Perched on a hill overlooking the ocean sits a pristine white home with a view of the ocean from every floor, including a spectacular expanse from a rooftop patio. Both the Pacific Ocean and the coastline stretch as far as the eye can see. Frothy, warm waves crash gently onto the shore below. A soft, cool breeze blows across the patio as the sun sets over the ocean. Suddenly time doesn’t matter.
Welcome to Crucita, a small fishing village in the center of the Ecuadorian coast that is popular with nationals, paragliders and kite surfers as well as a growing community of foreigners seeking real estate bargains and a luxurious primary or vacation home on a budget.
“I love it here. It’s like Miami, but I could never afford something like this there,” says Jeff “Ty” Matthews, a retired educator from Maryland and Miami who once thought of Ecuador as a vacation spot but now calls the country his home. He lives with his Colombian partner and his ailing mother and sister in a spacious three story villa that he built for under $200,000 a year ago. He also owns two other lots that he considers an investment for his future, since there are only a few undeveloped lots left in this gated community overlooking the sea.
What does he do in Crucita? “A lot of nothing. But it’s fantastic,” he claims. “We smell the fish when it comes off the boat. We walk on the beach. We watch $1 movies on our entertainment system.”
Jeff was one of the first people to build a home in the community, the brainchild of a young Ecuadorian with dual U.S. and Ecuadorian citizenship and family ties to Miami, Jorge Loor Zambrano. The Villa Balsamaragua community, which today has 20 homes, 16 of which are owned by foreigners, features underground utilities, sidewalks, and roads – unusual even now in Ecuador.
When he was only 22 and more interested in paragliding than business, the U.S.-educated Loor Zambrano saw the hill and envisioned a community. He borrowed $35,000 from relatives and bought 55 acres of beachfront property backed by rolling hills, but didn’t start developing it until several years later in 1998 when he was out of work and needed a job. Ironically, shortly after he started building the infrastructure, rains washed everything away in a landslide. With nothing but a ping pong table with a model of the mountain and houses on it, he started selling lots as investments – on one particularly fast-paced day raising $100,000 with napkin receipts for initial payments.
Even with a significant setback from the landslide, he cleared more than $200,000 when he sold the community in 2002. And the landslide helped him realize that he had been naïve in his initial approach of blindly trusting contractors who it turns out were not doing the job correctly.
“I learned the hard way,” says Loor Zambrano, now 42. “I was ignorant. I said to people, ‘You’re a builder, I believe you.’ I asked a friend to be my supervisor, but he was eating off the same plate as the builder.”
Now, as he builds a U.S.-style shopping center in his hometown of Portoviejo – the first center of its type in the province – he trusts his team but checks and double checks. “You can’t do anything by remote control,” he maintains. “I trust everybody, I have to, and I’m glad I have the team I have. They’ve saved me a lot of money, and they’re hardworking people. But you have to be on top of everybody. I drop by several times a day. I count the cement. I ask if they’re watering the top floor of the roof. I bring in people who know about engineering. If I see that an iron isn’t bent according to my common sense, I ask why. I ask thousands of questions. You create an atmosphere in which they know they’d better do it right. You can’t do this if you’re thousands of miles away.”
In addition to building the $500,000 shopping center (which already has a potential flagship renter), selling real estate, helping with a family Pilates studio and gym, and kite surfing and mountain biking as time permits, Loor Zambrano is using his experience to help others create and realize their visions in Ecuador.
“You can make money faster and more easily in this country because there are a whole lot of things that need to be done – things that have never been done here before. The first ones are the ones who make the money. I know, because I’ve done it.”
Loor Zambrano facilitates the investment process by orienting investors, connecting them with the right builders, architects, engineers, or lawyers for the job, and helping them to understand the local market.
“Some people think there’s a special gringo price,” says Loor Zambrano. “The gringo price goes for everybody, even the locals. You have to discuss price with potential contractors. And to avoid delays, don’t pay upfront – give a little advance to buy materials, but that’s all.”
Doing business in Latin America has its special challenges, including the occasional need to encourage contacts with monetary incentives. Matthews calls them bribes and refuses to engage in them. Frustrations with the system, as well as the difficulty of making sweet potato pie in absentia, caused him to decide to sell a Southern-style restaurant he started in Quito, a short plane hop away from Crucita.
Loor Zambrano acknowledges that there are hidden costs to doing business in Ecuador, including officials who will pretend something is wrong in order to get a little extra pocket money. He considers some payments to non-officials tipping to make things move a little faster and get VIP treatment. “We’re talking about courtesies ranging from a Coke or a sandwich to a tip here and there of $20, $40, or $50 – maybe totaling $150 for a project,” he says. “If you think this is going to make you poor, this is not the place for you. If you’re going to invest here you have to go with the flow, you have to operate with the culture.”
Fortunately, such expenses can seem pretty insignificant when weighed against the low cost of life in Ecuador, where a haircut costs $3, a gourmet meal costs $12, a full-time housekeeper/cook costs $300 a month, and taxes on a $150,000 two-story oceanfront villa are only $50 a year.
Plus, although property values are strong and rising, there are still plenty of good deals and opportunities.
“People think Ecuador is a third world country where people don’t have money. They’re wrong. People do have money, they do pay, and in US dollars. Plus there are loans Ecuadorians can get to do business,” says Loor Zambrano. “You just need vision, persistence, and trust in the right people. Play it safe, but do it.”
About the author: Belinda Burum is an English teacher and writer living in Quito, Ecuador.