Renovating our Morelia house

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Hank Duckman

We passed through the Mexican customs station just south of the Laredo border crossing at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark. The car was crammed with things we were going to need before our major shipment of belongings arrived via a professional mover. We had visited Morelia a few months before and had decided it was going to be our home. All we had to do was find a house to our liking and within our price range. We planned to use an hotel as our base of operations.

When we reached Morelia, we called an architect, named Paco, who, acting as a real estate agent, had shown us a house we loved on a previous trip there. Paco presented himself well. He only spoke a few words of English. He seemed to be an afficionado of art, and was always well-dressed and personable. He appeared to be around 60 years old. We knew that he had built some houses years ago. We found out later that his architectural and building skills had not kept up with him. He was also inflicted with that trait that forces some people to shrink from admitting they don’t know or can’t do something.

We were successful in buying this house, but I should explain a little about why we bought it as quickly as we did. It was forty years old. Built in the rustic style characteristic of the area with pink granite walls and massive hand-hewn wooden beams, known as “vigas”, supporting the ceilings. The first time we walked in the front door, Lacey nudged me and whispered that she was sick to her stomach. That was a code phrase, telling me she was getting a tingling reaction in the pit of her stomach, like she occasionally gets when she is confronted with something of rare beauty. As we stood there in the 60 foot long “great room” or “estancia” with a 15 foot ceiling, staring out a floor-to-ceiling wall of window panels onto a walled-in garden and a panoramic view of the city of Morelia spread out 1000 feet below us, we were so taken with the house that we barely noticed its failings.

To be sure, there were many exposed electrical wires. The bathroom appliances looked like they might need replacing. There were bare gas lines in many locations because the upstairs and downstairs “estancias” and the master bedroom had gas heaters. The garden was a bit overgrown…it looked like a miniature tropical jungle. But the house had bewitched us. It even had a name, set in wrought iron letters above the closed-in driveway doors: ” Casona de Tzintzuntzan“, “the manor house in the place where the hummingbirds gather”.

Paco, the architect, told us the house would probably need some small renovations. “Like what”, we queried. “Well, the plumbing, water and electric systems have to be checked and some of the fixtures look a bit worn out, but don’t worry, I can help you with that. I know how to do these things”.

The owner of the house told us they had had some minor problems with the house but that she, her husband and two grown children lived there happily. They were selling because they had grandchildren by an older daughter and the steps leading down to the garden along with the gallery above the garden represented a danger to these young children. We were eager to believe her.

The deal was consummated quickly. We had to sign a contract allowing the owner to stay in the house for up to three months, giving her time to find another. When we told her our household things would be arriving soon in a moving van, she graciously allowed us to store them in the house until she moved out. I asked Paco if he could help us find a place to live with our two dogs until we could move in. His face exploded into a smile, his eyes twinkling like fragments of gold dust reflecting the sun. “Of course I will. Don’t worry about a thing”. Our menagerie included an Italian greyhound and a full sized greyhound by the names of Piccolo and Primo, the former weighing 15 pounds, the latter 70 pounds.

Meanwhile, Paco called us. He told us he couldn’t find any acceptable rental property that would allow dogs but he had another idea. He told us to meet him at his office, a couple of miles away from our hotel. Paco owned and ran a place called Cabanas de Santa Maria where he had his house and his office. A rental apartment just happened to be available. The apartment had the feel of a prison cell but we didn’t think we had much choice and it was cheap. We could keep our dogs with us. There was a TV but no telephone and there was no hot water in the kitchen sink. The windows were scarce, small and located high up on the walls. We reluctantly decided to move in. As the rainy season started, we had to use an umbrella in our little abode. As luck would have it, none of the generous leaks were over our bed. We nicknamed it the Bombay Hideaway.

A few weeks later, the owner of our house told us we could take possession as she had found another place and was moving out. The mover had delivered our things. They were piled like a mountain in the roomy “estancia”. We had a meeting with Paco. He was ready to start the renovations and the water supply system would be first. He assured us he had an expert plumber who had done much work for him and who also had been trained as an architect. At the time, we didn’t think that strange. Paco also had found one of the original architectural drawings of the house. Unfortunately it included none of the plumbing or electrical installation. This was going to complicate the renovation plans .It was at this point we learned that Paco had brokered the previous sale of the house to the person we bought it from. Lacey felt that the house would need to be well cleaned after the renovations before we could move in and unpack so we had to steel ourselves to staying at the Bombay Hideaway for a while.

Paco gave us a prfessional-looking and detailed written estimate of all the work that needed to be done. He charged us a fee for the survey done by his expert plumber and his master electrician. He said he would collect a weekly amount from us for labor and materials and would match it up with the written estimate so we could keep track of the work’s progress. We later found we could set our clock by the weekly collection time.

One of our major concerns was an adequate water supply. When we lived in Mexico City in the 1960’s, our apartment was without water at least two days a week and we stressed to Paco that we didn’t want this to happen to us here. He explained that most houses had an inground water tank called an “aljibe”. He didn’t know if our house had one. There was none on the house plans. He went over them with us and we agreed there didn’t seem to be one. We thought it was strange. It was a big house. There was a small water tank on the roof, the “tinaco”. This tank might hold enough reserve for a day. In houses that had the underground reservoir, water would come in from the local municipal supply, go into the underground tank, be pumped up to the tinaco on the roof and then be distributed to the house. He called the owner of the house who told him she didn’t know if the house had one. Paco told us not to worry. He’d have his men dig one.

The next day, work began in earnest. Three of Paco’s workers, with heavy sledge hammers, picks and shovels, started breaking the brick floor in the driveway about four feet from the side wall of the house. Paco explained this would be a good location to install a large underground tank for water storage. It seemed logical at the time.

Meanwhile, Paco’s expert plumber came to the house to start renovating the plumbing. He looked strangely familiar, very much like a young man we had seen working as a handyman over at Paco’s rental units. As soon as we paid for the house, the then previous owner said she thought there might be a couple of minor water leaks. She explained matter of factly that she thought one of the leaks was in the hot water line because the gas water heater stayed burning if they didn’t turn it off by hand. Therefore, they only lit it when they needed hot water.

Caveat emptor is alive and well in Mexico. As we started to look at the house with a critical eye, we noticed some moist spots on the floors in two of the bathrooms. There was also a small walled-in area in the ground level great room used for storage that showed moisture at the base of the massive granite walls and a large area of what looked like tar which apparently had been slapped on to keep the stone wall from oozing.

Paco told us that according to his expert plumber’s careful survey, which was itemized as a charge on the weekly bill, most of the water pipes in the house were the original galvanized iron ones, not copper, and that the latter would be better. His man would check all the pipes and replace the necessary ones. I asked Paco if that was going to be doable without tearing up walls and floors and he smilingly assured me it was. The plumber began his work.

Two days later, Paco met us at the house. We tried to hang around there as much as possible to watch what was being done. A two and a half foot deep area about 6 feet long and 6 feet wide had been dug in the driveway. Paco said we had a problem. His workers had hit solid rock; trying to dig deeper was impractical. It would be better to excavate a hole for the underground water tank down in the garden. The house stood on a granite mountain. I thought it strange that a professional representing himself as capable of building and renovating houses would not have foreseen this. He gave the order to his men to fill the driveway hole back up and patch the brick surface. It took another two days.

Later that afternoon, after filling the hole they had dug and re-cementing the bricks they had torn up, the workers noticed a metal trap door at the side of the house, about 3 feet from where they had excavated. It covered a square shaft about two feet on each side and seemed to contain water. Probing with a long stick indicated a depth of about one and a half meters at the bottom. They told the architect they thought this might lead to the missing tank. He came to the house, looked at it, and proclaimed with what appeared to be surprise that this might indeed be the missing “aljibe”. If it was, it seemed to run under one of the bedrooms in the house. The mason would have to drill a hole in the closet floor through almost impossible-to-replace mosaic tile to verify its presence. Some of our confidence in Paco was starting to wane. The whole was drilled and hit nothing but cement and dirt. “Maybe he missed it”, said Paco. Plans were made to empty this shaft so that a man could go down inside to see what it was.

Each day, Paco would stop at the house and discuss the day’s plans. The next day, we told him that we wanted to redo the kitchen and the bathrooms; get rid of the old cracked toilets and stained and chipped sinks and tubs; retile; and repair some of the door fixtures that didn’t work. Paco shook his head in agreement and assured us all this could be done expediently. He knew I did a lot of work on my computer and assured me his electrician was about to begin checking all circuits in the house. He would make sure the installation was upgraded to the latest standards. There were only two circuits for this large house, both of them controlled by an ancient fuse box located in a corner of the wall of the house in the driveway. The electrician started work that day. He looked strangely like the plumber. He went around the house yanking wires out of the wall. I finally realized he was the plumber. Paco assured me his electrician had approved the adequacy of the fuse box.

We did have a stroke of luck one day. We were driving down a main road looking for places selling colonial-style furniture and saw a contemporary store front with a couple of big pieces of furniture standing there. We walked in and saw a stocky man with a full head of jet black hair and olive skin sanding a piece of wood. We started to chat. He was a carpenter named Armando Hernandez. People referred to him as the “Maestro”. He was very soft-spoken and had a warm, sincere smile. Two fingers on his left hand and one on his right had been traumatically half amputated. He was making show pieces for a store that was to open here. The show pieces he had built were beautiful. He spoke lovingly of wood and gave us a feeling of confidence. We had him meet us at the house as his work in the store was finishing a week later and we hired him full time. We later found that he had extensive building and renovating experience that complemented his carpenterial expertise.

Meanwhile, the water-filled shaft in the driveway had been emptied. One of Paco’s smaller workers squeezed himself down inside with a light. Lo and behold, it was a sizeable water tank, an “aljibe”, which extended under the bedroom floor, large enough to hold a week’s water supply. Our pleasure of learning we had an inground tank temporarily veiled our concern with the earlier fiasco. Paco ordered his men to clean it out and refilling began. We introduced him to Armando the carpenter who had already given us a requested estimate on furniture for my office and kitchen cabinetry and had gone out and bought wood so it could be piled downstairs to start aging.

We had become convinced of Armando’s skill and devotion to his work as well as of his honesty. He gave us the name and phone number of his previous employer as a reference. She was a well-known and well-to-do female attorney married to a prominent government official in the state of Michoacan. I spoke to her on the phone at her office and her recommendation of Armando was glowing. Paco was less than enthused when he met Armando. Armando was even less enthused meeting Paco. The carpenter’s bristles seemed to rise.

The kitchen had begun to be dismantled in order to upgrade the plumbing and prepare for the installation of mounts for the cabinets that Armando was going to build. Paco’s “master” plumber a.k.a. electrician a.k.a. architect was in charge. The old kitchen sink had been removed. Early the next morning, while I was in New Jersey on business, Lacey was accosted by Paco’s secretary banging on the door of the Bombay Hideaway. “There’s been a flood at your house”, she yelled. Lacey rushed over to the house. The kitchen, small dining area and part of the great room had a couple of inches of water running out of the open pipe which fed the sink. The “master” plumber (with all the a.k.a.’s) had failed to cap the pipe when he removed the sink, nor did he think to turn off the water. Since the water pressure from the street was low at the time, he didn’t notice any water moving up the pipe. Some of our furniture and many cartons containing our things were wet. We lost many books.

Fortunately, Armando had just arrived. He took control, giving Paco’s workers instructions, helping to minimize the damage. Paco’s later reaction when he found out was to avoid the issue as if he had nothing to do with it. I received this news over the phone from Lacey. What else was in store. Paco was very reliable in one way…he never failed to collect the weekly money for the ongoing work.

Paco told Lacey he was bringing in his master locksmith to start repairing the door fixtures. The man went around the house removing the stylishly rustic fixtures and drilling large holes above where they were removed. In a few days, Lacey’s eyes were assaulted with polished brass doorknobs. She called me almost in tears. She had told Paco she wanted fixtures in keeping with the rustic style of the house. He said they were not available any more unless we wanted to have them custom made and pay a lot of money. In the meantime, Lacey told Paco to have the ugly brass ones removed. Many of the holes drilled for the brass door knobs were more than six inches higher than where a normal door knob or handle would be. As Lacey murmured with gritted teeth,” They’re as high as my breasts”. Perhaps the locksmith had a hangover the day he did the job.

Fortunately, Armando became our confidant. He showed great concerned for the aesthetics of the house. When we told him what Paco said, about the unavailability of the rustic fixtures, he got angry. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I can take you right now to at least three places in Mexico City that have huge selections of what you want. And I don’t think he knows what he’s doing”.

We were strongly tempted to take Armando’s comments about Paco seriously but I suppose we had trouble admitting to ourselves and our friends that we had made a terrible mistake. If we did extricate ourselves from Paco, how would we go about finding reliable people to complete the necessary work.

Armando became more openly unfriendly to Paco. One day Paco told us he was used to working with his own “experts” so that he could oversee the whole project efficiently and was uncomfortable working with Armando as the carpenter. He threatened that if things remained strained between the two of them, we were going to have to make a choice. Armando was making him nervous.

The following week we drove with Armando to Mexico City. He took us to a large appliance store where we found all the fixtures we wanted in appropriate and suitable styles and at reasonable prices.

The next undertaking was fixing the drainage system. All of the effluent from the house flowed into a septic tank in the garden, then under the back garden wall and down the mountain. Paco told us it was necessary to put in a cement drainage pipe connecting our effluent to the municipal sewer system on a street about 400 feet below. We had to pay for a permit and this Paco obtained within a few days. His men worked for two weeks digging a ditch and connecting and burying the six inch diameter cement drainage pipes down the mountain to the street below.

Paco called me one day and drove me over to the street below where our drainage was supposed to be connected to the municipal sewer. He said there was a problem; that the people living on that street might try to stop this because his men would have to break the cement around the sewer drain to do the connection. Even with a permit, the residents could stop it in court. Unfortunately I still believed what Paco told me. I asked him what the alternative was and what he thought we should do. He chuckled and said, “You know, there is a Mexican saying that says that the rooster on the roof of the chicken coop doesn’t worry about what falls on the chickens below. We’ll just leave the cement drain here so whatever comes down will go into the shrubbery. Don’t worry.” I had paid for two more weeks of wasted work and materials, and a useless permit.

I think the crowning event was when I realized that neither Paco nor his electrician had a clue about proper grounding of electrical circuits. He had assured me his electrician had carefully done this. A thunder and lightning storm raged through the area one day. I was standing on the roofed gallery talking to Armando the carpenter. I saw lightning strike about 300 yards away. Blending with the clap of thunder was Lacey’s scream from the bedroom. She had seen sparks fly out of the electric receptacle into which my laptop computer was plugged. I was later told by reliable sources that this should never happen with adequate grounding, at least not without a direct lightning hit to the house. My computer modem was fried.

When I confronted Paco with this, he insisted it was normal to occasionally see sparks fly out of receptacles, but to assuage my concern, he was sending over an electrical engineer. The next day, in walked Paco’s jack of all trades, the plumber a.k.a. electrician a.k.a. architect, who told me Paco sent him to check the circuits. It was at that moment I knew Paco had to be given his walking papers.

Suffice it to say we were rescued by some friends who referred us to a knowledgeable electrician, an experienced plumber and a talented architect who is also a well known artist in his own right. The day he came to the house to meet us, the architect praised the beauty of the rustic Morelian style and seemed as enthusiastic as we were about preserving it. The electrician, Gilberto Chavez, also came to the house to meet us and to look the house over. He was around 64 years old and had lived in Morelia all his life. The friend who brought him, another expatriate, had lived in Morelia for twelve years and had built two houses here. He assured me Gilberto knew what he was doing and was experienced with up-to-date electrical installations.

Gilberto first told us his life history. He had had 3 wives and 16 children, divided up amongst these women. He had been a semi-pro baseball player in Mexico during his younger years. He told us about his bad teeth, how they caused him digestive problems if he didn’t eat soft food, and about his plan to get false teeth when he could set aside the money and take time off from his work. He lovingly referred to Morelia as his “pueblo precioso”. He advised us he’d be working on our house with two of his sons. He had us in stitches. After two hours of shooting the breeze, his speech intermittently interrupted by a broad toothless grin and a couple of giggles when he said something he deemed funny even if no one else did, he started inspecting our house . He couldn’t believe the house had an old-fashioned fuse box with a mere two circuits. He told us he’d start work the next day.

The new architect brought a plumber, Juan, who also went right to work. He was short with neatly parted graying hair and a neatly trimmed mustache and all his movements seemed rapid as if he knew exactly what he was doing. He looked and sounded like a no-nonsense type of person. Lacey and I felt a little better about our chances of someday living in our house. When we introduced Armando to the electrician and plumber, he knew them both and had worked with them before. Much to our joy, he gave them both his seal of approval. However, he convulsed us into laughter when he said with a serious look on his face, “That electrician talks too much”.

We battled through months of termite elimination. Paco had assured us the house didn’t have any. Armando discovered them and showed us the evidence. Many of the hand hewn wooden beams were infested. One beam, a weight bearing one, had to be removed and replaced. For weeks Armando worked on a hand made wooden tower and scaffold with two other men, first scraping and sanding, then drilling holes in the wood and injecting a termite-killing chemical. The dust and grease particles from the substance the previous owners had used to preserve the wood were all over the place. We observed daily with sinking spirits.

Gilberto had begun his work with two of his sons. Many of the electrical wires ran through the granite walls within old galvanized metal conduits that had rusted. The wires and conduits had to be replaced. The sound of Gilberto’s large masonry drill rang through the house. He installed a new modern circuit box which gave the house twelve separate circuits, each with its own circuit breaker and each properly grounded. After each conduit replacement, a mason had to repair the damage to the beautiful pink granite walls. The repairs, under the supervision of Gilberto and our new architect, left nary a trace of what had been done.

The plumber, Juan, one day approached us with news that there was a leak around the sunken bathtub in the downstairs guest bathroom. He would have to break out the tiles to check the drain pipes. Not happy with this, we nevertheless gave him the go-ahead. The pipe had a jagged 2 inch hole in it. He replaced it. The repair had to be coordinated with replacement of tiles. Since we were going to redo the whole bathroom, it was time to pick out tile. We learned that every few years the manufacturers of tile change the style and colors making it hard to actually replace them. Our local tile seller didn’t have a color that Lacey deemed appropriate. and said we probably wouldn’t be able to match the remaining tiles. We would have to replace all the tiles in the bathroom. “How long will it take you to get what we want”, we asked. ” Quien sabe“, he replied. “Who knows?” However he did give us an alternative. If we drove to the city of Dolores Hidalgo where his tile manufacturer was, a four and a half hour drive, we might find what we wanted at the factory. Off we went the next day. We had to repeat this trek a few times in order to keep the work going. Mexico was gradually teaching us patience.

I think the peak of our discomfiture came one day when the plumber told us there was definitely an occult leak in the hot water system and he couldn’t find it without starting to break up the tile floors in several areas of the house. Without any of the plumbing installation drawn in the original house plans, this would be a herculean task. We had hoped the major work was coming to an end and this was a big setback.. I was depressed. I sat down alone in one of the chairs we had unpacked in the “estancia”. Word of the setback had filtered down through the workers. I wasn’t my usual friendly, talkative self. It seemed I had sat there for hours. I heard some chattering going on behind me. I didn’t feel like turning around and listening to Gilberto’s life story again or to Armando saying he had found another disaster. There were the two of them, smiling. Gilberto was holding something behind his back. He brought it forward and handed it to me. In unison, they said, “Don’t worry, everything will work out”. With their offering of a bit of Mexican philosophy was a bottle of tequila.

Fortunately, the architect and the plumber found an alternate way to solve the water leak problem and minimize drilling and breaking into floors and walls by essentially bypassing the system with copper tubing on the outside of the house where the pipes could be hidden.

There was no end point as such. We were finally able to move in when our bedroom and bathroom were done. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The workers gradually left. After 2 years, money spent, and lots of anxiety and frustration, our house renovations were complete. We still contact Armando occasionally to adjust a drawer or a door that doesn’t close properly. Gilberto occasionally gets summoned if one of the outside lights malfunctions. We get an unabridged and detailed update on his life history each time.

We’ve actually come to miss them.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Hank Duckman © 2008


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