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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Building a House in Cambodia

I read this article in the New York Times a few days ago.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/greathomesanddestinations/20gh-cambodia.html?ref=greathomesanddestinations

This house looks ugly as hell; only French people can build a thing like that (and I am not a Francophobe, quite the contrary). I know of a small hotel in Phnom Penh, the owner of which transformed a rented house into that nice boutique hotel – the Blue Lime. It turned out to be a success commercially, but the rooms are ugly as hell as well. He used only concrete and steel wire as furniture. On his website he calls it minimalist. But then I must be pretty old-fashioned as the guests like it. There is even one hotel that copied it to the T. (The ‘252’)

The house in Siem Reap in the picture looks like it also has just bare concrete walls; normally a nice coat of paint makes a house look more attractive, doesn’t it? Well, not to some French people, it seems. Perhaps that’s the new style in Southern France? I don’t know. I haven’t been there in ages. Anyway, what surprised me most was the price tag for that house. According to the NYT they paid approximately $300,000 for 3,000 square feet – it is not clear whether this includes the swimming pool - it looks more like a foot bath - and the yard. 3,000 square feet equals about 279 m2, in other words, they paid about $1,080 per m2. I am inclined to think that includes the yard as well. The house doesn’t like it is more than 4 m wide (standard Cambodian width) and 10 m long.

Cambodian builders have perfected the art of building a house in a jiffy. I see all these row houses spring up all over the city at an incredible speed. Since I just recently built a house myself and was involved in a smaller development I know a little bit about building houses.

Basic building materials like cement ($80/mt) and bricks ($400 for 10,000 pcs.) have come down from previous heights, but it may come as no surprise that construction prices haven’t. Usually, prices are quoted by m2, including everything from tiles to windows, doors, bathroom installations. Depending on the quality of the materials except bricks and cement and workmanship, of course, these prices can vary quite a bit.

A regular row house, ground floor only, costs about $200 to $220/m2, including that half-floor; the first floor will be at the same price, the second floor (half of which is usually a terrace) is half that price. So normally a row house is 4 m x 12 m, sometimes 4 x 14 m, or 48 m2 to 64 m2 of floor area (Cambodian lots are typically 4 x 20m – 4 m in front must be kept free as sidewalk, and 1 m in the rear needs to separate it from the adjoining wall there.) If you do the math this will come out as round about $10,000 to $12,000 for a ground floor only, with first floor $22,000 to $25,000. No kitchen cabinets or anything else besides the toilets and the wall shower are included. If you want things a little bit more complete or modern, like a real shower, you will have to figure in another $5,000 minimum. The price for the land is not included, of course.

If you fancy something more extraordinary there is no limit to what you might need to pony up. Those huge villas we see all over the place in Cambodia are around the $500 - $800 mark. Some of them are outright palatial; Khmer people have a tendency toward bigness, if they have the money for it. Modesty or understatement seem to be unknown terms for them.

But coming back to that French house in Siem Reap that price seems to be a bit high, even considering that the owner changed a few things while it was being built. The way it looks I would have guessed it at about $250/m2. To me it looks like half-finished, but then that’s me. Just look at the teal colored drain pipes sticking out from the first floor wrap-around balcony.

The rather plain house I built cost me $237/m2, not including air conditioning, shower stalls, special bathtub, special windows, window screens, the garage, the driveway tiles and around the house, the high ‘Tiki hut’, a water filtration system (well water), the connection to the power grid (about 1 km away), etc. Considering that the house is located in the countryside we got a pretty good deal. Prices in the provinces are usually higher as all the materials need to be hauled from Phnom Penh.

Of course, when you buy land (my wife is Khmer), you need to build a wall around it so as to officially stake your claim to the land and so that everybody can see there is an owner and this land is not for squatting. That wall plus the barbed wire, the gate, etc. are all extra, not to mention the yard or garden as we would rather call it, which is not nearly finished. We will do that bit by bit. The grass for about 1,000 m2 was about the same amount in dollars, with two thirds going towards the transport from the sod place to our house. I kept part of the land free for possible later construction of a boarding house for fishing tourists. Something I am planning to do on the side.

Altogether we spent about half the money that a ‘normal’ 2,000 sq.ft. house would cost in Florida, with the major difference being that the land is three times as large, and that all interior walls are brick. The ceilings are 3.50 m high, although not vaulted as is the normal style in Florida these days. The floorplan is such that the front and back door are in a direct line so that the wind can blow right through the house; additionally, we build a ventilation shaft so there is an air flow from the great room through the roof. We hardly ever need the a/c during the day; we just turn it on for about one hour before we go to bed.

A final word about workmanship; the quality of the brickwork is, as far as I can judge, equal to Western standards. The plastering and more delicate work in corners, etc., could do with some improvement. The ventilation shaft gave them a lot of problems, because it was a first for them. The roof frame is galvanized steel; the concrete foundation is solidly built 50 cm into the ground. The woodwork, like built-in under sink cabinets, or the slatted door to the walk-in closet are pretty poor as is all the sanitation work. The bathroom fixtures are all first quality (Karat), but the installation was definitely lacking. When we moved in I had redo all the hose connections as they were leaking. Also, what they obviously don’t know how to do is build floor-drains so that no odor wafts back from the pipes leading into the septic tanks. I closed them all as we have no need for floor drains since we have shower stalls, which incidentally were also leaking and needed to be re-sealed. Of course, the builder gave a 5-year warranty and all the repair work was done under warranty. The whole house was built in just 5 months. You can’t beat that for speed. Overall I am pretty happy with the work, and the builder did a terrific job. Seeing him for the first time you are not inclined to put your trust in him. But he came with good references and actually lived up to them too. It is located in a somewhat remote area, but that’s the way I like it.

Here is a look at it:



In comparison here is a look at the house I own in Florida, which as everybody can see is up for sale.

28 comments:

Igor Prawn said...

The SR house reminds me of the house in Mon Oncle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkvtE1AS6Qo

KJE said...

Modern cubism in the movie, I guess. Jacques Tati, great comic. I have seen all his movies, including, of course, Mon Oncle.

Anonymous said...

I have a dream of building my own house in Cambodia; however I have no clue of knowing where to start. Could you please elaborate about the septic system of your house? By the way, have you installed a water softener? How about the water quality? Your house in Cambodia looks beautiful to me that is what I have in mind.

KJE said...

We had two septic tanks installed -one on each side. The well water comes from about 5 m depth is feed into the tank and then filtered through a resin and charcoal filter, then through three micron filters. It comes out clear but is not potable. I had it analyzed at the Pasteur Institute ($100), which found it is very good quality, softer than normal in Cambodia, only turbidity is just above the level to make it potable.

If you give me a few more details by email, where you want to build, etc., I can give you a few pointers.

Anonymous said...

KJE,
It could be long before I decided to settle down in Cambodia. What would you advise if i wanted to build a home in Cambodia, where and why?

KJE said...

Why? I assume you are Khmer and want to retire in Cambodia. Cambodia is nice, at this time still a backwater country, not overrun by tourists (except Siem Reap), still keeping its ethnic flavor, so to speak (not for long, I am afraid, seeing all these young people aping everything Western), and it is affordable.

Where? Only you can decide that. Some people like the city, some the rural environment. I, for one, like the sea being an ardent fisherman.

KJE said...

Why? I assume you are Khmer and want to retire in Cambodia. Cambodia is nice, at this time still a backwater country, not overrun by tourists (except Siem Reap), still keeping its ethnic flavor, so to speak (not for long, I am afraid, seeing all these young people aping everything Western), and it is affordable.

Where? Only you can decide that. Some people like the city, some the rural environment. I, for one, like the sea being an ardent fisherman.

Anonymous said...

KJE,
True, I am an overseas khmer. Can you please give me your best advise where I should build a house somewhere closer to a waterfront or a remote area with a reasonable price and surely no one will come and intimidate me and my family after we settle down?

KJE said...

For it to be halfway reasonable you need to be away some distance from a city. Waterfront property is available from Kep to Mon Rethy port. I would suggest either between Kep and Kampot, west of Kampot, or around Sihanoukville, e. g. about 20 km or so away from it. Prices right now are about $30/m2, but vary acc. to location, of course. Kep and Kampot are basically rural towns, whereas SHV is a little more 'urban' due to the tourists. Kep is changing too, but there are no sandy beaches; they start west of Kampot.

As for the intimidation, you never know. I haven't encountered any, but then I am a barang; only the ubiquitous requests for loans, gifts, etc. As I have noted before on my blog, overseas Khmer are sometimes frowned or even looked down on because many of them come across as pretty arrogant know-it-alls. Otherwise, however,I would think they are accepted just as people of their own.

Anonymous said...

About 20 km or so away from it, could you clarify please? Did you mean 20 km away from the seafront of Kep, Kampot, or SHV? Who were they who come to you for the ubiquitous requests for loans, gift, etc? What would you do after you purchased a plot of land and later on having someone come to you claiming that your property is the state owned land, or it's belonged to a powerful person?

KJE said...

I meant away from the town along the coast; although the land might be set back somewhat from the sea.

You can get a hard title for every lot of land ybou buy, no matter where it is. If it hasn't been surveyed, most hasn't, you can have it surveyed at your expense and apply for the hard title at the Ministry of Land Management. This will be expensive, about $2,500 for a lot of 1,000 m2. Landgrabbing did occur but usually on a large scale, e. g. rich farmland, land suitable for development, etc. Individual lots have not been affected as far as I know. Rural and remote areas usually don't have a hard title. It is important that the seller has a document of ownership from the Soreiya office showing ownership since 1989. The genuineness of that document also needs to be verified before you buy.

Anonymous said...

KJE,
What is the different between Hard and Soft Title? So which one would you recommend an overseas buyer to obtain it? Further more, should a lawyer be involved on the closing date? By the way, how is the land market presently? I do appreciate your honest input.

KJE said...

A hard title is issued by the Ministry of Land Management and is recognized as the genuine and valid title under the law.
A soft title is a document issued by the Sangkat or rather the local Soriyo Dey (Cadastral office of the Khan)stating that the land is owned by the title holder. The local authorities do not check whether it is really yours if you have been there for a long time. So somebody else might come along and lay claim to that land with pre-Pol Pot documents. During the post-Pol Pot era until 1989 land was just given to people by the local governments under the Communist doctrine that everything is owned by the entire people so they could just assign it to local residents. This is how the big wheels in government got their immense land holdings which they later sold at an equally immense profit. Of course, in rural areas people owned land for generations without proper documentation - ownership by possession. In 1989 Cambodia became the State of Cambodia and in the run-up to the 1993 elections a land law was adopted, later amended, that sought to solidify ownership. The main point of it was that people who occupied the land since 1989 were the legal proprietors of it. This needed to be recorded at the local Sangkat. Since the largest part of the population was and still is completely uneducated, most people failed to do that, which then sometimes resulted in somebody coming along claiming ownership, especially if that piece of land promised to become very profitable in the foreseeable future.

So a hard title is preferable under any circumstances. If you ask the seller to get a hard title and they know how to do it it will usually increase the price by about $2-5/m2.

A lawyer is not needed for a closing but they can do all the work for you and save you a lot of hassle. Of course, you pay for this.

The real estate is market is still pretty soft. It hasn't led to a sharp decrease in prices, though. The speculators are out of the picture for the most part, but the people who bought their properties at premium prices are holding on to them waiting for better times.

Many things sound really complicated and there are those horror stories in the media. If I remember correctly one NGO estimated the number of displaced people due to land grabbing at approx. 100,000 or about 20,000 families, out of a population of close to 15 million. A good number of those people were squatters; of course, the government's policies failed to protect them, but under the law in many cases they had no claim to the land they were forced to leave.

In reality you won't encounter unsurmountable problems as long as you have the cash to pay for the land and the proper procedures. The situation has vastly changed in the last 2 -3 years. Common sense and a proper amount of caution will usually protect you enough.

Anonymous said...

KJE,
Where would be your best pick for a one/two storey town/flat house in Phnom Penh city or its surrounding area price ranging of 50k or under, why?

KJE said...

My pick would be Phnom Penh Thmey. You can get a flat house there for $50K. Check out www.bongthom.com - it will give you a good indication.

Anonymous said...

Is it free to list at www.bongthom.com site?

KJE said...

I don't mean to be rude but if you look at the site you will find it's free to post.

Anonymous said...

Hi KJE,
Thank you so much for your times and the valuable responds. It is informative and very useful for all readers. You are such a great guy and extremely patient. Keep up the great work. How can I contact you by email?

HA

KJE said...

HA
Thanks for the praise. Somehow my profile disappeared. My email is camnews001@gmail.com.

KJE said...

HA

Please read my comment above. The email-address is there.

Anonymous said...

Hi KJE,

Sent you to the above email, have you got it?

HA

Anonymous said...

237 of about 100 m2? It comes to about 24 thousand. Does the price include construction materials or for labour only?

KJE said...

8:53
The price includes all materials and labor. Only extras, e. g. water heaters, etc. are billed separately.

khmersocialist said...

This is a very good price, angrily I mentioned that to my wife, with our costs running over 40 grands for 2 and half floors townhouse, we're almost done, though, but our house built by relatives, who are subs themselves, and not the company. So I expected to spend much much less.

In your case, as I understand, the cost had to be higher, as you mentioned, all material had to be delivered from far, and ours, in Phnom Penh had to be cheaper. Wife tried to reason, saying, that company got preferential prices for materials and that building one floor requires less metal etc., but I was unconvinced anyways. I don't think they try to screw me up, after all, mother in law and my wife will choke for a hundred riel, however I'm sort of puzzled.

KJE said...

Khmersocialist
A townhoue is generally cheaper to build because the adjoining houses share left and right walls. But you got 2 1/2 floors; if it is the usual 4 x 16, you are looking at 160 m2, at $240/m2 you end up paying $38,400. PP can be little more expensive. My friend sells his one-story flats in his development in PP Thmey for $38,000, of course, that includes his profit. My guess is your relatives took a little commission themselves. But basically, it still is within range for 2 1/2 floors.

The Borei New World Company sells their 2 1/2 for over $70K.

reasathea said...

Thank you for your reply. My shophouse is not adjoined to anything and won't be, because there's a space for villa from one side and from another there's a half a meter walk-in space right to the back, and there's lots of windows too.

I don't think my relatives took any comission, but like you said if they did, I can't prove anything, even if I did I won't point it on. His works are some villas on riverside Battambong if you're interested, apparently he did some nice work, judging on his words. I will send you a picture as soon as my wife will give me an update

KJE said...

Reasathea

As I said, I believe you are ok with the price you paid.

Samuel Woollard said...

Dear KJE

I have just found your blog on the internet. I was searching for building costs in Cambodia.
I was wondering if I could ask you some questions regarding the design, build and cost for a basic one storey building.
I am working with a charity that needs to build a community centre in Ta khmau.

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