Monday, June 10, 2013

Going off-market to renovate our apartment building

For privacy reasons I am not including actual photos of our building.

Workers have just completed the resurfacing of our building’s exterior. Here is the story.

We live in a 12 unit apartment building (condominium) that was built in the early 1970s. It is a typical building of its sort here in Brazil: clay brick and cement construction, two bedroom apartments a bit on the small side, no elevator or off street parking, and a great street corner location across from a rare green space in the neighborhood.

Most of the units have been occupied for the past 40 years by their original owners.  Five of the apartments are now occupied by aging, widowed octogenarians. The rest are mature families or second or third generation family members of original owners.

It is a quiet building on a loud and busy neighborhood thoroughfare where most newer buildings have commercial spaces on the street level. Ours is among the older buildings in the vicinity. Over the years smaller buildings have been bought out and replaced by shiny new 20 story condos with all the modern conveniences (like parking and hot water). One of these years our building will suffer this same fate. But until many of the older residents no longer need their unit there will never be a consensus among residents to sell to developers. In the mean time, I suppose, the location of the building continues to hold its value.

As a smaller building without an elevator or a door man we enjoy a very low monthly condominium fee. Most residents are happy to simply have a weekly cleaning of the hallways and entry as well as a well functioning front gate and intercom system. Not much to keep up. Once in a great while we get the walls painted in the interior hallway/stairway.

Alas, some time ago, neighborhood youth came through and “tagged” our building on the outer first and second floors. It has been an eyesore for years. I have not encouraged my friends to look us up on Google Maps Street View because the resulting snapshot revealed our shame. Getting the building residents to kick in the extra monthly fees required to afford a resurfacing of the outside of the building has been like pulling teeth (maybe the wrong expression, as many residents lack their original teeth). But finally the younger residents prevailed and we got a temporary condominium fee increase passed, prescribed for a building face lift.

So – big deal, we got the building resurfaced. I say resurfaced and not repainted because we have this cute but maintenance-intense sandy coating applied to the cement outer surface of the building. It looks great, but it is not suitable for a coating of paint. To freshen it up you have to apply a new layer of this sand-like material (we can choose the color).

But still, what is the blog-appropriate tale behind this activity? As with so many things here in Brazil, it is not the destination, but the journey, that makes living here such an adventure.

OK – so we start with the assumption by all the residents that we will not be hiring a big, professional building maintenance company with a crew of trained employees to do the work. Everyone knows that that will be expensive and that surely somebody knows somebody who has a guy who does this sort of thing for a lot less (working 'off market,' in the grey market, or underground). Sure enough, the síndico (the building resident elected by everyone to take care of building issues) identifies a couple of these off-market ‘tradesmen’ and gets some bids. Once a guy is chosen he is given 50% of the agreed upon fee to buy materials, rent scaffolding and get the ball rolling. Sure enough, a motley crew of disheveled workers appears and begins the process. As usual, I am taken aback by the lack of safety equipment, proper shoes and apparent lack of supervision. But hey, this has been my experience over and over again here, so I am not surprised. I will say that my early suggestions to get a detailed written contract and proof of insurance, etc. fell on deaf ears. Fellow residents were not up for going legit for something as ‘simple’ as resurfacing the building. (Insert swelling ominous background music here.)

Not long after erecting the scaffolding (including trampling over one of Zozó’s patio flower beds) the materials arrived and work began. The next day the contractor (the white guy with the nice car) showed up to tell the síndico that his bid had been too low and that he would need an additional R$6,000 to complete the job. WTF? (Insert cartoon image of Jim with scrunched face mouthing ‘I told you so’ here.)

Across the street, to save money, they repainted the building without the use of scaffolding.

Sigh. No agreement was reached. After about a week of activity and only 1/3 of the job completed the contractor pulled his workers, refusing to continue without his extortion pay additional payment. To make matters worse, he returned in the middle of the night and stole building materials we had paid for.

Now the síndico was left with the unenviable task of finding another off-market guy who would pick up the pieces and complete the job for a price that would not cause a total revolt among building residents. It was not a happy time. Under the circumstances she did a great job finding another friend of a friend’s friend who does this kind of work and who would take the job for the available price.

Once again we were invaded by a crew of (seemingly interchangeable) anonymous workers in flip flops ready to spread sandy mud on the building façade. They were a jovial crew and worked pretty fast. Being tidy or detail oriented did not seem to be included in the contract, but before long the job was finished. 

Unfortunately these guys did some pretty serious damage to the remaining two flower beds in the patio area, but I was told to hold my tongue. They were done and the whole process would soon be behind us.

I’m sure we saved a lot of money by going this all-too-common “nas coxas” route (to do something in haste, without care or attention to quality). But the proof is in the pudding. We will see how long the treatment lasts. It could easily be of equal or better quality to the same work done by a more expensive company, but nobody knows at this point.

The point of this whole thing has more to do with the common propensity here to get things done off-market and save some money. Many people feel hopeless about any guarantees offered by larger companies and they are very accustomed to using casual labor. The fact that any finished product may have its flaws, or that gardens may get trampled in the process is just how it goes. Suing for breach of contract or unresolved disputes like replanting the gardens is just unthinkable and impractical to almost everyone. Any suit filed could easily take several years to resolve, even if settled out of court. In general, people don’t go there.

Having grown up in a family where my father was a contractor with keen attention to detail, trustworthiness and value, this local approach sets my skin to crawling. On the bright side, in the end our building looks great and no big harm seems to have come from working off-market. And we saved nearly 50% over the cost of a ‘regular’ contractor. Fingers crossed.

Google Maps Street View, we are ready for our close-up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always love these updates. I think we're headed the same direction here as it becomes more and more the default that contractors exploit undocumented workers who are willing to work for less than minimum wage, and who often don't collect, and accept unsafe, unsanitary working conditions.

The contractors shrug their shoulders and say they can't compete if hiring skilled, union tradespeople, and the owners and developers pick the contractor that offers the lowest price.

Everybody struggling to win, yet nobody wins.