Ten Months Later In Medellin
Ten months ago, Lief and I bought an apartment in Medellin, Colombia. It was a steal, it seemed, a big apartment (big enough for our entire family plus guests) in an architecturally interesting building in a prime location. It had a huge terrace with an expansive view over the valley of Medellin and the mountains beyond. Not a lot of charm in its current condition but oodles of potential.
Originally, we’d set out looking for a rental investment property. Our attention had been piqued by reports of annual net rental yields in this market of as high as 20%. The apartment we found in El Poblado allowed us to buy into what we perceived as a very tempting investment and diversification opportunity for the bargain price of about US$675 per square meter.
The trouble was that, the better we’d gotten to know Medellin during our rental-investment-unit shopping visits, the more I’d grown to like her…and the more I wanted to be able to spend time enjoying her charms. Thus the much bigger than would be required or even sensible as a rental investment apartment that we finally decided to buy. It wasn’t, by this time, so much a rental investment as a family project. Lief was buying for diversification (of currency and of country) and for appreciation (we are both bullish on this market long term). I was buying with the quickly expanding agenda of creating a retreat for us and our kids, a place where they, as well as we, would look forward to returning as often as possible. Thinking longer term, a place, even, where they might come with kids of their own someday.
My matriarchal and romantic inclinations kicked in and took over, and I set about, 10 months ago, with the help of Carlos, the contractor we engaged, to transform a run-down, worn-out apartment with kitchens and bathrooms circa the late 1950s into something special, customized for our family’s interests.
This meant a big kitchen with room for cooking and for hanging out. A library with room for books. A game area with room for Jack’s Wii. A built-in bar on the terrace with room for lots of friends. Plus, I’d persuaded Lief to let me try to make the apartment special, with custom-designed parquet floors in the living room and library, handmade tiles in the bathrooms and kitchen, French doors to the terraces…
It’d been some years since my last renovation project, and I had a pent-up appetite. But the real reason Lief agreed to indulge my hobby-renovator inclinations was because we’d been assured that the costs of this kind of thing in this country would be unbelievably low. Not only labor, but materials, too. Even things like parquet flooring and hand-painted tiles were reported to be quite affordable, and my initial scouting around on the ground seemed to bear this out.
By late December, which I now can recognize as just past the project’s halfway point (though, at the time, I never would have predicted that we had another four months of renovating ahead of us), Lief and I were getting antsy. Carlos had talked about a four- to six-month timeline. That would mean completion in January. Our visit in December confirmed that that was not going to happen.
By this point, we were also getting concerned about the cost. It was turning out to be more than we’d planned for…but still reasonable on a per-square-meter basis, we had to admit to each other, especially given the extent of the renovations. We’d torn out walls, added bathrooms, reconfigured the space completely, plus redone the wiring and the plumbing from scratch.
By February, I was concerned, and Lief was frantic. The “Send more money” requests were coming in rapid succession, yet the photos Carlos was sending to show progress really didn’t. We planned an emergency trip over to Medellin from Panama City to see for ourselves what was what. On the scene, walking through the apartment, room to room, with Carlos, we were calmed a bit. Yes, he was moving ahead. All the behind-the-wall and under-the-floor work was done, all the floors were laid, all the restructuring was complete. Still ahead, though, lay the installation of all the doors and windows, the bathroom fixtures, the entire kitchen, the bookcase in the library, the terrace bar…
Now those things began to seem less important. We didn’t really need a built-in bar on the terrace, did we? And Jackson could do without his Wii center. We’d been promised that the apartment would at least be enclosed, all windows and doors in place, by mid-January. By the end of February, this still was not the case. Who cared about Jack’s video game habit? We needed toilets, sinks, and to keep out the rain.
Thus began the long dark night of this project, from late February until today, mid-April. Six or seven weeks of short fuses and sometimes heated e-mail exchanges. Calls for more money. Electronic photos that showed things, windows, for example, nothing whatsoever like the photos and drawings we’d discussed when planning for them with the carpenter. Was the man on drugs?
Meantime, some things we’d specified at the beginning (the style for the wall around the terrace, for example) had been forgotten (who could blame Carlos, though, really…who could remember anything from all the way back at the “beginning” by this point?)…and decisions made without our say-so had led to mistakes that could be corrected only by tearing out and starting over. We know that this is the number-one risk of a long-distance renovation like this one…but, still…
As I knelt on the ground in the master bathroom one afternoon, indicating on the tiled floor with my moving finger the space the shower should encompass (as opposed to the half-as-big space it did encompass), Lief, leaning over me, said to Carlos, leaning over alongside him, in Spanish, “Can you fix this? Can you make the shower space twice as big as it is right now? It’s really got to be bigger. There’s no way I can fit in the current space. I’ll never be able to take a shower…”
“No problem,” Carlos replied (again, in Spanish). “We can do anything you want. You just have to…” Carlos’ voice trailed off, and he completed his response by rubbing his forefinger against his thumb and looking shyly over in Lief’s direction.
Right. We could have anything we wanted to pay for.
Only, if they’d asked us how big to make the shower space in the master bathroom before making the shower space in the master bathroom we wouldn’t now be reduced to asking them to tear out the too-small shower space in the master bathroom so they could make it over again, bigger.
The master bathroom also has a claw-footed bathtub. They’re not common in Colombia, and I would have given up on the idea except that I found one in an antique shop for one-eighth the cost of a new one in this country. It was still an indulgence, but easier to rationalize once I’d found the secondhand version.
The thing was, neither Carlos nor his plumber had ever installed a claw-footed tub before…I discovered after they’d installed this one. They sent photos to show us the job, which featured a mish-mash mess of ordinary plastic piping coming out of the spigot end of the tub. Ah!
I went online and found photos of properly installed claw-footed tubs to e-mail to Carlos…who showed them to his plumber…who said that, yes, he could do what he saw in the photos. He’d have to tear out everything he’d already done, though…and buy the right fixtures from a specialty shop. By now, I’d learned that, in Colombia, a “specialty” shop is one selling imported things. And, as Colombia imposes absurdly high import duties on almost everything it imports, imported means expensive.
The plumber reinstalled the claw-footed tub…and the new installation, as we saw in a photo that followed two weeks later, was fine. Just as it should be. We’d gotten what we’d been willing to pay for.
Or…so it appeared. More on this in a minute.
Meantime, not only claw-footed bathtubs, but dishwashers, too, are uncommon in this country. When designing the kitchen, I explained to Carlos that we’d like to include a dishwasher.
“But you have a sink,” Carlos replied.
“Well, yes…but we’d like a dishwasher,” I explained.
“Ah, you’d like a dishwasher instead of the sink!” Carlos exclaimed, happy finally to comprehend.
“No,” I said, “we’d like a sink and a dishwasher. Both.”
Carlos looked at me funny. By now, though, even this early on in the project, I was used to the funny looks.
Back to the bathtub…
We signed off on the photos that Carlos had sent and moved on to other decisions and fixes. That was about two weeks before our current visit (I’m writing from the apartment)…the visit where we were to take up residence for the first time.
When we walked through the front door our first day here for this we-finally-get-to-move-in trip, we were delighted. The sun beaming through the windows of the French doors to the terrace danced and glistened off the polished parquet of the hallway, the office to the right, the salon to the left…
The long, dark night was over. Lief and I relaxed a little…and smiled.
Carlos was here at the apartment to meet us. We walked through each room with him, studying every detail, making a final punch list. Lots of little nit-picks–a bit more molding here…additional hanging space in this closet…paint that wall in addition to those others…seal the tiles on the terrace–but nothing big or bad. A few dozen tiny refinements.
Lief, Jackson (along for this visit), and I returned to the Park 10 Hotel, where we’d spend our first two nights. Then we’d move into the apartment. By that time, all the door hardware should have been installed so we’d be able to lock ourselves in tight come nightfall. Meantime, we had a lot of shopping to do. We needed sheets, towels, toiletries, cleaning supplies, dishes, glassware, pots, pans…
The next morning, we three set out early from the Park 10 headed for the Home Center. We loaded up two carts with kitchen, bed, and bath ware, crammed the resulting packages and bags into a taxi, then headed back over to our new digs.
We walked through the (still-not-locked-because-it-still-had-no-handle) front door, down the glistening hallway to the door to the master bedroom, pushed it open, and stopped short. The floor that, only 15 hours before, had been polished perfection was now a jumble of little wooden rectangles, the former parquet, popped up at crazy angles in bunches and piles all over.
An earthquake? No…a flood.
The plumber had found the right materials to allow him to execute his virgin claw-footed tub installation…but, still, somehow, something hadn’t gone quite right. There was a leak. That, overnight, had become a flood.
One of the things I’ve admired most about Carlos over the 10 long months of this renovation adventure has been his cool-headedness. Lief and I can moan and groan, even rant and rave, and Carlos keeps his calm. After three straight days of a series of hours-long searches in no less than eight different tile stores for just the right tiles for each of four bathrooms, Carlos remains nonplussed and pleasant.
“No problem, Señora Kathie,” he’ll say…”Tranquilo…no problem…we will fix it…we will find what you’re looking for…”
So it was with the floor in the master bedroom. Carlos shook his head solemnly when he saw it but remained even.
Today, eight days later, the floor is nearly restored to its pre-flood prettiness. Carlos’ guys have re-laid the pieces and, as I write, are polishing them smooth and shiny again.
All the door hardware has been installed, most of the walls to be painted have been painted, and Carlos is working his way, systematically, through the punch list. I’d say we’re two weeks from touchdown.
All that remains now is to pay the final bills.
If you know my husband, Lief Simon, you know that, unlike Carlos, he isn’t known for his calm. Carlos and Marion, our assistant, who has helped to coordinate this effort, spent the morning huddled around the little round table in our new breakfast area, reviewing invoices and statements. When they’d finished, Marion presented me with a recap and a final total figure for the amount due Carlos upon completion of all the work.
I’ll try to take a page from Carlos’ book and say, simply, that the figure for what we still owe is more than I expected. Lief’s reaction might be more colorful.
To keep it all in perspective, though, we are, as of this writing, two weeks away, after 10 months of work and, sometimes, agony, from a fully restored and (if I do say so myself) beautiful three-bedroom, four-bathroom apartment that is everything I hoped it might be and that will, when all the figures have been ciphered, come in at a cost-per-square-meter that, against all odds and despite my seeming best efforts to the contrary, manages to qualify as good, even in the context of Lief’s investment benchmarks.
All in a city that continues to delight and engage.