55+ Americans in Mexico: One Model Doesn’t Fit All

My mother has been living in Guadalajara, Mexico’s...

My mother has been living in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, for nine years. Family visits have provided an interesting glimpse into the 55+ expat demographic.

The Guadalajara area, including the lake-side towns of Chapala and Ajijic, have sizable and well-established American and Canadian communities. Other parts of Mexico are just as popular with retirees and new areas in Baja California and beyond are being discovered all the time—offering developers new opportunities to capture a growing market.

But besides knowing how to form partnerships with local players, developers also need to understand to whom they’re appealing.

Just as Mexico offers a range of climates and housing options—from edgy, minimalist high-rises to sprawling colonial-style villas—the Americans who settle here have tremendously varied budgets, tastes, and lifestyles.

And they don’t all share the same view of what it means to be an expat.

Some Northerners seek gated communities where more English is spoken than Spanish. Others, like my mother, prefer total immersion and would rather shop for groceries at the Mexican Walmart than at the local American grocery store that caters to English speakers. One of my mother’s Canadian buddies has converted his home to multi-housing which he rents out to locals. He has also opened up a modest eatery on the ground floor, providing ample opportunity to practice his already excellent Spanish.

It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

Whatever their financial circumstances or willingness to assimilate, all Northerners arrive in Mexico expecting more bang for their buck in terms of housing, healthcare, and golf (or whatever they do for fun).

It will be interesting to see the effect of the economic downturn on their migration patterns—and on the housing market in Mexico. According to my mother, the bargains are no longer plentiful in her area.

But the downturn on both sides of the border may create new opportunities to be explored. Will Americans who were once eager to buy a home in Mexico now be willing to rent an apartment instead? What about assisted care facilities? My understanding is that many Mexico-based Americans feel they need to move back home for this last stage of life. It would be less disruptive to simply move to a different building in the same community.

A new trend that’s taking off in Mexico is the gated walkable community… like Loreto Bay, an 8,000-acre Baja California community on the Sea of Cortés. Developer Loreto Bay Company has teamed with several partners including Citigroup Property Investors, FONATUR, the Mexican government’s tourism agency, and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. The project is being marketed to Americans looking for authentic Baja architecture… but with the comforts of an American mixed-use environment. And it’s green.

American developers now have local competition with big clout. Mexico’s largest developer HOMEX has its eye on the affluent American and Canadian Baby Boomer market and has created a new HXM Tourism Division to aggressively pursue it. This summer it unveiled plans to build Las Villas de Mexico, an ambitious project that will eventually be rolled out to 22 locations with private communities offering condominiums, townhouses and villas for those with deep pockets.

The marketing campaign is emphasizing, among other things, security (manned stations at entry points and 24-hour front desk coverage) and conveniences such as medical service center, supermarket, banking, and concierge—who stocks your residence with groceries and other items that you’ve already specified—as your plane is landing in Mexico.

Communites will be built at both beach and city destinations and all will feature regional architecture. There will also be an optional exchange program for those who want to swap residences in order to experience more than one Mexican locale.

Does it get any better than this? Is it Mexican enough?
That really depends on who you ask.