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Homes in Oaxaca, Mexico: "Why Are So Many Houses Unfinished?"
I get asked the question at least once a month: why are there so many houses in Oaxaca that have been started and apparently not finished? It is one of the most notable sights in this southern Mexican colonial city, as well as in towns on its outskirts and beyond. The phenomenon is clearly visible when crossing the connecting highways through the central valleys.
The masonry of the houses is finished, but there is no glass in the windows, and it is also obvious that no one lives in these cash cows, buildings which have obviously been the subject of considerable investment. And even though the houses are finished and lived in, the rebar still extends skyward from the roofs. Why is it left there, an eyesore by Western standards?
It’s a mistake that leaving the reinforced steel bars on top of your roof untouched means your house isn’t finished and therefore you don’t have to pay property taxes. In fact, at least in Oaxaca City and its suburbs, in the early 2000s a tax reform began to be implemented whereby you became assessed based on your land and living space, at different rates. Curiously, any structure with a concrete roof was considered habitable space, and therefore taxed at the highest rate. Even a carport used only for vehicles. You see, many Oaxacans tile their carports and use them more for living and entertainment than for parking vehicles, and some residents don’t even have cars or trucks. Many residents circumvent the bylaw by building a ceiling of river reeds known as a carrizo, thereby keeping their vehicles shaded and not having to pay the premium rate. In our case, our concrete roof is used only for our vehicles, so we had to negotiate the problem with the taxman.
Since many homeowners are of modest means, you have the option of having a government-licensed architect come to your home to take the measurements to then calculate the increase, or postpone the process. If you choose the latter, the new rate does not come into effect until your death or the sale of the house, the penalties, interest and tax arrears being passed on to your heirs or purchasers. Let the negotiations begin! We chose to take the bull by the horns, have the reassessment done and immediately started paying about ten times what we had paid before, still a bargain compared to what we were paying as owners in Toronto, even without today’s bonus. be taxed at the rate for seniors (over 60), i.e. 50% of the normal tax rate for a principal residence. In the end, our daughter will inherit a little less to tax the transition.
So why rebar? When they die and sooner, most Oaxacans don’t have much to offer their children outside of their homes, or better yet where their existing homes are. Thus, it is always possible to build a second or third level on a house, when funds become available at a snail’s pace and at the right time. If you cut the extending rebar at the end of your initial build and later decide to build another level, it’s more expensive; rather than just tying in the old rebar, you have to break out the concrete to access the bare rebar used in the earlier construction. There’s a different sense of aesthetics, or, more likely, a focus on economy. So it is safe to leave the rebar.
Going back to all those partially finished houses, it all has to do with the cost of borrowing in Mexico and the fact that Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country, with most residents lacking savings. Only the unsophisticated or the very wealthy have mortgages (by the way, buy anything on credit). I’ve seen interest rates as low as 9% and as high as 65%, for secured loans. As for the latter, a few years ago I was considering buying a scooter for our favorite goddaughter. Buying on credit would have cost us 65% per year.
So the norm is to buy when you have cash on hand. This means that if you want to build on land, you buy 1,000 bricks, then another thousand, then blocks, then rebar, then cement. You hire your masons, and your plumber who roughs out the underground installations. You build, then save, then build more. You can leave your “obra negra” as it is called, indefinitely, without worrying about theft because there is nothing to steal.
You can then have your electrician break up the interior concrete, brick and block, to install wire and connections for switches and the like. Once these facilities and the rest of the house have been covered in concrete, your future abode is once again safe from vandalism and theft (yes, recognizing that copper is still accessible, but it’s rather difficult with cement covering it). This is your “gray obra”. It can also be left unattended indefinitely.
The above are the two most common completed stages of home construction encountered on the roads and highways around Oaxaca City, its central valleys, and beyond. This all makes economic sense while providing the current owner with a reasonable degree of security. While delaying the completion of the house, it avoids having to deal with prohibitive mortgage interest rates.
Family members often provide some of the labor needed to advance these two stages of construction. However, the completion of the house often requires more specialized trades, and with this much greater financial outlay. Thus, we find many houses in the “grey obra” stage, remaining there for years, even a decade or more.
The final phase of construction involves finishing touches such as more detailed and fine tiling work, painting, door and window frames and glassware, electrical and plumbing fixtures, etc. Especially with regard to the latter, a partially completed house is usually not left unattended at this state of construction, and so more often than not a night watchman or “velador” will be hired to provide security. Only then is the family ready to move in, and the house of all outward appearances will appear complete – with rebar nonetheless stretched skyward.
So remember that an unfinished house is probably a sign of a family that is working hard to put everything together, for itself and for its individual members, without giving in to the pressure to borrow at an often high interest rate. exorbitant.
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