You found the perfect house or the perfect lot in your dream location. There is just one problem: It needs work. Whether it’s adding an American-style kitchen or making improvements to the roof or any number of other issues, the idea of doing a renovation project in Panama is holding you back.
You have looked at any number of houses, but nothing compares to “that one.” Renovating a house should never stop you from buying your dream house in paradise. There are several important steps that will help make your new house your dream house and keep you sane at the same time.
One major problem with any renovation project is finding a contractor. All the due diligence in the world won’t exclude a few bad apples, but in Panama many contractors are not only contractors but also providers for their families. They care about their work, and if you are a gringo, they’ll want to make you happy so you recommend them to your other gringo friends. But you are hung up on the bad apples…
The best way to find a good contractor is asking around. Don’t just ask other expats, ask the guy working on the house down the street, ask business owners, and put the word out. People will come to you. In Panama you are not expected to pay for an estimate, so keep getting numbers until you reach both a number and a person you are comfortable with.
The next issue for many new expats is the most obvious—the Spanish-language barrier. Don’t let this intimidate you. This is where being comfortable with your contractor is important to keep your stress levels in check. If you find a contractor you are comfortable with, then working with him should be a learning experience, not a migraine.
There are several interesting points about construction that will help both you and your contractor work together. One, construction is about a lot of numbers. Become friends with a large notebook and several pens. Written numbers are international, and so are pictures. If you can’t say the numbers, write them down. You have no clue how to say window, draw a picture. You want a new door, draw a picture and point out where you want that door; using your numbers or a tape measure, show the contractor the size.
Working side by side with your contractor is the part of a renovation project that many expats overlook. Too many expats buy a house, pick a random contractor, tell him what they want, and then head back home. This is a huge mistake.
A renovation project is a hands-on, full-time job. If your workers are there, be there. If they are working, so are you. You won’t be doing the labor, but you are the project supervisor.
Take for example your new door. You drew a picture, you pointed to where it should go, you showed the measurements, and then you left. When you come back, your new door may well be somewhere else and smaller. Why…? It could be for any number of reasons, and you won’t understand them unless you’re there to have a conversation. A surprising number of these types of misunderstandings are due to cultural reasons or local insider information that you aren’t yet privy to—your workers might know, for example, that this area floods or there is a water line. You were not there, so they just went ahead and did what they thought made the most sense.
Always write up a contract with your contractor. You can do this in very simple text, but it must be in Spanish. It should include the estimate your contractor gave you, and it is always a good idea to include a time frame.
Many Panamanian contractors will want to extend the time they are working for you, as the job means guaranteed money. Your contract should include what will be done in the case the project is not completed in the given time frame. Include a weekly pay day. You don’t want to be running to the ATM every day, and this will eliminate individual workers asking for advances. This is the contractor’s job, not yours. It can be helpful to include a daily price for workers if you decide to add projects not included in the contract.
As always, find a contractor you’re comfortable with and discuss any and all issues as they arise. If you wait until the project is complete, there is little recourse and you’ll end up paying more and enduring unnecessary stress.