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


  • Working Gringos 12 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!

  • Nick 12 years ago

    Love the articles that you have been posting on your construction project. We've been looking into buying a home that has been recently been renovated in Merida. What is upkeep and maintenance for a home like this? How many years ( generally) before you have to make repairs? How does the humidity in this climate affect the ware and tear on a house? Should we be looking for any key signs?

  • Working Gringos 12 years ago

    Antonio, it is costing us about $45 USD per square foot to remodel our house in Merida (sorry about the Anglo measure, but it's familiar to us). You could probably hire your own mason and plumber, then supervise the work yourself for less, but that depends on your facility in Spanish and your willingness to be on the job site every day.

  • Antonio 12 years ago

    I scored a five for your article. Very informative and straight to the point. I am waiting for closing in an old colonial house in Merida. It is very old, and only the walls and beans ceiling appear good. Comparing with the U.S. how much it will cost remodeling in Merida? I mean basic things like wiring, plumbing, a small pool, open windows and sky light in ceiling. I will very much appreciate your response.

  • Caminante 12 years ago

    Hello, I read your article and it sound like you have been robbed, too many people involved building that house and i'm pretty sure everyone steal a little that becomes a lot, I'll give you an advice get only one person to be responsible for all the work and look for someone local, not from usa because they charge you like usa houses and we do not want that. I'm from Yucatan and i bought my house for 70,000 usa dollars and and it's no to fancy but it's ok, and I have some friends that work building houses so they have plenty experince doing this work they gona make my patio for only 200 us dollars so the labor it's really unexpensive. so my point is first you should look for something local maybe hire somebody who speak english and this person see all the construction issues because people notice that you are no from there and they want you to pay more.

  • Building Our House V 12 years ago

    [...] Building Our House IV [...]

  • Richard and Brenda 12 years ago

    We have recently bought a place in Chelem and we are currently getting prices on putting in a pool and a few renos to the inside. We were there in March and are moving in, in July. We are so looking forward to our retirement there. We are very impressed at the level of professionalism of the YMB realestate office they have helped us every step of the way Iwould highly recommend talking to them. Say Hi to Rob and Joan for us if you do. They are great, and line up the renos for you.

  • Working Gringos 13 years ago

    Thank you for your comment, Julio! We're working with a contractor/architect from the Yucatan now and are so far very happy with the results.

  • Julio 13 years ago

    Dear "working Gringos", I am a contractor in Yucatan and I'm so sorry to read all the things that happen to you, because many of us are looking for the oportunity to give our services and make not just a relation between client-contractor, we want to do the right things in the best way and with the quality that is necesary and make a real relationship of trust and friendship, but not all of us have the luck to have clients like you or many others with the same needs.
    I realy hope that you have luck in this new attempt, and finish your home as you deserve.
    Best wishes from Mérida Yucatán, Mex.

  • Grant 13 years ago

    Rather than hope you can make a legal case if something goes wrong, and then try to find some assets to enforce your judgment against, etc. etc., try the contractor out on a few small things first. If you have misgivings on a small job, you'll know not to let him loose on anything too big.

    Even on bigger jobs, breaking the job into smaller stages, where the contractor knows he's got to get stage one done to your satisfaction before he gets the money for stage 2, gives him incentives and you protection. Hard to do this when building a whole house from the ground up, obviously, but it works pretty well when you're remodelling.

  • elizabeth ward 13 years ago

    RE: contractors and contracts. I thought I had a valid contract with the contractor of my choice only to find out that because the "contract" was not broken down into specific costs for items but instead listed 2 pages of items and services that were to be provided for one total cost, it did not rise to the level of a legally enforceable "contract" in the eyes of Profeco, the consumer protection agency here. Not only did the costs need to be broken down but an estimated date of completion was needed to make the contract enforceable.

    Profeco empathized with what I went through and saw the evidence of several thousands of dollars taken. They suggested I follow up in civil court, but because the "contract" was not really "contract" even though it has his signature, was on his letterhead, etc., etc. etc., the consumer protection agency (Profeco) could not legally enforce it.

    So, learn from my mistake! And, if you are doing a larger building job, whether you are using a contractor or architect, do consider having a lawyer glance at the contract before you sign off on it.

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