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A real estate minefield

Just try to rent a place that offers security and a short commute

October 26, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — "Don't bring me narcos," the landlady told the real estate agent.

She was ready to rent out her three-bedroom house in an affluent section of Mexico City's Polanco neighborhood. But she wasn't about to hand it over to a tenant bankrolled by illicit means.

I'm not a narco, I assured everyone concerned.

And I passed on the house. (Mostly because it was kind of ugly and boxy, but her attitude didn't help.)

Renting property in Mexico City exposes a prospective tenant to a lot more than credit checks. God forbid you should be narco adjacent.

Fear, and a desire for security -- those are twin urges that govern much of Mexican life these days, as drug wars rage and common crime soars. The neighborhoods around my office are armed camps. Watchmen stand at almost every door; even the dry cleaners might have an armed guard.

And so do many homes. A small apartment building, neat but not luxurious, the kind you might easily find in Silver Lake or Mar Vista, is likely to have a 24-hour armed guard service loath to admit anyone without prior announcement. This takes some adjustment for those of us accustomed to coming and going freely.

The other obsession in Mexico City life is traffic.

Because this is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, sprawling haphazardly and aggressively in every direction, the distance from home to work has to be a chief consideration.

The Mexican equivalent of a Thomas Guide covers so much territory that the thick map book comes with a magnifying glass. A few fractions of an inch on the map can represent an hour stuck in traffic.

But try getting an honest assessment on traffic time from real estate agents and property owners. "Ten minutes," they invariably tell you, whatever the route or distance might be.

Mexico does not have a multiple-listings system, so you have to hook up with several real estate agents in the hopes of seeing a good portion of what's available. Last count, I have nine, I think.

And real estate agents, here and everywhere, are ultimately salespeople; their creativity, and ability to make promises, knows no bounds. Heating? Here in Mexico, the agent says, we don't need heating -- as I shiver in my sweater on what felt like Day 52 of cold rain and crisp wind.

Use your imagination, the real estate agents tell you. Don't worry there's no floor yet. A second bathroom? No problem, we can just move this wall . . .

For every beautiful terra-cotta terrace, tiled fountain or spacious whitewashed living/dining in the Mexico City rental stock, there are the features that make you cringe.

I'd been warned about the "cottage cheese" ceilings, a treatment that was apparently de moda a couple of decades ago. But cottage cheese AND chandeliers? That was something I couldn't quite understand.

Even modest homes have maid's quarters, some respectable enough and others so small I wouldn't put my cats there. One landlady proudly showed me the locks on every cupboard ("to keep out the muchachas" -- the "girls," or maids), as well as secret, hidden hallway compartments.

Hopeful agents, suspicious landlords.

The landlady worrying about narco tenants wasn't paranoid, it turns out. The number of mansions and apartment buildings that sit paid for, but empty, hints at the use of real estate to launder drug money. And earlier this year, federal agents swooped into the tony southern neighborhoods of San Angel and Coyoacan, home to intellectuals, the wealthy and artists. Raiding three residences, the cops arrested a dozen or so alleged traffickers and their hired hit men and seized an enormous arsenal of grenade launchers and semiautomatic weapons.

Residents were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn of the narcos next door.

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