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Building A House In Thailand
Michael Ziesing

This is not intended to be a carefully researched paper with details about such things as legal ownership of property, long term leases, forming a company or anything of that nature. Rather it is a personal account and will (hopefully) provide practical advice, personal experinces, do's and dont's.

I have lived in Thailand since 1992 and this is the second house I have been invovled in building. I also have numerous friends who have built or bought houses, townhouses and condominiums.

How not to do it: Find a contractor and let him start building while you show up once in awhile to check to see how things are going (or worse, live a long ways away and only rarely check on things.). If you do it this way, there is a 99% chance you will be cheated and a 99% chance the materials and workmanship will be well below standard. There is a 75% chance you will have something(s) done totally differently than you expected. This isn't pessimism or cyncism, it is a fact.

Anecdote: A distant relative of mine from a western country had a house built for his father in law. He and his Thai wife were in Thailand for very little of the building process. They arranged things while they were here on a holiday and left the rest to locals and relatives to deal with.

The result was that they paid at least 2 million baht more than they should have. Gracing the living room are over a hundred cartons of ceiling tiles that were not needed. The front of the house, with its tacky front window, has a huge crack running from top to bottom. The workers also decided that it would be cute to have a picture window between the kitchen and the master bedroom.

How to do it: Find a Thai architect to do plans from your ideas. (This is not expensive - $50-$100) If you are going to live in or near a small town, buy the building materials from outlets in cities as near to you as you can. Buying them locally can cost you a fortune.

Someone you trust (generally your wife) needs to go to those outlets with the big cheese in charge of building the house. Make 100% sure you are not buying too much of something (eg, floor tiles), because you can't return them in most cases. Someone (wife) has to be there when the stuff is delivered to check to make sure you get what you want and it is all there. Get and keep receipts for everything. Someone (wife) has to be at the property nearly all day every day to watch, check and listen.

No, I am not paranoid. Be warned! If you are not careful about these issues there is a 100% chance you will have problems -- most likely serious ones.

This is going to be hard work for someone -- probably your wife. In fact, it is best if you keep your distance. Generally, a westerner hanging around, and especially getting angry and misunderstood, will make things worse. You will need to support your wife because she needs to be strong. Stronger than many (young?) Thai women are used to being. That support does not mean getting mixed up with details at the building site. It means talking things over with her at home and visiting the site from time to time.

The big cheese in charge of supervising the building needs to not only be trustworthy, but also competent. They should have experience and be willing to show you one or two houses they have built. A lot of people passing themself off as building supervisors are nothing more than former laborers.

The financial arrangements that you make with the big cheese are usually best handled this way. What you want to know is how much the labor -- ALL labor - is going to be. To save money and get what you want, you should buy your own building materials.

Do not get involved in paying workers by the day. Most likely they will drag out the project to stay employed longer. Make an agreement with the big cheese for the total labor cost. In our case we paid in three fixed sums: When the floor and walls were in, when the roof was on and when the project was completed. In that area (and I might add, ONLY in that area, we came in exactly on budget and the price never changed.)

There are numerous ways to save money. Often times, for example, it is cheaper to have things made yourself rather than buy ready made components. This is true, for example, of windows. Getting the wood myself (like I did for the stairs too) and having them made, saved me a bundle. It also means you can have things made the way you want them.

As far as buying wood goes, try to find alternatives to your local lumber yard and have everything done from scratch.

If you have spent any time in Thailand, you know that Thais are very economical with electrical outlets. Sometimes big rooms have only one plug -- two at the most. This necessitates using extention cords all over the place. Make sure you install enough outlets.

Most electric outlets and lights have the wires on the outside of the wall where they can be seen. Westerners are used to having the wires behind the wall. It is probably better to do it the Thai way. There are more problems with wiring in Thailand than in the west and tearing down a wall to do repairs is time comsuming and messy. By the way, the same is true for a lot of pipes -- many of which are better left where they can be gotten to, rather than under cement.

Have you noticed the floor tiles in Thailand? Some are quite nice. Most are also extremely slippery when wet. This may be OK for the living room. It is not wise for the bathroom or the front of your house where rain makes it slippery. Use non-slip tiles any place that gets wet.

A word about doors: Check to make sure you are getting doors that are tall enough and wide enough. Many Thai doors, including some premade frames that you get at building supply stores, are much too small. It is OK for the frames in regular doors to be made of wood. If the door is exposed to water however, like it is in the bathroom for example, it should be make of metal; otherwise it will begin rotting pretty quickly.

Cutting Corners: Trying to save money by buying cheaper materials is a bad idea. In Thailand, moreso than other places, you get what you pay for. Thre are two people who can cut corners; you and the big cheese. If you're not around (wife?), the big cheese will, as a matter of fact, cut corners but not tell you he's done it. Why? It's money in his pocket.

Some things to be careful about in this area are: Cement should be of a good quality. Appropriate metal should be used for columns in the foundation. Coconut wood should not be used for any part of the construction (except perhaps decoration). Good quality paint should be used. Electrical sockets should be grounded and you should check to make sure they are. Electrical wires should be of a high quality. Those are just a few examples.

As mentioned above, it was only in the area of labor that we came in on budget. You can learn from my mistakes.

First, it became obvious early on that the architect's estimates on building materials were way out of date and much too low. If you are on a tight budget, you'll need to check prices -- especially for big items like the roof.

Second, we were caught in almost weekly increases in the price of building materials because of rising fuel costs. Originally, we bought enough roofing tiles to do 80% of the roof in order to insure we didn't buy too many. Those tiles costs us 25 baht each. When we returned to buy the rest, the price had gone up to 37 baht.

I read somewhere (sorry I can't remember where) that you should budget for about double what you think the house is going to cost. I was pretty smug about that for awhile. Looking back, I think it is a pretty good idea.

 

How long is it going to take you to build your house? Well, if you are thinking of living in Thailand, I expect you know a bit about the country. Asking how long ANYTHING takes here is like asking why the sky is blue. You ARE going to be surprized at how long it takes -- probably on the long side. Do not plan or count on ANY deadline being met. If you want a rule of thumb, figure it is going to take twice as long as you were told.

Some common sense advice about this issue. If the workers or the big cheese need pushing, leave that to your wife. She knows how to do it.

It is best to have a place to stay near where your house is being built. I rented a small house in the same town. It costs me 1,500 baht a month to rent.

If you feel comfortable staying at your in-laws, fine. If you are only moderately comfortable staying a week, you will most likely be very uncomfortable staying two months, and that is probably the absolute minimum it will take to build a small house.

The season of the year will partially determine how long it takes for the building. Most of my house was built in the rainy season, which is also a time many workers plant rice. That slowed things down a lot.

Speaking of rain, you will need to check on the situation relative to flooding. Asking the person you are buying the land from will get you the expected answer -- "no problem." Ask several neighbors. No matter what the answer, you will need to build up the area your house will sit on by bringing in addition fill. This will need to be at least a couple of feet high, probably more.

Building codes? Forget it. That means everything, but everything, has to be checked and you have to watch it be checked. Start with whether the electrical outlets are grounded and move on from there.

Good luck.

You might also want to see the Common Sense Tips on Owning a House in Thailand.