A long-time Mexico real estate professional, 65+ Harriet Murray probably knows more about what makes the local Bay of Banderas real estate market tick than any other person in Puerto Vallarta.
A very successful businesswoman with decades of experience, Murray owns Cochran Real Estate, is the president of the local Association of Mexican Real Estate Professionals (AMPI), is a columnist for a local English-language newspaper in Puerto Vallarta and blogs weekly on real estate for Expats In Mexico.
In her spare time, Murray sits on the deck of her two-bedroom condominium five miles south of the city soaking in her view of the Bay of Banderas.
“I love that I’m on the ocean,” she said. “My name Murray is an old Scottish word for sea, so personally I think it’s a very healthy place to be and it makes me feel at home.”
Murray’s journey to her perch in paradise began in her hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. She graduated from Northeast Louisiana State University in Monroe with a degree in art education. Following graduation, she moved to New Orleans and taught art in the public school system for a few years before moving to Dallas, Texas, where she worked in the real estate business for 21 years.
Before making her move to Puerto Vallarta for good in 1997, she stayed at her timeshare in the Conchas Chinas neighborhood. She had been vacationing in Vallarta since 1975, loved the place, but had no idea what it would be like to live there full-time.
She got her chance to find out in 1996, following a bad year for real estate in Texas. Murray was invited by friends to stay with them in Vallarta for a longer period of time to learn what it would be like to live in another country. The choice was not difficult for the beach-loving Murray.
After four months of living in Puerto Vallarta, she got restless and found a job selling timeshares for the Westin hotel. Friends then encouraged her to start her own real estate business, which she did in 1997 after cutting her teeth with a local real estate firm.
“I can’t work for other people,” she told us. “As soon as I could get the knowledge I needed to run a real estate business in Mexico under my belt, I opened my own office in Centro.”
Murray formed a Mexican corporation with another American who had worked with her at her previous job.
“Starting a business in Mexico is not that easy,” she said, “mainly because it’s so slow and bureaucratic. It took about four or five months to get all of the necessary approvals when we incorporated.”
Murray discovered she had entered the local real estate market at just the right time.
“From 1997 until 2005 real estate prices increased about 10 percent a year and then accelerated to 20 percent a year until 2009,” she said.
That changed with the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble, which severely affected the real estate market in Mexico. Murray had employed agents and office staff but switched to a master broker model and a new business entity, Murray Cochran Associatos. She now has a Mexican woman as her minority partner, independent brokers and a paid staff of four. She collects commissions on all sales by her independent brokers.
“Before the bubble burst,” Murray said, “the Puerto Vallarta market was red hot, particularly driven by Californians who had lots of equity in their homes. We had to change our strategy from appealing to the whole market to focusing on a couple of segments of the market that still remained viable.”
With the middle market now gone, Murray developed a plan to market to mainly high-end home purchasers and sellers and more low-end condo buyers.
“On the high-end,” she said, “buyers have the income to stay in the market. On the lower-end, pre-construction condos can be purchased with installment payments. High-end homes are usually over US$1million and lower-end condos are US$200,000 or less.”
Murray also said the local gay community has grown considerably over the past few years and has made a big impact on the local housing market.
“Without them,” she said, “we wouldn’t have the kind of activity we are seeing at the moment. They have money to spend.”
She has recently expanded her offerings to include luxury properties in Panama and Colombia and has an exclusive representation deal with a real estate group that markets expensive homes worldwide through specialty magazines and other upscale marketing.
“The Bay of Banderas remains a buyer’s market,” Murray said. “Most buyers are American because of the favorability of the exchange rate. Canadians are somewhat disadvantaged, so they are renting more. The large unsold inventory has made available many more long-term rentals. You can now find a nice place for about US$2,000 a month.”
Although Mexico real estate still remains primarily a cash market, Murray said home financing is on the upswing since Mexican banks began offering loans in pesos.
“There has been an evolution in home financing down here,” she said. “GE and Wells Fargo tried but had no idea what they were doing. Now, Mexican banks offer peso loans. Before, they didn’t have access to credit records but now share information with the North American credit corporations. Americans and Canadians are eligible for peso loans if they qualify.”
But, Murray said, purchasing that dream home in paradise is just the beginning of an adventure that also can bring frustrations and challenges.
“One of the hardest things we do in real estate is help expats who are moving here understand where they are. They are living in Mexico where the culture, laws, language and most everything else is different. To be successful in living in Mexico, you need to understand and learn. The best way to explain it is to tell them to ‘locate yourself.’ Don’t be judgmental and remember where you are. Things operate down here the way Mexicans want them to. If they didn’t want them to operate this way, they would change the laws, the customs and their way of life. Expats need to understand that Mexicans are much more independent than Americans or Canadians. Mexicans do not like to be told what to do. They are so independent that they only depend upon themselves, their families and their best friends. If you live here, you will have to acquire the tools of how to operate in Mexico.
Murray offered some final advice for Americans and Canadians thinking of moving to Puerto Vallarta.
“Don’t move to Puerto Vallarta just because you think you’re going to save on the cost of living. Living can be any level you want, but replicating your current lifestyle at a much lower cost is really not that feasible any longer. If you want your piece of paradise on a lower budget, you’ll probably have to go to those areas much farther out of town where property is less expensive and services are far fewer.”