Sage advice for building your own home in Panama

This post is also available in: Spanish

By Sandra T. Snyder

In all the years I have lived in Panama, written books on the subject and lectured to newcomers on the wonderful advantages of living here, I have always cautioned against tackling a major construction project. Two years ago, my husband ignored all my sage advice and decided we should buy a piece of property, design and build a house. It has been an interesting time and we are quite happily settled in our little house in the interior. Here are a few things I learned from the experience.

In the U.S. when we talk about square footage or meters of a dwelling, it means living space. In Panama, it refers to everything under the roof. The actual living space may be significantly less than you imagined and when cabinets are added to the kitchen or closets to the bedrooms, usable space can be further reduced.

Plan to be on the premises or conduct frequent inspections. Otherwise, the three-quarter inch conduit for wiring may turn out to be half inch. Once it is buried in the concrete for the flooring you will not know until the electrician or the technician tells you there isn’t room to run the wires. Do not be afraid to tell the builder he has to remove the roof because he forgot to put in the insulation called for in the plans.

Be sure to think about how you will use the various spaces and have electrical outlets put where they are convenient for the appliances you will be using. Keep in mind the actual fixtures – lamps, lights, and fans – are not included in the price of the structure. Floor finishing, cabinets and countertops are just a few items you may want to customize. Be sure the countertops are going to be at a height convenient for you. This also applies to placement of showerheads. I recommend you personally purchase or accompany the person doing the actual buying. After you have selected items and given details to the contractor sometimes a different, similar-costing item arrives at the site.

Remember that “completion time” is an estimate, so be flexible. And, finally, don’t panic at the issuance of the Occupancy Permit. Ours was issued minus plumbing, electricity or windows. Eventually it all came together.

A friend who built a house in Boquete advised us to pick our battles. Save your hard line positions for those issues that are either structurally significant or dangerous or so cosmetically awful that you cannot live with them. In the words of our builder: “cracks are normal.” Builders are extremely good at covering them up in the finishing but they will reappear later. Our builder was also fond of saying; “This is the way we do it in Panama.”

Sandra Snyder is an author, lecturer and relocation expert best known for her informative guidebooks for people living in Panama, which can be purchased on She is a co-host of the Breakfast Show with Gerry D. on Cool FM 89.3. To contact her, write


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