Trials and Errors of Construction
The first part of our construction went surprisingly well. We live down the street from where we are building, so we were able to check out the progress on our home daily. We were often surprised at how knowledgeable our contractor was and we started to stop second guessing him. Maybe this was our demise, but we’ve never built a house before, so some of the things we are finding that were done incorrectly is stuff we would have never thought to research.
Polished Concrete Floors
It all started here. We had been in search of someone able to make a smooth concrete floor for us when our contractor told us he knew how to do it and gave us a great price for the job. The next day when we went by the property he was already pouring half of the main room in an L shape. My husband, Kharron, had done some research and knew we needed metal within the concrete so that it wouldn’t have cracks. We were immediately worried that there was no rebar below what they had poured. Our contractor assured us there was, but the next day when they were pouring the other half of the main room, Kharron heard the guy assigned to created the wire mesh asking questions about his task. Perhaps there was no metal below the first pour?
When we went out the following day the main room and two of the bedrooms had been completed. There was a very obvious line between the two parts in the main room. Our contractor told us that it was only because of the difference in time of drying, but it wasn’t the color that was the problem. After about a week and all the floor was complete that line began to crack, as well as other parts of the floor. The cracks were small, and only surface level, but my fear is that people would see the cracks and think that they were a foundation problem.
We brought our friend who is a contractor out to see our progress and he immediately told us that our floor was done incorrectly. It was a very windy day and some of the gusts would lift our zinc roof up slightly. After further inspection our friend told us that a cheaper, thinner roof and beams were used. He explained that it is okay to use those materials, but the beams then need to be closer together. As the zinc moves with the wind, the screws holding it down will loosen. This was pretty upsetting to hear. A leaky roof is not something we want for our future home and rental. We started to film the movement so we could question our contractor, when suddenly he pulled up in his truck. The workers had obviously let him know that someone was looking at his work and that he should come to the property. Our friend and he argued a little and it was decided that we should have a 3rd party engineer come and inspect the construction.
We found someone we felt qualified to assess the work and a price we could afford and are very happy we did. Before we knew it, lines were being cut into our flooring to give it more room to move with the ground and we had decided our type of soil was no place for a smooth cement floor and ceramic tile was a better option. Beams got added to our roof without us having to ask and all of the work the engineer requested was completed.
We had heard that its cheaper and better to break up the finishings of the house to different contractors, so we had hired our initial contractor only to do “grey labor” which includes the floor, walls, roof, sewer, and electrical tubing. We were going to hire someone else to actually wire our home to make sure we had a qualified electrician do the job. After interviewing several Nicaraguans and feeling less than satisfied with their abilities, we found a qualified Gringo to do the work. The Gringo pay rate is out of our budget, so we worked out a deal where we would pay him hourly. In order for him to work less hours, he would teach us how to do each part and make sure it was done correctly after it was completed. Immediately when he, Kharron, and our cuidador started to pull wires through the tubing, they realized that a lot of the tubes were too flimsy and kinked for the wires to be able to be pulled through. Electrical cables got stuck in the tubing underground and the metal wires the contractor had in place to attached the cables to disconnected within the walls. We had to make the decision to either rip up the floor or cut into the walls to install new tubing with cables. We decided up was the best way to go.
We spent weeks redoing the tubing and demolishing our walls so that the electrical was done correctly. Since we had the saw, some of the tubes that came out low on our wall and would be a problem once we did the ceiling, were moved to the correct location as well.
We’ve had a lot of hard lessons so far. Kharron especially learned a lot during this phase. We now know why most of the cement floors we see here in Nicaragua have cracks and that those are only the surface layer. We learned there are different grades of zinc roofing and support beams and it is important to double check once your contractor has purchased these items. We also know what to look for when installing electrical tubing and how electrical wiring works. We still have a ton of projects left, which is why I’m titling this Part I.
Living in San Juan del Sur for the last almost 2 years, we’ve met many builders and know many people who are building or have built a home here. Some of our good friends are builders and we had hoped to use them for our construction.
I really liked the sustainable building products. We had our first meeting with a friend who is a contractor and is knowledgeable about building this way. He was very helpful and explained to us the general processes, things to look out for, and average square foot price for a Expat builder. Unfortunately after talking to him, it became very clear that we were going to have to find something cheaper. We have a very limited budget and were going to have to spend a lot of time shopping around for something within it.
We started looking into Nicaraguan contractors who speak only Spanish. We knew this would make the processor harder and more complicated, but we really didn’t have a choice, unless we were interested in building only half a house. We talked to some friends who created their own contractor team and have done most of the managing of the project themselves. They have done a great job and their home is almost complete, but this seemed like a lot of work and moving parts. It would be hard to maintain our company Señor Coders and manage at this level.
We had heard about Styrofoam building or Insulated Concrete Forms (I know, the complete opposite of sustainable, right?). There are a few ICF products here in Nicaragua, the two we looked at were Cubitech & M2. We started asking around about this product and checking out job sites where we saw it was being used. We heard the homes went up very quickly and it was an affordable way to build. I was hesitant about building a home out of the same product cheap grocery store coolers are made out of, but I guess that does mean the home will stay cool. When we banged on the walls, they were a bit hallow compared to the solid cinder block walls we were used to in Nicaragua, but we decided to continue to look into this type of building and consider it as an option.
We asked around about Nicaraguan contractors using these products and set up meetings with two of them. We met them both on job sites and talked to the owners of the homes they were building. We agreed quickly that the product was much stronger than we first thought. The contractor explained to us that with cinder block, there is a hollow space in the middle. When you use the Styrofoam products that space is the Styrofoam, then they put 3 inch thick cement on either side combined with welded in deer fencing. One of the construction sites we viewed was a large, 3 story home with ocean view. The stairs, ceiling, floors, and walls were all made out of M2. It was incredible walking through the house and seeing how strong it was. We decided we liked the product and wanted to move forward with this type of building.
We had heard that using different contractors for different projects is the cheaper way to go, so when hiring our initial contractor we only wanted pricing on “obra de gris” (grey work) meaning just the foundation, walls, floor, and roof. It also includes the electrical tubing installed (not the wires) and the tubing for the septic system. We would find another team to do the patio, doors & windows, septic system tanks, to do the closets, cabinets, kitchen island, and an electrician.
After our meetings with the contractors we started discussing pricing. As mentioned, we have a very low budget. Using both contractor’s proposed pricing against each other, we got down to a price we could manage at $269 per square meter. This price meant we should have enough money to complete a 3 bedroom home. Some things we’d have to pay out of pocket and not with our 401k money, but it was doable.
We also hired a supervisor for $20 per week who comes by the property twice a week to make sure everything is being done correctly and that the contractors have accomplished everything they were supposed to in order for us to make the next payment.
Contract signed, we broke ground on Jan 2nd, 2016. To see how the building process is going, check out the video my husband made.
Part I of ?
My husband has put the first part of our building process to video. Take a look of what we have accomplished in the last few weeks.
My husband has been annoyingly videoing every part of the process of digging our well on the property we bought in San Juan del Sur. After finding water he made this amazing video documenting the journey in reverse order. He is now forgiven for my irritation.
We liked the idea of an easy office/storage shed by using a container. We had heard there was a surplus of them in Nicaragua so you could get one cheaper than constructing a regular building. We asked around San Juan del Sur and randomly stopped by places we saw containers while on trips away from town, but the quoted prices were much bigger than what we had planned for until a friend of ours came back into town and hooked us up with his contact. We ended up paying about $4,000 for the container with delivery.
A Hen in the Wolf House
First off, I love having chickens. I grew up always having at least 5 chickens. As an adult, at our house in California, we had chickens before we moved to Nicaragua. Any excuse I can come up with to own chickens, I’ll use it.
So since we have property with plenty of bugs, I decided we MUST have chickens grazing on it. It would give us something to visit on the property each day, good nature lesson for the kids as they laid eggs and created chicks, and I’d get to own chickens!
We started asking around where we live and quickly found out that we needed to go further away from town, “el campo” where people have more land, and therefore enough chickens to afford to sell some. We also learned that it being November which is close to December & Christmas, that the price of a chicken was going up. We decided to make a trip to “el campo” after our car was fixed.
Since I love having chickens, the weekend after we got our car back we took Juanita to “el campo” to look for chickens for sale. We had to ask several houses and kept hearing about a person who had “bastante gallinas” (a lot of hens). When we turned the corner on the dirt road, we knew we had found the right place.
Even though the woman had “bastante gallinas” she was not thrilled about selling some. Juanita & her spoke and she started rounding them up to pick out 4 hens. We put our chickens into a large dog crate in the car, buckled up, turned the key and the car wouldn’t start!
Our battery had been acting a little funny, but we were in “el campo” we can’t be stuck! The look on Juanita’s face said the same thing. After waiting and trying a couple more times, Juanita, Kharron, and a helpful gentleman pushed the car down the slope while I tried to get the car to start. I didn’t realize you needed to have the car in 1st gear, so with Kharron at the wheel and Juanita & I pushing down hill the car revved to life and I literally jumped for joy.
That night the chickens slept in the dog crate at our house. The next morning after jumping our car to start, we went out to the property to release them. Kharron left me alone in the drizzle with the crate of chickens, some chicken wire, and a machete while he went to buy a new battery for our car. I developed a game plan, spread some feed on the ground, filled a water bowl, and opened the door of the crate. Almost instantly one of the chickens had a scorpion in her beak. I was so proud and happy to have my girls cleaning the property.
I propped a large branch from the ground against the sturdiest tree I could find. While the hens picked around their new land I used the string that held the chicken wire in a roll to make the best coop I could for the night. I hoped that our day laborer, Manuel, could make something better the next day.
The next morning when Kharron went to the property we were already down one chicken. The other 3 had found a larger tree off the property to perch in. Our workers digging the well & Manuel kept telling Kharron how sad & scared the hens were to be left alone on the property. We had no idea Nicaraguans cared so much about their chickens! That day 2 more fled up the hill and off our property, so we were left with only one and by then I surrendered that the chickens indeed did not belong on the property yet. We caught the one and brought it to Manuel’s dad’s house down the street.
This morning I was hopeful that Kharron would find more, happily grazing on our property again, but there was no sign of their return. I am happy to report that one hen did show up later this morning and is now safely at another home with her sister-hen.
The day finally arrived when we could sign the paperwork and take ownership of our piece of land. We had already found & measured our lot and had been waiting for the surveyors to complete the required map. We did this crazy thing to pay the fee to get it approved & expedited. We put the needed $120 in an envelope, paid a “collectivo” taxi the $2 fair to Rivas, and sent the envelope of cash in a taxi to be delivered to surveyor’s office. I guess this is done all the time, but the process was very strange, and took some faith on our part.
We met at the attorney’s office at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Both parties did not fully trust the other. We were skeptical to wire the money before the seller signed and the seller didn’t want to sign before he received the wire. We worked it out that we wired at the attorney’s office and showed him the confirmation. We had previously wired a chunk of the money in our Solo 401k account to our personal bank account so that we could easily send a wire over the internet the day of. There were a couple hiccups like needing to have a SafePass account to wire an amount larger than $1k & not having a USA phone number, but a quick call to a responsible friend to see if I could use her number and she could send me the code made the process work out easily.
After a few minutes we showed a confirmation to the seller and then we stepped into the conference room where we were all read the whole real estate contract out loud. While in that room the seller and I received confirmation emails that the wire was sent, and the mood became much lighter. We paid a reasonable $520 attorney fee and drove back to San Juan del Sur with nervous & hopeful smiles.