A year or so ago, while we were still living in the Phoenix area, I decided to build a patio roof over the concrete slab outside the back door of our house.  Visiting the Building Safety Department of our suburban city, I learned that, yes, this would absolutely require a building permit. The application fee would be more than $500, and I would need plans, signed off by an architect.  In other words, it would cost more to get the permit than I was planning to spend building the patio cover.

That was the end of that project.  Just as well, given the subsequent trajectory of Phoenix area real estate.

Now I live in the southern Philippines. Neighborhoods here tend to operate on a principle that may seem strange in modern America: it’s your property, you can do whatever you want.

This leads to some interesting contrasts.  The neighborhood that I live in now isn’t anything like the cookie-cutter subdivisions that surround Phoenix.  I’m not singling out Phoenix — nearly everywhere in America,  housing for ordinary people has been gradually coerced into a kind of drab, tupperware-like uniformity by legions of building code-wielding bureaucrats.  Ordinary Americans can’t be trusted to figure out for themselves what kind of house they should live in, and they certainly can’t be trusted to build anything.

Filipinos, it seems, can.

Our current neighborhood in Davao is fairly typical here in the Philippines. It started as a subdivision aimed at lower income workers, offering small, inexpensive houses on small lots, financed by government-subsidized loans.  My wife, who is from here, bought one for her parents about 15 years ago. (They eventually moved elsewhere, so now we use it as our “in town” house.)

One of the original houses, currently undergoing major renovation.

One of the original houses, currently undergoing major renovation.

The original subdivision houses were small, and not very well built. So, after saving some money, my wife had it torn down and built a bigger and better one in its place.  She designed the replacement herself, working with the foreman who supervised the construction. A permit was required, but that was just a formality, easily and cheaply handled.  The new house was two stories, poured concrete beam construction, with a steel truss roof covered with metal sheeting and then clay tile. It is a nicer house than the one we owned in Arizona (though not quite as large), and cost — literally — an order of magnitude less.

Many of the other residents have followed a similar path, each building according to their personal tastes. The resulting mix would no doubt set a city planner’s teeth on edge.  Some of the original low-end subdivision houses remain, but many owners have replaced them, each according to his or her own tastes and finances.  A few residents have built impressive multi-story palaces spanning two or three of the original lots.  One of our neighbors built a three story structure with six condominium units on a double lot.

One of the more upscale dwellings, covering three lots.

One of the more upscale dwellings, covering three lots.

Except for the remaining original units, no two houses are alike.  Like most neighborhoods in the Philippines, there are a lot of bright colors, some of them clashing.  Some houses aren’t painted at all. Most of the construction is concrete. Paint is expensive and non-essential — other expenses may take priority. It’s your house, you can paint it whatever colors you like, or leave it unpainted.

Some of the houses are under seemingly perpetual construction. Owners begin additions or remodeling projects, and may take months or years to finish, according to the money and materials available. This is regarded as perfectly reasonable.

There are no setbacks.  You can build all the way to the property line, and most do.  Land in the city is expensive.  There is no restriction on fences. If you want a high wall around your property, you are free to build one.  Most prefer visibility, but high wrought iron fences are common, often topped with sharp spikes. Burglary is not unheard of here, and the law does not require you to provide burglars with an obstacle-free path to your door.

There is no “neighborhood preservation” enforcement.  You will not get a citation (as I did once in Phoenix) for parking your boat in your driveway.  No one will come around and order you to mow the grass or cut the weeds. Surprisingly, most of the houses and grounds are well maintained even without guidance from helpful city bureaucrats.  A few are in a state of disrepair; usually it is assumed that the owners have fallen on hard times, and are doing the best that they can.  Or not. It doesn’t matter — it’s your property, you are free to maintain it poorly or not at all. If you prefer to live in a rundown house and spend your money on alcohol and gambling, the government will not stop you (your wife or in-laws, however, may). Mostly, the system works.

Home with sari-sari store

Home with sari-sari store

Some homeowners run small businesses on their properties. This is considered a perfectly normal and reasonable thing to do. “Sari-sari” stores are ubiquitous in the Philippines. These sell snack foods, soft drinks, sundries, and cell phone loads, usually either from a counter in a converted street-side window or door of the house, or in a small purpose-built kiosk. One or two houses have “eateries”, with a few tables where a quick breakfast or lunch can be had. Another has a small print shop.  The sari-sari stores are much smaller than a typical convenience store in America, but they carry most of the things that one might need between trips to the supermarket, and the proprietors are your neighbors. It does not occur to anyone that these should be outlawed.

All of this rampant individualism is, of course, not for everyone. Some people (including quite a few American expats) prefer a more controlled environment, where your neighbor can’t paint his house purple or leave a stack of building materials in his driveway. Those who prefer uniformity and rules are free to live in gated communities with homeowners’ associations and contractual restrictions, and many do.

This libertarian attitude toward housing produces some important benefits. In America, if you decide you need a bigger or more upscale house, you’ll probably have to move.  Here in the Philippines a pay-as-you-go culture predominates, so most people prefer to improve what they have, which they can do gradually, as they are able to afford it. The result is stable neighborhoods of long term residents who actually know each other, and who are deeply invested in making the neighborhood a pleasant place to live.  Also, a lot of the money that we in America spend on real estate commissions and escrow fees is instead spent on improving the property.

Seems like a system with a lot to recommend it.

Another original design

Another original design

One of the recent renovations. Three stories -- no problem.

One of the recent renovations. Three stories — no problem. 

View from our balcony, which I find colorful and interesting (some might disagree).

View from our balcony, which I find colorful and interesting (except for the wires — no underground utilities here).

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