to spread. Among the places to avoid: the entire state of Chihuahua, most of northern Sonora, northern Baja California, Ciudad Juarez, Copper Canyon (yep…afraid so!), Guadalajara, Monterrey, Veracruz, Mazatlan, and Acapulco.

      This situation will continue as long as US citizens provide a market for the drug cartels. Because the narcotraficantes are at war with their own government and with ours, the battle theaters shift, and so one has to stay up to date on what’s going on and where.

  3. I do have to say, after reading your blog for a year or so that I agree, I don’t think you really want to move.

    There is always something wrong with every semi-desirable house that you see.

    Personally, I would spend more on gas to stay in touch with church and friends, if it got me to a nicer area.

  4. @ frugalscholar: Pour moi, I’m a lot more fluent in French than in Spanish, although with a few weeks of pure immersion (hold the ex-pat community, please) I think I could come up to speed. Probably would take a year of so to get to the point where I could actually conduct business (like sign a purchase agreement…) in Spanish.

    @ tmgbooks: The same thought crossed my mind: why do I want to own a dwelling???? My father never bought a single place until after he retired, and he was crazy like a coyote. That’s significantly smarter than a fox. Looking for rentals in Mexico, all I could see was vacation rentals; so since I couldn’t figure out how to find ads for long-term rentals, I looked at the endlessly entertaining property for sale notices. British friends buy vacation/retirement properties in the south of France, but that notwithstanding, in the present economy one’s gut instinct says rent, don’t buy!

    Owning in Mexico is especially problematic, because the laws governing real estate transactions and title are different from ours and heaven only knows what they mean, and because the concept of “building code” is alien. If you’ve ever watched a structure being built in Mexico…oh, my. It is something to see. So it would indeed be much preferable to have someone else owning the roof over your head there.

    @ E. Murphy: Yes, I’m afraid that’s the shape that’s coalescing out of the smog: I. don’t. want. to. move!

    * I don’t want to move out to the boondocks.
    * I don’t want to spend another $20,000 to $40,000 remaking a place to fit my wants and needs.
    * I have a moral objection to white flight and am inclined to resist being forced to move just because everyone who looks like me and thinks like me has moved to new, homogeneous fake “communities” as far from brown folks as they can get.
    * I hate being elbow-to-elbow with my neighbors.
    * I think the new construction is by and large ugly but even when it’s nicely designed (as higher-end versions certainly are) it’s all cheaply built, flimsy, and vulnerable to catastrophic racing fire (ask your insurance company how much it would cost to insure a new styrofoam house as opposed to how much they charge to insure block construction).
    * I think that I will barf if I ever see another “plant shelf” (read “we’ve found a way to short the buyer and save a ton of money in framing and drywall”).

    As for spending more on gas, it’s not so much a matter of what the gas costs (although that is a potential issue). It’s that I hate city and suburban driving!!!!! Amazingly, because so many people have moved outward and because the suburbs, with their postage-stamp lots, support much denser populations, in our parts traffic is exponentially crazier in places like Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Scottsdale, and Surprise. In the central city, traffic is relatively light, except during the rush hour, and because people are such sheep they don’t understand they can make better time on the surface streets than on the freeways during the rush hour, even rush-hour traffic is not all that bad. Suburban traffic at mid-day is worse than rush-hour traffic in my part of town.

    If I had to drive 18 or 20 miles one-way to come to choir (as some members do), I wouldn’t do choir. If I had to drive 18 or 20 miles to see my son, I wouldn’t see him any more often than I did when I had to fly to San Francisco to visit him — and you may be sure the feeling would be mutual. If I had a 40-mile round-trip drive to see La Maya, I might see her once every two or three months. Not because of the cost of gas, but because I truly, honestly hate that kind of driving. It’s so aversive that I won’t do it.

    Obviously, if I were an outgoing and friendly person, I would not spend hours each day writing blogs. If I move someplace where I don’t know anyone (particularly to one of Arizona’s dreadful tracts of snout houses, where the very design of the homes discourages getting to know your neighbors — at least in a friendly way), it’s highly unlikely that I would ever develop even the modest social life I have here. As a congenital recluse, I hesitate to move someplace where I have no friends or acquaintances and am unlikely ever to make friends.

  5. It seems more and more people are choosing to relocate when facing retirement and realizing they don’t have enough saved to manage. Problem with that, I would want to check into everything before starting over.

    I’m sure that are other countries where our money would go farther and retirement would be less stressful but it is a choice that needs much consideration and planning.

  6. If I lived overseas, I’d need to be in an ex-pat community where I could make friendships with lots of Americans, Europeans, Australians and other people from the English-speaking world who understand my “native” culture and way of life. Without that, it would be too lonely.

  7. @ Paula & Felicia– Exactly so. As tmgbooks says by implication, it’s best to have an exit plan. One never knows how one will take to living in a foreign country. And since we Americans can be pretty insular (we’re convinced our way of life is best, after all, and few of us develop any fluency in other languages), admittedly it can be hard to see the point, other than saving a few bucks. Why go to a foreign country just to isolate oneself in an American enclave?

    For many of us, the goal of saving a few dollars could probably be accomplished by moving to a small town in the American Midwest, where costs are lower than those in the coastal regions. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example, is so depressed economically that real estate is dirt cheap there, and it’s beautiful country — if you don’t mind freezing your tail off. Or here in Lynchburg, Ohio, is a pretty Victorian for $89,900 (, in the same town, 200 grand will get you 2,380 square feet of recent construction on 5 1/4 acres of horse property (

    If you’ve spent most of your life in one region of the country, moving to another region could be just as exotic as moving to Mexico without the disadvantage of having to learn another language. And in many parts of the US you’d be a far less likely to be loathed by the locals. Or shot by the minions of feuding druglords.

  8. I suspect once that other house is off your shoulders, several perspectives might change quickly. From following many of your posts, that strikes me as the key to the future — unloading that house when the time presents itself. You don’t really want to leave the place you’re in now. You just want better financial circumstances, and that other home is a millstone around your neck. 🙁 Hopefully you’ll conclude that business soon and at a reasonable deal!

  9. We’re caught in the same bind – not expecting to be able to sell our current house for enough to be able to buy a decent home when we do relocate in a year or two. Fortunately we own the house free & clear so we’ll at least have a good portion of the new house cost in hand.

    I wouldn’t want to be moving to Mexico any time soon – the ex-pat enclaves don’t enthrall me and we’d be that much farther from family & friends. Not to mention the aforementioned violence that seems to be escalating again – no amount of money saved day-to-day is worth living in fear. Don’t you get enough of that where you are right now?

  10. To be fair, I don’t think numbering white flight among one of the reasons you’d be leaving as one of your own would be valid anyway – it’s not like you object to not looking like your neighbors, you object to the crime that happens to have come into the area. I realize that to some that may seem a disingenuous and unentangleable issue but it’s not.

    I grew up in a down about the heels suburban neighborhood that was predominantly black, Hispanic with a very light scattering of white faces, and ours were the only Asian ones.

    It’s not a “good ole days” anecdote, even then I was never allowed to do certain things because there was crime in general and we knew it. But, despite literally being below the tracks, ie: the poor side, we grew up in relative safety, none the worse for the cultural immersion. We didn’t leave for many years. And my beloved cousins lived in the same sort of neighborhoods until the last couple of years. Same thing.

    There’s poor, and there’s crime, but then there’s the sort of crime ridden situation you’re in and I don’t think you should feel, if you really were inclined to leave, to conflate it with white flight. It’s a safety issue.

    Just my thoughts on one small aspect.

    Still and all, you make me want to move you up here with me so we can be crotchety, less than social bloggers together. We do share other things in common, after all. 🙂

    • @ Revanche: True that: black people, brown people, and poor people don’t want to be around criminals, either.

      LOL! How I’d love to get back to the City! heh heh heh… Just imagine. Between the two of us, we could change the culture of the entire region. 😀

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