I tried to carefully keep track of all our expenses this past April. I did not include the expenses incurred from building our house including the cost for our monthly daytime laborer and nighttime watchman.
|Storage Unit in USA||$232|
|House cleaner with insurance||$290|
|Gym Membership & Boxing Classes||$100|
|Escuela Adelante Preschool||$100|
|San Juan del Sur Day School||$300|
|Ballet Lessons (5 classes)||$40|
|Dentist - Cleanings for whole family||$140|
|ATM Withdrawal Fees||$35|
|Vacation to Puerto Sandino||$200|
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.
Wow, has it been two years already? This last year has really flown by. I remember there being almost painfully slow times in the first year, but that was not the case in the last year. We have a more solid footing in our community, in our friend group, in our work, and in our routine.
Both kids go to school until afternoon, leaving me time to focus on what I want to do. At first with my new found freedom I immersed myself with “work”. I started working as a Project Manager for my husband’s website development company, Señor Coders, I blogged more, and I volunteered more. Then I realized one day, that that’s not what I wanted to be doing with all my free time, I really wanted to get back into exercising regularly. I started going to the gym a couple days a week, we take boxing now a couple days a week, and I run more often. I’ve allowed myself the flexibility to be more spontaneous with my time, like taking a random hula hoop class.
We found a great solution for babysitting, so we feel like we have more freedom to go on impromptu date nights and overnights without the kids. Something that I’ve learned as I watched families return to their home country earlier than planned, is that taking advantage of the inexpensive labor here is important in making Nicaragua manageable. Life here can be more complicated and navigating a third world country is not easy, so not having to worry about cleaning the house or watching the kids full time is not only a luxury, but often times seems like a necessity. Being able to afford help in the home is a major perk of living here and those who do not indulge tend to have a longer list of cons of living in Nicaragua.
I’m more comfortable with our Nicaraguan life style. More at peace with the bumps in the road…. Literally, we drove a few bumpy dirt roads over the weekend and on Sunday night our brakes weren’t working properly. Now used to these types of hiccups, my husband and I discussed our plan of attack. How to get the car in the shop, how to get the kids to and from school, etc. Its a discussion we’ve had many times that used to stress and frustrate me. Now I’m comfortable hailing a cab and I know the best places to catch them and how much I should pay. Some even know me now and know where I live. The kids are used the taxi etiquette of trying to all squeeze on one seat so Mommy only has to pay for one person. My husband, Kharron, knows exactly where our mechanic is located in Rivas, knows the mechanics phone number, understands his Spanish, and knows where to catch a collectivo taxi back to San Juan del Sur. We’re a smooth running, disaster management, machine now.
Of course what’s really marked the last few months of this last year is purchasing property and building a home. This leap of fate has tied us further to Nicaragua, expanded our Spanish vocabulary, and brought a huge challenge into our relationship. Everything from setting up a Solo 401k, to looking for property, designing our home, finding a contractor, digging a well, and now construction, has been arduous. Often I feel overwhelmed and under qualified. I push on, making decisions on things I know nothing about and trusting that Kharron’s online research & my gut feeling yields the right results.
To be honest, we bit off more than we can chew and our finances are thin. We used all of our retirement funds to build the shell of the house, but now we have to use our own monthly income to finish the inside and landscaping. Our plan is to make the house livable as soon as possible and use the money we will save on rent to finish the house. I am not looking forward to the stress of living with no closets or cabinets and a construction site for a front yard, but the payoff should be worth the misery. It will be a humbling experience for the whole family and reinforce some life lessons that were part of the goal of moving here. Learning to live with less.
Mostly because of the slow finishing of the house, we decided to stay an extra year in Nicaragua. We had planned on moving back this July, but now we will use the next year to complete our home to a rentable standard, decide on a career for me, and work on making Señor Coders a viable business that can sustain us in the United States. I feel a bit bittersweet with this decision. I do not feel like I am finished with my life in Nicaragua, there is still so much I want to see, learn, and accomplish. I want Titus to be old enough to remember his life here and the people who cared for him. We had a rich life in California and I do miss it. I still miss my friends and our neighborhoods and the weekly get-togethers with people I love and who love me. I was foolish to think I would make the same close relationships with people here as I have in the US. Those types of bonds take time, more time than I will have in this country.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
So onto and into the third year we go, ready to be stretched and forever changed.
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.
Our Worst Investment
We planned to arrive in Nicaragua sight unseen with a baby, a toddler, 7 suitcases, and 2 dogs. We knew that we needed to have a car immediately. Luckily, one of Kharron’s friend’s fathers, Joe already lived on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua and offered to help us get a car purchased before we moved. He seemed to know what he was talking about and convinced us to spend over our $4k budget so that we would have less problems. He advised us to spend at a minimum $10k, but that was not financially possible, so we agreed that he’d look in the $5k-$6k range.
After test driving a few SUVs he found one that needed a clutch, but he could get that fixed and all said and done it would be $6k. We agreed and wired him the money to purchase our 2007 Mitsubishi Montero. When Joe picked us up at the airport he had our car waiting for us at the hotel in Managua. It was really great to immediately have wheels and a way to get around town. We had a list of items we wanted to purchase before we moved to San Juan del Sur a week later.
Since that day, we have made many repairs on our vehicle. It turns out Mitsubishi’s have computerized engines so when something goes wrong, the mechanic needs a diagnostic computer to tell what that problem is. This is super easy in North America, but we only found one mechanic in San Juan del Sur who has that computer. The abundance of bumpy dirt roads in San Juan del Sur is rough on cars. It is common to replace bushings annually and hoses come loose often. One of our sensors needs to be cleaned every so often or our car doesn’t start. This is always fun when you have everyone loaded in the car in the morning for school.
We found a mechanic we really like, but he is located in Rivas which is 30km from San Juan del Sur, so depending on the issue, it is sometimes hard to get our car to him. Slowly we’ve been ticking off a list of fixes our car needed, but then on our way home from Matagalpa our car finally took a dive. There was a hole in a water tube that caused the engine to overheat. A nice Nicaraguan towed us the 9km to our mechanic.
Over the last 2 1/2 weeks we’ve been having our engine rebuilt and got it back yesterday. Thank you to the “collectivo” for being a cheap was to get to Rivas to pick it up. We are hoping this major rebuild will solve most of the issues and we can finally feel confident in our car.
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.