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Dateline: Where the Middlemen Get Their Bad Name

I’ve been had. Electrically speaking, that is. Worse, so has my electrician. Or at least the guy doing all the work, including coming up with myriad good ideas. Confused yet? Let me explain this tale of woe, which stars two principal electricians, Victor and Antonio, and a supporting cast of Antonio’s electrically-inclined family. Yes, even his wife came and helped out one day.

Victor was my original contact, a name given to me by my friend, Javier. “He’s a great electrician, and a great guy,” Javier told me. I put Victor’s name into my contacts and waited until I’d be ready to do some electrical work.

Shortly before my hellish journey to Laredo, I contacted him and explained the situation with the house and my trip. “What should I buy at Home Depot while I’m there?” Victor suggested we meet that Saturday at the house. He’d give me an estimate of the rewiring and we could talk about what I’d need to buy. When we met up, he went around the house, noting the number of outlets, lamps, switches, etc. I also gave him a copy of the original electrical plan for the house. We talked about what I’d need. The short version was that yes, I could buy the breaker box I wanted at Home Depot and everything else. He said he’d get me an estimate in a few days. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a written estimate to rewire the house, which came to a total of about $47,000 pesos, or about $2,350 USD, labor only. Meanwhile I went off to Laredo to renew my car’s import permit and go on an electrical shopping spree. I think I spent about $3,000 at Home Depot and Lowe’s, and cleaned out both stores of their entire supply of 15 amp circuit breakers. I was buying for potentially 5 units, after all.

At that stage, I had little specific idea as to exactly what I wanted to do with the house wiring. Oh sure, I wanted to replace the crumbling wire that had been installed in 1930. More than one outlet per room would also be nice. And running the entire house on a single circuit breaker seemed positively madcap; many more would be necessary to have any semblance of safety.  But I had no specific electrical plan yet. A couple weeks after I got back, Victor messaged me. “I’ve got a couple guys ready. When do you want to start?”

I wasn’t really ready. But I figured I should start doing something to my house, and I could probably put together a decent plan pretty quickly. So Victor and I met up a few days later. Victor brought along an assistant, Antonio, and the three of us talked for an hour or so. I gave Victor a deposit of $20,000 MXN, about $1,000 USD. A couple hours later, I’d meet Antonio in the Centro Histórico to buy wire and a few other things I hadn’t bought in Texas. The next day work would commence.

The next morning, Antonio showed up with his son. Victor was nowhere to be seen. As it turns out, Victor had come down with Covid and I would not see him again for several weeks more. But Antonio came every day, accompanied by his uncle and a sometimes a young nephew. They even worked on Saturdays. They worked this way for a couple of weeks. Then Antonio asked me for $12,000 pesos for the ranuras. I was a little puzzled. “Isn’t Victor going to pay you?”

“This is extra; it’s not part of the quote. And this is between you and me, not Victor. I’m here doing the work.” I felt a little awkward about this because I had contracted with Victor. On the other hand, aside from chatting with me about where to put the breaker box, Victor had done approximately zero work. I puzzled for a while about what to do, and then contacted Victor. “Sure, pay him,” he said. So I did on July 7th. At that point, Antonio showed me that he was in fact doing everything, including the original estimate. Save for one, small detail. Antonio had given his estimate to Victor. Victor then tacked on an additional 30% to each line item, and those were the figures he quoted to me.

That’s when I began to get a little annoyed. Victor had tacked on 30% for nothing except the ability to do so. “Well, OK, Victor has the contacts, but he’s literally not doing anything.” I thought, and then put the thought aside. I figured next time, I’d just go directly to Antonio. Besides, I figured that Antonio was getting the lion’s share of the quote anyway.

A few days later, Victor asked me for another $20,000, but said I could pay it to Antonio. “The guys need to get paid,” he said. I was a little puzzled, as I had just paid Antonio, but I figured it’d be additional. Or something. So on July 9th, I paid Antonio another $20,000 and again got a receipt. This past Tuesday, Victor messaged me. “Can I stop by Wednesday with a plumber to look at your pipes? And by the way, can you pay me an additional $20,000?”

“Uh, OK,” I answered, but started thinking this is about the last payment I’m going to make. The next day I showed the plumber around and paid Victor the $20,000. By that point I had paid out $72,000 on a $47,000 estimate. I mentioned this to Victor and said that this seemed to me to be reasonably close to the final payment. I noted that I had taken his original estimate, and then added the cost per outlet/ranura that Antonio had quoted me to calculate what I’d likely owe. Which was very close to the $72,000. Given all the extra outlets, I never really expected him to do all the work for the $47,000 anyway. “So we’re even then? This is the final payment?” I asked. “Sure,” he said.

That was Wednesday of last week. Yesterday, I got a message from Victor. “Can I come around tomorrow for an additional $20,000?” he asked. “I’ve got to pay the guys.” At this point I was fully annoyed. “No, I’m not paying the ‘Gringo Surcharge.’ You just told me I was paid in full.” I thought to myself. “Besides, the job is almost done, and he can walk if he gets pissed.” So I replied back, “What? Just last week I paid you $20,000 and you agreed that we were square and that that was the full payment.”

“Well, I just need the money for the extra work.”

“What extra work? There is no extra work. Everything that’s being done was known last week,” I replied. “Well, OK, there’s the fact that I decided to connect the back bedroom to the garage breaker box, not the one behind the kitchen. But Antonio said this was no big deal. Other than that, there’s absolutely nothing that has changed since you told me we were even. You want $20,000 for that?!?”

What ensued was a very long back-and-forth via text message. Victor wanted more money, but he couldn’t give me a concrete justification as to why. Besides, he had just told me last week that I was paid up. I sent my spreadsheet, and he agreed it was correct. But he still wanted the money. And I didn’t think it was reasonable to pay more. Finally we decided to meet in person this morning and hash it out.

I also talked it over with Carlos, my BF. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Very expensive. Plus you’ve been providing tools, buying ladders, and doing other things to help. They should be doing absolutely everything. You know, an electrician here typically makes only $5,000-$6,000 pesos per month. You’re paying way too much.” I was kind of staggered that they could get by on so little. And sometimes I’m a little doubtful when Carlos tells me such things as I suspect these are prices for his small town in Michoacán. But no; he’s right. Electricians even in CDMX make diddly squat, as we shall see.

So last night, I recalculated what I thought the job should cost and it came to $76,565. That’s the original quote, plus the extra outlets/ranuras. I printed it out so we’d have something to talk about. This morning I got to the house early. Fortunately Antonio got there before Victor did. I explained the situation to him. “I just need another $12,000 for the work Don Jesús and I have done the past few weeks.” We talked about the payments. “Victor told me you had only paid him $15,000 last week.”

“No, I paid him $20,000.” This landed like a lead balloon.

“So what have you been paid so far? I gave you $12,000 a few weeks ago. What has Victor paid you?” I asked.

“Nothing,” said Antonio.

“What do you need to feel like you’ve been appropriately paid, then?” I asked.

“Just another $12,000.”

Given that I rightly owed another $5,000 give, or take, I wasn’t going to fight to the death over an additional $7,000. But I was determined that I wasn’t going to pay Victor another centavo. I was also a little afraid if I paid nothing, that Antonio wouldn’t get his due.  

So here’s what happened. I told Victor I’d pay Antonio another $12,000 and that would be it. He wasn’t super happy, but he accepted it. For his part, he said he’d still hang the lamps and fill the ranuras. After he left, I paid Antonio, and we agreed we’d bypass Victor on the next project. Of the $84,000 I’d paid, Antonio only got $24,000 of it, or only 29% of the bill for labor. This he had to share with his uncle, and nephews. And given that there were mostly 2 of them working at the time, yup. They’re only making about $5,000 pesos a month, $250 USD. Carlos was right. Egad!

Frankly, I’m pissed off that the guy doing all the good work got so screwed in this deal. And I’m kind of annoyed that I ended up paying $84,000 for a job I could have gotten for maybe $24,000 or certainly a lot less than I paid. (Labor only) Still, I feel worse for Antonio. I’ve got most of a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath, 2,600 square foot house rewired for about $7,200 USD (material included). Not a bad deal for me at all, even if I did overpay.  

Next time I’m going direct with Antonio, and it’ll be a better deal for both of us.