How to Build a Dream House in Panama

Building a home overseas is one of the greatest challenges you can take on. But ask Doug Mannell, 66, and his wife Linda, 63, and they say: “Sure, we’d do it again.”

It’s not for everyone, but building your own home can be immensely rewarding.

“One of the best things you can do when moving overseas is to play to your strengths,” says Doug. An engineer who ran a renovation business back home in Toronto, Doug has the kind of experience that makes it easy for him to read blueprints. With her experience in interior design, Linda doesn’t find her big blank canvas of a home daunting. The Mannells have also learned enough Spanish to communicate with their foreman and crew.

So what if you don’t have the same skills? Should you give up on building your dream home in Panama? Absolutely not. Without their renovation and design experience, Doug and Linda might have opted to contract an architect or project manager to oversee the building process. Play to your strengths, and don’t hesitate to get help for the other stuff.

As it is, Doug and Linda are well on their way to having their dream home. They are building in a tiny beach town called San Carlos, where a few other expats have joined them in forming a friendly community. Just over an hour by car from Panama City, it’s an ultra-convenient location.

Linda’s face lights up as she talks about the layout of her new home. “I never dreamed of having an outdoor kitchen ’til I came here,” she says. But the weather and lifestyle changed that. She and Doug have decided to have an “outdoor” living area, kitchen, and even a bar area…they’ll all be under the main roof but they will open to the greenery all around—no walls.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. The Mannells admit that getting their dream home came with challenges and a steep learning curve. For example, one day Linda came home to find the outdoor kitchen bar had been built too high. She pointed it out, but a lot of work had already been done. Starting anew would require ripping it all out—how would the foreman and crew take it?

Happily, Doug and Linda have a good relationship with their staff. “We respect each other,” says Doug. “We involved the foreman in our discussion, he understood our motivation, and it got done. And it is a far better result,” he adds. “Linda was right.” (You can imagine Linda’s smile after hearing those three words.)

Turns out, it doesn’t take a huge Spanish vocabulary to get things done. The Mannells have come a long way, making friends and inspiring loyalty with their willingness to adapt to local culture, be respectful of the customs, and communicate. A hardware store in San Carlos even gave them a Christmas present last year—a sort of construction materials goody basket! “The store will even deliver materials to us…at times within the hour,” adds Doug. All because he cultivated a personal relationship…it’s the Panamanian way.

Says Linda: “We wouldn’t change this experience; we have embraced the lifestyle and are really happy in Panama.”

Editor’s note: No matter what your Panama dreams entail…the only resource you need is the “caught on tape” edition of Live and Invest in Panama Conference 2011. Full details here.


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