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Remodeling a Colonial Home in Granada Nicaragua

Looking back on it all, seated in my rocking chair with my cat in my lap and watching the hummingbirds sniff around the flowers of my garden, I have pleasant memories of remodeling this old Spanish colonial home several months ago.

I am, of course, aware that my subdued state of mind has more to do with mental exhaustion and general numbness than any historically accurate recall of the recent past. If I were to undergo hypnotherapy, I’m sure

I could conjure up all the frustrations and anxieties that kept me tossing in bed for five months while I went through the remodeling and construction process.

The real reason for my newfound tranquility (after 30 years of being a teeth-grinding, f-off Bostonian) is that I am thrilled with my new house.

It is, superlatively,my dream home: a beautifully restored colonial, complete with adobe walls, cathedral ceilings, an enclosed courtyard with palm trees, a lion-head fountain, antique wooden doors, an open-air kitchen facing a garden, and an incredible secondfloor bedroom with a balcony overlooking the surrounding red-tile roofs, Mombacho Volcano, two colonial churches, and – on really clear nights in the distance – Ometepe Island.

The final satisfaction of walking through my house and admiring the finished detail makes it hard to remember the bumps along the road. Happy endings make you forget unpleasant days that seemed significant at the moment.

Whirlwind Purchase

For more than a year before my family and I purchased the house, I was undecided as to whether it was worth buying property in Nicaragua. My indecision did not stem from a lack of information (I’ve literally written the book on the subject: “Living and Investing in the New Nicaragua”); my problem had more to do with fear of commitment and fear of owning anything important.

In less than a year, and before I realized what was happening, that all changed. It started with a fortuitous meeting one day while my family was in town visiting. I was out walking in the park with my dad (prudent, hesitant) when we bumped into one of my real-estate-selling friends from RE/MAX, Frank Kersloot (hardworking, trustworthy). Kersloot said, jokingly, “Want to see some houses, Tim?”

I (charismatic, handsome) looked at dad, nodded to let him know it was okay, and said, jokingly, “Yes.”

We went, jokingly, to see two houses in the “low price range, to see what’s out there.”

The first house was a dump. The second house we bought after a couple of hours of consultation with my heretofore-unmentioned mother (wise, poolside at hotel with sister [athletic, studious, jealous after house viewing with Kersloot]).

In the end, my family and I bought a house in Nicaragua before I ever had a chance to decide in my head whether or not it was a good idea. Sometimes life happens while you’re trying to think it out. And sometimes it’s for the best.

First Steps

Two months later, I was taking the first steps in the remodeling process. I met and decided to hire Carlos Meneses, a contractor (maestro de obras, in Spanish) who had come recommended, and who made a good first impression as serious and punctual. I had already met with a couple of other contractors and didn’t like any of them.

Meneses walked through the house with me to hear my ideas and offered some of his own.When we agreed on a plan, he gave me a carefully itemized budget for supplies, material costs and labor costs. (The other contractors pulled figures out of the air as if picking a winning number for lottery. They were big, scary numbers).

With the rough sketching Meneses and I came up with, I went and found an architect in town to come take all the measurements of the house, and draw up the official plans to be presented to the Historical Office of the alcaldía (mayor’s office).

This is a two-part process. First, the plans are drawn up in general terms (usually takes a couple of weeks) and are presented to the alcaldía for general approval (another couple of weeks). At this point, the city architects, of whom there are three, come out to see the house and review your plans. They then approve them either in full, partially, or not at all.

Based on how step one goes, it’s back to the drawing board with your architect to come up with meticulous and tediously detailed blueprints that include more detail than you can imagine. This takes another several weeks before the second set of plans can be presented to the alcaldía – along with the fire permit from the local fire station ($50, four days of waiting and another set of blueprints) – for final approval.

The cost of the building permit is based on square meters of construction, and probably won’t be more than a couple hundred dollars.

Permit Hell

The entire permit process should take about a month to six weeks. It took me 12 weeks, and I hated every day of it. I found the process unclear and painfully tedious and technical because of Granada’s strict colonial building codes and cumbersome paperwork requirements.

As I was going through the process, I couldn’t imagine anyone else undergoing the same thing. And, in fact, many don’t – they just do whatever the heck they want and don’t worry about permits, paying fines as they come along or working at night or on Sundays to avoid being caught by the building authorities.

I decided to cross all my Ts, in part because I didn’t want to be an ugly Gringo, and in greater part because I didn’t have any budget to pay fines. But, having now gone through the process correctly, I understand why others do it on the fly. Granada needs to streamline this process if they expect anyone to follow the rules.

Here’s a snapshot of my permit experience: I’m sitting in the alcaldía’s windowless Historical Office for the fourth time in the same week, sweating in a chair while a guy whose function is unknown to me reads the daily El Nuevo Diario at his desk, and a woman pecks away slowly at typewriter. I feel like I’m in the Doldrums; everything is either moving very slowly or appears to have stopped altogether.

I’m supposedly waiting to talk about my house plans with one of the city architects, who I’m told will be back “ahorita.” It generally seems like it’s everyone’s first day on the job, and no one is exactly sure what’s going on. Some of the employees are helpful, but they too appear to be frustrated by the lack of communication and coordination in the office. Like the 2004 U.S. Dream Team, the alcaldía’s office has some good individual players, but they’re lousy as a team.

I’ve already been told three times that the city will only allow me to build a second-floor bedroom at the back of the property, rather than in the middle where I want it go. And I have already explained to them three times that the back of the property is unrealistic because of a 75-foot septic hole upon which it is impossible to build. But since it’s always a different person in the office every time I go in, I’m forced to repeat the conversation each time, whereupon I’m told to come back in two weeks, only to find out that I have to go through the process again wit h another person. Bill Murray had it easy in “Groundhog Day.” But enough of that. I eventually ended up getting my permit. Bull-headed persistence. No bribes.

My contractor Meneses, who hasn’t heard from me in months and probably assumed I had returned to the United States, finally receives a call from me: “I’ve got the permit. Let’s do this thing.”

The Work

The actual remodeling and construction of my house went generally smoother.

Progress was more visible some days than others, as was my enthusiasm and patience.

I put myself in charge of purchasing all the materials for construction. This probably ended up saving me some money, but it also became a full-time job, on top of my other full-time job of putting out a newspaper every week.

On average, I ended up buying supplies twice a day, which usually meant putting whatever else I was doing on hold and running out to the hardware store to buy cement, wood, nails, rebar, paint thinner, cinderblocks, sand, gravel or whatever else was needed. Late nights and no lunch break for five months.

The con of making lots of little trips to the hardware store was that it was time consuming.

The pro was that all the materials were bought on an as-needed basis, so I didn’t end up wasting money on unused materials.

In Nicaragua, supplies are more expensive than labor.

Overall, construction went relatively smoothly.When problems were encountered along the way, Meneses and his crew were good at sorting them out.

The process didn’t go as quickly as I had hoped, although some of the delay was caused by heavy rain that slowed roof work. Compared to some of the horror stories I had heard about construction crews botching a job or taking off without finishing, I have praises for Meneses and his crew. They are good guys who took pride in their work. Meneses also helped put me in touch with the specialty crews that did the electrical work, the welding of the spiral staircase, the decorative metalwork, the gutters and the doors and windows.

Recommendation: it’s important to be on the site as much as possible to measure progress, and to let the workers know you are doing so. It also helps to be there to make spot decisions and monitor trouble-shooting when the need arises. Otherwise, some strange decisions can be made from time to time without your knowledge.

Happy Ending

Yet, when all was said and done, I learned to let up a bit on my tendency to micromanage every aspect of everything in my world.

I had to; it was becoming impossible to stay on top of everything and still remember to feed my loyal cat, The Bajopata.

In the end, the house turned out great. The workers are gone, and The Bajopata – after objecting slightly to being stuffed inside a duffel bag and brought to the new house against her will – has adjusted nicely, hunting geckos throughout the house, destroying the plants in the garden and exploring the miles of interconnected rooftops with the other roof cats.

What not so long ago seemed an interminable process is now done, and only hazily remembered.

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