About 170 miles northeast of Mexico’s capital, in the state of Guanajuato, is San Miguel de Allende, a city so popular with expats that Mexicans commonly call it “Gringolandia.”
Richard Gulland, a Canadian, and his wife Sandra made their first trip to the city in 1996 for a friend’s wedding. The next year, they returned to buy a vacation home.
Since then they have bought seven other properties, some of which they have renovated and resold.
“We fell in love with the place pretty immediately,” said Richard Gulland. “It’s perpetual spring here, with so much to do. You are never out of options to fill your day.”
San Miguel de Allende has a long history with expats. According to the Tourism Council of the city, at the start of the 20th century, after Mexico’s War of Independence, San Miguel was in a state of decline and on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
But foreign artists, attracted by the colonial architecture of the town, began arriving and soon started forging cultural centers, enticing art students from abroad to the once sleepy community.
In 2008, San Miguel de Allende was declared a Unesco World Heritage site for its Baroque colonial art and architecture, and for serving as an “exceptional example of interchange of human values.” The former melting pot of Spaniards, Creoles and Amerindians now has a population of more than 170,000, around 10% of which are expats.
Among those foreigners are the Gullands, who learned after the fact that the first property they bought here was “the ugliest house” in town, or so they were told by Robert de Gast, a photographer acquaintance of theirs, who published a book documenting San Miguel de Allende’s residential facades.
The Gullands paid around $160,000 for the property that, according to Richard Gulland, looked like a bunker. After spending just under $1 million to turn it around, the couple sold it in 2007 for $1.35 million.
The couple currently resides in a colonial house that they bought in 2005 for $750,000 and have just placed on the market with an asking price of $3.45 million.
“It was a wreck,” said Richard Gulland, who will turn 70 this month, about the property, which features four bedrooms all leading to a central courtyard.
Their listing agency, CDR Real Estate, is an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate and was founded 10 years ago by Jim and Ann Dolan, expats themselves.
In San Miguel de Allende, luxury can start as low as $1 million, although many times for even less.
CDR, which sells around 50 properties per year in that price range — about 40% involving local clients and 60% foreigners — is currently offering a fully furnished home with hand-carved cantera fireplaces, Saltillo tile floors and a pool with views of the city for $960,000.
For those willing to spend more, a hilltop property with an asking price recently reduced from $4.5 million to $3.8 million offers five guest suites, 10-wood-burning fireplaces and an elevator. Built using 400-year-old tools and the techniques of colonial Mexico, Casa Heyne, as it has been named, has a 1,700-square-foot master suite that features three fireplaces.
Dolan of CDR San Miguel says the city has grown thanks to stronger wireless and Internet access as well as a better transportation infrastructure. While San Miguel de Allende has no international airports, the León Airport is an hour and a half drive and the Querétrao Airport just an hour in distance. Daily flights, with and without stops, arrive at both terminals from several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
For Dolan, San Miguel has “magic,” combining year-round perfect weather and a lifestyle beyond compare.
In his experience, foreigners who buy their second or third homes in San Miguel are entrepreneurs, retirees who migrate there in the winter, corporate executives and business owners with the flexibility to live overseas.
How To Buy
Purchasing property in San Miguel de Allende is a relatively simple process for foreigners, who must obtain a permit from the Department of Foreign Affairs. If their plan is to renovate their property, they must secure approval from the local preservation agency.
“They are kind of demanding and bureaucratic, but you work through it,” said Richard Gulland, who retired in 2002 after selling his business, a manufacturer and importer of high-end skiwear and outdoor clothing, which he opened in 1982.
In November 2016, he and his wife will move into their ninth and what Richard Gulland claims would be their last house in San Miguel de Allende. Construction on an empty lot they bought on Chiquitos, their long-time favorite street in town, will begin this summer.
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