Ben Pitre was born and raised in a little town in south Louisiana and knew that he wanted something quite different at an early age. Years later, he found the life he was searching for in San Miguel de Allende.
“I thought San Miguel was beautiful when I first saw it. It reminded me a great deal of the French Quarter in New Orleans, which was built by both the Spanish and the French. I thought it looked like the French Quarter but on the side of a mountain.”
Pitre, who is 63, was born and raised in Jennings, Louisiana, halfway between New Orleans and Houston. He left in 1972 to get a bachelor’s degree in economics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge before trying his hand in the local area’s oil and gas industry. Not satisfied with that business, he became a stockbroker in Lafayette, Louisiana for nearly six years.
“I had done pretty well in oil and gas so when a friend of mine who was in a rock band moved to Los Angeles I thought it would be fun to go with him,” Pitre said. “When we got to LA I got involved initially in the television syndication business, but the market for syndication soon collapsed so I went back to school and earned an MBA at UCLA. After graduation, I used my money to buy a small manufacturing company. We did mostly woodturnings and supplied many of the big furniture companies.”
But that business also took a nose dive when China and Indonesia began to dominate the wood furniture industry. Pitre liquidated his business in 2001, packed his bags and headed south to visit friends who ran a B&B in Chiapas.
“They were in the process of moving to San Miguel because their daughter and son-in-law lived there,” he said, “so I was left alone for a while. One day I woke up and thought I should have an adventure, so I followed them to San Miguel. I knew I didn’t want to live on the coast in Mexico after growing up in south Louisiana. I felt like my ‘hot account’ was already overdrawn. I am not a beach person.”
When he arrived in San Miguel de Allende in the fall of 2002, Pitre spent the first few months studying Spanish before jumping in to home remodeling.
“I met someone who had been renovating homes for clients and asked him to renovate one for me,” he said. “The house was about 1,200 sq. ft. and very basic but had a great location behind the 17th century Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, the city’s iconic landmark. It cost me US$105,000 at the time, but similar homes in that area now sell for more than twice as much. I renovated and sold many homes until I decided to join Realty San Miguel as an agent.”
The home renovation bug is still not out of Pitre’s system, though. About 10 years ago, he bought a 7,000 sq. ft. seven-bedroom and five-bath hacienda-style home in the country about eight miles from city center on the road to Dolores Hidalgo. In the deal, he was able to purchase two homes on three hectares (over 300,000 sq. ft.) of land for about US$450,000.
“We continue to work on it to keep the historic feeling of the place,” he said. “We have a supplier in Dolores Hidalgo who can replicate an old door from one that is brand new. We have also combined two of the bedrooms and will be adding another bathroom. If we sold our home today, it would be on the market for over US$600,000.”
Pitre said expats have many home purchase choices in San Miguel. Fewer are buying in the city-center and opting for homes a bit farther out, a 10-to-20-minute walk to the Parroquia.
“Going a little farther out is really more like the San Miguel when I came here,” he said. “There are bakeries, restaurants and local stores. The people you see on the street are likely to be your neighbors, not renters or tourists, who tend to stay near the center.”
San Miguel de Allende is a city of about 175,000 people, although it swells seasonally when tourists arrive, attracted by the city’s charm and the numerous awards it has received for being one of the best cities in the world to visit.
“Expats here tend to overwhelmingly prefer the colonial look in homes, which is unfortunate because Mexico is one of the most exciting countries in the world for great architecture, especially modern homes and buildings,” Pitre said. “A typical 1,800 sq. ft. three-bedroom and two-bathroom home in an expat neighborhood is in a range from US$200,000 to US$300,000.”
Because of San Miguel’s popularity with visitors, traffic in this hilly city can be a challenge, especially during peak tourism periods. But Pitre said local transportation is very good and inexpensive.
“When I first came here,” he said,” I had a car but would often not drive for four or five days at a stretch. Public transit within the city is great and costs seven to 11 pesos to get anywhere. Even service in the country, where I live, is pretty good.”
Most expats struggle with learning Spanish and Pitre is no exception, even though he has lived in Mexico for almost 15 years.
“I have a really good vocabulary,” he said, “but I am terribly bad with verbs. I’ve learned enough to cause trouble! Because San Miguel has such a large number of tourists, many of them English-speaking, fluency in Spanish is not as important.”
One of the attractions of Mexico for expats is the much lower cost of living, although San Miguel, as well as most other tourist-destination cities in the country, tend to be more expensive than less-traveled paths. Pitre said his expenses, considering the size of his home, are very manageable.
“We use propane gas for our home, which is delivered by truck once a month,” he said. “We probably don’t spend more than US$100 a month for gas, even in the winter. Our other utilities are quite low. Our electricity cost is about US$20 a month and my cell phone bill is about US$20 per month with unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada. Dining out also is very reasonable, even if we splurge a bit. For example, a lunch at a wonderful nearby restaurant with appetizers, main course, a bottle of champagne and tip is about US$40 per person.”
Pitre has made San Miguel de Allende his home for life because of its wonderful sense of community.
“I knew a French teacher in Florida who inherited a home in the south of France, but sold it to move to San Miguel,” he said. “I told him I was so surprised that he would do that because everyone in the world it seems wants to live there. He explained that if they had lived there it could have taken years to know their neighbors well enough to invite them over for a drink. In San Miguel, people are so warm and friendly. I’ve learned that it’s really all about community. And that’s why I love it here.”