Being your own contractor in the Philippines

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Being your own contractor in the Philippines.  Our Philippine house building project is almost  complete.  After our unhappy experiences with hiring an architect to build our perimeter fence (see _____)  we decided to hire our own crew to build our house.  We hired an architect to do the plans and to come for site visits on an as-needed basis.  We shopped for our own materials and supervised the work with help from a foreman.
Was this a success?  It looks like it’s going to cost us about 2.5 million pesos for our 150 square meter house or about P16,500 per square meter.  Houses can be built for that amount or less, but we tried to use top quality materials, so we feel as though we have gotten a P20,000 per square meter house at a discount.  By the end, construction will have taken ten months.  We were on-site nearly the entire ten months.  There were many, many problems and frustrations.  We learned a lot and we think our crew learned from us.  We learned some things about Filipino culture.  So, I’d say that if you want a project and a challenge and can be patient, build your own house.  If you want a relaxing, stress-free retirement, buy an existing house or hire a good builder, mostly stay away from the project, and move into and enjoy your completed home when it’s done.  Easier said than done.  There are good builders, bad builders and all shades in between.  There are practically unlimited ways for a builder to up his profits by taking shortcuts or using cheap materials.  Almost all will be hidden when the house is complete.  A bad builder can turn your retirement idyll into a nightmare so choose carefully.  Take the time to carefully look at several buildings built by the prospective architect/engineer/builder and interview the owners, privately if possible.
Here’s a few notes about employing your own workers.
You must have a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced and honest foreman.  This is the key to the entire enterprise.  Mutual language skills must be adequate.  There will be problems, mistakes, but don’t criticize your foreman in front of the crew.  I did this and undercut his authority with the crew.
Usually workers, even skilled workers with lots of experience,  will not have their own tools, beyond the most basic such as a hand saw, pencil or trowel.  Power tools that they may have owned are often sold.  If you don’t supply tools, they’ll make do with what they have but the pace and quality of work will suffer.  We bought a Chinese 300 amp welding machine.  It’s been used and used with no problems.  Many good welders cannot afford their own machine.  If you can supply the welding machine you can hire the welder on a per day basis and get your work done economically.  We also bought an AEG 14″ cut off saw, a Makita 4″ grinder, an AEG hammer drill, a Bosch orbital sander and an AEG orbital jig saw.  We considered buying a table saw but did not.  Except for the jig saw, all tools were heavily used with no problems.  All were bought from Far Eastern on Quezon Street in Iloilo City.  Far Eastern sells loads of power tools and has a complete repair shop.  My foreman supplied a electric hand-held planer and a second 4″ grinder.  We standardized on Bosch cobalt and carbide drill bits and Bosch grinding and cutting wheels as the best quality for a modest price.
We brought our extension cords from the U.S.  Again, the crew will improvise, but good extension cords save time.
If you’re building a house, buy a cement mixer.  Before the project began, we debated whether to by one or not.  We did buy one.  They easily pay for themselves in better concrete and faster work.  They are easily sold when the job is done.  See_______
Do yourself a favor and buy a four foot level for the crew.  They’ll build without one, but will build better with one.  Use it yourself to check the work and to let your workers know you expect good work.
We splurged an bought a 7′ Rigid fiberglass step ladder.  We have 10′ ceilings so we’ll need it later for changing light bulbs and other chores.  It was very useful during construction.
Remember, that all of these tool purchases (ours totaled about $1,500) leave you with a legacy of 220v tools once the project is complete.  You may want to use these yourself.  A complete stock of tools will allow you to easily hire workers for repairs, maintenance and improvements.
Most importantly, the project provides an excuse for shopping for tools, a existential pleasure for most American males.
Our workers have been near 100% honest regarding tools and materials.  To the best of our knowledge, nothing has disappeared except for possibility some metal scrap.  If you treat your workers well, they will probably feel an obligation to treat you well. Be vigilant at the end of the project when the sense of obligation may weaken.
You will be responsible for finding, paying for and delivery of every bit of material for your project and for ensuring that it’s on site when needed.  Don’t expect anyone to let you know what will be needed when.  You have to plan ahead.  If materials are not available when needed, your crew will try to keep themselves looking busy, but you’ll be wasting time and money.  Further, most workers are happiest and most productive when they have an assignment and the tools and materials they need to carry it out.
As soon as you return to the site with new supplies, there will be a request for something else they should have told you was needed. Count on it.  You make think you’re the boss but mostly you’ll be the gopher and slave.
Philippine workers are usually paid on Saturday after work.  They are paid an advance (“vale”) on Wednesday.  Payment is in cash.
Being your own contractor in the Philippines.  Our Philippine house building project is almost complete.  After our unhappy experiences with hiring an architect to build our perimeter fence (see /building-a-hollow-block-perimeter-wall/)  we decided to hire our own crew to build our house.  We hired an architect to do the plans and to come for site visits on an as-needed basis.  We shopped for our own materials and supervised the work with help from a foreman.
Our house and neighborhood

Our house and neighborhood

Was this a success?  It looks like it’s going to cost us about 2.5 million pesos for our 150 square meter house or about P16,500 per square meter.  Houses can be built for that amount or less, but we tried to use top quality materials, so we feel as though we have gotten a P20,000 per square meter house at a discount.  By the end, construction will have taken ten months. We were on-site nearly the entire ten months.  There were many, many problems and frustrations.  We learned a lot and we think our crew learned from us. We learned some things about Filipino culture.  So, I’d say that if you are knowledgeable about building, want a project and a challenge and can be patient, hire a foreman and crew and build your own house.

If you want a relaxing, stress-free retirement, buy an existing house or try to hire a good builder, mostly stay away from the project. Move into and enjoy your completed home when it’s done — don’t watch the sausage being made.   There are good builders, bad builders and all shades in between.  There are practically unlimited ways for a builder to up his profits by taking shortcuts, using cheap materials, stealing and looking for kickbacks from construction supply firms .  Almost all will be hidden when the house is complete.  A bad builder can turn your retirement idyll into a nightmare, so choose carefully.  Take the time to carefully look at several buildings built by the prospective architect/engineer/builder and interview the owners, privately if possible.

If you buy a lot in a subdivision, we’d generally advise against having the subdivision developer build your house.

Here’s a few notes about employing your own workers.

  • You must have a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced and honest foreman.  This is the key to the entire enterprise.  Mutual language skills must be adequate.  There will be problems, mistakes, but don’t criticize your foreman in front of the crew.  I did this and undercut his authority with the crew.  As with an architect, don’t hire a foreman until you’ve carefully examined some of his projects.  Do this instead of listening to any yarns he can spin about his experience.
  • Usually workers, even skilled workers with lots of experience,  will not have their own tools, beyond the most basic such as a hand saw, pencil or trowel.  Power tools that they may have owned are often sold.  If you don’t supply tools, they’ll make do with what they have but the pace and quality of work will suffer.  We bought a Chinese 300 amp welding machine.  It’s been used and used with no problems.  Many good welders cannot afford their own machine.  If you can supply the welding machine you can hire the welder on a per day basis and get your work done economically.  We also bought an AEG 14″ cut off saw, a Makita 4″ grinder, an AEG hammer drill, a Bosch orbital sander and an AEG orbital jig saw.  We considered buying a table saw but did not.  Except for the jig saw, all tools were heavily used with no problems.  All were bought from Far Eastern Hardware on Quezon Street in Iloilo City.  Far Eastern sells loads of power tools and has a complete repair shop.  My foreman supplied a electric hand-held planer and a second 4″ grinder.  We standardized on Bosch cobalt and carbide drill bits and Bosch grinding and cutting wheels as the best quality for a modest price.
  • We brought our extension cords from the U.S.  Again, the crew will improvise, but good extension cords save time.
  • If you’re building a house, buy a cement mixer.  Before the project began, we debated whether to by one or not.  We did buy one.  They easily pay for themselves in better concrete and faster work.  They are easily sold when the job is done.
  • Do yourself a favor and buy a four foot level for the crew.  They’ll build without one, but will build better with one.  Use it yourself to check the work and to let your workers know you expect good work.
  • We splurged an bought a 8′ Rigid fiberglass step ladder.  We have 10′ ceilings so we’ll need it later for changing light bulbs and other chores.  It was very useful during construction. We also bought a 16′ aluminum extension ladder.
  • Remember, that all of these tool purchases (ours totaled about $1,500 net) leave you with a legacy of 220v tools once the project is complete.  You may want to use these yourself.  A complete stock of tools will allow you to easily hire workers for repairs, maintenance and improvements.Most importantly, the project provides an excuse for shopping for tools, a existential pleasure for most American males.
  • Our workers have been near 100% honest regarding tools and materials.  To the best of our knowledge, nothing has disappeared except for possibly some metal scrap.  If you treat your workers well, they will probably feel an obligation to treat you well. Be vigilant at the end of the project when the sense of obligation may weaken.
  • You will be responsible for finding, paying for and delivery of every bit of material for your project and for ensuring that it’s on site when needed.  Don’t expect anyone to let you know what will be needed when.  You have to plan ahead.  If materials are not available when needed, your crew will try to keep themselves looking busy, but you’ll be wasting time and money.  Further, most workers are happiest and most productive when they have an assignment and the tools and materials they need to carry it out. As soon as you return to the site with new supplies, there will be a request for something else they should have told you was needed. Count on it.  You may think you’re the boss, but mostly you’ll be the gopher and slave.
  • Philippine workers are usually paid on Saturday after work.  They are paid an advance (“vale”) on Wednesday.  Payment is in cash.  We have a strict rule not to loan unearned (advance) money to workers.  They knew about the rule from the beginning and therefore never asked.

While we had many ups and downs with our foreman and workers, we came away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for the character, good humor, honesty, loyalty and work ethic of the Filipino worker.

Comments (16) Write a comment

  1. Friends, lawyer, old conservative, engineer and in your family framework thanks to your wife. it’s easy easy to build home in these conditions. Everybody does not have this opportunity. And I sincerely think that if you had not have these people to support your project you nauriez not do this POST!
    Now I’d like you to explain why you do not like Subdivisions Lots and houses? or other kind of Bayswater?

    Reply

  2. Just want to ask, when we say labor and materials in constructing a house, does that mean that the excess materials that were not used like wood, gi sheets etc. will go to the contractor and not to the owner, our contractor told us that. Please enlighten me on this matter thanks.

    Reply

    • If you have a written contract, this can be clarified in advance. If your situation is that you hired a contractor to provide labor and materials for a set price, I feel that leftover materials would belong to the contractor.

      Just our opinion.

      Bob and Carol

      Reply

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for the excellant information. I appologize in advance if this question was asked already, have searched the site but have not seen it. Regarding workers and injury / liability during the construction and ways to limit this, was this a problem that cropped up? Not being from the Philippines I’m concerned about this on a house project my wife is funding. Any insight into this would be helpful on any laws and/or if the use of contracts or other documents were used to limit your liability for workers injuries.

    Thank you,

    Patrick

    Reply

    • Patrick,

      You ask a good question. Unfortunately, we really did not research this when we built our house. We figured that we would pay for treatment of any injuries. I’m sure that it can be more complicated than that. If a worker was injured, I suppose they could go to a lawyer who could see an opportunity to get money from a “rich foreigner”. However, the Philippine legal system is so sclerotic that this is probably not a very likely outcome. We did have a simple contract that the workers signed, but it had more to to with work rules than legal liability.

      Good luck!

      Bob and Carol

      Reply

  4. The location one builds in has a profound effect on your day to day living. We have lived in a new house on a large plot in a secure subdivision with plenty of fresh air and happy smiles……..but because of the location, found ourselves without contact with locals. It also required a car to visit the shops in the nearby town. UK contacts were at least 30 miles away and we found the life quite lonely at times.
    Recently we have sold the house and are in process of buying some lots on the edge of San Pablo City in a gated subdivision, where people walk the streets, hot pandasal comes on tricycles and there is LIFE around us. Do consider carefully your choice of where to put your retirement home because its easy to make but not so to sell and move.
    I do believe a gated subdivision is the way to go and certainly for us foreigners. We have lived in the local barrangays in a new beach house and regretted it. Some of the less educated Filipinos, whilst friendly and warm hearted have living standards that whilst tolerated at the onset can become offensive after a short time.

    Reply

    • Peter,

      I appreciate what you say but we are very happy living in a quite rural, almost isolated, location. We enjoy our big lot, privacy, being surrounded by rice fields, mountain views, clean air and water, but I know many, more sociable friends who could not stand living where we do. One size does not fit all! Anyway, it takes time to discover what makes you happy so renting makes sense for the first few years.

      Bob

      Reply

  5. By far the most important job in constructing your house is Project Management.

    When we were having a house built in a village north of Iloilo we were lucky enough to have my wife’s brother in law as our project manager. He is a Civil Engineer and was responsible for the architect plans, hiring of workers, purchase of raw materials and overseeing the construction. As a result the house is very strongly built and was able to obtain a good workforce deals on the materials used.

    Having someone you can trust to do the job properly takes a lot of grief and worry off your shoulders as well as saving you money. I would not have liked to have tried to build a house the way you have. No matter how much you read up about something there is often no substitute for experience but unless you have someone you are completely confident in you really have no choice but to do things yourself.

    Reply

    • Peter,

      I agree 100%. IF you have a competent, honest engineer overseeing everything, just stay away and let him handle everything. You are blessed!

      Bob

      Reply

  6. Bob, it’s been great following your house project. I’m curious about your experience with titles and permits. Or did I miss that post?

    Dan

    Reply

    • I’ll have to check. I think I wrote about buying our land. It was a breeze. The seller was a attorney and retired judge and super organized. Our attorney was a former registrar of deeds. It was fast and clean.

      Permits were a bit more of a problem. For the house we hired a local woman who makes her living processing permits. I never showed up at any of the offices. She did everything for a modest fee. We found her through the engineer who did our plans. Anyway, good suggestion for a new post –someday!
      ————————-
      hammerslag@gmail.com
      Tigbauan, Iloilo
      http://

      Reply

  7. Congadulations on your master piece!
    It reminds of my ex-grandfathers Coffee Hacienda back in the 70″s!
    I used to love that place!
    I’ll bet you are enjoying to the max your new home, after the long tedious hours and headaches that you put behind the construccion effort.

    Congratulations again! Nicely done!

    Questions?

    Did you christianized your new Home?

    Most Filipinas wifes are Christian Catholic and it is their own custom and tradition to do that.

    My wife is very adamant about ours when is already finished.
    Even do, myself is from other religious believes. I still go with the flow, there is nothing wrong with a good blessing to start a new home.

    Congratulations again! I love it, maybe I’ll pay you a visit so we could get to know each other families.

    Reply

    • Carol is already planning the house blessing by a pastor friend here. Also put coins in foundation!

      Reply

  8. Bob like so many I have been following your project with great interest. Your articles have shown us a side of the Philippines and most importantly yourself that we would not have seen without these articles on your new home. You are not only a talented writer, photographer, and contractor but a very humble and good person. Thank you for sharing your little part of the world with the rest of us. Congratulations to you and Carol. Ron
    P.S. Are you going to provide a virtual tour once your finished?

    Reply

  9. Congratulations! The view is fabulous. It is very calming and restful to see those animals, love them to be my neighbors.

    Reply

  10. All the hard work and you finally get to enjoy it. Same can be
    said here in the States when it comes to building. We have
    built 4 homes here, 1 in Northern California and 3 in Montana,
    the 1st one, we sat and watched as we did not know anything about building, as we got better we tackled being our own general, amazing how subs take the short cuts when you are not watching especially in insulation , it is almost scary to buy a house already standing since you do not know what is behind the finished wall. Great job Bob and Carol, looks like a peaceful paradise, congratulations!!!

    Reply

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