Panama relocation, build new or fix-up?

David Dell

By David Dell

Pictured above: our first major renovation, Casa Britannia in Granada, Nicaragua.

I will give it to you straight and honest, if you want to build a new dream home or fix-up an old one into the Shangri-La of your dreams – be prepared for headaches, heartaches, sleepless nights and a few other problems.

My wife and I have built or fixed up six houses in Latin America. I was just about to start on my biggest project yet – an English style pub here in Volcan – but dear wife sat me down one night and after removing the rose tinted glass from both my eyes and my memory the cold light of reality set in. I realized that half a year or more of stress and frustration were just not worth it.

home in Panama

home in Panama

Pictured above: Our 4 bedroom, 4 patio villa in Puerto Armuelles, Panama.

Disappearing money, disappearing contractors

If you decide to embark on a building or refurbishing project in the third world, you can count on six to eight months of six day a week, intense worker supervision. The biggest single mistake people make – and I have seen this so many times – absentee owners hand over control and large sums of money to a local contractor. When they do return to check on the progress of the construction they find, to their amazement that very little has been done and the wonderful, friendly contractor- if he hasn’t disappeared altogether – is asking for more money than was originally agreed upon.

Everything, repeat everything, in writing

I have a contract that a friend drew up that you can use as a template for any work you might undertake. It covers just about everything including that “Devil in the details” the ubiquitous and almost unavoidable, “additions and changes.” Something else I have seen many, times. The owner argues with the contractor and the contractor says, “Yes, I know we agreed on the price, but you have made additions and changes.” Make sure your contract has iron-clad clauses to cover this “excuse.”

Build new or fix it up?

Fixing-up old homes can be fun, I am told. It certainly looks that way on those afternoon, do-it-yourself TV shows. The reality is that it is a royal pain in the rear. The dust, debris and despair at finding walls out of plumb, floors running up hill, electrical and plumbing looking like they were designed by some cruel comedian. This generally results in one or other spouse angrily shouting, ”Why the heck didn’t we just knock it all down and start from scratch?”

The costs of building versus refurbishing

In Panama you can buy a brand new Panamanian style home for under $65,000. Refurbishing an existing home can cost you from $10,000 to $35,000. Building an upscale North American style home can cost from $120,000 upwards. The cost for building in the Chiriqui area is in the range of $35 a square foot.


Apples and oranges

The biggest variable is the finishing touches. Whether you have a 2,000 square foot mansion or a 2,000 square foot modest home, To the point of lock-up - the basic construction costs are the same. The difference comes in appliances, tiling and more especially the kitchen. Custom made cabinets for example can cost from under $1,000 to over $10,000. I have even seen a kitchen costing over $40,000.

The sad realities of third world construction

I love the Panamanian people; they are warm, kind and generous but their standards of construction leave one far from ecstatic. Example number one would be asking them to build walls straight and level and plumb. Walk around any construction site here and you will see what I mean. The walls are out of plumb, there is hardly any cement in the joints and the levels look like a roller coaster engineer designed them.

In block construction they seem to have an almost averse fear of putting cement between the ends of the blocks. The resulting “dry” joints are covered over with a cement screed called repello (pronounced reh-pay-oh) This cement mortar hides a multitude of sins but more importantly it hides a potentially fatal flaw that an earthquake might uncover.

Construction site

Wonderful Styrofoam and wire

Recently we finished the extension to our home in Volcan. The walls and roof of our new bedroom were made out of a product called Covintec or M2. Basically it is a sheet of foam with vertical and horizontal wire bracing running through it. You pour a concrete foundation and leave short pieces of re-inforcing bar protruding, then you simply slot the M2 into these bars. My wife(who has zero experience in construction) and I erected almost the entire walls of our new bedroom within one day.

Covintec or M2 is more expensive than block but way, way faster. After assembling the walls, my workers sprayed cement repello onto them and that gave us the finished surface. Before the cement gets sprayed, it’s a real doddle to use a gas torch and burn the grooves for both the electrical and plumbing fixtures. These foam and reinforced wire sheets come in different thickness – my advice is to use nothing less than four inches thick. Thinner sheets have a tendency to buckle and are not load bearing.

Construction site

Pictured above: My dear lady wife. The contractor didn’t show up, so we set about putting the M2 up ourselves. Within half a day we had the basic part of the walls completed.

Wait there’s more

There is an even faster way yet. First build the skeleton of the house in “post and beam” style, out of vertical four inch steel beams and roof trusses out of “cariola” steel beams. Then the curtain walling can be done with the Covintec or M2. This method has become very popular here. This method has many advantages – the first is that you can have the roof on first and then you can work on the walls and interior protected from rain.

Roof structure

The idea is that instead of using 12” or 14” concrete columns your main frame consists of 4” 1/8 gauge steel beams.

Steel beams

Then the rest of the of wall uses standard steel studs. you can use either wall board or the M2 styrofoam for the in-filling.

Steel beams and roof

You can even buy long length preformed roof panels. Trust me you will love the insulation from the heat and more importantly when the Panamanian deluge comes down … you may still be able to hear your television above the noise of the rain.

If you do decide to move to either Volcan or Boquete, come and visit me in PUERTO ARMUELES I am willing to give you free advice and to show you some video of how this product is used.

My final advice is to consider all the cost ratios involved. Not just between building new or fixing-up but something more important – the stress factor. If you think you or your spouse might end up attacking either, each other or the workers with power tools then careful consideration should be given to living in an apartment or finished house.

If you would like some further advice on whether to build new or fix-up please contact me.

e-mail: David Dell