Monday, November 27, 2006


I've been renovating a house here in Hollywood. It's a 2 story house that my father-in-law began building for my wife about 3 years ago and never finished. Typical construction for Costa Rica: concrete, block, stucco, tile floors on the first floor, wood floors on the second, wood roof structure with a corrugated metal roof. What makes it atypical of a tico house is the amount of floor-to-ceiling glass, a bathroom for each bedroom, and the two huge balconies on the second floor - one of wood, the other of concrete. The money ran out, so the house sat in disrepair for quite awhile.

There were two circuit breakers for the entire house - one for the tiny kitchen and one for the rest of the house. So if you turned on a light and a blow dryer at the same time - pop! Nothing was grounded. The glass was thin and cheap and was installed with construction grade lumber that had warped and was breaking the glass panels. There were bats and rats taking up residence. The floors had warped. There were termites in the roof.

Nonetheless, I could see the house's potential and I couldn't stand to look at it in its current state. Not to mention the fact that it sits on a 3 hectare piece of jungle in the center of Hollywood. One of the last places howler monkeys can come to cruise the canopy without risk of getting hit by a car or electrocuted. It's very private. I like my privacy. So I decided that I'd finish it and my wife and I would move in at the end of the month. That was the first week of October, and it's still not done yet...

The project consisted (and consists) of completely trashing the old electrical system, putting in a 24 breaker box, pulling new grounded wire throughout, pulling cable and telephone wire, adding light switches and outlets including two 220 outlets for washer/dryer and and electric range and more for air conditioning, adding a meter and breaker at the pole (a real breaker, not the throw arm breaker). The old glass would be replaced by aluminum windows with sliding doors and screens to the balconies and terrace and glass swing doors with closers for the main entries. Stucco would be applied outside, all soffits would be reconstructed and a pediment constructed over the terrace over the main entry in front, all painted and succoed. The entire interior would be painted. The roof would be painted. Two airconditioning units would be installed upstairs in the room that would be my office, and our master "jungle vista" bedroom. Ceiling fans would be installed in every room. Interior and exterior light fixtures, including security lights with motion detectors, and globes for the gates, would be installed.

I hired a guy to do the stucco, paint and gypsum on a recommendation from another gringo friend of mine who lives here and builds homes. I had interviewed a couple more, but went with the recommendation even though he was more expensive. The stucco guy recommended an electrician. I had two estimates from other electrical guys and he was the middle, and I figured these guys knew each other and would be able to coordinate work better. And so it began.

Some notes and observations I've made over the last 6 weeks:

1. When selecting paint color, I'm used to being given the color wheel and selecting my colors over a day or two, or more. Not the case this time. Color wheels are too precious a commodity. In many places they don't exist and if they do people don't give them back. So the guy from the ferreteria comes over with the color wheel and waits 3 hours while I select colors for the interior paints and the exterior stuccos. I was pretty happy with myself for doing this in 3 hours and the colors look fantastic. But it was selection under pressure while the guy from the ferreteria snoozed in his pickup. Nothing else to do, I guess. Pura vida!

2. There is no "one stop shopping" here in Costa Rica. It's not like hiring a painter in the US who will give you a price for materials and labor, and guarantee it. Here, it's just mano de obra (labor). YOU buy the materials and pay for THEM to install them. I have no problem with being my own contractor. In fact I prefer it. But see 3., below.

3. When someone gives you a list of materials, quantities and prices for the stuff you will need to buy, you can be assured that it is pretty much basura (garbage). I ended up using and spending twice to two-and-a-half times the material estimate my stucco guy gave me. In reality, he had no clue. And he knew that once he started, I was going to pony up for whatever he needed if he ran out. This story is repeated by many I know who are in construction. There's really no way around this one. Plan on twice the estimate and you may not be disappointed.

4. Construction guys here expect YOU to buy THEIR tools. In this case, my stucco guy had NONE. I asked him how he could be in the business of drywall, paint and stucco and have no tools - no answer, deer in the headlights stare. I was looking for a hammer of mine one day that I had "leant" him and my guy says, "Oh, you mean the hammer you bought me?". I had to explain to him that any tools I bought were MINE, not his, and that I had the facturas (receipts) and would be checking at the end of the job for every single one. If it was missing, it came out of his pay. No deer in the headlights stare on that one. Money is the only thing that is understood. Praise Shiva that my electrician brought his own tools. He even went out and bought a car after the 2nd installment I paid him, with an eye on the future. The stucco guy was blowing his pay on guarro and putas, living for the day.

5. Constructing a muestra (mockup) of a small portion or sample of the the work before going ahead with the rest consists of doing all of the work, looking at it, and if it is not what you want, tearing it down and starting again. I drew a pediment in 3-dimensions from above and below, as well as a technical section through the materials. I took the entire team to another house being constructed nearby to explain to them what a pediment was, and what I wanted. Many nods of understanding.

Took three tries before they got it right, never constructing a mock-up to discuss before proceeding further. It was pedal to the floor, "How's that look?" "Not even close, do it again." (Repeat).

6. Never think ahead. If you know you are running out of nails, paint, cable or stucco, wait until you use the last nail and tell the dueño (owner) that you're out and you need more. This caused me countless headaches on stucco, as the two colors I was using were custom and had a 3-day lead time for mixing and shipping from S. Jose. These guys would wait until they hit the bottom of the bucket to tell me, "Hey, we need more!", every single time!

7. Make sure the guy you contract with will be there to oversee the work. My electrician was great! My stucco guy was taking theology classes in S. Jose and wasn't on the job 3 days a week. That meant I had to be there. When he tried to charge me for extras, I gave him a very expensive bill for the time I had to be there when he wasn't. He ended up owing me money.

8. Check backpacks of everyone before they leave for the day. Theft is sport here in Costa Rica. If you don't check bags, things sprout legs and disappear. Make sure everyone knows that it comes out of their pay. I got off relatively easy as only 3 of my light fixtures and a coil of cable were stolen, and the guy I suspected was the thief forgot his motorcycle helmet on his dash out. I'm holding on to it in case he comes back looking for it. He hasn't. It's always nice to have an extra.

9. Make a medium sized noise at the ferreteria when you have a problem. I had major problems with stucco not adhering to certain areas on the exterior walls. I ended up buying twice what should have covered. I made a medium sized stink over the phone one day, and then at the ferreteria the next. An engineer from the ferreteria came out to look at the house, ACKNOWLEGED THERE WAS A PROBLEM WITH THE STUCCO, then said there was nothing he could do! He didn't know that I had left the ferreteria the week before with seven, unpaid-for 5 gal. buckets of stucco when their computer system went down and they couldn't take payment. So I owed them. But I also owed them for four buckets more, that were delivered, but for which I hadn't yet paid. So I get a call the following day with a song and dance that there's a problem and they want me to pay full price for 11 buckets of bad stucco. I told them to work something out on the price and that I'd visit the ferreteria the next morning to resolve the dispute. I didn't want any trouble, but I wasn't going to pay full price.

So I hit them first thing in the AM the next day. I only spoke when spoken to and listened to the sob story of the guy who would be in trouble with his boss if I didn't pay, and that this was the best price he could give me. I spied a truck of one of the more prominent builders here in the area who only does expensive, complicated custom homes. Let's call him so-and-so. He's a friend of mine and one of the best clients the ferreteria has. I looked at the guy who was whining and wondered out loud, "I wonder if so-and-so might be able to advise me on how to fix this stucco?". The whiner's eyes awakened, the candle illuminated over his head (there was no electricity for a light bulb), he got on the phone to his boss. Boss showed up with 3 peones in 10 seconds. I paid THEIR cost for the stucco and got a 1 year, 100% guarantee that they would fix anything that went wrong with the stucco AND paint. They come back tomorrow to fix not only the stucco, but to repaint two bedrooms that have matte finish paint on the walls instead of the eg-shel I ordered.

10. All window screens are not alike. A window screen is anything that fits over a window opening, like a lid over a jar, but without the fit. Removable window screens do not exist. "That's the way it's done all over Costa Rica. Why are you complaining? I don't understand". I showed them what I meant, fitting the screen into the track above, in line with the window jamb on the sides, and only requiring a couple of screws below. The argument for the lid over the jar became more amplified. When a tico is backed into a corner and knows he/she is wrong, you can be assured that he/she will wrongly argue even more vehemently, even though the right argument is staring them in the face. There's absolutely no way I've found of getting around this surreality.

Just got off the phone with the A/C guy. The condensate pumps I've been waiting for did indeed arrive on Saturday. But they're 110v, not 220v. What a surprise. Maybe tomorrow. Haven't even gotten to doors and millwork. Pura mierda!

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