One year ago today I fired the contractor who was building my house. He had already run ONE YEAR over the contracted completion date, had spent 97% of my money and only completed 70% of the project. Yes, he was able to finally finish the gringo house he was working on before mine, and he did buy himself a new Toyota truck [Many contractors here take their profit up front, knowing that they bid low and probably won't be able to finish the job! And if you think I'm being too harsh, I didn't really come down here to get screwed.] . So a year ago this contractor was out of money . . . my money! . . . and nowhere near completing the project, and I had to leave on the ZUIDERDAM in two months.
As an interesting background, when my wife was running around trying to get a certificate of occupancy, early this year, we discovered that the builder had never pulled a building permit!!! In spite of the fact that the building department, fire department, electrical company, and health department had all inspected and approved everything . . . a building permit was never issued!! Go figure how and why that happened! The builder guy did . . . and frankly this surprised me . . . show up and pay for the permit and pay the fine.
A friend of mine, Brad Abijian, told me that if at the end of the project there is one worker, or sub, or service provider that you would choose to work with again, you will be lucky! Lots of folks have asked who designed our house, and who did what . . . so here is some of my experience, and the names of those I would choose to work with again.
Designers: My wife, Nikki, and Idesigned and redesigned the house until we knew exactly what we wanted. We let our architect have a go at it before we laid our design on him just to see what he might come up with. When we saw his tentative plan, we knew he hadn’t listened to a word we said: it looked like it was cut and pasted from every other gringo house in Boquete. So we gave him our plan and said, draw it exactly, design a roof line, and do the working drawings.
Design consultant: Our friend, Brad Abijian worked and reworked our plan with us, pointing out potential issues and helping us with traffic flows.
Architect: Unfortunately this young man either didn’t listen to us or took it upon himself to change things. Since the plans were in metric I didn’t catch many of the changes until it was too late. He eliminated a key window, shrank windows in bathrooms where we wanted a lot of light, lowered the plate line, put in standard doors instead of the over-sized doors I had specified, put a dormer in the wrong place – not discovered until it was too late to change. He had totally changed the design of the fireplace to look like the fireplace in every other gringo home he has designed, which was exactly what I did not want. In fairness I didn’t pay additional to have him supervise construction, but by then I had already discovered some things that I didn’t like. And fortunately my builder did discover a major bearing wall that had no support. The 56″ wide dishwasher he called for in the plan, as far as I can discover, doesn’t exist for home use. This guy loves high spaces, which I designed to a height I thought worked, so my living room works a lot better than it does in some of the houses this guy designed to his own taste.
Builder: This guy is fairly good with the concrete structure. Walls were straight, corners were square, windows and places for cabinets were as designed in the plan. Most of the concrete work was actually done by Vionedes Maya, a Palmira neighbor who worked for the contractor from day one, was a great worker. I hired him to help me finish after I fired the contractor, and I’ve used him on a couple jobs since. The workers were always complaining that they didn’t have cement, paint, wire, electrical outlets, etc.: I guess I should have read the handwriting on the wall since I was paying the contractor, and retroactively, now obviously, he wasn’t spending money on my project. I wanted a special kind of window made by a company in Panama City instead of using a local company. I pushed the contractor to get a quote and I told him I’d pay the difference, and I did. What I ended up with I believe were “look alike” windows made locally that have given me all kinds of problems. I guess the contractor thought he could take the extra money, pocket it, and the dumb gringo would never know the difference and, for a while, he was right. He took shortcuts, cut corners, walked away with 97% of my money only doing 70% of the job. This is typical of many Panamanian contractors: they quote low, take their profit up front, and let you hanging at the end.
My advice to people thinking about building in Panama . . . aside from “Don’t!” . . . is that you can’t talk to too many people before committing to a contractor. These guys all seem nice: don’t trust your gut feeling. Talk to lots and lots of people, including expats, especially expats. Understand that almost everyone is related in Boquete and no one is going to speak ill of anyone, even if they know they are irresponsible. No Panamanian ever said anything bad about my builder, but when I went into the Building Department, after I fired his ass, and told them who had been my contractor they just rolled their eyes. My guy had done this time and time again to gringos: I was just too stupid to have talked to enough expats to get the real lowdown.
Cabinets: Marlboro Cabinets from China (no longer in business – at least not selling cabinets. Instead pushing an Ikea-like line of cheap furniture.) – big mistake. Front doors look nice, disaster to put together, drawer sliders terrible, and glue on some doors coming apart in the humidity of Boquete. The quiet drawer closers we paid extra for one-by-one are failing and preventing the drawers from closing at all, so we have to remove them.
Tile: Roof tile and floor tile, from David Carbarlleda. The installation of the tile was by William, a young guy who worked for the contractor who I’d probably use again, in fact after I fired the contractor, I hired him to finish the job. The contractor picked THE most expensive Spanish tile roof he could find, from David Carballeda, had a guy who had no idea what he was doing install what looked like half the roof, much of it crooked. When I fired the contractor David helped me find a guy who knew what he was doing. My original contractor had laid the roof tiles sideby side instead of overlapping them as they are intended to be installed. It made it look like he had completed more of the roof that way . . . and it cost me another $7,000 to buy enough tiles, then several thousand to pull everything up and do it right.
Water supply: Well, tanks, pressure, reverse osmosis: problems from day one. People who know about drilling wells in the highlands of Chiriqui don’t. I was ignorant about a lot of things and well drilling and water was certainly one of them. In an earlier blog I had criticized the performance of the Aqua Safe of Canada reverse osmosis, and the owner of the company, Ryan Anthony, read my blog and was kind enough to provide helpful information to correct the situation.
Marble & Granite Counter tops: Expensive. OK. Tons of paperwork and fine print. Fine print said I should put down 3/4 inch plywood as a base, or they couldn’t guarantee their work. I did: they ripped most of it up and installed much without any base. When I complained that the undermount sink, which they installed, was leaking, I was told my plumber should have sealed it . . . but they installed it. While drilling holes in my green marble desk top they slurped something on the marble, and I still have marks in the marble, and they busted off the Ariston oven door while moving it, presumably moving it holding the oven door. They never mentioned any of this: of course I’m sure the pages and pages of disclaimer I’m sure covered it somehow.
Drywall: I have no idea who the subcontractor was, but I, who am definitely an amateur at drywall, could almost do better.
Plumbing: I have no idea who the contractor had doing this, other than the final product was a mess. Oscar Torres, a plumbing and electrical engineer in Boquete, has helped us unscramble and put things right, and is helping me redo the casita on our property.
One example: Since he didn’t have a right angle connection handy, the original plumber simply heated and bent the PVC . . . of course cutting the flow by half . . . not thinking I would notice that I didn’t have any hot water! When they ran out of glue they just stuck the pipes together and hoped nobody would notice! Unfortunately this kind of crap is typical!
Iorn work: My neighbor Elmer Jiminez. Neat guy, and he does good work, moves quickly. Great discovery. Did porch railing, towel bars, etc. I describe something, he makes a sketch and makes ithappen. My kinda guy. No BS, just does it. I’d definitely use him again, and have.
Painters: Lots of them, almost all disappointing. In the end I had my crew finishing the painting. One of the best painters in Panama is a local Indian who was doing grunt work for the contractor. When I fired the contractor I hired two of his guys, Maya and William, and since Sabino Rodriquez had worked well with Maya and William used him to round out our team. (A lot of times Latinos and Gnobe Bugle Indians do not work well together.) Together we finished the house before I left on the ZUIDERDAM!
Sabino has since moved into a room on our finca, finished high school (at 25 with no support or encouragement from his family), and is now doing cement rapeo work for me. He is a hard worker with an unsual work ethic. He wants to go to University and become an English teacher, not that he speaks English now. He had never painted before. I gave him a brush, and showed him what to do. He is the only Panamanian painter I have seen who never splashed a drop of paint anywhere on anything and carefully cut in corners, etc. Redoing the casita he quickly picked up cement work. Hard worker.
Woodwork and doors – We used Oldemar Rodriquez, the “dean” of Boquete woodworkers. He does nice work if you can get him. Not terribly organized, but a real craftsman. You just have to wait in line and keep after him. I know my contractor stiffed him, so I tried to work with him and we got mostthings finished. I’d use Oldemar again . . . and I’d drink a lot . . . but the craftsmanship and quality is worth the hassle. I would not let him use the guy he used to finish our woodwork! This kid has inhalled way too much spray! I finally banished him from inside the house since he would overspray on everything. He only worked a few hours each day and would mess up everyone else’s work thinking only of himself.
Electrical – I inherited my electrician, and I know he too was stiffed by the contractor, although I suspect on some things he was already paid for the job, then charged me additional for supplies and work. A bit of a prima dona. Now I use Oscar Torres exclusively. He is an electrical and plumbing engineer and his wife is an electrical engineer, so I have more confidence. He works regularly and is highly dependable.
We bought plumbing fixtures, faucets, lock sets, electrical fixtures, paint, etc. from a number of places, none of which had any sense of customer service. I guess I’d use them again because I have no choice, but, as with most things in Panama, anyone who comes in her with an iota of a sense of customer service would beat out the competition . . . except that Panama isn’t really a country open to competition. So the same old companies owned by old families thrive without offering any real customer service. Unfortunately I bought some of my white line appliances from a major store . . . see the previous sentence . . . and they managed to push off a refrigerator that was last year’s model on me, and it was a floor model to boot! Alex at Infox in David was fantastic to work with and if I had to do it again I’d buy all of my appliances from Infox.
I still have a punch list of a dozen items to work on . . . and without a contractor, guess who gets to take care of the punch list? And, of course, since the guy ran with the money and didn’t finish the contract, guess who gets to do the “warranty” work? Bingo! Do I hate this contractor’s guts? Of course! Being screwed is not my chosen lifestyle. So why don’t I sue him? Oh, you virgin to Panama!! Of course everything is in his wife’s name. Look, he’s run this scam before . . . he knows what he is doing. “Next gringo!” Should he lose his license? Of course! Will he? You’ve got to be kidding!
So there you have it . . . a year later and I have half a dozen guys I’d use again, so I must be more fortunate than most who are crazy enough to try and build in Panama. I hasten to say that the mix above includes a whole lot of people from a lot of different places: Panamanians (Latino and Nobe Bugle), Europeans, folks from the US, Nicaragua and Columbia. No one country has a lock on hard work and quality, and no one country has only folks trying to scam and get by. There are snakes in the grass . . . everywhere . . .
Including, I might add, my finca in Palmira!
Jonathan, who is helping out on our finca, presented us today with another baby fer de lance . . . we’ve come up with 5 or 6 so far this year that we’ve seen. Jonathan had picked up a pile of clippings and out dropped this guy! Baby fer de lance are actually quite dangerous, being young, hot-headed and stupid . . . and the scary thing is that a mama fer de lance gives birth to up to 80 unruly offspring . . . so that means there may be as many as 70-some brothers and sisters out there . . . and that’s from one female. Rainy season is the time you encounter more snakes. So we need to fumigate the farm with some mean-smelling stuff to drive away the snakes, probably any friends we have, and maybe us as well.
PS – The identification is by my worker Jonathan who speaks no English . . . and we of course speak minimal Spanish, so I am not positive it is a fer delance. The markings look a little different than my snake guide, but maybe it is because this guy is a juvenile. Jonathan points to the shape of the head and the fish hook tail as evidence of it being a fer de lance. Any help from all of you herpatologists out there is welcome!
PSS – And if you’re about to post a “Comment” telling me that you’ve found this wonderful contractor, yada yada yada, and I know that he/she has pulled this underbidding scam with another gringo, or your house isn’t even finished yet, I’m not going to publish it. Once your house is done . . . and assuming your contractor hasn’t pulled a fast one that I know of on any of my friends . . . then, please comment.