Building your dream home in Mexico

II. Finding a great architect and builder

A good architect can make or break your experience. If you can't marry one, take the time to find someone that's right for you. Drive around the neighborhood, pick out homes you like, and inquire about the architect. This lets you start with someone whose design style you like and who has experience in your area. Materials and building methods are very different in Mexico than in the US and Canada, so beware of using an architect that doesn't have local experience.

As important as a good architect is a rock-solid general contractor. Fortunately for us, Mariana has worked with the same builder for years, Ramon Calzada, who has a deserved reputation for always being on time and on budget. If you don't know a local builder, you will once again need to do some research. Ask everyone--your architect, your future neighbors, your realtor. Check references and visit other homes he's built to inspect the quality and to find out if the owners were happy working with him.

Some contractors will offer to "throw in" the architecture if you hire them to build your house. If you care for aesthetics, pass. Architects are not expensive in Mexico (generally 5% or less of construction costs) and contractors, if unchecked, will build your house in a way that's the fastest and most profitable for them. Indeed, a good architect can police your builder, which is especially important if you aren't around to
do this yourself. It will cost a bit extra to have your architect perform this supervisory role but it's worth it to ensure that everything is going according to plan.

Make sure to implement a pricing structure with your contractor that suits your interests. When we hired Ramon, we gave him the architectural designs and specifications and had him tally up the quantity and cost of every element, down to the last nail--a full binder's worth of numbers. Mariana then reviewed this with him. We ended up with a detailed estimate of how much the house was going to cost. Based on that, we negotiated a fixed percentage as Ramon's fee. Once we were all happy with this, we stopped being on opposite sides of the negotiating table. Ramon was free to cut costs without the perverse incentives that exist when contractors earn more by spending more (i.e., the common "cost-plus" arrangement). This worked beautifully for us. Ramon built the house as if it were his own--saving money at every turn by being creative and by negotiating tooth-and-nail on our behalf with every vendor.