"A lot of the press on Cuenca has been really shallow," says local real estate expert and long–time resident David Morrill. "There were about 300 foreigners when I moved here a decade ago, so there are obviously a lot more now, but you don't get appreciation of 10 percent a year like we've had the past six years just from a few thousand expats." He credits much of the rise to returning Ecuadorans: those who have made good money abroad and are now moving to an improved city on the rise. In the time that 4,000 Americans and Canadians have moved here, "probably 30,000 to 40,000 returning Ecuadorans have done the same," says Morrill.
So now that Cuenca is a known hotspot that's in the news as "the best place to retire abroad," what does this mean for purchase prices? Much of that depends on your budget and your point of view. The days when you could swoop in and buy a spacious colonial in the center for $50,000 are certainly gone — unless you are the rehabbing type. Prices have risen non–stop for years and are just now starting to level off a bit as new construction has sped up.
Still, the most expensive listing I could find in the city was for $545,000. Where you live in the U.S. or Canada that probably gets you a basic McMansion in the suburbs, or in a city like Toronto, New York, or San Francisco, much less than that. In Cuenca, that price gets you a seven–bedroom, five–bath house of nearly 10,000 square feet, with an indoor swimming pool, a chef's kitchen with high–end appliances, and two roof decks with amazing views.
If you don't need that kind of space, you can get a house of three or four bedrooms for $200,000 to $400,000 that will be large and very well equipped. Get 15–20 minutes out of town and you'll get more room at a lower price. One listing as I wrote this was $220,000 for a spacious three–bedroom home with a heated pool, garage, and large lot. Another of about the same size but 15 minutes outside the city was listed for $150,000. Most fall in the range of $60 to $80 per square foot if in good condition.
Condos are usually quite spacious here: it's not unusual to see listings for 2,000 square feet or more. You can get a new luxury condominium in a secure building with 24-hour security and parking for roughly $90 to $120 per square foot, finished to your specifications if it's a new build or often sold furnished if not. Many foreigners like to purchase condos on a high floor so they get a mountain view and can leave for months whenever they want. "I once left this place empty for more than a year while I went traveling," says Helen Boyer. "When I came back it was exactly how I left it, no worries."
Keep in mind that "high–rise" is a relative term here: city regulations (so far) cap building height at 14 stories. The standard amenities are generous in newly constructed buildings. Covered parking, a gym, and 24–hour security are common. In Ecuador you can hire a full–time maid, gardner, or cook for less than your electric bill is at home.
Moving to Ecuador
The best way to see if Cuenca is right for you is to thoroughly experience if first. "I always advise my clients who are considering moving to Cuenca to rent first for short term or one year, to make sure this is the right place for them. This way they are familiar with the different neighborhoods and they will make a better choice buying real estate," says Maribel Crespo. Some make a hasty House Hunters International kind of move and then end up leaving a year or two later, put off by a couple months of rain, the exhaust fumes, or the hurdles in getting past a basic vocabulary in Spanish.
"When buying, always look around you and assume that what you see is what you get," says David Morrill. "Don't think that things will improve to be more like you want them."
One of the false sells of moving abroad articles, David adds, is that a certain city or a big house with a maid will make you happy. "If you are just coming to stretch your savings and don't appreciate the culture or the people, you probably won't be happy. Some spend a lot of time and money learning that lesson the hard way."
"I try to always remember I'm a guest here in this country," says Leita Hulmes, as she looks out her window at some chickens pecking at the ground in the yard of the house next door. "There's a lot to appreciate if you don't focus on the negatives and learning the language helps a lot too. My comfort level increased a lot after I knew what was going on around me."
You can visit Ecuador for three months on a tourist visa and in theory it's possible to extend that a few more months after arrival. Becoming a legal resident is the usual baffling bureaucracy encountered nearly anywhere, which can be eased considerably by paying a few hundred dollars to a lawyer. Qualifying is straightforward though, especially if you're buying property and/or are of retirement age. Once you're in, you get a dazzling array of discounts on travel and entertainment, including half–price flights within or out of the country on several airlines. Note that there are no direct flights to Cuenca, however: you must go through Quito or Guayaquil.
To see sample rental or purchase listings, the best source is Cuenca Real Estate. Other sites to check are Ecuadorable Homes and the listings on the local expatriate site GringoTree. For information on traveling to the area, see the Cuenca Tourism website. The best hotel in the city is Mansion Alcazar, but if you prefer a standard business hotel with full facilities and parking, Oro Verde is the best bet. If you're a horse lover or want a hacienda hotel experience, stay at the lovely Hacienda Caballo Cabana just outside of town.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott, December 2013