5 Things I learned from remodelling my apartment in Medellín, Colombia

It's quite common for foreigners who come to Medellín or other Colombian cities to invest in real estate. Typically, the quality and design standards of apartments here don't meet the expectations of North American or European investors. So there are basically two options, buying something genuinely high end (with the corresponding price tag), or redoing your apartment to match your own taste. I went for the latter, which turned out to be a 6-month journey with many lessons learned along the way. In this blog post I want to share five of those things I learned.


1. Custom made is standard

While you might be accustomed to buying furniture from big companies producing in mass, you'll be surprised at how much stuff in Colombia is custom made by local craftsmen. In Germany for example I installed my own IKEA kitchen, because the quality/price ratio is really good and you can still combine it with third-party elements in order to make it look different from the rest. Have a look at Reform to see how a "pimped" IKEA kitchen can look like.

In Colombia, there are a couple of reasons why it makes more sense to have a local carpenter get your furniture done. The nonexistence of big furniture chains, low labour costs combined with skilled craftsmen and the need for non-standard measurements are just some of them.

2. The problem of "gringo prices" is overrated

Foreigners and locals alike will not get tired of warning you about getting ripped off, assuming you'll get a special price tag for everything because of being a foreigner. While you should definitely be aware of this and compare prices, I found it to be harder often times to actually find the kind of product or service I desired, than to get a better price. After all I actually demanded "gringo quality" in most cases. You might have a Colombian friend who tries to convince you that you have overpaid on that faucet or lamp, since he bought his one cheaply in El Centro.

Well, I will just say "You get what you pay for".

3. Don't do it on your own

Unless you've been in the country a considerable amount of time, have local contacts and really know what you're doing, I would strongly recommend to work with a local architect or designer to help you with planning, designing and executing the remodelling. It's a widespread idea to skip on the architect to save money. In Colombia (and more so as a foreigner in the country), it's hard enough to get your project done the way you want even with professional help.

4. Colombians don't value your (and their) time

It seems to be a part of the culture, reinforced by low income levels, that Colombians don't really value time as much as the average westerner does. People will wait hours in line to do a bank transfer, get that 4K smart TV on promotion at Falabella or get into the sushi restaurant when there's 2 for 1.

So when your electrician says he will do the wiring at 9am on Wednesday, don't get your hopes too high that he will be there on time. Actually it's not uncommon that he will not show up at all, because he has a problem with his moto, his primito is in the hospital or whatever the excuse might be.

5. Everything imported will be more expensive that in your home country

It's a mistake to assume everything is cheaper in Colombia just because the salaries are lower. Imported materials and products are usually more expensive here the same way iPhones are. Think about it, the products have to be purchased abroad in relatively small quantities, be shipped, plus there are taxes and duties to be paid to get them into Colombia. Many international brands don't have dealerships or official distributors in Colombia, which can make it even harder to come by an item you want.

So keep that in mind when you are thinking about getting a fancy sound system or a European kitchen appliance for your place.

Have you made experiences remodelling your place in Colombia? Let me know in the comments or send me an email.