Building or Remodeling
Your Mexican Home
Last Update:  25 July 2008

"Can we afford both a remodel and a divorce?"  she asked.  

Indeed, tensions can run high.  Understand from the beginning that things will not always go smoothly.  Accept the fact that the project will cost more and take longer than you have been promised.  And there is nothing you can do about it.  Learn the Mexican way -- go with the flow.  Live with the bedevilments of the day by keeping your eyes on the prize.

Elsewhere on this website, there are illustrated weekly progress reports on my two building projects which were completed a few years ago.  Las Casas was a new construction of a four unit condo; the other was the remodeling of an older home.  Both can be viewed here.

In this chapter we'll discuss:

Your architect

Your responsibilities

Your contractor

Jobsite security


5 Personal experiences

Your Architect

Architectural services seem to come in three flavors:

1.  The architect who only prepares the construction drawings and any other items needed for the construction permit and zoning rules. 

This approach may be sufficient for a small remodeling project that you feel comfortable supervising yourself or with the help of a friend.

2.  The architect who prepares the documents and supervises the work of an independent contractor.  This or the third option is a must for a major project.

You should not undertake direct supervision of a major project unless (a) your Spanish is excellent, (b) you have considerable knowledge of the Mexican building process, and (c) you can be on the job site every day.  I was able to violate rule (a) because I had a Mexican partner who could speak for me.

3.  The architect who provides a full service including contracting.  In the USA, he would be called a design-build architect.  Often it is a partnership -- one partner does the architectural work, and the other is the builder.

This approach has the advantage of placing the full responsibility for the project on one individual or company.  This also has the capacity of becoming a disaster if the architect/contractor defaults.

No matter which approach you choose, you should do a very careful background search.  Ask for references, and check them.  Ask to see samples of his work -- not just pictures or drawings, but the actual houses.  If he drags his feet or balks at providing this background information, look elsewhere.

You should have the services of an attorney to arrange the contracts with the architect and contractor. If the architect or contractor wants to use their "standard" contract form, have your attorney review it to be sure your interests are adequately protected.

Discuss with your architect the soil condition of your land.  If your land is in a developed area, chances are the soil is well known; but in a new development or in the country, it is wise to have an engineer test the soil to determine if any special foundation designs are required.  You should have done this before you bought the land; if you didn't, do it now before you start building.

The architect will tell you of any special permits or zoning issues.  You need to be sure you understand these and plan to observe them.  For example: Generally, you cannot cut down a tree without permission from the city.  In some areas there may be special requirements that dictate a certain architectural style.  This is usually the case in colonial preservation districts.  If you are building in the country, there may be forest or environmental rules to be followed.  You will probably need permission from the government to dig a well.

Your Responsibilities

After you have checked the credentials and backgrounds of the architect and contractor and are satisfied with the terms of the contracts, it's time to get to work.

First and foremost, know what you want.  Once you and the architect have worked out the details, stick with the plan!  Mind changing causes cost overruns and delays and, sometimes, a botched final result.  Some decisions can be postponed -- paint colors, floor tile, lights and fans.  You don't have to buy your kitchen appliances yet, but you do have to know their size.  If you hope to have enough outlets for electric, TV and telephone in the places where you need them (don't forget outside), you'll have to tell your architect and check to be sure your wishes actually get on the plans.  Never take anything for granted -- trust but verify.

Your second major responsibility is to be on the job site often, I think daily, to be sure the plans are being followed exactly.  Even though your architect is supervising the job, you still need to be there as an extra set of eyes -- eyes with a very vested interest.  Some of the more common errors:  Are the electrical, TV and telephone outlets and switches being roughed in where they are supposed to be?  Are the door frames set for the doors to swing the right way?  If you are building a two story house and the upper windows are supposed to align with the lower ones, is the brick mason getting it right?  (I caught my guy not aligning the windows on the Las Casas project.  I'm glad I saw it early before he had laid a lot of bricks that would have had to be ripped out.)

We discussed financing in the chapter on buying.  You are the money person.  Not only do you have to provide funds as needed and according to your contracts, but you need to keep a careful check on where the money is going.  If you paid for 24 bags of cement, did 24 arrive on the job site?  Were they all there the next morning?  Keep careful records so at the end of the project, you will know what the building has cost.  Keep those records because they may be useful if you decide to sell the house some day.

Your responsibilities to IMSS are so significant that they get a separate section below.

The less time you spend on the job site, the greater the chances there will be things you don't like in the final product.  If you cannot be there at all and must rely entirely on your architect, you can only hope that you have chosen well.  Personally, I wouldn't risk it.  Best wishes if you must.

Your Contractor

You were careful to vet your attorney and architect, be twice as vigilant in checking up on your prospective contractor.  Check his references; talk with previous clients; inspect homes he has built; ask Profeco if claims have been made against him.

Financial arrangements usually are either "fixed fee" or "cost plus."

Fixed fee contracts have the advantage that you know from the beginning how much the project is going to cost (maybe).  The contract should call for incremental payments at various stages of completion with a sizable final payment (maybe 20%) due after the receipt of the IMSS termination papers (more about that later). 

The very considerable down side of the fixed fee contract is what happens if the contractor has under priced the job.  When he realizes his error, he will appeal to you for more money.  If you refuse, he is likely to walk off the job.  If he stays on the job, he'll probably move his men to more productive jobs and only work on your house when he needs to keep a crew busy.

Cost plus contracts offer no guarantee of the final cost; all you have is an estimate which, invariably, will be low.  It will always cost more than you were led to expect.

You need to check receipts and statements carefully to be sure you are paying only for what you are getting.  Again, trust but verify.

No matter the kind of contract, be sure it spells out who is responsible for dealing with IMSS.

Jobsite Security

Until the jobsite is closed in and made secure, it is important to have a night watchman on duty.  Night-time thefts from jobs are a common problem.  Big things like bricks, sand and gravel are not likely to disappear.  Sacks of cement or plaster, electrical and plumbing materials, rebar, and tools are prime targets.

IMSS = Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social  (social security, medical, retirement investment fund, government housing fund, etc.)

I have written at length about IMSS in the article Employee Pay Requirements.  Rather than refer you there, I have copied and edited the relevant parts here.  The length of this segment indicates its importance.  Be very careful to abide by their rules, or you will surely regret it; they have no heart or mercy.  They also have an often screwed up record system, so be sure to save every scrap of paper that documents any dealings you have with them.

In the USA, an employer must withhold income taxes, social security and Medicare payments and pay matching social security and Medicare amounts.  It works differently in Mexico.  The employer pays the entire social security and certain other taxes. These payments are paid monthly to the IMSS which does all the record keeping and payment calculations and sends a bill each month.  (Actually there is one bill each month for SS and health; and a second bill on alternate months for the housing fund.)

If you hire a building contractor to build or remodel your home, he is responsible for the workers he employs.  But the question of who pays the IMSS bills is a matter to be worked out between you and the contractor.  Generally the contractor will register the job in your name, and you will responsible for paying the monthly billsMaking you responsible for the IMSS bills assures that the final bill, which will come a month or more after the job is completed and the contractor has left the job, gets paid to IMSS.  You should understand that IMSS has very high payment expectations for new construction work, and the final bill may be substantial.  (This usually does not apply to remodeling work.)  In my Las Casas building project the final end-of-job bill from IMSS was staggering.  Be prepared for a large closeout payment.

This large final payment comes about because the IMSS has a table of expected payments for certain kinds of work.  New home construction is expected to generate X pesos per square meter.  At the end of the job when you or the contractor applies for termination papers, the IMSS will send someone to measure the building.  Then they calculate the amount of money they expect the project to have generated for them.  If you have paid that much they will terminated the job.  If you have not paid in as much as their calculation says, then you must pay the difference.  In my projects we had a lot of family volunteer work, thus our labor cost and IMSS payments were low, so our final closeout bill was quite high.

If your contractor agrees to pay the IMSS bills, you need to be very sure that he does so, especially the final closeout bill.  If he fails to pay, sooner or later the IMSS will come after you as the owner of the property.  I know one case where the IMSS came after the owner two years after the job was completed.  The owner had to pay the past due amount and a very large late penalty.  Be sure to keep all the payment receipts for years because you may need them.  I did. IMSS came after us for more money a couple of years after the close of the project.  Because we had all the receipts, we were able to show that the IMSS records were in error.  Dealing with the IMSS was the second biggest headache of my building projects -- the cabinet makers were the worst.

If you directly hire construction workers to do some repairs or remodeling on your house then you are self-contracting, and you are suppose to register them with IMSS. 

You will need a certified public accountant (L.C.P.) to set up your account with the IMSS.   He will also take care of registering or de-registering any workers you have.  Don’t attempt to do-it-yourself; it requires too much specialized knowledge. 

Once the account has been set up with the IMSS, you will receive regular bills from them for the payments you owe.   If you don’t pay on time (the 17th of each month), there is a penalty.   Watch for the bill each month; if it doesn’t come (and sometimes it does get lost), go to the office to get a copy so you can pay and avoid a late penalty. You must pay at a specified bank, not at the IMSS office.  Be sure to keep the payment receipts forever; you may need them, as I already said.

In reality, for a short job, registration is usually not done.  To be sure of avoiding trouble, you should pay the workers by the job rather than by the day or week. That makes them independent contractors -- non-salaried workers -- and exempt from IMSS. 

On the other hand, if the job is very long or needs a building permit, the workers need to be registered.  The IMSS inspectors usually check the workers at all the permit jobs, and if a non-permit job lasts any length of time, or would be noticeable from the street, it could draw their attention, which would result in a check.   In some cities, IMSS agents cruise the streets looking for unreported construction. The IMSS registration papers as well as the building permit should be available at the job site at all times for the inspector to see.

There are advantages to the worker to be registered with the IMSS.  These include health insurance and qualification for government-subsidized housing among others.  There are advantages to the employer as well, including medical care for an on-the-job injury.  If a worker is injured on the job and is not registered, you probably will have to pay his medical care as well as continue his wages while he is unable to work. 

Personal Experiences

Some time ago I received an e-mail asking question about my building experiences.  Here is that exchange:

1. What were some of the greatest challenges you encountered during your building projects in Lerdo?

The top two were 1) Getting on-time delivery from the cabinet and door makers and the welder (metal work for widows, door frames and security bars),  2) Dealing with the bureaucracy at IMSS.

2. What did you learn along the way?

That the workers require constant supervision to ensure that the work is being done the way you want it.

3. How did the results of the building projects compare with your expectations for them?

I had made detailed drawings of the work and supervised the work carefully, so the finished product was what I had expected except for a few errors that snuck in.  I was not too thrilled by the interior paint colors the owners chose.

4. What do you think is the biggest difference between construction in Mexico and U.S. building projects?

The biggest difference is the building material.  In Mexico almost all homes are masonry construction while in the USA almost all homes are wood frame, even those with a brick veneer.   Masonry has the advantage that it can’t burn, so house fires, except for grease fires in the kitchen, don’t happen.

5. It looks like you knew people in Mexico before you began your building projects. In cases of people who do not have connections, do you have any recommendations for finding workers that are "de confianza" (trustworthy, reliable)?

Without a strong local connection as I had, I think it would be folly to undertake a project on your own.  You will need the design and construction supervision of an architect and contractor.  Even with a very dependable architect, you should be on the job site often to be sure things are being done that way you want.

Both my partner and I had construction experience.  I did the designs and produced the construction drawings on my computer.  My partner did the hiring and firing of the workers.  Both of us supervised the construction work and did the purchasing of materials.  We also did some the construction work ourselves.  I did electrical and he did plumbing.

But even with our experience and local connections, we still got screwed on the air conditioning systems in the Las Casas project.  They were poorly engineered by the two AC contractors we hired, so the systems perform poorly.  We used a different contractor on the remodel project, and he know what he was doing, so that system works very well.

6. How important do you feel it is to know Spanish when building a home in Mexico?

The better you speak the language, the more likely you will get what you want at a fair price.  With my limited Spanish I would never have undertaken my projects alone, but I had the support of my partner who was a native of the city and had building experience.

7. What are the best advantages to having a home in Mexico?

Outside the major cities and gringolandia areas, good quality rentals are hard to find, and honest landlords are even more scarce.  I think owning your own home is more important in Mexico than in the USA. 

8. What realistic expectations would you list for someone considering building a home in Mexico?

It will always cost more and take longer than you are promised by your architect or contractor – sometimes much more and much longer.  In my Las Casas project we did not have an architect, but I did get estimates from a few.  The final cost ran about twice the estimates and took twice as long.

9.  Did things always go smoothly?

No.  There were some pretty bad days, especially when things like cabinets, doors and iron work were not delivered on time.  We had personnel problems from time to time -- usually because someone was too hung-over to come in on Monday.  My partner and I had some spats now and again.  But in the end, both projects turned out well.  Some of our workers were with us for almost 2 years and are still family friends.

10.  Would you undertake another building project?

Yes, I would love to do another, but, alas, I am no longer physically up to the task of close supervision or doing the electrical work.  I could do the design work and gofer chores if someone else could do the daily on-site supervision.

My building projects remain the highlight of my Mexican adventure.

This is a report from an unhappy home owner doing a remodel in a village near Puerta Vallarta.  It is a very familiar story.

Everyone who builds or remodels a house in Mexico (Mexican or gringo) has similar experiences: only about half of the workforce shows up on Monday (San Lunes) and some days, the workers don't show up at all (algo paso, or "something happened", i.e. their truck broke down; there is illness in the family; a sister is getting married). The casual pace of life here is part of what attracted us to Mexico; it takes some getting used to, and you must park your sense of time urgency at the border.

The bad news is that our construction has come to an (almost) complete standstill on our upstairs addition. Two weeks ago, our workers were offered jobs at twice the pay, as well as mucha comida y mucha cervesa in a town in the mountains about an hour's drive from here. That's the last we saw of them, and our contractor is still trying to hire a new crew. Hmmmm - we haven't actually seen or heard from him in almost two weeks, so he may have joined his crew in the other town. He doesn't answer his phone and his mailbox is full - probably messages from lots of other customers wondering why the work they already paid for isn't done yet.


It's now a few weeks later and our contractor and the workers have not returned.  It looks like they probably won't.  Not ever. The (former) contractor has given up and has taken a job in a car wash in Vallarta. So we have hired a masonry maestro to finish the stucco. He is doing a beautiful job. Then we will ask another friend to finish the plumbing and electrical work. And a very talented metal worker, has already been here to measure for the gates and windows. Bit by bit (poco a poco). That is the way things happen here. And that is fine with me.


Still later -- As it turns out, now we don't think the workers really ran off. We think the contractor just ran out of money. Against our better judgment (but at the urging of a trusted, longtime friend), we had paid him in advance for some of the work. He had several projects going, and the workers were not being very productive when he was not around. And he was very impressed with the whole concept of walking around with a clipboard, giving orders. He just couldn't cover all his bases. So they didn't get the jobs finished, and he ran out of money to pay them. We're pretty sure he just made up the story about the crew leaving town....but that is just speculation. We never heard from him again, and he still owes us about $1200 USD worth of work.

Rolly’s Comment: Paying in advance is very common for some things.  It is so much a part of the Mexican culture that it is hard not to do it.  I tried to balk at advanced payments until it was explained to me that I pretty much had to do it -- that a craftsman or small vendor would not have the capital to proceed.  It always made me uneasy, and we did have some problems with unfulfilled promises and lousy workmanship.

This family had more than their share of problems.  Most of them were the result of doing a poor inspection before buying.  And it sounds like that they failed to check out the first builder thoroughly enough.

The trouble with a money pit is that when you go down there, it's empty.

We had purchased a fine new house from a reliable builder in San Miguel.  He was a tall Texan who liked wide stairways, big bathtubs and spacious comfort in general.  After three years, I developed some health problems than were aggravated by the elevation in SMA.  We looked around the Lake Chapala area, found plenty of  good air and located a property right near downtown, but on a quiet street.  Perfect.  Well, that was the good part.

The owner, a neighboring property owner, was also the listing agent and had been using the old house as an "annex" to his hotel for overflow guests. We assumed (not a good idea) that since someone had been living bad could it be?  We brought a local builder over for an inspection, and he thought it was a mess, but basically sound. He didn't do anything radical, like tearing up the floors, etc.  So, we bought it. 

Our first discovery came several weeks after moving in. 

After a day with the moving, I gratefully headed into the "master" bathroom and turned on the bath tap.  Enough mud entered the tub to start an herb garden.  Then it leaked out around the edges and flooded the floor.   I will refrain from elaborating on what happened when we first flushed the toilet.  Or tried to run a shower.  Or what noises the water heater made.  Or how the fridge was barely cool inside.  Or about the invasion of big brown bugs that came out from under the sink.

The pressure pump on the water system was running at odd times of the day and 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.  Hmmm.  We weren't up and using water.  The tinaco was emptying at a rate we couldn't fathom.  We brought the builder over.  Turned out we were supplying pressurized water to any number of neighbors.  The plumber said we should put blue dye in the water and "run it down".  I asked if he was going to be the one checking the neighborhood for blue people.  Nope. We decided to start from scratch.  We needed a new tinaco anyway, since the old asbestos lining was hanging loose inside.  The new piping went directly from the street to the aljibe and  tinaco.  All the old pipes were plugged.  Shortly after that, water trucks began appearing in the neighborhood.  Who knew what was happening?  We didn't ask.

Then, we discovered the copper pipe from our big gas tank ran under the cement and terminated in the restaurant building next door.  Hmmm.  Chop.

The realtor's reaction was:  "Well, you had the chance to have an inspection, didn't you??"  Right.

Thousands of dollars later, we have our own water meter.  We learned about "disclosure" in Mexico.

The master bath obviously needed a complete overhaul.  The builder measured for a bathtub.  I said I wanted a full sized, regular tub.  He went his way.  A week or so later, a cute little tub arrived, suitable for bathing a four year old.  A skinny one.  Whaaaa??  Builder said that's what he thought I wanted.  At this point, I almost lost it.  Three men over six feet, a very portly plumber and me were crammed into the wreckage of the old bathroom.  I took a deep breath and announced I didn't care how many walls had to be torn down....I wanted A REAL BATHTUB. 

They left the "special order"  baby bathtub sitting in the yard.  I learned that nobody takes responsibility for making a measuring mistake. It was the fault of the gods.  The builder is young, has good hearing and speaks perfect English.  He charged the bathtub to our bill.  We "discussed" it.  He asked why we couldn't use it "somewhere", and in the end, we split the $$ and handed him the tub.  Even his little nephew didn't want it.  It wouldn't hold him and his toy boat, let alone his rubber ducky.

Then we learned that this builder loves "gringo" style building.  He secretly hated our very old Mexican house and wanted to tear it down and start over. He finally said so.  Aaaargh!  We liked it the way it was.  This creates conceptual problems.  He put in fixtures that were programmed to wear out in very little time.  When you turn on the shower, it adjusts itself.  That is, you step in, and the hot water quits. No reason.  Or the cold quits.  It's up to the gods, and they are mean-spirited suckers.  The plumber shrugged.  Who knows? He didn't.

The tile guy wanted to work in the semi-darkness, it seemed.  The end result looks it.

Sometimes, the crew showed up.  Sometimes, they didn't.  After six months of this nightmare, we said "enough" and stopped the project.  Then, a break.  Another neighbor said he "knew a guy".  We met Max the magnificent and his family of workers.  They came to work.  They showed up every day on time, cleaned up, used good materials and were reasonable.  The tore down the corrugated asbestos covering la sala (and carefully saved the pieces, which are probably somebody's new roof now) put up a beautiful brick ceiling, painted glorious colors on and in  the house and on the surrounding walls.

They put a fine fountain in the patio, and now we sit in la sala and watch the birds.  We love our old house. 

We would not like to do this again, however. 


I went against conventional wisdom given to foreigners moving to México: I didn't visit several locations, didn't spend several months in a place before deciding to live there, and didn't rent before buying.  I knew I couldn't afford to do all that, so once I was pretty sure I'd love living in my first choice of location, I bought the first (and possibly only) house I could afford in my chosen neighborhood.  This was on my second trip, when I had spent less than three weeks in the city, and going on three years later, I'm still convinced it was the right decision.  But I'd had nearly three decades of overseas living experience, mostly in developing countries.  For those who have the means, trial runs are probably a worthwhile investment, especially if they haven't spent much time outside their own country.


At the beginning of my property search, I told a real estate agent I was open to fixer-uppers.  He replied, "That's exactly what you're going to get.  All you can afford is a Mexican house, and they're all fixer-uppers." He was right.  Very few homes were available in the neighborhood I wanted, and they were too expensive.  I lucked out.  But the house was in sorry shape and needed a lot of work, including substantial demolition, a new roof, and all major systems.  So on my next trip after the closing, I went about finding a contractor.

I interviewed three, all recommended by people who had worked with them, and went with the one whom I felt had the best grasp of the project and the most detailed estimate.  We worked long distance for the structural phase, with me sending money, floor plans, and diagrams, and him sending news and photos.  Everything went fine.  I made one trip when it was nearly over to see the work and discuss the finishing phase.  Then I retired and moved here six months later.

After I arrived, work proceeded slowly, in part because I was flat broke for the first couple of months.  But once my retirement  money kicked in, I thought we'd be done in no time.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Finishing is much more complex than structural work, and many more things can go off track.  Chosen materials may be out of stock.  Specialized work crews (e.g., tilers) may be unavailable.  Some things need to be done before others, and in a small space, workers are unable to work on top of each other.  It must have been a busy season for building, because even with money, it was suddenly like pulling teeth to get anything done.  My contractor was on a large project out of town and had delegated mine to a less experienced colleague.  Work crews changed several times, and each time we had to re-explain everything.  Inevitably, some things didn't get communicated, and mistakes were made that had to be reworked.  One masonry crew came and left instantly, saying that they couldn't work in the mess their predecessors had made. 

Other problems were my doing.  Out of ignorance, I'd planned "rustic Mexican" decor in my bath and kitchen, with stained concrete sinks, concrete counters with inlaid talavera, and the like.  The contractor's rep wasn't used to such installations and didn't know the work or the pricing.  Even with photos, the workers had trouble understanding what I wanted, which made them unhappy and frustrated.  Available materials didn't allow for the subtle colors I'd chosen, and so on.  Finally I made compromises, because we were not only running out of time but spending far too much money reworking things.

I was able to extend my temporary rental by a few weeks, but there was a non-negotiable moving deadline as the owner was returning.  At about 7 pm on moving day, the plumbing maestro apologized that the drainage system couldn't be connected because the albañiles hadn't finished their part of the work.  I had to wait until the next day and barely got out of the rental on time.  Needless to say, I was a basket case.  I was finally in, but the house was nowhere near ready, and at this point it came out that the budget was blown.

The structural phase had been completed within budget, so I expected the same of the finishing.  Unfortunately, the finishing estimate contained a substantial mathematical error (Excel calculation) that neither the contractor nor I caught earlier, so we were well over what we thought was the budget even without any changes or extras, of which there were plenty. 

Don't kid yourself, as I did, that "rustic Mexican" is the simple, inexpensive decorating option.  Saltillo, for example, is pricier than most ceramic floor tile and costs significantly more to install.  Ditto for talavera.  Another poor decision of mine was to keep the old iron casement windows.  These had to be refurbished, and replacement pieces were no longer being manufactured but had to be made to order.  The only type of screens that would work were custom made roll-ups that were very expensive, especially given the number of large windows.  I also requested steel exterior doors like those on my neighbors' houses.  Again, these were no longer available on the market, so they had to be specially constructed, each with a matching screen door.  It would have been more cost-effective and practical to install modern aluminum sliding windows and ready-made doors, even fancy ones.  But we didn't know this until much too late.  There were other problems.  For example, the contractor's rep specified UV filter glass, without realizing how much more it would cost.  By the time he found out, the installation was done.  He was honest about it, and I couldn't bring myself to make them eat the cost or replace the glass.  It's nice, and I'm glad I have it, but it was another substantial unanticipated expense. 

I eliminated things that seemed too costly and/or unnecessary.  But the costs kept piling up.  The water heater wasn't included in the original estimate, nor was the stationary propane tank.  I decided to change the location of the washer and dryer, and to finish the sides of the adjacent neighbors' homes.  I asked for a rough exterior finish, assuming it would cost less, but instead it cost more.  It also soaked up more paint than estimated.  The contractor's electrician installed five ceiling fans that I bought, as well as my kitchen appliances, water heater, gas tank, etc.  I'd have had to pay for those installations in any case, and It was simply easier to have him do it.  But again, none of this work was included in the in the budget, which grew to more than 150,000 pesos over what I had anticipated.

My advice for those with strictly limited funds is to get pricing for any substantial change from the written estimate before agreeing to it.  Don't make assumptions, and don't wait for the contractor to warn you, because this may or may not happen.  My contractors were honest and able to account for expenses I questioned.  But they, too, were surprised at how costly some of the work turned out to be.  Another thing to be aware of is that they are not on your job site every single day, and they aren't always available when a question arises.  Once I complained to my contractor that I didn't know how to instruct the workers.  He said, "You shouldn't have to ...  that's our job." But in reality, situations arise in which decisions need to be made, and you end up making them because the work stops otherwise.  I'd assumed that the maestros wouldn't propose anything to me that wasn't  covered in their agreement with the contractor.  In fact, some would propose whatever seemed to be a good idea at the time, and in several cases I told them to go ahead without realizing that I was agreeing to an "extra". 

In the end, although I'd do some things differently if I had them to do over, the project went well, I love my house, and I'm generally pleased with the quality of the work.  The one exception ...  a big one ...  is the drainage system, which in my view (and I believe theirs) is a substandard installation.  They've reworked it once, free of charge but unsuccessfully.  We're still not settled on how to resolve the problem.

Drainage System from Hell

Six months after I moved in, I was still trying to get the grate (coladera) installed in the cover of a catch basin (registro) outside my back door that I assumed was for drainage from the patio.  It was a small thing, and the work crew kept forgetting, so I had covered the opening with a ceramic tile and gone on with my life.  But one day, after completing several other small things that had added up, they finally took the cover away to fit the grate.  A while later, I went back there ...  and to my horror found an open pit of raw sewage surrounded by a stench and a horde of flying and crawling insects.  I washed it out with the hose and covered it as best I could.  Then I hit the roof.  But on Saturday afternoon, little good it did.  By Sunday afternoon I'd figured out how the system was supposed to work and recognized that I had a real problem.  I also ID-ed the flying insects as "sewage flies".  Lovely, my kitchen was full of them.

Monday at 7 a.m.  I went into attack mode, and the contractor rep came over.  At first he tried to tell me that the installation was perfectly normal for Mexico, and that everything must be fine because it had been in use since October.  I wasn't buying, and I'm afraid I wasn’t very gentle with him, pointing out that this was a new system and asking if HE had open raw sewage, mutant cockroaches, and sewage flies sitting right smack next to HIS kitchen door.  I used the m-word a lot.  Finally I  convinced him via demonstrations that it wasn't working properly.  He arranged for the plumbing maestro to come the next day.

Just after he left, I noticed a piece of trash in the empty pool.  Then it moved and glared at me, and I was looking at a live rat!! I ran inside, closed the door and went straight for the phone.  He returned and killed it.  To his credit, he did NOT try to tell me it didn't come out of that damned registro.  He even brought the cover back and replaced it.

As best I can tell, the drainage mess resulted from a combination of several bad decisions in design and execution.  First, basins for an essentially open sewage system should never have been placed near the kitchen door and patio, which is also a living area.  Second, the drainpipe from the main bath basin was not installed with enough drop, and the concrete slab for the patio had weighed it down to almost level.  Drainage from the higher back bath was also entering it, negating the effect of what little flow there was.  This only became evident when the back bath went into use (by the tilers finishing the pool), or I'd have had problems much earlier.  Third, the concrete floors of the basins were too low and not leveled to direct the flow toward the front of the property and the street.  Finally, it was obvious that no one had tested the system.

They decided to make a closed Y connection from the main bath, bypassing that basin and raising the inclination of the pipe leading to the next one, which would be redone.  There followed several nightmarish days and nights during which they ripped up the patio and main bath to rework everything.  There is no access to the back other than through the house, so all the equipment, materials, and construction debris had to come through my living room and kitchen.  Neither bath nor the kitchen could be used, and I was not a happy camper.  Then we discovered that the two basins in the front of the house were also not draining properly toward the street, and they started working on those.

Then the pool was filled and the pool guy backwashed the filter, dumping a lot of water onto the patio.  It flowed against the house and sat, creating a moat at my back door.  Obviously, the floor had been angled to direct the water to the basin opening that had been tiled over.  So they had to break up the floor again to install a grate.  And so on.

I wish I could say that this solved the problem, but it didn't.  Before closing the project, I requested a warranty on the drainage system after a final check.  The check failed.  I realize that the only way to fix the system properly is to redo it almost from scratch.  That would mean excavating my patio (again), main bath, kitchen, and possibly a corner of the living room.  Neither they nor I are anxious to go that route, but it may have to be done.

To be fair, they haven't charged me a peso for the extra work.

Answers to Questions

Rolly’s note: In this section, she answers the same questions that were posed to me.

1.  What were some of the greatest challenges you encountered during your building project?

In no particular order: 1) almost not being able to move when I had to; 2) contractor rep frequently unavailable when I needed him; 3) poorly done drainage system; 4) going over budget; 5) being totally on my own with no experience.

2.  What did you learn along the way?

Many things too numerous to mention, but primarily that treating people with respect pays off, no matter how upset you are.  And that even good contractors and workers can make bad mistakes.

3.  How did the results of the building projects compare with your expectations for them?

For the most part, very well.  I had provided detailed plans, diagrams, and instructions.  I did underestimate the difficulties of choosing "traditional Mexican" decor.  And the bad drainage system came as a total shock.  It seemed like one of the simplest parts of the projects.

4.  What do you think is the biggest difference between construction in Mexico and U.S.  building projects?

I've never been involved in construction in the US.

5.  It looks like you knew people in Mexico before you began your building projects.  In cases of people who do not have connections, do you have any recommendations for finding workers that are "de confianza" (trustworthy, reliable)?

Get recommendations from any contacts you do have, then go with your gut.  I had no connections, no construction experience, and only a few leads, so it was a judgment call and a risk on my part, especially working long distance.  If I hadn't felt confident with the contractor, I doubt I'd have gone ahead when I did.  But I was aware that he was taking a big risk with me as well.

6.  How important do you feel it is to know Spanish when building a home in Mexico?

I had virtually none when I started but learned fast by having to use it daily.  "Construction Spanish"  tends to be regional and involves terms and concepts previously unknown to me in any language.  Although one of the contractor's colleagues spoke decent English, he didn't know most of the specialized words and phrases (some don't exist in English).  Maestros and workers simply spoke to me in Spanish and either demonstrated or used sign language if I didn't understand.  We drew a lot of sketches.  Paperwork and emails were in Spanish, but that was easier because I'd had Latin and was fluent in French. 

7.  What are the best advantages to having a home in Mexico?

A feeling of truly belonging to my town and my neighborhood, and the fact that no one can kick me out unless I break the law (barring a major change in government policy).  There's a transient feel to renting, and I believe buying a home is a far better investment, although there are no guarantees.  Perhaps most importantly, my neighbors are interested in getting to know me and seeing what I've done with the property.  Even though I'm not yet fluent in Spanish, we have a basis for conversation and cooperation. 

8.  What realistic expectations would you list for someone considering building a home in Mexico?

Ditto Rolly's comments.  It will cost more and take longer than you plan for.  Things will go wrong.  You may not be able to do everything you wish.

9.   Did things always go smoothly?

Absolutely not.  There have been days or even weeks when I've felt I would never finish.  (In fact, I still haven't.) 

10.   Would you undertake another building project?

Yes, if the opportunity arose.  I'd do a much better job of it knowing what I do now.  Despite the frustrations, it was interesting and fun, a valuable learning experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Mexican people in an authentic working situation.

This is our story about remodeling here in the Puerto Vallarta.

We talked to a few architects but they never got back to us and did not act in a  professional manner.  We originally wanted to add an extra floor.  A year later didn't have as much money and finally just wanted to spice up the house to make it more valuable for a sale.

We found an great abanil, who had been working across the street, and wanted to do some minor changes. So I thought it would be easy to get a permit and just get it done because the abanil didn't want to work until the permit was issued.

So we go to the presidencia to start the process of getting a permit.

I had prepared a drawing with a computer program I downloaded for free online.  It was a 3d home design program. We took all the measurements and drew out what we wanted.

First off we live in one of those Infonovit type housing projects where the houses start out all the same.  They are about 8 years old now.

What we decided to do is this: extend the front of the roof to form a front patio, or half carport; make a wall and gate around the cochera/or parking spot; put a caracol staircase in the back patio; and upstairs add a cover over the back patio and a half wall upstairs to form a terrace.

To me that didn't even seem like something that you would need to get a permit for. But we go to the presidencia with my 3D drawings and they ask us for our plan for our house. We said we were not given one, and we only had a copy that the neighbor gave us.

The front person (architect) that first reviewed our request basically started out saying NO!  We can't do the caracol or spiral staircase, no we could not cover the stairs.  Since we did not have our plan, and evidently the office had lost the entire plan for our whole subdivision, we had to talk to the director of planning.

We got an appointment and talked to him.  Meanwhile, we had to get together our proof of paying taxes and all sorts of documentation.

So we go to our appointment with the director, he said we COULD do what we wanted, (that was nice) and everyone loved my drawing but said that it was not useable, we had to have an architect create our plan, and also we had to have a perrito sign off on the plan.

Whatever...right.. ?, we just went through the endless amount of steps.  Luckily the director gave us a letter to go to the colegio of architects and get a plan done for free.  We only had to pay a small fee for the copies and the perito.

Then we had to go back to the permiso office at the presidencia and pay fees, and then being told to come back another day.   Evidently they needed to verify our house is the address we said.  That took another week, until finally they made us buy new government numbers for our house, as if it is a new house, since they had lost the records of our subdivision.  Now we have an extra set of address numbers.

Anyway, this pay minor fees, do copies, stand in line, and come back for an appointment went on for about 3 1/2 weeks. until finally we had the permit.

It all seemed quite arbitrary. The colegio architect said to call him when we get the permit, and he would come by.  We called him, but he never came by. We just started working, and evidently we have to go back to the presidencia again once we are finished to have them sign off on it.

All this for a 1/2 carport, fence, stairs, and half wall upstairs.  The house looks great.

So over all it wasn't expensive all together with colegio and permiso less than $200.00 dollars. It just took a lot of time, while we could have lost our great abanil to another job. Luckily we did not.

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