Flock to the Casbah: A Second Home in Marrakech?

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Riad Pic 1

Morocco can be quite reasonably-priced for Western residents, and the city of Marrakech is as good a place as any to have a second home. I just returned from my first international mission for CandysDirt.com, scoping out the real estate scene in Marrakech. (OK, so I embellish. I’d already planned a vacation and did some investigating on the local real estate)

Marrakech is an interesting place, and Morocco is a bit of a mix with everyone who was anyone having invaded over the past 1,000 years. There were the native Berbers, then came the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Turks and most recently the Spanish and French who only left in the 1950s (the French left their language).

There is a certain faded Moorish charm peering out between the third-world chic of everyday Marrakech. I admit being fearful of Marrakech being like “tip-y” Egypt, where everyone, including airport security, wanted a tip (because my bag miraculously appeared on the other end of the X-Ray machine – true story). It’s not. Aside from the souk merchants and their hard sell haggling, it was pretty stress-free for a first-world resident visiting a third-world country.

But nor is it the Marrakech of the over-romanticized 1940s Casablanca film (Sam played it again in a different city for a start), nor the swinging 1960’s “Marrakech Express” of Yves Saint Laurent’s jet set hippy crowd.

Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, built 1190AD
Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, built 1190AD

No, the Marrakech of today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also seeing a building boom resulting from King Mohammed IV’s goal of doubling tourism by 2020. Building boom? Yes, Marrakech has more cranes than Dallas these days, albeit shorter ones (the city is not tall). I would hazard a guess that the old city is all two and three stories with no building taller than four stories (unless it’s a mosque minaret).

Much of the building consists of new hotels, golf courses and second homes for foreigners. Morocco, it seems, is turning into a North African Scottsdale or Boca Raton for aging Europeans. But it’s not all new…

If you’re looking for a second or third shelter, there are two types of homes available in Marrakech for differing buyers.

The Middle East Likes a Good Ceiling!
The Middle East Likes a Good Ceiling!

The Traditional Moroccan Riad

The more rough and tumble (like me) would buy a native dwelling called a riad which are located in the oldest, most vibrant parts of the city. These are what you see in old movies. They’re one and two-story residences built around an open central courtyard with few/none outside-facing windows. Typically there’s water in the center, either a fountain or a plunge-type pool. Some have both with a wall fountain dribbling romantically into the pool.

The water acts as air conditioning in a city that mimics Scottsdale’s heat (a crisp 113 degrees today!) and mild winters. You see, hot air entering from the ground floor is swept over the water that cools it before sending it up and out of the open atrium – the original “swamp cooler.” This cools the rooms on the upper floors as it passes. Some atriums also include fruit trees.

The roofs are now sun decks and barbeque areas for entertaining. Originally, they were a refuge for the women of the family. In centuries past, when women didn’t leave the home, the roofs were literally the only places a woman could get any fresh air, see the outside world and perhaps chat with another woman.

Courtyard with Cooling Fountain
Courtyard with Cooling Fountain

Create Your Moroccan Fantasy

Inside, expect lots and lots of intricate and colorful Moroccan tile work, painted ceilings and carved paneling…very “midnight at the oasis.” With riads, you have choices. There are centuries-old crumbling husks in need of major restoration or there are the turnkey models. The crumbling piles are fairly inexpensive for their size (some upwards of 8,000 square feet). Renovation costs are actually quite reasonable for a complete restoration – including the addition of en suite baths and an American kitchen. Everything is done by hand and labor is cheap. Just don’t forget the A/C!

One example shows a 3,000-square-foot un-renovated riad for $280,000 while a renovated one of similar size and location is being offered at $760,000 (local currency is about 10 to the dollar). Smaller, sub-1,000-square-foot units can be had for $100,000-ish un-renovated, to $200,000-ish of air-conditioned, renovated space.

As Realtors would say, "Just waiting for your finishing touches."
As Realtors would say, “Just waiting for your finishing touches.”

If you fancy yourself an innkeeper, riads are definitely the way to go. There are a bunch listed on Expedia and Airbnb for rent. Some will offer the whole riad for families and groups while others prefer renting bedrooms more like a B&B (en suite baths a definite plus). Some are hosted, some aren’t, and some provide full staffs for cooking and cleaning.

How's this for Romantic?
How’s This for Romantic?

If you don’t want to deal with an international restoration, there’s a midway point before a full turnkey riad. This in-between option is where you buy the pile and purchase a “package” restoration. Estate agents can point you in the direction of reputable fixed-price contractors who will do it all – sometimes it’s the estate agent themselves who are also contractors for international buyers. You pick a few color palates and whoosh, it’s done. Someone else has done the work, but you got some customization. When the work’s done, just move in.

Of course there’s the turnkey option. Just like anywhere else, buy a fixed-up home you already like and bingo, you’re done.

Obviously costs escalate with each jump in finish out.

Marrakech has no MLS-like system, so when searching for a property, you’ll need some legwork (or click-work for internet shopping). You’ll also need an attorney as property ownership can involve manual title searches and the like.

Ease 1, Local Style 0
Ease 1, Local Style 0

Cookie-Cutter Resorts

Located outside the old city, the other option is to buy in one of the new gated resort towns popping up all around Marrakech. For what you might pay for a nice timeshare, you can own all 52 weeks in Morocco. Driving (OK, being driven) around Marrakech, I saw prices ranging from ~$15,000 for a buildable lot in a development (with utilities and roads), to $75-85,000 for a condo/townhouse all the way “up” to $220-260,000 for a stand-alone two-story home.

But I have to wonder about these kinds of properties. They’re built exclusively for foreigners with an owner’s home, swimming, spa, golf and restaurants all self-contained. Many also have either attached or spitting-distance grocery stores. If you never have to leave a compound that caters to people exactly like you, why not get arrested and sent to a white collar prison? If you want to live in Morocco, LIVE in Morocco. (Can I get an “amen?”)

Of course bigger budgets can spend more with very large, modern homes sitting on multi-acre properties going for well over $1 million. But hey, if you’re looking to spend millions, you surely don’t need my advice. However if it’s Moroccan house porn you’re after (DUH!), check out the local Christie’s affiliate.

But for those curious if I would live in Marrakech, I’ll say I’m undecided. I’ve not spent enough time here to form a complete opinion. I’d need to see it outside the desiccating summer when the area is lusher and the Atlas Mountains are snow covered. Even then, I’m not really a desert person, regardless of the desert (ditto Phoenix-Scottsdale). Weather aside, I will say for the third world, it’s one of the nicest places I’ve been. It beats the heck out of Mexico, Egypt, and Orlando (oh wait, that’s a “small, small” world).  🙂

Feel free to use the comments to sing me the praises of Mexico and Egypt … or Orlando if you’re quite brave.

Winner Slug v1

Remember: Do you have an HOA story to tell? A little high-rise history? Realtors, want to feature a listing in need of renovation or one that’s complete with flying colors? How about hosting a Candy’s Dirt Staff Meeting? Shoot Jon an email. Marriage proposals accepted (now that they’re legal in Texas)! sharewithjon@candysdirt.com