A typical construction site. A typical construction site.

A few beers in cantina reveals payroll scam

The Joy of Construction in Mexico Part 4 — The Crooked Contractor

After plying my new trade as a home inspector for over a year, I eventually agreed to a couple of requests that I expand by offering construction supervision to expats who wished to renovate a house or build a home from scratch.

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The standard practice for many expats in Mexico is to find an architect, engineer or builder to both design and build their home while they sweat bullets back in Edmonton or Duluth.

If there is somebody who lives locally and can be at the construction site every day, and who can roughly visualize the finished project, they stand a much better chance than the absentee owner of bringing about a result close to what was sought.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that if you are at the project each day, with specific requirements, and professedly perfect communication with the crew or the builder, that errors will not occur. They will, I guarantee it. My mission in accepting this work was to minimize the errors and watch for outright omissions.

My very first client for construction supervision wanted me to watch over the Mexican builder who was remodeling his recent purchase, and disburse funds at the end of each week. I saw this as an opportunity to follow a renovation project from demolition to a fabulous new home; something I would find of enormous interest, while receiving a modest fee for the experience.

I planned to take many digital photos and provide a weekly progress report on the project, while keeping things on track.

I had an initial blush of confidence in my ability to watch over what was the renovation and expansion of an older house. Quite separate from my home-building experience north of the border, where I had been presiding over fast-track, seriously demanding, high-end commercial construction for a number of years, how hard could this be, I asked myself?

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I met the Mexican builder on a Monday morning and watched while his crew of five men started knocking down old walls and ceilings with 12-pound sledges. All five men were wearing open toed huaraches, which were mostly worn out. Since neither my client nor I wished to purchase steel-toed boots for the crew, and the builder saw nothing wrong with the tenuous footwear, I simply put together a first aid kit appropriate for smashed toes.

At the end of the first week, when the builder handed me his invoice, I checked the materials and labor and thought it was a bit high. The following week, while going over the latest invoice, I thought there was a math error. When I questioned the invoice total, the builder assured me he had purchased materials that had not yet been delivered, by arrangement.

He said also that there was another laborer, who I had not seen because he was not always at the job. The job site was cramped so he could have had a point about the missing materials, but the mystery laborer was very suspicious in my humble opinion, and the situation justified further inquiries.

After some cunning planning, after work on the following Wednesday, I took the construction crew, without the builder or the mystery laborer, to a nearby cantina, where I started buying liter bottles of Pacifico. I had Juan, my full-time friend and part-time assistant, join us for precise translations.

Three liters evaporated within the first 20 minutes and another four had disappeared by the end of the first hour when I began the detailed questioning. The crew initially seemed quite reluctant to talk about the man they worked for; however, the brotherhood of the beer, the camaraderie of the cantina and a few more liters, combined with the promise of continued employment, dispelled their fears and loosened their tongues.

I was told the Mexican builder was planning to charge as much as he could at the early stages of the work thereby seriously depleting the funds which were allotted for the original cost estimate.

This means the job would not be completed by the time the money ran out. Of course, the gullible gringo would simply shell out more money to finish the project; what choice would he have?

This was the builder’s purported modus operandi with many of his expat clients, and he had been very successful with this scam in the past. I asked if the builder shared his spoils with his loyal crew and I was told he was not a generous guy.

I then asked each one of them how much they were being paid. The two experienced albañiles (masons) each received 200 pesos per day and the helpers were being paid 120 pesos. I then pulled out the invoice for the previous week and passed it around the table for all to see the 8,000-peso charge for a week’s worth of labor.

The slightly inebriated crew was stunned at the amount of pesos over and above what they were being paid and I knew they were all silently wondering if they too could become a builder. As our meeting broke up, I cautioned the workers not to mention anything to their jefe about our exchange of information.

The morning following my cantina revelation, I was the first to arrive at the project so I could catch the builder before he disappeared for the day. I very politely asked him to help me understand the weekly labor charges because I was confused by the amount.

I was treated to the most elaborate double talk I have ever encountered outside of a Monty Python routine. When I asked very pointed questions, his excellent English suddenly disintegrated to a confused pidgin worthy of Cheech and Chong. I was then beginning to wonder if he would slink off like Mr. Bean.

When he saw I was not buying his attempts to validate the charges he became indignant and told me if I was not happy with his work, he would take his crew and leave. I agreed that would be the best course of action, but I wanted the materials my client had paid for but which had not yet been delivered to the project.

When he assured me that the materials would be delivered by the end of the day, I think we both knew it was a lie.

He stormed into the remains of the house, told the workers to gather up the tools because this job was over. Everything was stock still for an uncomfortable minute, then the lead albañil stepped forward and told the builder that he and the crew would stay and work for the gringo.

The other workers nodded with no delay. The builder’s incredulity was as apparent as his fury as he stomped through the rubble and collected his sledgehammers, pry bars, shovels and wheelbarrow. He tossed his well-used equipment into the back of the new truck my client was not going to help him pay for and made a tire-screeching departure in the manner of a petulant child.

As I surveyed my newly acquired and empty-handed crew, I quickly assured them the work would continue as soon as I could round up new tools and a wheelbarrow.

Also, they would all be getting a raise. Thus began my eight-year odyssey of construction in Mexico.

This column is the fourth of a series by Bodie Kellogg, who describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at buscardero@yahoo.com.

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  • fgm333

    This is an old story—the world over. I had some friends the family of the wife being the daughter of a prominent Real Estate mogul. The friend and his wife went to Europe leaving the extensive remodeling of their house to a sub-contractor of the wife’s father. They returned four weeks later and nothing had been done to the house. The father had to “speak” with the subcontractor and then the job was done.

  • Anthony Stein

    This gringo better be careful because this Mexican builder may one day return after a few tequilas and exact his revenge! Beware of the Mexican Macho!

  • Mike S

    Mexico is a “buyer beware” society. If you are going to hire a building contractor or a dentist…CHECK REFERENCES!!

  • Tom Hammerton

    I can sympathize, my wife and I began construction of a small house (gradually escalating to a larger one) in 1990 in a promising Cabo San Lucas development. Ultimately the developers were caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, leaving the properties and infrastructure incomplete. That is lesson #1 that won’t be discussed here.
    Regardless, we proceeded with our plans to make a home for our retirement a few years down the road. Having considerable experience in architectural design and construction from single dwellings to 40 storey complexes, I undertook the task of hiring a crew and having an architect check and sign my plans. A good bi-lingual Mexican friend helped me find an experienced builder who had a (more or less) reliable work crew. At the time I was still working in Canada, but spent several months a year in Cabo San Lucas when work was being done on the house. I never allowed work to be done while we were away from Mexico, and strongly advise foreigners to do the same. There are many stories about absentee owners ending up with $250,000.00 carports when the advanced money was gone.
    Since the house was only worked on for a couple of months a year, it took several years before it was ready for occupancy. In the meantime there were many instances where the crew changed things that were not on the plans, they were determined to show us gringos that they had good Mexican style ideas and were obviously very proud of the changes they made. After thinking about it, usually I agreed and gave my permission for most of their ideas… they became real help mates when they realized that they were partners as opposed to peons forced to do things the “gringo way”. Every one of the crew left their individual mark on the finished structure, and I have wonderful respect for that.
    From about 2002 until the present, we have employed a handyman who has single handedly upgraded the basic structure and grounds. Largely because of his efforts, the house has evolved into an award winning destination for travelers! I would trust him with my very life.
    So, while you are bumping into negative experiences with shady characters, please give the honest ones some credit!!!

    • Bodie Kellogg

      You are right, there are enough positive construction stories out there to know it can be done, there are plenty of examples.

      However, if everything on a project goes right, I have a very hard time making it an amusing story; after all, this is theater of the mind for the armchair ex-pat.

    • MortimerSnerd

      If your going to spend a lot of money… BE HERE to supervise or pay someone to do so. I have hired home renovators… I pay $500 pesos per day for a maestro and $350 for his helper if he has one… lunch or dinner and all the Corona they want at the end of the day. I treat them well and it pays off. If as a gringo you can’t afford to pay $35- $40 a day for a good tradesman… or $25 for his helper… they have familes to feed .

  • I agree with Mike S.
    Get references for the builder; someone in town with a long standing (good) reputation, and pay that guy to do the job. The rest are a painful dime a dozen.
    Read ‘Jesus & the Unabomber.’

  • cooncats

    I had similar experiences on a much smaller scale until I wised up and realized I had to be the contractor. Found reliable help by checking around and supervised the jobs myself, buying materials also myself with the help of the workers who knew what the prices should be. Money goes a lot further now. Thanks for sharing this story, every expat should see it and be warned.

  • Any foreigners who hire locals to build or renovate a home while they are far away might as well just bend over and provide a jar a Vaseline.

  • daniel pugh

    Love the ladder in the pic!

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