As I mentioned in the last post, there was plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong on this project. We were mostly dealing remotely with a contractor that spoke very little English, and even when we were on site, most of the workers only spoke Spanish or French. The opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding were abundant, yet I have to tell you that this was the most painless renovation or construction project we have ever tackled, including building two houses and renovating a few more in the US.
To sum it up, when you decide to head offshore to rent, build or buy a home, I cannot overemphasize how valuable it is to have a network of expats and locals that already know the local customs, shortcuts and have a solid Rolodex of all the contacts you will ever need to get the job done. Without a doubt, being able to tap into the experience and recommendations of other expats like Barry, Liane, Denise, Johnnie, Pablo and others saved me thousands of dollars and months of aggravation. They pointed me straight to the contractors, stores and subcontractors that made this a pleasurable construction experience. And trust me when I say that the words “pleasurable” and “construction” in the same sentence is a rarity for me.
I do realize that I am about to give you far more detail about our own rehab project than you could ever want to know, but I do believe it might be worth reading so that you can gain some perspective about just how inexpensive it can be to get things done down here on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic.
The Magic To A Great RehabFirst, and most importantly…. my contractor made it happen without hassle and without surprises. I am glad I listened to Barry and Denise and their recommendations for my contractor. I cannot say enough positive things about Pablo Kopic. Pablo (Paul) is my Croatian contractor that knows how to get things done right in Cabrera. I think he has been building and rehabbing in Cabrera for about 8 years and he knows which subs offer the best quality service at the best price. He stays on top of them to make sure they get the work done on time and exactly how it should be done. I really can’t say enough good things about Pablo and I will use him again for all of my future projects.
What We Started WithTo fully understand what things cost when you tackle a project like this in Cabrera, you first need to know a little about what we started with. So, a little about the villa we purchased at a great discount compared to the $420,000 price it was listed at several years ago. First, this home started out as a 4 BR, 2BA in a gated Cabrera community of homes that range from about $180,000 to well over a million. The home sits up on the side of one of the cliffs where it catches the almost constant coastal breezes and has through-the-palms views of the coastline down below. The lot is gated and the drive winds up the hillside to a covered carport. The home has a large kiosko which we will use as an outdoor kitchen and party area. There is a small cascading water feature that runs from the cliffside above down under the kiosko into a small koi pond. The home also looks down on two swimming pools that cascade down the hillside. (Why the heck anyone really needs two swimming pools I will never understand).
The home is constructed completely out of concrete block walls which have been reinforced with poured concrete and rebar, and all the floors and roofs consist of rebar reinforced poured concrete. This is very typical of the type of construction you will see all over the Cabrera area. When done right, it makes for a very solid construction that can withstand almost anything nature throws at it. The construction workers on the North Coast are very familiar with this type of construction and can perform minor miracles for very little money when it comes time to make changes, additions or repairs.
What Needed Rehabbing
Roof: The home had been allowed to sit un-maintained for a while. The roof developed several leaks resulting in peeling paint and some moisture damage on the interior. The first project was to completely rework the roof, including adding some additional concrete drainage elevations over flat sections of the roof, complete scraping and cleaning all surfaces, multi-layer surface coating which was finally topped off with a white roof compound. As a bonus, they threw in resurfacing the Kiosko while they were at it. In the US, this portion of the project would have cost approximately $12,000 to $15,000 including supplies and labor. Our cost on this portion of the rehab in Cabrera was about $2,500.Upper Level Entrance: The home was already configured where the lower level could be isolated from the upper level with an external entrance. This concept worked for us because it allowed for the separate use of the lower level by renters or guests. What didn’t work was the fact that the residents of the upper level had to walk around either the front or the back of the house to access the upper level. Crazy design “feature”. So our number two project was to create a separate courtyard entrance with sturdy concrete stairs up to the upper floor directly from the carpark area. The entire courtyard is tiled and provisions were made for an enclosed inversol/battery area as well as the addition of an enclosed laundry. This was a fairly involved and very labor intensive portion of the project, yet the cost was bearable. In the US we would have had to pay approximately $15,000 to $20,000 to get similar work completed. On our Cabrera project our cost including all supplies, tiling, custom iron railing and labor totaled about $ 4,000. Upper Level Bathroom: Next, we tackled the upper bathroom. It turns out that many of the bathrooms built in this area in the 80’s were built using European standards, including smaller drain pipes than are typical of American standards. In some homes that means that it is a hassle (or worse) to flush paper products. For us that was not acceptable. So, project three was a complete rework of the upper bathroom. The original bathroom was larger than needed and somewhat dysfunctional. So we split the single oversized original bathroom up into a separate main bathroom and a half bathroom. While they were at it, they completely demolished and rebuilt the existing concrete floors, re-plumbed to US standards and re-wired the bathrooms, before adding a new tiled shower, fixtures, granite countertops, and new tile floors. A complete rebuild of the full bathroom and addition of the half bath. In the US, this portion of the project could easily cost from $20,000 to $30,000. On our project in Cabrera, the upper bathroom project cost about $ 4,600, including all supplies,tile, granite, fixtures and labor.
Lower Level Bathroom and Kitchenette: Just like upstairs, the lower level bathroom was grossly oversized and dysfunctional. Just like upstairs, they ripped everything out down to bare walls, ripped out the concrete floor, re-plumbed, re-wired, added a new tiled shower, re-poured and tiled the floors, installed a cabinet and topped it with granite counter tops and a new sink and fixtures. While they were ripping things apart, they built a separate kitchenette with breakfast bar, including sink, granite countertops, tile floors, new wiring and a place for a small refrigerator and microwave for the lower level guests. In the US, this portion of the project would probably cost from $20,000 to $35,000. On our Cabrera project the lower bathroom and kitchenette project cost about $ 4,200 including all supplies, fixtures, granite, tiles and labor.Kitchen: Most of the cabinets were in pretty good shape but the counter tops were ugly. So in this portion of the project we opted for full granite countertops using a mid-range quality of granite. In the US you would pay approximately $40 – $45 per square foot installed. On the Cabrera job the net cost was $25 per square foot installed, and we probably could have negotiated for a little more off.
Painting: We had the whole place repainted, inside and out. Probably close to 60 gallons of paint by the time it was all done. Our painter and his helpers did a very thorough job of scraping all the concrete walls (in and out) and all the repainting on this two story house with a lot of wall surface. The total labor cost was only about $1,200. In the US the labor cost to do this much painting and prep would cost approximately $6,000 to $8,000, maybe even more.
SummaryI hope that gives you some idea about the relative costs of tackling a fairly extensive rehab project in the Cabrera area. As you can see from our estimates, the big savings are in the cost of labor. It seems that the nastier the job, the lower the cost. For example, it seems that demolition, concrete work, scraping and painting, rock wall building and landscape maintenance are all the types of projects staffed with lower paid workers (many of Hatian decent) working for as little as $13 per day. Most of the materials costs are fairly comparable to US prices, except for concrete and rebar and maybe custom ironwork, which seem to be quite inexpensive in Cabrera.
What Else Did We Learn From Our Rehab Project
Obviously we learned that labor costs can be quite a bargain down on the North Coast. It is refreshing knowing that our retirement dollars can go much further if we are just a little bit careful. But maybe we learned some even more important lessons from this experience. Specifically:
- Whether you speak the language or not, you can still get most of your day to day tasks completed rather efficiently. Except for tiles and basic construction materials like concrete block, concrete, gravel, wood and ironwork which our contractor provided, we were able to find and purchase most of the other items we needed on this project, including hardware, paint, bathroom fixtures, lighting fixtures, fans and similar items with just a couple trips into town and a few trips to the larger towns.
- Most of the people we worked with were able to communicate at least on a basic level, and if they weren’t, it was not difficult to find someone that could translate enough to get the job done. Much easier than we expected.
- These workers, for the most part, were hard working and conscientious. Nothing about this project required anything close to micro management and I am not aware of anything that had to be redone because of mistakes.
- A support group of expats and locals was invaluable. In fact, knowing what we know now about how important that is, I doubt we would ever move to another country unless we already had a support group in place waiting for us. In our case, Barry and his team gave freely of their time, contacts and advice and it helped make this experience so positive.
- There are good deals to be had if you have someone honest with good local connections watching out for bargains for you, whether buying a fixer upper like us or building new. Before buying in Cabrera, we looked at similar Caribbean properties in St. Thomas, Aruba, St. Maartin, Grand Cayman and St. Johns. You simply get more for your money here on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic… oftentimes two to five times as much.
Since working on our rehab project, we have also spent more time looking at some of the oceanview lots that are just now being released out on the east side of Cabrera. All I can say is WOW… most of these lots sit on the crest of a ridgeline overlooking the ocean with full 180 degree (or more) views for as far as you can see. Barry, and some of the other expats that have recently purchased lots in this area are nailing down new construction costs for brand new Caribbean style concrete homes in the $55 per square foot range with good construction materials, fit and finish. I will put together a part three to this post in order to share a little of what I have discovered in that area.