The cities of León and Granada in Nicaragua might like to celebrate their differences, but they have a lot of similarities when it comes to their architecture: Spanish colonial mansions, cathedrals, churches, and houses adorn the streets of both cities.
Ornately carved wooden doorways, internal courtyards with wrap-around terraces, and cheerful red tiles, these are the features that win over so many colonial architecture fans.
And it’s what Gary Race and Marti Lay fell for when they bought a run-down colonial home in León.
Gary fell in love with Nicaragua while volunteering on an NGO house build project in Chacraseca back in 2013. The sense of community and the friendly, happy people he encountered there reminded the James Madison University employee of simpler times…of his childhood growing up in small town Connecticut.
He convinced his wife Marti to go with him on a return visit a few months later and she was equally smitten.
For a number of years they’d discussed leaving their home in Virginia to retire outside of the U.S. Spain, Costa Rica, and South America were on their radar…but after visiting and looking at property they decided to retire early and buy their own home in Nicaragua.
They chose Leon because of its busy, thriving community. “In addition, we have some connection to the community through my volunteering,” says Gary. “And Marti was interested in finding a place to learn Spanish and where she could be a part of the culture and traditions of the country.”
They bought a 100-year-old Spanish colonial house in central Leon for $138,000. It was in need of extensive renovation.
“The one-bedroom property had been divided into two houses in 1945 so when we bought it 70 years later, all the electrics and plumbing needed to be replaced,” explains Gary. “We also added hot water, two additional bathrooms, a new kitchen, and a laundry room. The roof on the backside of the house was replaced and we added a swimming pool, which was dug by hand. We also bought new appliances and air conditioning for all bedrooms.
“The total spend on renovations came to about $85,000, with the process taking about eight months to complete. Our general contractor was an engineer who was on the job every day and his crew was great as well.
“The biggest obstacle we came across involved finding materials—especially fixtures. Although you can get what you need in Nicaragua there are far fewer choices available.”
The property now has three bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms, a studio, sala (a large entrance hall), and a large enclosed courtyard, along with the pool. “We would estimate that the property is now worth about $300,000 and we pay $50 a year in property taxes. Our property tax in rural Virginia was in the thousands.”
Gary and Marti find that life in Nicaragua is much more relaxed, affordable, and slower paced than in the U.S. Marti has been able to retire early and the couple enjoy traveling in Central and South America.
“Here we are able to enjoy some comforts we might not have afforded in the U.S. in retirement; a pool, house cleaner, weekly dinners at local restaurants. But our life here is not as driven by consumerism and the “shopping mall” life one might find in the U.S.”
They live on a street that is busy by day and quiet by night. “We are a few blocks from the Central Park and within walking distance of the markets, grocery stores, movie theater, a private hospital, and many restaurants and cafes. Although we live in the ideal neighborhood for us it was the house that we were drawn to. When we were looking at property in Leon our primary criteria was to be within walking distance of necessary amenities and that it be of colonial design. We know expats that live throughout the city and enjoy the various flavors of different neighborhoods.”
The biggest change in their lifestyle from U.S. to Nicaragua living, is the indoor/outdoor domestic arrangement with the patio, kitchen, and courtyard (with pool) at the center of their home. “Marti calls the lawn her wall-to-wall carpeting,” Gary says. “The courtyard is the favorite part of our home. Here, we read, swim, linger over morning coffee, and pursue our hobbies.
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