Homes in Oaxaca, Mexico: "Why Are So Many Houses Unfinished?"

I’m asked the question at least once a month: Why are there so many houses in Oaxaca started and apparently not finished? It’s one of the most remarkable sights in this southern Mexico colonial city, as well as in the towns on its outskirts and further beyond. The phenomenon is clearly visible while traversing connecting highways throughout the central valleys.

The brickwork on homes is completed, but there are no panes on the windows, and it otherwise appears obvious that no one is living in these cash cows, edifices which have obviously had a considerable amount invested in them. And even if the homes are finished, and inhabited, the rebar still extends skyward from the roofs. Why is it left there, an eyesore by western standards?

It is a fallacy that leaving the reinforced steel bars intact on the top of your roof signifies that your home is not finished and thus you do not have to pay realty taxes. In fact, at least in the city of Oaxaca and suburbs, in the early 2000s tax reform began to be implemented, whereby you became assessed based on both your land, and your livable space, at different rates. Curiously any structure with a concrete roof was considered livable space, and thus taxed at the higher rate. Even a carport used only for vehicles. You see, many Oaxacans tile their carports and use them more for living and entertaining, than for parking vehicles, and some residents don’t even have cars or trucks. Many residents get around the regulation by constructing a ceiling of river reed known as carrizo, thereby keeping their vehicles shaded and not having to pay the increased rate. In our case, our concrete roof is used only for our vehicles, so we had to negotiate the issue with the tax department.

Because many homeowners are of modest means, you are given the option of having a government authorized architect come to your home to do the measurements with a view to then calculating the increase, or, defer the process. If selecting the latter, the new rate only becomes effective upon your death, or sale of the home, with penalties, interest and back taxes passed on to your heirs or purchasers. Let the negotiations begin! We elected to take the bull by the horns, have the reassessment done, and immediately began paying about ten times more than we had previously been paying, still a bargain relative to what we were paying as homeowners in Toronto, even without the bonus of now being taxed at the seniors’ rate (over 60), that is, 50% of the regular rate of taxation for a principal residence. At the end of the day our daughter will inherit will a bit less to tax the transition.

Then why the rebar? Upon their demise and earlier, most Oaxacans have little to offer their children other than their homes, or better put where their existing homes are situate. Thus, there is always in contemplation building a second or a third level onto a home, when funds become available at a snail’s pace, and when the time it right. If you cut off the extending rebar upon completion of your initial construction, and later decide to build another level, it’s more costly; rather than simply tie into the old rebar, you have to break concrete to access the bare rebar used in earlier construction. There is a different sense of aesthetics, or, more likely, a priority placed upon economics. Hence it is prudent to leave the rebar.

Returning to all those partially finished homes, it all relates back to the cost of borrowing in Mexico, and the fact that Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country with most residents lacking savings. Only the non-astute or the very wealthy have mortgages (for that matter, buy anything on credit). I’ve seen interest rates as low as 9% and as high as 65%, for secured loans. Regarding the latter, a couple of years ago I was contemplating buying a scooter for our favourite god-daughter. Buying on credit would have cost us 65% per annum.

So, the norm is to buy when you have cash on hand. This means if you want to build on a piece of land, you buy 1,000 bricks, then another thousand, then block, then rebar, and then cement. You hire your bricklayers, and your plumber who roughs in the below-ground installations. You build, then save, then build more. You can leave your “obra negra” as it’s termed, indefinitely, without concern for theft because there is nothing to steal.

You can then have your electrician break the interior concrete, brick and block, to install the wire and connections for switches and the like. Once those installations and the rest of the home have been covered with concrete, again your future abode is secure from vandalism and theft (yes acknowledging that copper can still be accessed, yet it’s rather difficult with cement covering it). That’s your “obra gris.” It, as well, can then be left, unattended, indefinitely.

The foregoing are the two most common completed stages of home construction one encounters driving the roads and highways around the city of Oaxaca, its central valleys and beyond. It all makes economic sense while at the same time affords the homeowner-in-progress a reasonable degree of security. While delaying home completion, it avoids being saddled with prohibitive rates of mortgage interest.

Family members often provide some of the labour involved in advancing with these two stages of construction. However, home completion often requires more specialized trades, and along with that much more significant financial outlay. Thus, we find many homes at the “obra gris” stage, remaining there for years if not a decade or longer.

The final construction phase involves finishes such as more detailed and finer tile work, painting, door and window frames and glasswork, electrical fixtures and plumbing installations, and so on. Especially regarding the latter, one generally does not leave a partially completed home unattended at this state of construction, and so most often a night watchman or “velador” will be hired to ensure security. Only then is the family ready to move in, and the home from all outward appearances will appear completed – with rebar nevertheless extended skyward.

So just remember, an unfinished home is likely a sign of a hard-working family struggling to get it all together, for itself and its individual members, without yielding to the pressure to borrow at an often exorbitant rate of interest.