Real Estate FYI / Building Our House IV

Building Our House IV

Building Our House IV

20 February 2007 Real Estate FYI 39

It has been a long time since we've reported on the progress of building our house here in Merida. The reason for this will become apparent now as we continue the story.

By September of last year, we still had not received a finished design and detailed presupuesto (cost estimate) from our designer and contractor. We had launched this project in May and still didn't know if our new house could be built within our budget. We wanted to move in by Christmas (having sold the house we are living in more quickly than we expected), so we had decided to start construction before either the design or the cost estimate was completed.

Our first mistake.

Construction continued as we finalized details of the design and began to discuss and pick out floor finishes, window treatments, doors, etc. We bought 22 ceiling fans to make sure they would be the same throughout the house, for instance. We picked out a pool filtering system (in our case, for a saline pool). And all the time, we continued to ask for the detailed presupuesto of the project. Every week, we measured the money our contractor was spending against the initial general estimate we had received, and we began to worry that we were already creeping seriously over budget. We brought it to our designer's attention and were assured that everything was fine. Never ones to panic without good cause, we decided to wait for the detailed figures.

During this time, we ordered concrete columns that would be installed around the inner courtyard. When they arrived, they were not the ones ordered, but our designer either didn't realize it or pretended not to. Whether due to lack of communication with the supplier or poor project management, this left the crew milling around the property while we waited another three weeks for the right columns.

Finally, at the end of October, we were presented with a presupuesto that we were told was complete. In presenting it, we were also told that while the cost per square foot was about what we had originally expected, somehow the areas now considered to be part of the square footage had increased dramatically. Bottom line: a cost estimate almost twice what we had said we could spend. And just when we were digesting that nugget of unpleasant information, we were told that due to time constraints (!), this "complete" presupuesto was still missing built-ins (things like counters in the kitchen and bathrooms), as well as cabinets, stairs and other miscellaneous items. Miscellaneous, but eminently necessary!

We went home. We talked. We worried. We argued. We took deep breaths. We slept on it - fitfully. Our appetites vanished. After a few days of this, we called and stopped all construction. We pulled everyone off the project and decided that now, at the very least, we had good cause to panic.

Let's back up a bit. We chose our original designer/contractor because he was a well-known professional who had lived here for over four years. He hadn't done a lot of architecture or contracting work, but he had done some renovations, and he and his partner were respected designers and business people. We also chose him because he assured us that we would be his only client while our house was being built, that we would receive his full attention and our budget limitations would be respected.

At this point, it became obvious to us that he had designed a house that could not be built (by him at least) for anywhere near the money we had budgeted for the project. Our original budget of $180,000 US had been sacrificed over the course of the past five months, growing to a maximum of $240,000 US, which reflected realities we had accepted along the way. But to finally see - after a five month wait - a price tag of almost twice that amount was stunning.

It was a big, painful step for us to stop construction. It caused us to lose a lot of sleep, trust and esteem. But it was nothing compared to the time, money and peace of mind we would have lost had we continued. We shudder to think about it.

So we found ourselves stuck with a partially-built house, unfinished perimeter walls, a half-started fosa septica, a half-built pool, a design for a house we couldn't afford and not much else. Sort of a recipe for a Yucatecan nightmare.

We took more deep breaths and wandered around the house muttering to ourselves, but eventually did what we should have done in the first place. We asked our friends and acquaintances for the names and phone numbers of architects that they recommended. We did the leg work and took the time to learn as much as we could about the right way to do things. This effort resulted in our article, How To Build a House in Yucatan. We interviewed several architects, showing them our half-built house and asking them to propose a re-design and "really complete" presupuesto, and to tell us what they would charge to do that. It turns out they were all native Yucateco architects, trained here at the UADY architecture school and all had been working in this area for many years... just not necessarily for norteamericanos.

We then chose one of these architects to continue with our project, though we could have afforded to get a presupuesto from others (they each charged roughly $3,000 US for a house design and detailed cost estimate). Within a week our chosen arquitecta had assessed the project. Within a month, we received a final redesign (as a result of multiple meetings between us) and within another two weeks (!), we had in our hands a very detailed and complete presupuesto. The square footage of the house was not changed appreciably. We retained the rooms and functionality of the house as before, incorporating what has already been built. And the budget is just slightly over $240,000 US. Everything included, down to the authentic tejaban, iron railings, patio stones and, yes, the kitchen sink.

This week, our new architect is meeting with INAH. We plan to sign the contract next week and then begin construction anew. We'll be living in our house, ojalá (God willing), by Christmas 2007, a year later than we planned. While we wait, we rent.

To summarize, here are the five most important lessons about building a house in Yucatan that we have learned (so far):

Go Local. If you're a budget-conscious Yucateco transplant like us, it pays to go with a local architect/contractor. There are a lot of eminently qualified Yucateco architects who speak English. They know the area. They understand the climate, materials and local building practices. They have connections with the people that sell concrete or do the plumbing and they know what things should cost. They are more careful about getting the most for your money. There are gringo architects/designers/contractors in Merida and have been for a few years. Some of them are good at what they do, but they charge top dollar. Some of them will be learning the ropes on your dime; why should you pay their tuition?

Sign a Contract. We were under the impression that Merida was still a little loose even today when it comes to contracts for this sort of thing. When we renovated our office, we had a handshake with our Spanish-speaking Mayan contractor and everything worked out just fine. But Merida isn't a backwater town. Construction contracts are perfectly acceptable and any architect worth his/her salt will sign one. They don't always like working this way, but they will. If you are doing a modest renovation and working directly with a contractor, you may not need a contract, but you should have an agreed presupuesto. A friend who was born and raised here, but works in the construction industry in the States, told us that you should always have a contract so that the builder has some skin in the game.

Get References. We thought we knew our designer/contractor well enough that we didn't need references. We were wrong. References are the most important way you can know how well someone does their job and what kind of jobs they've done. If you are renovating a colonial home, get references from people who did the same thing. If you are building a new house, get reference from people who did that. Every architect has his or her area of specialization and experience. It can make all the difference when you choose one who fits your project.

Get the Permits. Be sure that your architect or contractor is getting all the right permits and is paying Social Security for your workers. There was a day when you could get away without doing these things in Yucatan, but that day is past. If your architect/contractor says you don't need the permits, make him get them anyway or find another person to work with. If you don't want to pay fines to the Government or have your project shut down, be sure that your contractor complies with the laws. Besides, INAH is trying to preserve the colonial character of the city and the workers deserve their social security. Why fight it?

Be On Site. As much as you can, visit the job site. Watch the progress carefully. Even a wonderful contractor has been known to put a wall in the wrong place. If you are watching too, you might catch the mistake. In any case, you're the one who will have to live with it if you don't.

In reflecting on our experience, we are chagrined to find that it wasn't the locals that misreprented themselves or took advantage of us, as many norteamericanos might fear when undertaking a project like this. It was a fellow expatriate. Do we think he did it on purpose? We hope not. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we think he bit off more than he could chew and couldn't admit it. But because you don't need a license to build a house here, people are free to do that. And we were free to make the decision to hire him - in retrospect, the wrong decision - but we appreciate that we were free to make it.

In Mexico, if you fall into a hole in the sidewalk, there is no one to sue. You are free to fall into any hole you want. The Mexican culture figures you are the best person to decide if you like falling into holes or not. The same goes for doing business here. We fell in a hole and have nobody to blame but ourselves. But we're equally free to scramble out, dust ourselves off and learn some very useful things about falling into holes.

Stay tuned for more updates on the progress of building our house throughout 2007.

To read the progress of our house project (something we find a bit painful, but you might find interesting...), here are the links:
Building Our House III
Building Our House II
Building Our House


  • Christy strickland 9 years ago

    I'm a licensed contractor in the state of ga USA. I have 25 yrs expierience in building structures residentially. Would love to move my family overseas for their expierience & mine.

  • CH from Denmark 9 years ago

    Well I have been lucky so far. I found an architect who is remodeling a small town house for me and making an extra floor with a bedroom and a bath. There has been some red tape getting the permissions to do the remodeling, but my architect has been taking care of the paperwork and so far i am very very happy. She has been reliable and punctual. She was recommended to me and I can definitely recommend her in case anybody needs some remodeling done or even to build a house.

  • CG 12 years ago

    It's too bad that the names of these contractors that "rip" people off are not published. It would be great if there was a site that people could go to to get information about these people. Just like most Universities had sites called "rate my professor" Merida could have something called "rate my contractor" and people could wrote pros and cons about the contractors they have dealt with.

  • gil ferri 13 years ago

    algun comentario en espanol.?????

  • gil ferri 13 years ago

    que maravilla

  • Yucatan Living - Building Our House - VIII - The End 15 years ago

    [...] Our House Building Our House II Building Our House III Building Our House IV Building Our House V Building Our House VI Building Our House [...]

  • Working Gringos 15 years ago

    Hola Jack,

    We're pleased to know you've found some help on these pages. Maybe if your wife read a bit more about her old home, she might reconsider...

    To answer your questions,

    1. We are moving into our house in two stages. Stage one is when we personally move into the "house", which will happen over the next month. As we work out any kinks (and there are always kinks in a new house), we will then move our "office" and employees into the front, probably by the end of March.

    2. Water pressure from the city depends on location, so almost everyone creates their own water pressure using a tinaco. You can read more about that here. In our house, we've installed a water pressure system with a tinaco back up. We tested it just the other day and it works great, providing about 33 pounds per square inch. We also have our own well and pump for irrigation and filling the pool. We already purchased a Whirlpool washer and dryer that we've been using at our rental house and will move them to our new house. No problems to report.

    3. We have both 110 for standard electrical outlets and fixtures, as well as 220 for the air conditioners. All electrical specifications in Mexico are the same as in the States, so all appliances are compatible. The Mexican electric company, CFE, is a world-class business, or so the slogan on their trucks tell us. Frankly, we think they do a great job considering the uphill battle they fight in these old, historic towns.

    4. We think Romex (NM) is not appropriate or necessary here. Most electricians in Merida use standard Teflon insulated 10-18 gauge wire. Our electrician follows standard practices for electrical installation as observed in the States, with the exception that all wiring is run through poliducto (flexible plastic tubing) in the stone or concrete walls.


  • Jack 15 years ago

    I found your blog this morning and have read nearly everything from I-VI. I've been in construction for nearly 30 years. Recently my father-in-law gave us the old family house in a small town near Merida. I've been so excited and looking forward to adding a kitchen and bath so that we would have a place to stay when we visit family. My wife was born in Merida and her parents were born in Cansachab. However, even with my background in construction, after reading your blog I realized how unprepared both technically and mentally I am for the job ahead.

    The house is over two hundred years old as best we can tell and is of the momposteria construction. I appreciate your candor and attention to detail in your narration and will use much of what you wrote as a guide book when I begin my task. One thing I realize is that I probably haven't allocated enough "dinero" for the job.
    I am curious though as to a few practical questions...

    Have you moved in yet?

    Is there enough water pressure in Merida to use a US made washing machine?

    Are your AC units 110 or 220. In the small town we will be living in, there's barely 110 and not 24 hours a day.

    Did your electrical service have enough amperage to fully service your house? I will need to rewire the house we have and am wondering if I should go with Romex or use the two strand that has been used there for so long?

    My wife has no desire to live in Mexico but I'm hoping I can change her mind once I get the house finished. If not then I'll probably rent it out to tourists.

    Thanks for you story.

  • Ted 15 years ago


    Reading your article we can really appreciate how lucky we were with our building. New, on the beach, great help even to buy the property and total satisfaction. Our trust in the architect was total and never regretted it for a second. How did we found him? We were renting a small house and on the next lot a new house was going up. One day a man came to our door asking for permission in good English to use some water from us, they ran out of water. Of course we agreed, we asked later his advise rebuilding a hurricane-damaged house, buying a property with questionable borders and he advised us well, we became friends, and finally we gave him the job to build for us. We are still good friends and this means a lot.
    Yes, he is the same guy others mentioned here, Victor Carrillo and his wife (both architects). And I am not recommending him because he is a friend. He is a good and honest architect.

  • Working Gringos 15 years ago

    One more thing about humidity. Humidity is a fact of life here, so if you see some water marks along the bottoms of the walls, especially if they are old walls, that's pretty normal. New houses now coat the foundational blocks with a kind of tar that limits upward-moving humidity. Before they paint, the painters will usually tackle those humidity-prone parts, knocking out the old plaster between the rocks in your mamposteria, and putting in new before they paint.

    Humidity coming down from the roof signifies a leak, and that can be fixed. The good news is that there are humid times of the year here, and when it isn't so humid, the walls and roofs dry out quite nicely. That's the best time to paint and put on the impermeabilizante, by the way. What we've also learned in living here is that almost anything can be repaired, as long as you have the will, the patience and the money. It's all just stone and cement and plaster, after all.

  • Working Gringos 15 years ago

    Nick, as you may already know, the first house we purchased here was a renovated colonial that we lived in for almost five years. It had been authentically restored down to the last detail, which means it needed "authentic" maintenance.

    Every year we repainted the facade, not just because it was a southern-facing wall that tended to fade, but because being on the street, it was subject to the bumps and grinds of foot traffic. Every two years we repainted the entire exterior. We repainted the interior once in five years. The reason for all the re-painting was the climate and its effects on "cal" paint over a plastered wall. The good news is that painting didn't cost much. We paid about $450 USD for the entire exterior, for example. We also protected the front doors every year using linseed oil, which we did ourselves.

    Occasionally, we would have to repair the plaster at the top of the facade because the people who delivered natural gas to the house would knock some of the plaster off when they dragged their hose onto the roof. Speaking of the roof, we had it made water resistant with impermiabilizante, which is essentially latex paint over thin sheets of fabric. This can be a bit costlier than painting and needs to be repeated every five years or so.

    We had the usual plumbing problems that come with hard water, like replacing a water heater, shower heads and the insides of toilets. We've since learned that a half-cup of muratic acid mixed into the toilet tank once a month prevents scaling.

    The single biggest maintenance chore turned out to be the garden. Once you plant one, you have to maintain constant vigilance or else the jungle will try to reclaim your house faster than you can say machete!

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