By Timothy Scott
When we first wrote about real estate in Cuenca, Ecuador, the year was 2010 and the word was just getting out beyond friends of friends. After being featured in every expatriate publication since then as one of the best places in the world to retire, it's still a great value to buy high–end property and live in this mid–sized city in South America.
When Bill Bushnell decided to move to Cuenca, the reasoning was very simple, "I looked at where my finances were and where they were going to be. I didn't want to be living in a double–wide in the southern swamps somewhere, so I moved somewhere I could live really well on the same amount instead."
He and Leita Hulmes do live very well indeed. They own a luxury condo with a view of the mountains and the cathedral lights in the distance, a terrace space of 1,000 square feet going around two sides of their building, plus a walk–in closet bigger than most bedrooms. There's a maid's quarters with a separate entrance. Nearly everything inside was crafted by local artisans, including the custom stone fountain and the made–to–order living room set: two loveseats, four chairs, and two tables made from heavy hardwood, plus ten pillows thrown in without asking—delivered for under $2,000. They were so happy with the work they got custom wood desks, file cabinets, and bookcases.
Plus it's very reasonable to get construction work done in Ecuador to meet your specifications. "I mentioned as we were negotiating the sale that it was a shame this wall was so long," Bill says, motioning to where it used to extend to. "The next day there were guys with sledgehammers working and the day after that the wall was rebuilt right where I wanted it."
Helen Boyer had just put her condo up for sale when I visited her in a sleek doorman high–rise across from the Oro Verde Hotel. She was living in a huge 4–bedroom, 4.5–bath penthouse apartment with a maid's suite and panoramic views from the inside and the terrace. "I went in together with a friend to buy this place before it was finished," she explained. "Where I came from in California, the price tag probably would have been $3 million or more. We paid less than a tenth of that amount to buy here." Plus her monthly maintenance fees were under $200, despite a gym, underground garage, beautiful common areas, and 24–hour security. After a few months on the market it was sold, for $340,000 and a nice profit.
Why Move to Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca has a lot of positive attributes for retirees looking to cut their expenses by half or just upgrade their living standards instead. High on the list is the climate. While Ecuador's very name means "equator," its third largest city sits at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet (2,500 meters), so it has one of those eternal spring climates with no mosquitoes that so many retirees crave. The daytime highs are around 70F most of the year, the lows around 50F. Pack a rain jacket and a windbreaker and you're set. (You will need the rain jacket a fair bit though: if you want year–round sun there are better choices.)
The center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with interesting colonial buildings from several centuries. For now the big smoke–belching buses plying the narrow streets — none of which are pedestrian–only — keep the center from being as pleasant as it could be, but good news is on the way in the form of a $230 million city rail system that is moving from train buying to track building. Those who love historic architecture and want to walk everywhere gravitate toward homes in the center, while those with cars (and maybe respiratory problems) tend to live in new condos a bit further out or large houses in the gorgeous countryside.
Rivers run through several parts of town, including the clear–running Tomebamba. Situated between "hanging houses" on the steep bank and the largest university on the flatter opposite side, it's a popular place for a walk or stroll. Because there's are several universities here, cultural events are far more constant than you would normally expect for a city with a population of less than half a million.
There are close to 20 hospitals and outpatient medical facilities in town, most staffed by at least a few doctors who speak English well. Anyone 60 and over has access to the public health care system at a discount, with no co–pays, no pre–existing conditions denials, and a monthly premium under $100. Private care is a terrific bargain compared to what most U.S. citizens pay, with many doctors giving out their cell phone number and making house calls too.
It is easy to get by without a car here: you have to go from one side of the city to the other to pay more than $5 for cab fare. Most rides are $2 or less. And all transactions in Ecuador—including at the local market—are in U.S. dollars.
The Real Estate Market, After the Fame
"You can still find some bargains, but this is getting harder because of all the attention our beautiful city has received over the past years," say Maribel Crespo of local real estate agency Ecuadorable Homes. Many locals and the media tend to blame a swelling expatriate population for driving up rental and purchase prices in Cuenca, but the real expat effect seems exaggerated since they number less than 5,000 of the city residents. That equates to about one percent, compared to about 25 percent in Mexico's San Miguel de Allende.