Starting a building or renovation project in Mexico requires you to be well informed on local business practices. What you consider unacceptable up north might be considered normal locally, and what you see as normal up north might be unheard of here in Mexico. For starters, you have to decide if you will be on site during construction, or just drop by for a few minutes each day, or do you plan to be completely absent during construction. You might simply be on clean-up duty or spend the day on a broom, though your presence onsite will definitely change the pace. Obviously, if any changes or questions should arise, you will be happier with the results if you are able to make decisions before the project is complete. Let’s face it, with the summer heat and humidity, the pace on your job site has to slow. Make a decision if you really need to continue the project while you are absent. More importantly, being on site you can confirm the materials you are being billed for truly made it to your site.

When you pay for the materials right away, you will see the discount yourself, and you will know the suppliers won’t come back to you at a later date asking for payment that was missed. Before you start, you will want to get prices on basic materials, such as cement, sand/gravel/rock, red and grey brick, rebar and various other materials you will be using on a daily basis. Check with the construction suppliers before talking to any contractor or maestro. Local suppliers may think they have to quote a price with a “commission” paid to the contractor, so will quote a higher price. Many northerners are used to paying cash for goods and services in Mexico, and you will notice a 10-15% discount when they know they will be paid right away, rather than waiting to be paid. This especially applies to your sub-trades as well. Some welders, painters, glass/aluminum window installers, plumbers, electricians, and others were very clear the bid they provided was to me, not the contractor, as they could not afford a kick-back or commission with the price they quoted. At first I didn’t understand why these trades wanted to bid on a Sunday or in the evening, until one finally pointed out a quote given mid-day, with the contractor onsite, would likely mean a kick-back had to be paid. For example, the price for sand/ gravel/ rock was 60% lower when I approached the supplier myself. Tradesmen, such as painters and welders bid roughly 30% less when I talked to them myself. Sadly, many trades stated they did not want to bid through the contractor, as their bids were too high and they were quite often out-bid when the client found his own quotes. You feel you are paying a fair local construction wage? I have also heard some contractors charge the crew a “commission” for the privilege of working on “his” job-site.

Should you have a contractor or should you just find a good, reliable “Maestro” (onsite crew leader)? For those not building on a budget or those wanting a hands-off approach to the project, a contractor is an easy was to see the project to completion. The contractor’s fee billed to you tends to be roughly 15%, though beware of the kick-backs mentioned above. When you have researched material costs, let the contractor know the prices you were quoted. If he is simply a glorified “mostrador” or commissioned materials salesman, you really don’t need him on site anyhow. Also, keep in mind the best thing for the contractor is to present you with the largest invoices for as long as possible, as his income is based on these invoices. I tried to get a flat quote from my contractor, though he was very reluctant to go this route. Getting bids on each phase of your project will eliminate the kick-back problem. In reality, the contractor might only be on your site for a few minutes each day, while the Maestro will be on site all day, every day. A true professional contractor will know his material costs and know what his crew is capable of, and will probably be on site to make sure things are moving smoothly. As a professional, he should also welcome other trades /contractors presenting bids, confident that his quality and price will still get the job. Jaltemba Bay is a small enough area to check with others completing projects and you will soon find out the pros and cons of each Maestro and contractor.

Should a worker be injured on your site, you will want to legally protect yourself by paying the crew IMSS /Social Security benefits. Unless specified in your contract, don’t make any assumptions your crew is truly covered. After registering with IMSS, you will receive an invoice to be paid at the bank, and this should show the names of each worker.

The project was a great lesson on construction in the tropics as well as great Spanish immersion for me. Would I do it again? Certainly, though I would do things a bit differently.