Living in Brazil: Builders

Someone posted a comment and mentioned the topic of builders in Brazil. I thought that deserved a post of its own, so here goes.

Dealing with builders, painters and the like in Brazil is one of the trickiest endeavors you will probably undertake as a gringo, or Brazilian for that matter.

I have actually seen news reports on the subject and any advice should be seriously considered.

In my experience, and those of people I know, there are three types of builders in Brazil. Good, professional ones who usually work for construction companies, do lots of training and earn accordingly. Good ones who are self-employed and usually inherited their trade from their fathers, grandfathers or from watching other builders. They usually have a team of the third type of builder, or builders like themselves, in which case you are looking at a miracle. Most work alone. Either way, they should be considered a Godsend if you are planning on building anything because they are usually overloaded with work or extremely, rare. Then, there are the ones who say they are builders, which in rare cases is true, to some extent, or who learned the trade from someone else. They are usually alcoholic and/or very bad at managing money.

This last type of builder is unfortunately the most common so I will stick with them. There are some basic rules when dealing with this type of builder, and rules to steer away from them and try to get the second type of builder. If you are lucky enough and have the resources to hire an architect and engineer (another tricky endeavor), they might already have a team of trusted builders or might handle the builders themselves. In most cases, the engineer or architect will appear once a day for 5 minutes and charge you a fortune for every visit. So you are basically left to deal with the builders yourself.

First rule: Never, ever hire them on a daily-rate basis. Always use the “empreitada” modality, which means they get paid per constructed square meter or for the entire project. You should, of course, ask them to set a timeline and hassle them about it, and preferably hang around when they are working to make sure they stick to it.

Second rule: Never EVER pay them “vales” (payments in advance that are deducted from the total) unless they give you an amazingly great justification (usually an agreement before they start working, such as 10% in advance and 90% at the end of the project). As I said before, lots of these builders are alcoholic and very bad money managers, so they are usually penniless and will only appear to work when they need money. If you start paying them the “vales” they ask for, they will eventually reach 50% of the final price for the project, or more, and never appear again. This is incredibly common in Brazil and I know of people (Brazilians) who have unfinished homes and have no more money to hire another builder and continue the project because they already handed over 50% of the budget. It should be very clear before they even lay the first brick that you will not pay a penny until it is all completed ( in the absence of any other agreement). They will throw the “leite para meu filho” excuse and even cry but you must not waver. Trust me.

Third rule: Be careful with building material (this is a universal rule). They should justify every purchase and you should keep track of everything from screwdrivers to cement. Some builders don´t have tools because their temporary workers steal them, so they might ask you to buy tools. This is rare but it happens. Regardless, keep a close tab on all the supplies you buy. I know of builders who build their own homes with the stuff that leaks from other people´s “almoxarifado”.

Fourth rule: Always hire a builder based on recommendations. Brazilians create emotional bonds with everyone they meet, even builders. So they will feel personally responsible for his work and only recommend someone they truly trust.

Five rule: Likewise, if you find a good builder and have a pleasant experience, clutch onto that phone number with your life. You will probably need him in the future.

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