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13 Steps to Construction in Boquete

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Written by Ezra Paskus   
Thursday, 20 September 2007 09:49
Here, ed Ezra gives us a great comprehensive list of tips to construction in his native land of Boquete. Most of these tips apply to elsewhere in the isthmus as well, so take careful note. Until immigration laws are loosened and better quality work is allowed to enter and work, these steps will hold scarily true. I find that giving advice to the newly expatriated in Panama is kind of like giving advice to your children; you want them to learn from your mistakes, but they refuse and have to learn from their own. At least, that's what my dad says, I don't actually have kids. I wish that I could collect on the mistakes of people I know in Panama that didn't listen to my advice, I'd be pretty loaded right now (on 50 cent beers).

Like everything else in Panama, the difficulties of building your house can be solved by throwing lots of cash at them. You can find a contractor and give him money and just about forget about it until you move in. But, if you have more determination and time than money, here is some priceless advice (actually, if you want to donate some money to me, you can find my info in the Contact Us section).

1.         Go to the local ex-pat hangout. In Boquete, a good place to start is Amigo's Restaurant. Listen to the locals exchange their construction horror stories. When they take a breath, ask if they know of any good contractors. About one in ten will refer you to a reputable builder. This may take some time and effort on your part. There is a local legend about an American builder that uses labor from Panama City and trucks all materials from Panama City at a discount, runs 12 hour shifts with big lithium lights and completes your house in 90 days guaranteed. But alas, I believe it is only a myth.

2.         Hire a third party translator. Let's face it, your Spanish skills are passable in a restaurant or mini-super, but you don't have the construction vocabulary you think you do, nor do you have the vocabulary to completely understand a contract between you and your contractor. Do not, I repeat, do not use a contractor recommended by your translator.

3.         Beware of contractors that offer a total in-house package. In other words, they say that their sister or cousin is an architect, and they can get you a discount for architecture services. Or their brother is a lawyer and he can write up the contract. They will work together to take your money. Use separate people for all steps in the process. A different engineer, architect, lawyer, and builder will ensure that no one has anything extra to gain in the process. This can be difficult in small towns, so look outside the municipality that you are building in.

4.         This is possibly the most important, but make sure EVERYTHING MUST BE IN WRITING. I know this sounds like common sense, but I am surprised daily by the complaints I hear, and when I ask if it was in the contract, I hear things like, "well, we didn't actually have a contract". WHAT?! Everything in Panama must be in writing. Everything. Because you will be promised things that sound wonderful, then you will be disappointed when they do not materialize. Then frustrated when the contractor or whomever shrugs and you have no recourse. Do not listen to the noise that you cannot sue in Panama in order to get what you were promised...if it was in writing. It may take time, but you will be rewarded. Of course, most Panamanians will perform if you simply point out the part of the contract that lists what they are supposed to perform.

5.         Whatever is in writing must be to the minutest detail. Contracts should not only list what must be done, but also what is not to be done. For instance, my friend listed in his construction contract that windows were to be installed in his house. The contractor put them into the cement opening and screwed them in. And that was that. If you want him to caulk the enormous space between the window and the wall, that must be in the contract. If your contract accidentally lists six window installations and your plans show seven, then you will have six windows installed. Make sure your contract matches your plans. Your contract needs to stipulate what the contractor provides and what you provide. For instance, don't just say that you provide materials and he provides tools. My friend had a two day argument with his contractor over the definition of tools and the definition of materials. It was like listening to Clinton on the stand. The contractor asserted that sanding and cutting disks were materials, not tools and that he had supplied the sander so it was my friend's responsibility to provide the disks. The sander only works if it has disks, and the disks only work when they are attached to the sander. What a conundrum.

6.         Your contract must have a time limit and penalty stipulations. Especially if you are paying a flat fee per day instead of a total after completion. For instance, you want your house completed in 190 days. Then your contract needs to say that on day 191, 5% of payment will be discounted, and 5% daily for every day beyond that. This is a pretty harsh example, but it motivates, provided that materials are on site everyday.

7.         Have your translator and your lawyer explain in detail what your contract states. Make changes before you sign and make sure your contract is legally binding and realize that because it is legally binding and a price has been agreed upon and signed for, any changes to the construction that is not on the plans, or any little extra jobs you want done from your contractor will require you to pay more than the price listed on the contract.

8.         You should be the General Contractor. This will mean extra effort on your part, but do you really have anything better to do? Let me explain why this is the best option. Most contracts are only for Mano de Obra, the labor. You are paying a contractor to supply experienced laborers. You are paying the contractor to have supervision of those laborers. You are not paying him to supply materials, transportation, or much of anything else. So, basically, you are the general contractor anyway. Whether you like it or not, you will be shopping around for materials, you will be asking your contractor DAILY what he needs in order to continue working. This can be difficult because, even if you do have construction experience in your home country, chances are, your home country construction methods do not rely on cement as heavily as Panamanian methods do. So you may not know what is necessary to make sure that you do not pay for your laborers to stand around while you try desperately to round up materials so they can continue to work. Your contractor may believe that you are not retarded in the category of construction and therefore not tell you that he needs thirty bags of cement to continue working and oh by the way, you currently have one bag on site.

9.         Since you are the General Contractor, you are entitled to a discount at the building supply store. That's right, when your contractor says he can get you such and such at a discount at such and such store, tell him that's nice, so can I. Like almost everything else in Panama, a little haggling is expected at the building supply store. Tell the man behind the counter that you are a contractor, you are building your own house and that you plan on getting a lot of supplies from his store. You can expect a 10-15% discount. This applies to everything from cement sacks to your water pump. When you go to the store, make friends, shake the guy's hand every time, bring him a gift, something small and you will be handsomely rewarded.

10.     Since you are the general contractor, you should subcontract everything. A reliable contractor for the foundation, footings, etc, one for the M2 or block work, and one for the roof, another for the finish work. Why? Because most contractors will tell you they can do everything from start to finish and that they have experience in all facets even when they have probably only done it once. Specialized contractors can work faster, they don't get bogged and start looking for other work and their laborers don't get drunk and not show up on Monday.

11.     Fire their ass. If you are not happy with a contractors work, it's not up to performance standards, do not accept it in hope that their work will improve. It will not. Fire them and start looking for another one. You did leave an out in your contract based on quality and performance, right?

12.     The old adage that it's easier to say sorry than ask permission is still very true in Panama. Apply for your building, sanitation, and any other permits once your plans have been stamped by the engineer/architect. Then go ahead and start building. The "inspector" will show up at your site once, ask for you to pay for the permits and maybe submit another copy of the plans or some other bureaucratic nonsense, and then you will never see him again. I started building in Las Lajas two months before even submitting plans. The municipal representative showed up at my site, my contractor took the plans to city hall, they calculated the permit based on square meters and gave us a figure. I went to city hall two weeks later, offering to pay half today and half tomorrow since my bank card had a limit below what the municipality wanted. They told me no, all or nothing. They got nothing. We continued to work; they came back two months later and said we could not continue construction. We already finished. That was in May and I have yet to receive a fine or anything like that. I don't condone this behavior, especially in more populated areas, however, this is just an example. Part of the beauty of Panamanian bureaucracy is that it is corrupt. Once you pay for your permits or what have you, and the inspector has visited your site, you will never see or hear from them again. They just want the money. It is not like the States where they show up at every stage of your construction.

13.     Stop complaining. This applies to everything in Panama, but to the process of construction in particular. I hear ex-pats complaining daily about how something didn't go according to plans because the contractor did such and such. That's life, and ultimately, you are responsible for everything. You need to understand your contract. No one is going to give two craps if you say later that you didn't understand what it said. That's your responsibility. No sympathy if your building supply store shipped the wrong doors and you didn't notice until they were installed. It's your responsibility to check everything as it is delivered. Don't even care if your construction goes over time and your stuck footing the bill for the extra labor because you were too cheap to rent a cement mixer and just stood in awe as the workers mixed 500 bags of cement with shovels and wheel barrels, and thought, "how quaint". It's your responsibility to make sure everyone has what they need to keep the job going smoothly. Responsibility for your actions... sounds like some advice my dad would give.    
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Reality indeed
written by Lee Zeltzer , September 21, 2007
I believe this is an excellent review of the realities of building here. The only omitted fact is you literally need to be onsite every day. If not the materials you chose, bought, inspected upon delivery might find themselves sold and included in another home. I am going to link to this from http://www.boqueteguide.com
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written by Ezra , September 21, 2007
Lee,
I havent heard of such a thing happening, but I believe its possible. And yes, you must be on site or have someone you trust. I have friends that have actually paid a security guard to watch their site at night. But its usually the insider that would do something like that. SO, back to number 1, hire a reputable contractor.
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Contract
written by Scott Mansfield , September 24, 2007
We had a long detailed contract with a builder in Boquete and it was only good for one thing...termination. This builder had a home and nice car but all his possessions was in his wife's name. He owned nothing on paper and taking him to court would have been futile especially with the 2-3 year court calendar. I think the contract should have secured something of his with proof of ownership.
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will be my own contractor building a small house in caldera chuiriqi.
written by Hanan , February 25, 2008
Hi, Ezra.
One of the best I’ve read in the last 4 years I’ve been lurking sites about Panama. We got some connection in Bouqete. Got the 10 acres in a lovely site in Caldera Chiriquí. Hoping to start building soon although the new immigration laws are frightening.
Its funny I stumble on your article a day after I told my wife (which advocates giving it all to a contractor). Dear: I’m going to be the general. Otherwise you call your mama to put another 200k in our bank. Than, expect to come down not in 3month but in 3 years.
I would like to call you when I’m there around April.
Hanan, the coffee monster-yes I will make you espresso that will put Kotowa to shame. Ask Eva at Isla Verde Hotel-A dear friend of mine.
BTW Ata medaber Ivrit?
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need some advice
written by George Apostle , May 18, 2015
Hi Ezra,
My name is George and I plan on buying a lot and having a construction company build on my lot.
Here is my point.The company's lawyer sent the contract to a friend of mine whjo is a Panamanian lawyer and I am an America.
Well my panamanian lawyer told me that this contract is 80% in favor of the company and probally 20% in my favor.
So my lawyer friend e-mailed the company and explained that there must be changes in the contract,and we haven't heard from them in the past three weeks.
I already have a bank approved loan on this transaction: to buy a lot on their land and have a house built.
So what recommendation can you give me.
Blessings
George
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 20:38
 
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