When Don and Gigi Maurizio set out to gut and redo their condo in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, they didn't have to hold a yard sale or haul stuff to a thrift shop or the dump.
The Claremont couple simply alerted the staff at La Paloma, the gated development where their beachfront condo is located, that whatever was in the two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit -- sofas, televisions, cookware, dishes -- was free for the taking.
The couple returned to the condo in Baja California several weeks later, and "it was empty," said Gigi, an administrator with the Glendora Unified School District.
"It was stripped," said Don, a professor in the department of technology at Cal State L.A.
That was just one of the ways -- such as paying the contractor in cash -- that remodeling south of the border was different from the pair's previous home improvement experiences in the U.S.
Yet despite the learning curve and the challenges of driving six hours or more round trip each weekend to oversee the project, the couple managed to complete the whole-house remodel in one year for less than $70,000. And that included adding such upscale features as tile floors that look like slate, glass tile in a spa-like bathroom and new windows that open to ocean views.
This is the second unit the couple have owned in the development. Their first Rosarito Beach condo cost $75,000 in 1987 and had a view of the Pacific. But the Maurizios wanted to be right on the water, so when a new phase of oceanfront units was announced, they bought one in 1991 for $169,000.
Because they support themselves on educators' incomes, buying in Mexico was their only option for affordable oceanfront property, they said.
"You know that house in Malibu?" Don said. "It's never going to happen."
The La Paloma condos have what Don calls "shell" construction -- exterior cinder-block walls with a continuous reinforced-steel beam around the perimeter just above the windows. That means openings for the exterior doors and windows can be added or moved without affecting the integrity of the structure.
The type of construction became important to the couple late in 2006, when they were planning their remodel. Although their condo location was ideal, within earshot of waves breaking on the sandy beach, the placement of the windows, doors and interior walls was not.
The window over the kitchen sink, which looked out onto a neighboring building rather than the Pacific, was particularly awkward. The front door blocked a third of the ocean view from the living room. Plus, the bathrooms were dark and had no windows, even though they had exterior walls.
To get the condo's exterior changes approved by the homeowners association, the couple presented a booklet that Gigi made using Photoshop software to show how the unit would look with rearranged windows and doors.
The Maurizios found an English-speaking contractor, Efrain Pelayo, by word of mouth. They said that working with Pelayo reminded them of the tale recounted in "God and Mr. Gomez," a 1974 book about building a house in Mexico written by the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith. In the book, when Smith asked his contractor where the water for the house would come from, Gomez repeatedly said that God would provide it.
"So much of it is true," Don said, comparing their experiences to Smith's. As for water at La Paloma, there is a municipal water district, as well as an emergency well on the property. The well water tends to be a little salty, but Gigi focuses on the positives of glasses washed in it: "You don't have to add salt to your margaritas."
Demolition began in November 2006 and the place was gutted -- with all the plumbing, electrical, flooring and most of the inside walls removed.
Don, who has a background in architecture, had drawn up very specific plans for the remodel. But they were regularly ignored. "The plans were but a suggestion," he recalled with a laugh.
Nevertheless, the couple achieved the results they wanted: a larger guest bathroom, a place for a stackable washer and dryer and a small den area that opens to the living room and has ocean views. They created the large, bright kitchen they wanted after Don thrust a hammer through a dropped ceiling and discovered the room had the same vaulted, open-beam ceiling as the rest of the condo.
Pelayo and his crew did most of the labor, and Don and Gigi outfitted the kitchen. They bought the cabinets at Ikea and brought them over the border by pickup truck, stopping at the duty window to pay the 15% fee. They also bought a dishwasher on the U.S. side when they couldn't find one they liked in Mexico.
Otherwise, they tried to support the local economy by purchasing items there. The Costco and Home Depot stores in Tijuana made that easy. As did the OfficeMax and Bed, Bath & Beyond stores in Rosarito Beach.
"Thank you, NAFTA," Don said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has helped U.S. business expansion in Mexico.