“It’s like a meat locker in here!” exclaimed my friend John (a.k.a. Juan John) upon entering my apartment where I live in north Mazatlán, Mexico.
Electricity, especially air conditioning, is a national obsession in Mexico. I glanced up nervously at the mini-split temperature gauge but I still cannot convert centigrade to fahrenheit that precisely, and suddenly I envisioned myself as the Beggin Strips dog, “I can’t reeeead!”
Google informed me the room was at frigid 75 degrees.
However, the episode reminded me that I have to write to you about electricity because it plays such a big role in getting the lowest rent for beachfront condos in Mexico and if you buy a home in a coastal area, will have a greater impact on your life than you can possibly imagine.
In renting, if your potential landlord believes that you know how the electricity game is played, he will be far more likely to strike a very good deal with you. Play by the rules the first time, and you will have references to confirm you understand them.
Electric bills in Mexico are complicated to read. The logic and structure of how they are calculated is even worse. The lack of understanding by most foreign travelers of how electricity is billed in Mexico is a big factor in keeping gorgeous beachfront condos unoccupied for most of the year.
In hot coastal areas, the government subsidizes the cost of electricity during the hottest months.
The government rewards good conservation habits with a subsidy and lower seasonal rates. After a certain level of use, rates goes up dramatically. Pricing is done on a sliding scale that makes it much more expensive the more you use.
Many foreign residents, unlike the locals, have lots of electronics, pools and multiple air conditioners. Without careful oversight, electric bills can be four times what they pay in the States and eight times what a typical Mexican family pays. The “de alto consumo” rate is when you’ve crossed over the no-fly zone.
Once there, you lose the subsidy, the seasonal rate and the lower rate you'd been initially given. And it gets worse. Once you are placed at that level, it may take a year to establish a record of less usage before you are placed back in the more economical level. Inside tip: if you accidentally fall into the high rate, put the bill in the name of a housemate, like the locals do.
If you are entering a rental agreement, make sure you understand what the prior usage was so you will know at what level you are going to get billed at and make sure your place is billed “domestico,” not as a business. Check that your meter bill matches your address. Or you can have a great property manager, like I do. Make sure the past bill has been paid.
The fear of coastal property owners is that guests and renters will run the A.C all the time, as they may be used to at home, not only racking up the bill but penalizing the next occupants because rates are charged based on the annual average use.
The behavior modifications to stay in the safe zone are pretty easy and you will feel good about making them if you like the idea of lessening your consumption footprint anyway.
Houses usually have “splits,” ubiquitous air conditioning units that are usually only in bedrooms and living rooms. People do not have central air in their homes.
Sometimes I wish we didn't have central air in the U.S. In an effort to lower costs at home, people often have their temperature set too high or too low for the season to ever be truly comfortable. I remember having dinner with friends in a beautiful yet huge home freezing to death because the owners had gotten so used to setting their thermostat at 60 degrees.
In Mexico, these splits are turned off when leaving a room. Doors to rooms not in use are shut off. People use fans when they can.
Like your parents always told you, it applies even more to turn off unnecessary lights and keep the thermostat at a reasonable level.
The highest electricity consumers are pool water pumps, air conditioning and refrigerators so monitor how they are used. Be more careful about leaving doors open while you're unloading groceries for example. In Mexico, refrigerators will often beep when the door's been open too long. I've never had an American refrigerator that did that.
Choose energy efficient appliances. Wash dishes by hand for simple meals and close curtains during hottest part of the day - all the things you should be doing anyway.
If you use electricity wisely, your bill in Mexico can be much lower than you pay in the States. My electric bill for a small, one bedroom apartment in downtown Denver is between $80 - $110 in the summer and there are no viable lifestyle changes that will lower that. In Mexico, the bill for my much larger, two-bedroom apartment for a hot June was about $60 dollars.
Once you have lived in one place, you will have references and/or old bills that will vouch for you. Americans and Canadians are already often preferred as tenants and this, along with ready cash, will boost your credentials to work great deals in prime places that could well be substantially less than the rent or mortgage you pay now for an average apartment.
Electricity, are like visa requirements - Boring. Vital.
Most recent: Mexicans Circadian Rhythms are about two hours behind ours as Americans. Just enough to make a difference.
Coming up: The first decision is to try out Mexico. The second is what to do with all that stuff.
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of two books, the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online" which curates the best free tools on the web into lesson plans, geared for the self-learning potential expat.
The new "If Only I Had a Place" is for aspiring expats seeking to rent well in Mexico, and includes a listing of rental concierges in Mexico's most popular expat areas.