If you are planning to move out of a city to retire or resettle in a small town, you might want to take into account my experience in New Mexico. I moved from Los Angeles to a small ski town, Taos, New Mexico, to be exact. Since buying real estate in any community is an important investment, especially when retiring or resettling in an unfamiliar place, and this includes places you have spent some vacation time getting to know, I want to sound some cautionary notes.
Lesson: Go beyond the booklet that is provided by the Chamber of Commerce. There’s a lot of information that goes unmentioned. Ask retired and newly resettled people about their experience.
We exited the California real estate market at a high point, and did fairly well on the house we left behind. At the time that we began looking for real estate in Taos, there was almost nothing to buy. At that time the market was barren, not overbuilt as it is now. We had planned to benefit by the transition, but the 3800 square feet that had been ours in California, wasn’t about to be replaced.
Lesson: You won’t necessarily be able to elevate beyond or even match your previous lifestyle. If that’s important in your plan to retire or resettle, you may have to search for your optimum situation.
We were anxious to get out of LA and secure a base, so the first real estate we bought in Taos County was a twenty seven acre parcel with a pair of joined casitas, or small houses, fifty miles north of town. We were accustomed to driving, because of the grand scale of our previous city. It never occurred to us that fifty miles would become a huge distance.
Lesson: Gasoline prices have gone up. You have to think about more than road maintenance in the winter, though that is important. How comfortable would you be as retired or resettled people without social life? It’s a real estate question.
My husband anticipated steadily rising real estate values. Values rose, but not at a rate that an ex-Californian would imagine. Twelve years later, there has been very little new growth in the community, and many of non-locals who had purchased real estate came and went. But there are also a lot of artists. The screenwriter who lived next door passed away unexpectedly, leaving the property to her daughter, who proved to be difficult.
Lesson: Don’t think that previous real estate knowledge and experience will apply to your new circumstance. Retired or resettled, will you need an exit strategy?
After two years, the ski area closed. The infra-structure was old and worn, though the mountain had been a favorite. The sole restaurant owner sold us half the restaurant, and then bolted to Aspen. Suddenly we were in a business, in an area with a population too small to support us. We refurbished the restaurant and kept it running for three years, lost a great deal of money, and finally closed the doors, much to the indignation of our well paid staff. Now it’s available real estate.
Lesson: Just because a community may need a restaurant, doesn’t mean you should jump in, especially if the previous owner had trouble making ends meet. If your assumption is that you can do it better, you may discover that better is irrelevant.
We bought a five acre parcel in Taos, with a mind to building a house and resettling. A small house, with a cabin that could be refurbished for a guesthouse, came on the market, adjoining the property we had already purchased. I insisted we buy it, because I was eager to be in town. It was too small, but after a coat of paint, livable. The real estate agent soon offered us the ten acres behind it, a meadow with wildflowers. We turned that down, and within a month, a new neighbor asked for easement, which we granted. Lo and behold, up went a modular home, with no set back, facing our south, and almost entirely glass wall. We were forced to build a privacy wall, which ran us about forty thousand dollars.
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Lesson: Don’t assume that an adjoining lot has the same zoning restrictions. Don’t give away real estate easements without asking friendly questions. Do look for solar gain in a property. Our windowed south wall has saved us a lot of money in heating fuel. It’s the best real estate tip in the Southwest.
We decided to add onto the house, hired an architect, and had plans drawn up. When we began to entertain contractor bids for construction, we were shocked by estimates between $450,000 and $550,000. We had received a bid from a local hardware and building materials company for construction materials at $40,000. The two numbers hardly jived. While we were trying to figure out what to do, we took a hit in the stock market, but even if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have paid the contractor’s price. We could have bought an entire home for the proposed addition’s cost.
Lesson: If you think you may want to build, ask a couple of builders for projected square footage costs. Be aware that in a small town there is less competition. Retiring or resettling people rarely see them selves as walking financial windfalls, but the construction community, to a man, may view them differently.
If you think you have heard it all, retiring and resettling friends, prepare yourself. At this moment a lawyer, representing the town, is attempting to discourage a handful of citizens claiming rights as Land Grant heirs. There are two Land Grants involved, which represent thousands of acres. The court will decide if a document, written several hundred years ago, about land that has since been granted, received, and subsequently disbursed through sale, should take precedence over the literally thousands of real estate transactions that have since occurred. When this claim surfaced, title insurers balked at securing property titles, which put the already declining local real estate market in near stasis. Four title companied are currently joined in a suit against the claimants, who have nothing to lose. The fiasco has cost millions.
Fortunately, our properties aren’t within the currently disputed areas, but the fact that pretty much the entire State of New Mexico is composed of Land Grants, the issue is an important one. It is also an issue that rears its head every so many years.
Lesson: Google your next town’s legal problems, and become familiar with recurring issues. Retiring couples and resettling families, should check the crime and prosecution rate, for that will reveal the attitude of the people toward law and order. With school age children, check the graduation rate.