Mitch Keenan moved south of the border from Denver, Colorado in 1995 and rode the expat real estate wave to success by taking Mérida real estate online.
Keenan, who will turn 60 this year, researched the major expat centers in Mexico before leaving Denver to launch his new real estate firm Mexico International.
“We got in at a good time because no one in Mexico was offering real estate online at that time,” Keenan said. “We were the first to build a website and then go to potential sellers and say we have a website that is being visited by prospects from around the world. We’ll take pictures of your home and expose it to thousands of people who are looking for property in Mérida. Clients thought it was great and it became a really good business.”
Real estate was not Keenan’s first career. Born in New York and raised in Denver, he graduated from Fort Hays State University in Kansas with a business degree in 1981 and then returned to Denver to work in the construction industry. But the company he worked for went bankrupt and left him looking for a new career. He found it at Continental Airlines.
“I was with Continental for 12 years,” he said, “and that’s how I discovered Mexico. I had learned some Spanish while dating a Mexican girl in Denver and that allowed me to fly Continental’s Latin American routes as a flight attendant because each flight had to have at least one Spanish-speaker on board.”
His first trip to Acapulco in 1984 was soon followed by regular stops in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Cancún and Cozumel. As a manager, he also trained flight attendants for five years before leaving the company.
“Continental went bankrupt and I took an early-out retirement package and started selling real estate full-time with a friend in Denver,” he said. “I had been doing some selling part-time while still working for Continental when I was flying just 10-12 days each month.”
His initial plan was to sell Denver real estate during Mexico’s low season and real estate in Mexico during its high season, but things changed when he began dating his now partner, MIguel.
“I fell in love with a Mexican who was an exchange student and his visa was about to expire,” he explained. “He had to go back to Mexico so we decided to open a business together.”
They first went to Guanajuato, which was Miguels’s home, but also decided to look at the real estate market potential of other cities in Mexico. They analyzed Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Puerto Escondido before deciding on Mérida.
“We thought Mérida was way under-served,” he said. “There were no American brokers there at all and even the Mexican agents and brokers who were there were not doing that much. That was just after the big peso devaluation in December 1994.”
Keenan told us there were only about 50 expats in the area at the time and their plan to establish the first online real estate presence in Mexico gave them a competitive advantage.
“Mérida had so much to offer at such a great price point at that time,” he said. “You could buy a nice little colonial home for US$40,000 that was completely finished with two-bedrooms and two-baths in the city- center or buy something on the beach for very little.”
The beach is about an hour from downtown, depending upon traffic. Keenan and his partner live in a large home in La Quinta, about halfway between Mérida and the beach town of Progreso.
“You have to drive about four miles on a back road to get to our house,” he said. “We’ve lived in our home for 20 years and love it out there.”
The couple paid an astonishingly low price of US$20,000 for the nearly 4,000 sq. ft. home on a 22,000 sq. ft. lot. The home was owned by a client who hired them to sell it for US$50,000, but there were no takers. Every few months they adjusted the price downward until it reached US$20,000. At that point, Keenan told him they would buy it.
“We have no neighbors, no traffic and no light pollution so we can see the stars in the evening,” he said. “There is no noise at all except for the birds and wild animals at night.”
Keenan said most expats, who now number in the thousands, live in either El Centro or at the beach.
“Central Mérida is 75 percent of our business, the beach about 24 percent and ranchos and haciendas are about 1 percent,” he said. “People really fall in love with the old colonial homes downtown. If you want to buy a 2,500 sq. ft. home with three-bedrooms, two-baths, a small garden and a garage you’re looking at around US$200,000.”
The expat real estate market in Mérida and most of Mexico is mainly cash with few financing options. Keenan said local bank loan interest rates are in the 10-12 percent range plus other fees that make it prohibitive for most buyers.
Keenan’s firm also has a very active rental division that handles property management for the homes they rent.
“We offer clients who want to rent their homes a turn-key service,” he said. “We do the contract and manage the property, including hiring plumbers, maids, handymen, gardeners and whatever else might be needed. For renters who may not speak Spanish well and don’t know how to navigate the system down here, it’s a real plus.”
Keenan said his clientele has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years, with many younger expats now moving to Mérida.
“Our clients used to be more retirees older than 60,” he said, “but now we are seeing people in their 40s and even some in their 20s who are entrepreneurs or digital nomads who work online from their homes.”
Mérida, a city of over 1 million people, is easy on the pocketbook for not only homes, but dining out as well. Keenan said four people can dine out at one of the top restaurants in town for about US$150, and that would include appetizers, entrees, desserts and wine.
Medical services are also excellent and inexpensive. Keenan pays about US$1,300 a year for his medical insurance at his age and has access to some of the finest medical facilities in Mexico.
“Medical services here are so much better than in the United States,” he said, “and that’s a hard thing for Americans to digest. I think that was true for a lot of years but no longer is true. For example, we have a very active and well-regarded medical tourism industry here that serves many foreigners who come for knee or hip replacements, cancer treatment and other procedures. Our local hospitals and medical care is top-rated.”
The one thing to understand about Keenan is his love for the Mexican people, which developed early in life in Denver.
“I’ve always liked Mexican people and have been very attracted to them,” he said. “They are beautiful people with strong families and well behaved kids. They have a good sense of community and actually say hello to everyone.”
He also loves the weather in Mérida, especially after growing up in Denver’s cold and snow, and the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood that is abundant year-round.
Keenan recommended that anyone thinking about moving to Mérida try it on first to get a feel for the place. He suggested renting a place during the hottest months of the year to see if the climate is right for you. Learning Spanish is also on top of his list of recommendations.
“This is an adventure and if you don’t speak Spanish fluently,” he said, “you’re going to find yourself frustrated from time-to-time.”