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Tuesday, July 22 2014 @ 05:43 PM EDT

Managing Your Own Reconstruction Project

I Know A Guy...

By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Have you ever done a "do it yourself" remodel on an apartment in Panama City. That's what I'm doing right now. I've got one construction guy who is acting as a foreman, bringing in the particular specialists we need to do things like install air conditioners, gas lines, electrical, cabinets, etc. He and his crew are doing all of the construction and mechanical, stuff like welding, pouring cement, ripping up old floors, knocking down walls - all of the heavy lifting. Once all of the parts and pieces are in their proper place then we shift to the fit and finish - paint, fixtures, lamps and lighting, decoration and details. If you can manage this kind of thing yourself you can save thousands of dollars and still be very involved in the decision making process - things like choosing higher quality "hidden" details like wall sockets. The difference is 100% higher cost - the "good" ones cost about $2.00 per, while the cheap Chinese (crap) ones cost about $1.00, so the total cost of putting quality fixtures in the entire house goes up by exactly one buck, multiplied by the total number of outlets in the entire house (what, maybe 15?). (more)

Manage It Yourself, Not Do It Yourself: There are a lot of electrical and mechanical home repairs I can do myself. Pouring a new cement staircase is not one of them. I have learned after having done several of these projects that the best way (for me) to pull something like this off is to manage the project myself, and pay others to do the work and labor. I buy all of the materials myself, which allows me to shop around, find the best price, and be selective when it comes to the quality versus price continuum. I can pick and choose where I want to "upgrade" little things that have been a pain in the ass before. Like for example you know those little valves that go under your bathroom sink that you can use to turn off the water to the faucet? The "cheap" ones are made out of nylon (plastic) and the "good" ones are made primarily out of brass. And again, the cheap ones cost $1.50 or so, and the "expensive" ones cost $3.00. I have learned over time that the "cheap" ones will break and leak as soon as you touch them, so I decided to spend the additional $1.50 per unit (like 12 total units in the entire project) to save myself headaches in the future. A little bit of additional investment now, hopefully returns in the future.

On The Other Hand: Remember back in the 1970's when "Made In Japan" was synonymous with "crap"? Well, Japanese manufacturers discovered quality and the rest is history. Korea went down the same road, and now China is doing the same thing. When I went shopping for floor and wall tiles (for the kitchen and bathrooms) I found that Spanish or Italian tiles started at about $10 per square meter and went up from there. And, the "cheap" Chinese tiles were down below $5.00 per meter. I held them in my hands, felt the "heft" and quality of the pieces compared side to side, and also spoke to experts who were going to install them. The differences are small, almost insignificant, and practically invisible once installed. And in this case we're not talking about $1.50 here or there - I had to buy and have installed more than 100 square meters of tile so the difference in materials was going to be about $500 bucks.

Improving Chinese Quality: The Chinese wall tile factories are starting to "figure it out" when it comes to their manufacturing processes. The colors are becoming more consistent - there are less variations from one piece to the next. The same thing goes for the dimensions of the tiles themselves - if they are not exactly the same size (height and width) then any difference is greatly magnified once they are installed on the wall at eye level. According to my installer, who works with everything from fine marble and granite all the way down to installing thousands of square meters of "cheap" materials for low cost housing developments, the Chinese products are getting better but it's still somewhat of a crap shoot. You have to be able to spot the differences at the moment you pick them out. So, he came with me to the store to show me the differences.

Electrical and Wiring: Another place you don't want to skimp is in the electrical connections. These things are going to be wired up and then stuck inside of the wall, maybe never to see the light of day again for twenty years. In my case the actual wire is fine - solid 10 or 12 gauge copper insulated - and most of the house still had the original wiring from when the building was built new. But in some parts of this particular building the previous owner had done what I call "brujo" wiring - just stringing things together using substandard materials and techniques, all hidden behind drywall or buried. My answer to that - yank it all out and let's do it right. More expensive, but as the son of a Fire Chief I don't mess with things that can cause fires or death. So, I don't skimp on the electrical stuff, except for maybe that I have enough confidence in my wiring skills to install light fixtures, switches, and outlets myself so I can save myself some money there.

Get A Guy With A Truck: Do you own a vehicle you would be willing to load down with more than a ton (total weight) of floor and ceiling tiles, mortar, and grout? Or, would you be willing to load your Crown Victoria full of bags of "caliche" (busted up old cement walls) that need to be thrown out. I have a Jeep but there are still some jobs that require just a guy with a pickup truck and a helper to haul from there to here, or to throw it away. In a remodeling project there will be a lot of things that appear "perfectly fine" for someone else to use. I now have a guy with a truck who will come running to do either a delivery or a disposal. He comes with one helper, and between the two of them they can "magically" make things disappear. He's on solid ground ethically speaking, and asked me three times "are you sure" about throwing away the old ceramic sinks that were in the bathrooms. Yes, I explained, I don't like the style or color and I'm going to replace them. I know anyone can basically just wash them and put them to use, and you are free to either use them yourself, sell them, give them away, or do whatever you want. Don't worry about it... He charges a fair price for the work they do, and he now comes running any time I need a truck. You're going to be needing someone like this. Once you find him, program it into your cell phone.

See Past "Butt Ugly" Some of the best deals out there are the ones that "show like an outhouse on the pig farm." Basically, any "normal" people who walk in there will run away screaming. For me, that means "highly motivated seller." In Panama all construction is, in the end, just poured cement. Floors, walls, columns, beams - all solid cement. Sometimes in order to be able to see it, you have to be able to ignore a generation or two of bad taste and poor maintenance to get to the real deal underneath. My motto is "when in doubt, rip it out." Then you know what's down there later.

The Materials - Install Ratio: In Panama you will learn that the cost of doing a major remodel like this comes down to two major factors - materials and labor. And from my experience the general rule of thumb is whatever you spend on materials, you will spend about an equal amount to have that thing (whatever it is) installed. This goes for things like walls, cement stairwells, flooring, tiles, etc. And I'm only talking about construction stuff here, not appliances. Also, plumbing and electrical fixtures tend to be a little higher but still in about the same ballpark. Buy a new toilet for $70, and it's going to cost you about $70 to have it installed, more or less. If you can negotiate your way below the "50% ratio rule of thumb" then you are doing pretty good.

Buy Your Own Materials: Adding in a hidden "markup" on the cost of materials is one of the first places builders will try to play "screw the gringo." Take the time to visit several outlets that well the basic construction materials - bags of cement, bags of sand and gravel, wood, nails, wire, steel rebar, etc. Get an idea of what things should cost and then either go get it yourself or have your builder present you with a list of materials and then the receipts. Armed with that information you should be able to spot any major discrepancies.

Nickel and Dime Construction Site Theft: There are times when a construction worker will "accidentally" grab a screwdriver, throw it in their pocket, and then take it home. While it might not represent much of a loss, it happens. Be prepared for a little bit of missing materials or tools that simply go away unaccounted for. If you get a real hard-on over a $1.50 screwdriver and start firing people then you will never get your job done.

Leave Security for Last: While doing the job, make sure to describe to all of the construction workers the security elements you are going to put in place - alarm systems, a dog the size of a horse, your drunk and blind mother-in-law with a shotgun and an attitude; basically anything you can think of. Explain to the construction workers that you will be making your apartment practically assault-proof, and that you never keep anything there anyway. Every (and I mean every) breaking and entering or home invasion case I've investigated here in Panama had construction workers running around in one form or the other. They are the ultimate providers of inside information, whether they are doing the crime themselves or not. Convince those guys that you are the hardest nut to crack, and that it's not worth it.

Now, Off to a Meeting and a Paint Brush: I've got exactly three minutes to get to a meeting so time to go. More later.

Copyright 2008 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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