4 Tips for Renovating a Mexican Property

Customizing a home that you’ve bought in Mexico, either through renovation or new construction, is an exciting dream for many Mexico-bound expats. And it’s satisfying…when it’s done. But I don’t know anyone, myself included, who hasn’t found the renovation process itself to be stressful and occasionally hair-raising.

Here are a few tips that I’ve learned that may cut down on your anxiety factor…

1. Do Your Research

Expats often talk about how cheap manual labor is in Mexico. And yes, it can be. But you also get what you pay for. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, in Mexico they generally learn on the job, and some are more competent than others.

The first rule, then, for any sort of work on a property, is to get expats’ and locals’ recommendations on workmen. And ask about reliability as well as competence. A Mexican friend once described her carpenter as good but informal. This dreaded word basically translates as “he may be good, but he shows up late, if at all, so the job takes forever. And then he’ll ask for more money because he lowballed the fee and has come up short.

2. Get the Good Stuff

Buy the best materials or replacement parts that you can afford. And make sure your workmen know how to install them properly. This may seem obvious, but—especially in Mexico—it saves you money long-term. Keep in mind that rank-and-file Mexicans often have little ready cash. So when they need to replace a faucet or pipe, they may go with the cheapest replacement available…even when they know it may break again in six months. That’s fine when it’s a garden tap or pipe in a plain cement wall. But a tap installed in a wall of custom tile? You’ll pay for more than a new tap to repair that…and the wall may never look as good again.

Plumbing and kitchen and bath fixtures, can be especially problematic. First, many areas of Mexico have very hard water. The Yucatán sits on a limestone shelf, and the Colonial Highlands is a mining region. This means heavy mineralization in the water and deposit build-up on fixtures and pipes. Coastal areas have salt in the air, which eats away at metal.

In addition, Mexican companies that specialize in bath and kitchen fixtures plan for rapid obsolescence. So, that just-released line of trendy kitchen fixtures? It—and its interior parts—may be out of stock in two years. You may be wise to forego trendiness for a more standard design whose replacement parts will be available for years.

3. Plan Your Project Correctly

If you plan to do a major project, work with a good team. Many architects in Mexico do construction as well as design to earn a living, and local expats can tell you which ones have a good track record. Successful architects tend to keep a team of trained laborers who work with them regularly. And the day-to-day work will generally be supervised by a maestro (foreman). A business-like architect will give you a cost estimate for a job. And it’s usually priced one of two ways: an all-in fee, or a cost-plus commission.

I’ve had jobs done both ways. But the key with either method is to have a detailed budget, so you know exactly what you’re paying for. My preference is for line-item budgets, that detail right down to specs on structural elements and to brand names and models on appliances and fixtures. Call me obsessive, but I like to know exactly where my money is going. And if I change a budget item, I want to see the change in cost—whether up or down, reflected.

For smaller projects, or ones that don’t involve serious construction, you can hire a maestro, or a maestro and an obrero (laborer). In these cases, you’ll probably just be given an all-in fee for the job. Again, ask around for reliable workers, preferably ones used to working with expats. (This is especially important if you need a workman who speaks good English.)

4. Relax

Above all, try to stay relaxed and to not obsess over a project. Things are done at a different speed, and with different priorities, in Mexico. For every workman who makes you want to tear your hair out, you’ll find another who is a true artist…who can do painting or custom tile work or carpentry of a caliber and cost that you could only dream of back home. And that’s what you’ll remember in the end.

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