Building a Home on Cozumel Island, Part 2: Learning from Our Mistakes
Building on Cozumel Doesn't have to be a pesos-bloated nightmare. In fact, it can turn into one of the most satisfying experiences of your life. At least that's what we discovered once we Figured It All Out. Here are our tips for enjoying a successful construction experience. Take them to heart and you stand a good chance of ending up with a solidly built, custom-designed home of which you may be justifiable proud.
Tip #1 Network, Network, Network
We can't emphasize enough the importance of sitting down and talking with other folks who have already been through the building experience here on this island. We're a good source. And there are plenty of others.
When you get to the point where you've bought a lot and are ready to start thinking about construction, come down for a couple of weeks and talk to people who live here and have gone before you.
Tip # 2 Electrical and plumbing.
This is where a great many contractors here fall down. They really know how to slap up those cement walls and make them strong and, if you work with them on it you can get any number of interesting shapes and designs that would cost you a fortune somewhere like the US.
However, there just aren't many electricians and plumbers here that are up to snuff. In fact, almost none work to "American code." So unless you're an electrical contractor or plumber back in the states and are planning to handle this work yourself, its important to be sure you've got one of the local Good Guys.
And the only way to find this out for sure is to talk personally to owners of other houses your contractor has built. Otherwise, don't be surprised if you end up with toilets that clog after 3 months because they didn't put in large enough sewer pipe connections, showers that smell of sewer gas because they didn't put in P-traps and wiring that isn't grounded even though this was promised and paid for.
Tip #3 Deciding on a Construction Style that works for you.
If you want a more or less hands-off building experience where you specify what you want, get a contract price, etc. Expect to pay for the convenience. However, for many people time is money and it's worth paying 20% or more extra just to have a reputable, full-service contractor/architect handle the work to your specifications.
If you do this, however, try and see something else the builder has completed and base your own design to some extent on what he's already done. This will avoid unexpected cost over runs that tend to be the rule rather than the exception here.
Cost overruns can be particularly significant if you are building on or near the ocean. Environmental impact studies are required before construction may begin. And if your builder is not familiar with working in a particular type of terrain--such as swamp land near the beach, for example, all kinds of expensive problems can arise that will have to be dealt with on the fly and which were NOT included in your contract price..
If, like us, you are interested in getting more personally involved with the building process, there's another way to go. Do your own subcontracting. You can save money this way because you won't be paying a full-service builder/architects cost plus fees.
The down side, of course,is that it will be more work for you. And it will involve a lot of email correpondence and, preferably frequent and, if possible, extended trips to the island.
If you pick the right sub-contractor, you don't need to be there to ensure you're not getting cheated. But if you're like us at least, you'll really enjoy frequent visits to observe your work in progress. Sometimes there's nothing like actually standing in the half-finished structure and realizing that if you put a window right there you could have a beautiful view of the garden or that under the stairwell would be a perfect place for a little niche closet. If you're there, you can add these things in as you go along.
If you decide to take this route, the first step is to, pay a reputable licensed architect to work with you to complete the design and blue prints for your dream house.
Note: Although, with some restrictions, you can basically change the design all you want after the blueprints have been accepted by the public works department, you are required to have your papers drawn up by a registered local architect/engineer. Last time we checked there were about 12 of these on the island.
Once the drawings and blueprints are completed and approved by the city building department, you are free to choose any builder you wish to work with.
Tip 4 Choosing Between a Fixed price or Pay As You Go
One of your most important decision when setting up your contracting deal is whether to ask for a fixed price contract that covers everything or to pay as you go along -- doling out money for materials and paying worker salaries each Saturday afternoon.
If you decide to go with a fixed price, you should be aware that there can -- and often are -- cost overruns. And when and if this happens, all work stops until more cash is infused. That's why, if this is the option that appeals to you, we strongly suggest that you talk to several owners of similar size and style homes in similar locations. All must be homes built by the company you're thinking of hiring for your work. The more homes of your type a builder has already completed, the more chance his estimates (known as a "presupuesto" press-oo-PWEST-oh) are likely to be accurate.
We prefer the pay as you go method because we enjoyed being around a lot during the construction process and we like being able to make changes in the design as we go. These changes would upset a fixed price deal. But it's not a problem if you're paying for materials as needed and labor by the week.
Without a contract price, however, you don't have a real fix on what something's going to cost. Of course, you don't really have that for sure even with a full-service contractor. But, in any case, take any by the square foot or meter building estimates thrown at you with a large pinch of salt.
On Cozumel, per meter estimates generally only cover finishing to the "obra fina" stage. This includes the basic shell of the house plastered, subfloors in, roof on, electricity and plumbing in. It doesn't include painting, plumbing and lighting fixtures. Nor does it include windows and doors (which must be custom-made as there is no such thing as factory pre-builts here). Also doesn't include things like tile floors and counters, any built-in cabinets, shelves. Doesn't cover appliances either.
Best way to get a fix on what something is going to cost you is to ask other people who've used the same builders what their house cost. We kept close tabs on our expenses so we know our costs. And we're sure there are others out there who have done the same and would be willing to chat with you about it -- especially if you go to the trouble to come down personally and make an appointment.