American Dream In Mexico

Dan Greenway, a retired Hollywood makeup artist who made his retirement dream come true, not in California or Florida, but in Mexico along the Pacific coast of Baja.
As you drive down the sun-kissed Pacific coast, past the McMansions looming on the hills, past Malibu and Fox studios, you swear you are in Southern California. But wait. This is Mexico. Baja California Norte, to be exact--just across the border south of San Diego.

What's going on down there? Just ask Jerry Vanuck and Eileen Maglieri, retirees from Las Vegas.

"A lot of Americans are moving down here. It's an explosion of them," Said Vanuck.

"A friend of mine from Las Vegas came down to visit and immediately built a house right next door to us," added Maglieri.

You can also ask the brunch bunch at the New York Deli, a stone's throw from the pacific.

"We call this San Diego south," said one man.

It's a little slice of America sprouting up around Rosarito, Mexico, and on down the peninsula, brick by brick, condo by condo, house by house.

Nobody knows exact numbers because, believe it or not, many Americans slip across the border illegally. But the best estimates are about a quarter of Rosarito's population of 55,000 people is American. And here along this 20-mile stretch of coast called the gold coast south of the city about 70% of the home owners are American.

"We all had a special pioneering spirit that brings us here," said Diane Gibbs, an American real estate agent in Baja. She saw the wave of Americans washing south and hopped a ride to the top. Her office in Rosarito is like something out of Beverly Hills.

"Right now we're working with four big American developers that are coming down her and developing nice subdivisions," she said.

It's just a little extension of America.

Gibbs concurred: "It is. We still get our San Diego Union here. We can get an LA Times. It's delivered to our door. Or we get our mail here. So this isn't like Mexico, Mexico. It's been gringo-ized, if you'd like a word for it."

Retired Hollywood makeup artist Dan Greenway bought his piece of Mexico 25 years ago, attracted by the sun and the surf of course.

"I've seen this place grow so much," he said. "California was traffic. Smog. The noise. You can't get out of the noise in LA or the valley. It's so quiet down here. I sleep like a baby. And the ocean. That's a peaceful deal."

So the sun and the surf, and, oh, did we mention the savings.

"The lot and house, it's all under four hundred thousand," said Greenway.

Right on the beach?

"Right on the beach," Greenway emphasized. "I think the taxes on this house is only $235-240 a year. "So you see I like Mexico. You pay that for a big dinner. You don't have a tent in California for $245."

The good life for cheap. That's why Joanne Smith and David Ring opened their New York Deli in Rosarito, Mexico.

"It's too expensive to live in California," said Smith.

"It's the same ocean. Same climate. And I would venture to guess it's maybe two thirds less the price here," added Ring.

Add it all up and the move to settle down in Mexico was for Leslie Harris a no-brainer.

Moving south of the border, she cut her commute time to downtown San Diego in half. Frequent crossers can get a pass to jump to the front of the line.

"Guys in the toll booth kiss my hand when I come through. Couldn't like me better," Harris said.

She said she could not afford to live the same way up the coast in San Diego.

"Absolutely not. I'm a statistic. I'm a baby boomer who has instead of saving for retirement, sent her kid to college. And I could never afford the place I have in the states. It'd be millions in the states," she said.

Her little slice of paradise cost only $200,000. She admitted she was almost embarrassed to say it.

"(I'm) on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It's the American dream. It's just in Mexico."

What do Mexicans think of this American invasion of their beaches? Rosarito's city fathers are rolling out the welcome mat. Juvenal Arias is president of the tourist bureau.

"We get along with them very well," he said. "There's no problem about it. People who live and buy a lot, a house in Rosarito, they pay their taxes. So that's good for our economy."

Things weren't so good a few short years ago back in two thousand, when hundreds of Americans were forced out of their houses, forced out of this beach community called Punta Bana. Mexican courts ruled that the most elderly Americans had acquired their property from people that didn't actually own it. In short, homeowners like Isabelle O'Donald-Dagalman were scammed.

"The supreme court decided that original owners did indeed own the land," said O'Donald-Dagalman, who lost $70,000 in the scam.

Fearing they would frighten off the goose laying the golden egg--Americans with money--the Mexican government scrambled to tighten up real estate laws, make transactions transparent and extend into perpetuity the terms of the bank trusts Americans must use to buy land here.

You can buy it. You can sell it. You can will it. You can rent it. It's one hundred percent yours.

"What we do most is investment," said Gustavo Torres, president of the Rosarito Realtors Association. "So it's really good to go to someone who is a professional, someone that has been certified, and someone who had been trained."

"I've learned to pay more attention to the laws," said O'Donald-Dagalman, who bought her house again. The second time from the rightful owners. She paid twice, but figured it still was a bargain.

"Because I had my wonderful house built on the land. Three bedrooms, three baths. Gorgeous view of ocean. And three steps from the ocean. I wanted it to be for my children and their children."

The only thing worrying some Americans in Mexico these days is wondering if the peace, the tranquil views, and the unspoiled beaches will survive their onslaught.

"It's going to get more crowded," said Smith. "It's going to get noisier. It's going to get more expensive."

In other words, he said, it's going to turn into Southern California.

"Now is the time if you're going to buy a property in Mexico," said Maglieri. There is not going to be much beach front left pretty soon."

But that's a concern for mañana.

"It's a beautiful life," said Greenway.