KAI RYSSDAL: The housing market south of the border isn't showing any of the problems the U.S. is having. Houses are going up in record numbers. Mexicans signed on the dotted line for about 600,000 houses last year. And many of the buyers aren't even in the country. From Tucson, Laura Belous reports.
LAURA BELOUS: In a lot of ways, Ruben Sanchez and his wife are the picture of the American dream. They came to the U.S. seven years ago from Mexico and he began working two jobs as a janitor. He and his wife saved up for a down payment on a home, and in 2003 they bought a small adobe house outside Mexico City — with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a patio outback.
But like a growing number of first-time Mexican home buyers living in the U.S., Ruben and his wife bought the house from thousands of miles away — sight unseen.
RUBEN SANCHEZ [translator]: It was easy to get a mortgage, I just ahd to prove that I had been paying my monthly bills. Like the utilities.
Ten years ago, buying a house would have been impossible for Ruben, says Ed Skelton, an expert on the Mexican mortgage market. Back then, getting a mortgage market required almost as much cash as buying the house itself.
ED SKELTON: A mortgage loan would require a 35 to 50 percent down payment, would have an adjustable rate of 18 percent and would only be available to the absolute wealthiest of all clients.
So in those days, average Mexicans had to build and buy their houses one room at a time. You'd build your kitchen, then your bathroom and living room, adding on as money became available. But in 2000, Mexico started a push to help first-time home buyers. The federal government made millions available through mortgage lenders.
Though the prorgram was aimed at Mexicans in Mexico, it's Mexicans in the U.S. who have helped the housing market to take off. Some Mexican lenders, like Su Casita, even have offices in the U.S. Marketing director Eduardo Uranga says they basically ask applicants just one question — "Do you have a job? — either in Mexico or in the U.S. He says they're also not too fussy about whether the applicant is in the U.S. legally.
EDUARDO URANGA [translator]: The truth is that this information we collect won't tell us whether this client is a good borrower. "What we're interested in is whether he's employed, not how he got to the U.S. His immigration status doesn't influence his ability to pay his bills.
Mexico has been rebuilding its credit market brick by brick since 2000, when it remodeled credit laws to conform with U.S. and European standards. Still, for Mexicans both in the U.S. and in Mexico, credit doesn't doesn't come cheap. Mortgage rates are close to 14 percent — with a 20 percent down payment.
But, Ed Skelton says, as more Mexicans become homeowners and the credit system becomes more established, those rates will drop — giving people of all income brackets access to financing.
SKELTON: It's a revolution from where things were 10 years ago, when the financial system was absolutely in ruins.
But Mexicans are finding that easy credit has its hazards, too. A work accident a month ago means that Ruben is off the job and money is tight. And he can't keep up mortgage payments on both sides of the border.
SANCHEZ [translator]: I have a house in the U.S., but I have to put it up for sale because I have financial problems. I'm out of money, and I'm not working right now. I cannot keep making the payments on this house and the one in Mexico.
Ruben wants to get back on his feet, save up, and move his wife and kids back to Mexico. But the average salary there is less than $7,000 a year. So if he does return, he, like other Mexicans of modest means, would find it tough to pay his mortgage.
In Tucson, I'm Laura Belous for Marketplace.