Advice for building a house in Poland – don’t!

On the odd occasion, I provide the kind of advice that’s not generally available and that can end up being of real benefit. This is one such occasion.

If you’re thinking about building a house in Poland we suggest you stop being so damned silly! Or, if you insist (or more likely if your wife insists) then go ahead but whatever you have in mind for a budget, treble it and whatever you have in mind for the move-in date, extend it by a year, then at least your disappointments will be minimized.

We know three families building houses right now, or at least trying to; let’s call them family A, B & C. It’s fun when you meet up with family A because you can spend hours having your ear bent about all their latest construction problems. Then you can share with them the hours of construction problems you heard about from families B & C and you can all have a jolly old laugh, or at least we can have a laugh because they are all too wound up to laugh about anything.

The range of problems they have are many and varied – badly laid floors that have to be ripped up and done again, no power, no water, no hot water, too much water in the basement, sockets in the wrong place, doors that are not what was ordered, generally nothing is what was ordered, crazy interior designers, crazy architects, crazy builders, no builders, no money…………need I go on?

Not one of these families is going to move into their houses at anything close to the time they expected to do so. Every one of them is spending considerably more than they budgeted, which is either contributing to the time delay (can’t afford to finish enough to move in) or will result in them moving into a part finished home. Families A, B & C it should be noted are not unusual, other than it is unusual to have three acquaintances building at the same time, in every other respect their experiences in building their homes match every other person I have ever known to build a home in Poland.

Fortunately, nobody has yet to work out what I do for a living or perhaps more to the point what I have spent the last 30 years getting a lot of experience in. Admittedly it is not building houses but it is managing the building of things considerably bigger, more expensive and more complicated than houses. Things that involve far more ‘moving parts’ (human and otherwise) and with a lot more at stake if they are not completed on time, on budget and in accordance with original intention. Despite the differences, my projects, like all projects, go through the same stages and involve the same people (architects, builders, suppliers, etc) as are needed to build your average house and as such I would consider myself to be a pretty useful guy to have around any building project. Nevertheless, there have been blessedly few requests for advice, probably fewer than their hairdresser has had and, frankly, I think they prefer the hairdresser’s “advice from my golden-hand cousin in Chicago” approach to mine. Hence, I remain a spectator as these sorry tales unfold.

So why does house building go so horribly wrong?

Firstly, I should say that even with all my valuable experience I don’t think I would be able to avoid all the problems. That’s because one of the factors affecting all these projects is what I’ll call “The P factor”. The P factor means that however much planning you do, however clear your instructions are, however much research you did – somebody, somewhere, is going to either exercise far too much kombinować or simply be so friggin stupid that he’ll paint your doors cream instead of white. There are far too many companies out there who will not quite deliver what you expected and far too few customers who are prepared to do anything about this other than ultimately give in after a lot of huffing and puffing. In such circumstances, nothing is going to improve. It is almost as Polish as drobny hunting.

Nobody can personally supervise every single activity that goes on both on-site with the builders and off-site with suppliers and there is far too much inherent kookiness in the Polish system to allow everything to go without a hitch. No matter what you do, something will go wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That said, I’ve noticed a few common mistakes:

  • Far too much reliance on architects and designers – Often portrayed in movies and TV shows as Porsche-driving superstars it is easy for people to believe that just by appointing an architect or designer they are guaranteed a home worthy of the front page of Vogue. Hogwash! Let’s be honest about this, there are a few superstar architects out there but the chances that they are going to be interested in designing your poxy house are a big fat ZERO. (Unless of course you’re the Kaufmann family in which case Frank Lloyd Wright will design you a nice weekend hut in the country) So, best case is you’re going to get an average architect and that means you’ll probably get average design skills, limited interest or ability to manage the construction properly and zero interest in your budget. Interior designers are helpful but they think money grows on trees. The bottom line is that you need both but they require very careful, at times forceful, management to get the right result. As most house building families don’t have a clue how to read drawings, they treat the architect like Moses come down from Mount Sinai with commandments. Not a recipe for success, as indeed family A have discovered as they bravely pump the water from their unfinished basement for the 5th time.

FW_FALL_01

  • Putting the emphasis on aesthetics rather than practicality – More to the point, this very often means the design completely outstrips the ability of anyone in Poland (or most other countries) to deliver it. It’s very easy when you’re supping a glass of champagne with your designer to decide, for example, that you really need a brilliant white floor with no joints because it would look great. What’s not so easy is finding anyone who can do such a thing properly – as indeed family B have now discovered to their cost both financial and time. It’s important to match your design ambitions to the realities of both the skills available to do the work and the fact that you’re going to have to live with it for many years to come. Even if the white poured-resin floor had been possible, how would it look after 5 years of use?
  • Wildly optimistic expectations – Budgets and time schedules are not easy things to prepare but they are critical to success, which is why we “professionals” spend quite some time getting them right before we do anything else. Of course, if you have no idea how to create them then you’re certainly going to get it all wrong and if you leave it up to the builder he’s going to give you the extremely optimistic version (fast time, low cost) because that’s what you’re likely to sign up for. As the job goes on there will be plenty of good reasons for the time and budget to get completely out of control – as has happened with families A, B & C.
  • “Spoiling the ship for a hapeth of tar” – An old English expression that means ruining something big by cutting corners on small details. There’s a temptation to cut corners when the consequences are not clear. Why pay that general contractor 12% to manage everything when I can manage a bunch of Ukrainians myself? Why pay for those good quality doors when I can save loads and get something that looks almost the same? Why pay for the qualified and experienced guys when my cousin says he can do it just as well? Sometimes it works but usually it doesn’t and by the time you realise your mistake it’s far too late to do anything about it.
  • Not expecting the unexpected – For some inexplicable reason most people go into what is likely to be the single most complex and expensive venture of their lives assuming that everything will go according to plan. I’ll let you into a secret, I can’t think of a single project I’ve been involved in that has gone entirely according to plan. As the saying goes “shit happens” so you’d better plan for it (see ‘expectations’ above) and have a plan B.
  • Building far more square metres than are required – why build 200 m2 when you can build 400 m2, seems to be a common mistake. Understandable if you are a family of six or more but the people we know are at best four people and often less. It has not yet sunk in that every m2 costs money to build, to maintain and to heat and that not all house hunters are looking to spend X PLN / sqm for 100 or more m2 than they want or need. Let’s imagine prices are 6,000 / sqm amd you are a family of four. To buy a house of 350 m2 instead of the one next door of 250 m2 is going to cost you an extra 600,000 PLN using the currently acceptable method of pricing. That’s a hell of a lot of money. A family of four will easily fit into a well designed 250 m2, probably better than they will into a badly designed 350 m2 so think a little more before going crazy with house size, or at least be realistic about what you might be able to sell it for later.

As a general note to anyone about to embark on a building project I’d like to mention water, specifically the ‘water table’. There’s no doubt in my mind that the water table, certainly around Warsaw, has risen considerably since the floods. We drove to Garwolin yesterday and the many flooded fields were evidence of this. A friend has a home in Konstancin and his basement was flooded recently for the first time ever. Family A are building a basement in Izabelin and after the 5th ingress of water they are now considering opening a public swimming pool. Any problem involving water is extremely difficult to fix. Water is very stubborn, very persistent and no respecter of your property. So, whatever you’re thinking of building, especially if it involves going lower than ground level please be very careful and I would allow a very large margin of error as regards historic data on how deep the water is. If you do have to build below ground make sure it is built to the highest possible standard as regards keeping water out. That means the right design and personal, daily supervision to make sure it is done properly.

May the force be with you!

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8 thoughts on “Advice for building a house in Poland – don’t!

  1. Hi,

    I’ve been reading the blog for a while now and I find it great :-)

    A for the entry above, it’s pretty the same with flats, though perhaps to a smaller extent. I am going through it myself now. And I don’t mean the teams who did the fitting out – I’ve been lucky enough to come across very practical people who knew their craft and managed to spare me most of the problems (like the one with the floor with no joints – literally :-) I mean the people who did additional works and the company that built the block. And I know that even if everything seems to have gone well and you manage to move in quite when scheduled, something must happen sooner or later. So prepare for it ;-)

    Thank you for an interesting read!

    Kalina

  2. Bob the Builder here:

    You are spot on scatts. We have watched many go up on our street and 100% have had problems as you describe.

    The added ‘P’ factor is Poland – that increases the magnitude of weaknesses in the other ‘P’ factor to a point where the ‘F’ factor is inevitable. (Frustration not Fck)

    Glad we bought one that was 3 years old and had most of the kinks ironed out of it. Helped that the builder/owner was a neighbor so anytime we had a problem we reverted back to him and being a good guy he fixed what was wrong – with a smile no less!

    Bob The Builder (not)

  3. I think the problem is that city folks remember the old idea of “build a house, plant a tree and have a son” and reckon if the thick peasants could do it, they can do it better.

    The thing is, though, that the small farmers built a house on one of their fields, so they knew exactly what the land was like, often with joint memory going back several generations. They lived in the old place nearby whilst the new house was being built and not only had control, but were active in the building, with other labour provided by local friends and acquaintances. The houses took years to build, waiting to get enough money to buy the material for each phase, so a delay of a year or so in actually getting some work done didn’t make much difference. Finally, the designs were not fancy – usually square box shaped.

    It must be easy to finesse this model, but ripping it up completely has been the recipe for the disasters that people now suffer.

    I don’t know how quickly your colleagues expected their houses to be built, but from what I see around me, three to four years is quite normal. Anything less than that and expect troubles to multiply.

    What I don’t understand, however, is how people can afford them. Don’t they both have to pay for the place their living in and for the new place at the same time? Since, for many people, this is their first owned, rather than rented property, they presumably can’t get a secured loan/ mortgage to help pay for the work. Even if it works out cheaper than buying a built property, how do they manage the cash flow? I couldn’t have done it.

  4. @Steve Well, I assume it was easier earlier than today. Most of my relatives and friends with “home built” houses, went abroad to work to get the money (and often also have mortages). A few years ago you could save up quite some money doing this. The living expenses were also different. People building a house might live with ther parents during the time, they would likely not have mobile phones, computers, and in general try to keep expenses down. It was possible to save a few grosze by for example growing their own vegetables on their “dzialka”, and buying second hand books for the kids to school instead of new ones. Instead of vacation, they might go abroad for a temporary job and have grandparents watch the kids. Things are changing of course and people in general have more recurring expenses. But people were prepared to sacrifice a lot to save up the money for a house.
    In the 90’s there were also people who manageed to take advantage of the new economy and for example start a private company at the right time, and quickly make, if not a fortune, enough money to build a house.

  5. @Steve: how do they make it – in my villkage there are a few businessmen that build a hous as a way to make tax lower (because they include that house as a cost in their bilances – for it is “warehouse” for their company etc).

    Others just work hard, and live with their parents till they finish their house (so almost no costs of living – all earnings goes into the house).

    Others work abroad.

    And people do get mortgages – banks are happy to give credits for homes in construction, if there is 20-50 % of money ready (or sometimes parents take mortgage on their house, if young couple can’t get it).

    People “kombinują” hard, to make it.

    And many things are much cheaper, when done DIY way – for example people build on their own, using sand and wood from their neighborns field (no money, no vat, only some moonshine vodka given in return :). Many farmers build a home for 10 years, slowly finishing it when there were some money, still living with parents for the whole time.

  6. Are we talking about building a house or having a house built?
    lets face it if you employ an interior decorator you either have too much money and no brain, no eyes/ sense of taste or you dont like to keep the money youve earned.
    Millions of plans are availible off the peg (shudder the thought. about 500 pound) and come with a range of options ie. reversed, No basement, 1;2;3 garages etc. you can also pay the plan company for further changes, then things will start to get expensive.
    As in every country there are customers with higher expectations than they can afford, or without the sense to mark the socket positions and expect a 30 year old electritian who lives in a bed sit ,to know that great aunt mables hearing aid must be accessable if she should have a fall.

    If you want a good job done get a good size firm and stick to em like glue or do it yourself.

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