Why and How we built a house in Thailand

July 15, 2011

We just built a house in Thailand.

I have often stated on this blog and in other writings that I think that an Expat coming to Thailand should consider renting a place to live and leave the owning and building of a home to others. I still believe that. I just read about a condo for sale here. Beautiful place. 3.9 million baht. I wonder why the guy wants to sell. If you bought it how long would it be before you wanted to sell? Wouldn’t renting just as nice a place be a better idea? Do you really need to own a condo in Thailand, or a house for that matter?

There are a great many reasons for Expats not to build a house here, not the least of which is that we have no rights to land ownership in Thailand. I spelled out many more reasons in my Retiring Attitude column for Chiang Mai City Life magazine back in April of 2007

Also, I included the chapter “Building Your Dream House” in my eBook Retired Life in Thailand  in which I included the following list:

10 Reasons Against Building Your Own House

1. It will never be what you think it will be

2. Unless you are an architect or engineer you probably don’t know what you are doing and your contractor will probably never understand what you want.

3. It will be at least a year before your home will be finished. Add the rent you pay for that time to the price of the house to get a better idea of the cost.

4. You will very often see people move into a beautiful new home and for years the only furniture in the house will be a television set. There’s a reason for this. The cost of a house will be much more than you think. Here are some of the added expenses your builder will probably forget to tell you about. Change ownership taxes, mortgage interest payments, furniture, closets, kitchen, stove, refrigerator, air conditioning, utensils, screens, window bars, garden, internet connection, satellite TV. Let’s say the builder says that the house will cost 2 million baht. You will probably need to spend between 3 and 4 million before you even move in.

5. Your money will be tied down in case you change your mind or your relationship changes. One Farang lament heard often is, “I’m tired of Thailand and want to leave but my whole life’s savings is tied down in my house, which I can’t sell.”

6. Real estate does not appreciate in Thailand the same as it does in the west and often land with houses on them actually depreciate.

7. Resale – when it’s time to sell you might not find any buyers. Thais don’t often buy “second hand” houses and prefer new ones. Sometimes the only ones interested are new Farangs looking to buy.

8. There are much better investment options – invest and pay the rent with your interest earnings.

9. You don’t know who your neighbors will be or what might be built right next to you.

10. Unless you hold Thai citizenship the land that the house is on will never be in your name.

BTW, we do own our house here but we bought it already built (so we knew everything that was and could go wrong with it) and we didn’t have to go through the stress of waiting for our house to be finished before we could move in.  And we have been married for 40 years so even though my wife often feels like throwing me out of the house (like I have seen happen again and again to older Expats who have built a house for their younger paramores), it probably won’t happen (for now at least). And my children are Thai citizens so they will inherit the house after we go on to our next lives. If you are in this situation then buying might be a good idea. If not, then renting is probably a better idea.

Going against my own advice

So now we have ignored all that advice and went and built a house in Thailand. Below I give the answers to Why we did it, and for those crazy enough to want to build here like us, I have described How we built the house by listing many of the steps that we needed to take to get the job finished. For the real crazies you might want to pick up this book: How to Buy Land and Build a House in Thailand.

Why we built a house

Many retired people cannot live completely on their Social Security or pension. Most of us look for other ways to produce an income from our investments. If we have been frugal enough we should have something put away which we can have in a safe, income producing investment. For me that used to be short term treasury bills, CDs, and money market funds (getting 4% – 5% was good enough for me). Currently the 3 month treasury bills are giving .025% interest. A hundred thousand dollars invested at that rate would give you about $250 a year (wouldn’t even keep me in ice cream). Money market funds and CDs are not much better. Thai long term fixed bank deposits, another fairly safe place to put ones money (for now anyway) might give as much as 3%. That would give you about $250 per month. Not much of an improvement and nowhere producing enough of an income to make a dent in our monthly expenses.

So, where to find some kind of income from my investments?

We have a small piece of land (in my wife’s name of course) which was standing idle and on which we decided to build a small bungalow as a rental. We decided to make it Expat friendly (western kitchen and bathroom, large rooms, air conditioned, tall ceilings, skylight, washer) so we could attract a fellow retiree or two, just like us. From my calculations, if we kept the building costs down and since we already owned the land, we could make about 14% a year return on investment (If we had to buy the land that the house stands on then the return would be closer to 7% – still miles ahead of anything we are getting now.) And the money would be in Thai baht so that would mean that we would have to bring in that much less foreign currency and save on transfer fees and exchange rates.

That’s the plan anyway. I’ll let you know in subsequent posts how that works out.

How we built a house

1. We got an architect to draw up the designs of our house. My wife, the real designer, sat down with the architect and told him exactly what she wanted. He drew up the plans, she checked them, then he redrew the plans, and they did that until she got what she wanted. The plans had everything from the number and size of the roof struts to the wiring and plumbing, and how far we are from the neighbor’s wall on one side and a small stream on the other.

Why an architect? Because he knows lots more about  materials and their strengths and weaknesses and costs  than any of us do. He also knows the property laws and regulations. And he will give you detailed plans that can be sent to the land department and given to the construction foreman that will be readable.

Architects do cost money though. I just heard from a friend whose architect asked for an arm and a leg payment plus a percentage of the cost of the house. We were a little more careful. Besides this small bungalow (5,000 baht for the plans) we have also designed a large two story house (10,000 baht). Paying an architect much more than that and you are either building a palace and/or a really fancy place, or you’re just getting ripped off. do your homework on this one.

  2. We wanted to save money so we went with standard  Thai materials and designs. You can get lots of really  fancy stuff here and have all kinds of crazy roof designs and multi levels. Just take a gander at a Thai soap  opera and see the marble and gilding they build with and their “Gone with the Wind” type staircases and Louis XIV furniture.  For us, the simpler the better. Also, if you are going to  build something that the builders aren’t familiar with then you better make sure they know what you want.

Remember, none, repeat, none of the workers live in a home anything like what you will be building. You may want a large bathroom with a sunken Jacuzzi and lots of amenities, but they will return home to a WC probably without flush toilets.

A friend got furious when the workers put on his automatic garage door backwards. For one thing, he wasn’t there when they were installing it. For another, the builders had never even seen a garage with a door, let alone an automatic garage door opener. Can you really blame them?

3. We took our plans to the local land department. They of course sent us back to make some changes. Our architect did what they requested. And voila, permit in hand. Without the architect it probably would have taken months, and if we had complained about the change requests then we would still be waiting. It is a game with the bureaucracy anywhere. Learn how to play the game.

 4. We chose a good builder. He was someone with good references and who we knew could keep to a time schedule and budget. He had a team of reliable workers (almost all Shan tribes people from Burma). I have seen some of these big construction companies having problems with not enough workers. They have a number of projects going at the same time and they will pull your workers off to go help on the other projects. A house going up next to us went for a weeks with only 2 – 3 workers. Nothing much went on for almost a month before the other workers returned.

Note that we did not farm the whole project out. We chose and bought all the building material and we hired the specialists to do their things. The builder hired the regular workers and made sure that the work flowed. By taking responsibility for the materials and specialist we made sure we got the quality of material and work that we wanted and probably saved about 25% on the total cost.

5. My wife was on the work site every day. We live right next door so that wasn’t too hard. She visited at least a half dozen times a day (I would pass by a few times a day smiling and looking like I knew what I was looking at.), each time seemingly finding something that needed tweaking. If she hadn’t been there then the little tweaks would have turned into big rebuilds – making everyone unhappy.

6. Every few days we would buy lunch, or snacks for the workers. We supplied them with drinks and ice, and a shady place to rest (Chiang Mai workers all take an hour nap after lunch, a siesta if you will, that may not be the case in other parts of Thailand.) Happy workers are productive workers.

7. We got a really good electrician and made sure to tell him everywhere we wanted a light, a switch, an outlet, hot water heaters, air conditioners, washing machines, etc. Don’t forget the outdoor lighting and the gate bell. Make sure he uses the best materials and grounds everything.

8. The best thing we did was to use the highest quality insulation for the roof. That is a cost we, or our tenants, won’t regret, especially in the hot season.

9. We got a really good window guy and put in sliding, aluminum windows and a large sliding door. Also, the tiling people are quite skilled, as was the door hangers, and the painters. Wow! That’s lots to think about. I am glad that my wife was the job foreman. I know I couldn’t have done it.

10. Two months to the day and the work was done – and this was the rainy season. We threw a big party for the workers to bless the house and show our gratitude for all their hard work. Cost of the project: 8,500 baht per sq meter.

Now we will wait to see if anyone is interested. And if the U.S. defaults on its debts and I don’t get my social Security check next month then we are really going to need the extra income. Wish us luck.

25 Responses to “Why and How we built a house in Thailand”

  1. sidney leonard said

    สวัสดีครับฮิว (sp.?)

    First, I want to thank you for your always interesting, informative blogs. – My Thai wife and I have been living in the USA
    since we married 18 years ago, but plan to move permanently to Thailand within the next couple of years – to either หัวหิน or
    เชียงใหม่. So, I have two requests: 1. Please compare and contrast the two places we are considering for our home, and 2. Please give more details about your newly built house (size, total cost, etc.). We plan to rent initially, but may consider building later.


    ซิดนีย์ เลนาร์ด

  2. Sidney,

    Good luck on your retirement plans. I haven’t been to Hua Hin in many years. But a good friend is moving there soon so we will be visiting. It is a nice seaside resort area but prices there may be a bit higher because of that. I hear that it has grown from a sleepy village, what I remember, into a bustling place full of Expats. Chiang Mai is a large town but still has retained its charm. In the cool season CM is much colder but it is probably hotter in the hot season. Hua Hin being in the south will probably have more rain and a longer rainy season.

    For more info check out this page from my website http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://retire2thailand.com/retire2-place-descriptions.php

    My advice is to take some time, visit both places for as long as you can to get a feel of what it would be like to live here.

    The house we built is about 82 sq meters (that’s how the insides of houses are measured here). Quite small for a family but for a single retiree or a couple it would be really nice – especially if they only liver there part of the year – which many retirees do. We probably could have built it for 2/3 of what we did but we wanted a nice place to rent out, attractive and a place that would last for a long time. So we went with stronger building materials.

    I would not build. Rent. Of course if you have lots and lots of money then who cares, right. But if you live off of a fixed income you are better off renting. You’ll thank me for that advice later I guarantee.

  3. Snap said

    Huhg, it looks lovely, much different from when we saw it. You must be relieved that it’s all over, building in any country can be a real headache….looking for good tenants? 😉

  4. YC said

    I am interested in renting for a month to see how I would like to living in Thailand. Someone suggested me to stay there at least for a month. If anybody interested in visiting there, research things together and share the ideas, Please let me know.

  5. […] Please give more details about your newly built house, size, total cost, etc. (See Why and How We Built a House in Thailand ). We plan to rent initially, but may consider building […]

  6. Mike said


    I just found your blog a few days ago & have really been enjoying reading it.
    My wife (Thai) & I are living in the US & getting ready to move to Chiang Mai in a month or two. We have a condo there & have vacationed there for years.

    I am a contractor here in the US & just wondered when I read your home building post & you said…
    “Cost of the project: 8,500 baht per sq ft.”

    I wondered did you mean to say 8500 THB per square Meter rather than per sq foot?

    8500THB per square foot seems very high to me as I charge about 3000 THB per sq’ here in the USA where labor is much higher.

    Just curious & really enjoying your blog
    Thank You!

    • Mike,

      Good catch, my bad. I meant 8,500 baht per sq meter. The insides of houses are measured by sq meter and the land is measured by sq waa. a waa is equal to 2 meters. Why the difference. Who knows/

      Thanks again.

      • Mike said

        Glad to hear that!
        24-25 bucks a sq’ is a nice deal & more like what I expected there.
        Congrats on the new home & would love to see the floor plan!
        Thanks again for a great informative site!

  7. Mike,

    Drop me an email (info@retire2thailand.com) and stop by and take a look next you are in Chiang Mai.

  8. Mike said

    Thanks! Will keep that in mind

  9. Joe said

    Lots of good advice here. Very helpful.

  10. I paid 480 000 baht for a 45m2 kuti. I thought it was pretty exepensive. :((

  11. steve said

    Just built house in thailand 480000 includes internet cable new fridge road,insulation, cemented & electric &water 180 metres in from road 75 m2 house . Its near chaiyaphum.

  12. […] most popular post continues to be 10 Reasons Why Not to Retire to Thailand. Way in second place is Why and How We Built a House in Thailand. Funny that these two seemingly opposite ideas would be 1 and 2. Also popular are the posts on […]

  13. sabrina said

    I appreciate your guts and will power to make your dream come true. I plan to do the same thing but I am totally at a loss on how to start being a retired woman with no knowledge of building a house. Would you be able to provide help. I plan to visit in Match.

    • Sabrina, Sorry but I don’t do any individual work. But I have written over 100 posts and maybe some of them can help. The one thing I do suggest is rent, don’t buy. My situation is different from most people, as I pointed out in this post. Most people would be much happier renting than having a house own you. Good luck with your dreams.

  14. Fay said

    May I ask, if you were able to rent out the house you built and how long did it take to get renters? My family is Thai from Chiang Mai. My mom owns a piece of land there, given to her by her grandparents, with nothing built. Her siblings have land and homes built in the same neighborhood, off Lampoon Rd. I’ve thought about building a 2-story rental property on the land, a place to stay when we visit and to also rent. I haven’t been back in almost 15 years, life and little kids happened. But I hope to retire there partially in 15 years. Curious if it would be worthwhile to build and rent out now.

    • Fay,

      Sorry but I don’t give individual advice. I tell stories that I hope help people make their own decisions. Here is a suggestion, Google Rental Agencies in Chiang Mai. Contact these agencies and ask them just what you asked me. See what they say. Good luck on you retirement plans. BTW, the next house I build, if that ever happens, will be a one story house. I am over 70 and although I am in great health I do not look forward to climbing stairs much anymore.

  15. bumbling vagabond said

    Stumbled on this blog post searching for housing costs in Thailand. I’m fairly certain we will be moving there in two years when I hit 55 and we have our finances aligned. Wife has a house in the city in Thailand she is paying off and has land gifted to her from her father. We will likely live in both locations, 80% in the countryside, the rest of the time in the city (I like both for different reasons, obviously). I envy her father who is retired and likes to go out to the farm and enjoy nature and the quiet solitude there.

    House building seems pretty stressful when you are not an expert in materials and costs and construction. I suppose you can go buy known stuff (like doors and granite tiles) yourself, but then there’s the concrete, the foundation…so much. It’s hard enough to buy a house outright that’s already been built. We’ll probably have a knockdown guest house built first and live there to monitor contruction and procure materials.

    We just want to have a garden all year round and grow bananas and papayas and coconuts, along with growing as much of our own food as possible.

    My brother-in-law designed and built his own house over 1.5 years for about $1.7MM baht. Not bad. Beautiful house. Gifted guy.

    The price ranges people list for their homes is quite interesting. There are some low numbers and some that are quite high – depending on size and materials. Looks like 12k baht per SQ M is probably a good number to start with for build and finish and appliances and such.

    • hughleong said

      I neither recommend nor not recommend building a house. But if you do don’t forget that the estimate needs to contain the cost of building the house, fencing, gate, and possible landfill, plus furniture, kitchen (fridge, cabinets, sink, dish washer?), washing machine, air conditioner(s), bathroom(s), drapes (you’d be amazed at how expensive they are), garden, lawn, garden tools like lawn mower, etc., water tank and pump, hot water heater, lighting (outside and in). Then of course there’s TV, and Internet connections. See what I am getting at? Now that you have an estimate then multiply it by at least 1.5. You’ll now be close to what it will cost.

      If you aren’t an experienced builder the task will be formidable. And if you aren’t fluent in Thai then double that.

      Why not rent? If you can sell the land for a good price then you can probably use the money from the sale to rent for the rest of you life, and keep the money you would have spent on the house to leave to the kids or fulfill your bucket list.

      Just something to think about.

      Good luck.

      • bumbling vagabond said

        I got to thinking again about what you wrote, reanalyzing the food for thought. Even if we spent $80k on everything, over the course of 20 years, that would be $333 per month.

        I don’t really have a bucket list of stuff to do. There was some (more) traveling I wanted to do, however the world feels flatter and homogonized. I lived in Korea in the late 80s and that was quite the experience. Went to China about 15 years ago and that was a wonderful experience, before smartphones and greater modernization.

        I wanted to go to Iceland, but 1) I hear that the weather is pretty poor most of the time and 2) we have a large home theater system where we are spoiled with incredible images in 1080p of far-flung places without the travel woes (weather, airplanes, throngs of other people). Yeah, going to a place is a lot different, but watching all of this stuff in HD spoils a person and I feel like it extinguishes the desire to travel. Mongolia and Siberia would be pretty cool, literally and figuratively, but it’s on Netflix or YouTube. And maybe as you get older you care less about travel – its lost its allure.

        The real bucket list items I can do at home: more gardening, photography, painting, reading, watching movies, playing and learning the guitar again and playing music, bike riding through a village, local travel, continuing meditation, cooking world’s foods, enjoying monsoon rains outdoors under the veranda, swimming each day (we want a small pool), Skyping with the kids wherever they are in the world…

        So, yeah, we are pretty simple people. I cut my own hair. I shop at thrift stores for low-cost, high-quality clothes. Always bought used cars a few years old. Always bring lunch to work. Rarely eat out. Instead of theater, it’s a home theater system and movies from the library or Netflix. It’s allowed me to save a quickly in a short amount of time. Delayed gratification.

  16. bumbling vagabond said

    That’s good to know about the estimates. When I bought my house here in the states, we pretty much had only our beds, having lived in rentals for many, many years. We were frugal and bought used W/D, cautious on the appliances and postponed some fixes (still have fixes 15 years later to deal with).

    There’s a huge upside to renting, but my wife and I like owning. We like having our own castle (I’ll have to get a usufruct to live there indefinitely protecting me legally as a non-citizen). Wife and her brother can probably handle negotiations, or find a local builder. I keep hearing to buy your own materials, pay for each job or stage, and visit the job site frequently.

    Those other costs are a concern wiht the 1.5 multiplier effect. I suppose if I plan on living there for 25-30 years, potentually, then it should be just fine cost-wise. I’ve got a fixed $$ amount in my own head for what we’d need to get settled there. And renting our house along with the appreciation over a few years should cover those costs, plus pension/401k/IRA/Social Security. If I want or have to, I can teach English online for a few hours a week to cover everyday costs – last resort, unless it turns out to be fun to do (socialization aspect and meeting people. We should be more than okay (fingers crossed).

    Wife and I have a lot more to talk about – food for thought! BTW, her city house is fine and we could just live there and have an inexpensive knockdown house build in the countryside.

    • hughleong said

      You sound a lot like me. take a look at this I wrote many years ago. http://retire2thailand.com/retire2-retire-early.php.

      • bumbling vagabond said

        Yeah, some of us are attracted to self-sufficiency and frugality. Sometimes its simply out of need, then it becomes a habit. Glad it rubbed off on my daughters.

        Read the Frugal Gazette books back in the 90s and found it inspiring a family on a military paycheck with kids could have retired at 40 and buy a farmhouse and land. A penny saved is two earned (figuring in taxes and compounding interest).

        I only started cutting my own hair recently when it got tiresome to wait at the barber and then pay for a cut you didn’t necessarily like. Someone mentioned to simply cut with a longer trimmer then go shorter and shorter. Surprised by how easy it was even with a lump head in back. Wife double-checks. And she trims her own hair up.

        Cars just depreciation like crazy, used as soon as you drive off lot. The NPR car guys always recommended a car 4-5 years old where it’s lost most of its value yet is still in the prime of its life.

        Every recession or hard times that falls on a company is hard on anyone and when you see layoffs and experience those layoffs yourself, you gain a greater apprecation of delayed gratification and living below your means. We do take vacations and it’s been 5 times to Thailand in 5 years and Europe and so on.

        I’m probably retiring very soon due to several factors. So saving is paramount. Wife will work a little longer. My younger daughter is going to a German media art institute, but that will be far cheaper than US public school. Our other daughter went to a state school.

        Overall, it’s pretty amazing how much a lot of people spend without thinking about it. They grow up that way as programmed consumers. I was that way until the spell was broken. The great thing about frugality is that you can always learn from it as you change and your environment changes.

        We have a ton of work to do on our house and I’m going to learn to do as much of it myself – fixed cracked driveway, get moss off roof, fix cracked chimney, install gas fireplace and build facades, fix sqeaky wood floors in this old house…you can save money and have some measure of fun through challenges.

        So one kid was in Europe going to school and working then Middle East and got to travel extensively for cheap. The other one is now in Germany as an au pair and for 2 years has traveled most of Europe. It’s not too expensive if you already live there. EasyJet and Ryan Air…I lived in Korea myself back in the day for a few years and, although was only in Korea, traveled all over that country and became fluent in the language. Being in the military and paid to live there was a great opportunity.

        There are ways to be creative via frugality and have a great time!

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