There are many things to consider when it comes to deciding whether or not to buy rural property in Ecuador. Below is a list of the most important considerations along with specific details to help you decide if such a purchase is right for you.
Cuenca is just a few hours drive from the equator and has consistent year-round temperatures, due to its elevation of 8,400 feet above sea level its average high is around 68° F (20° C) and average low is 48° F (9° C). You can reach elevations of around 7,000 feet by driving 45 minutes from Cuenca North (Paute), or South (where the Yunguilla valley begins) and the climate will be noticeably warmer. An hour south of Cuenca in the Yunguilla valley and you are in the 6,500-6,000 feet range that many consider to be the “sweet spot”. This is where the weather is warm enough for tropical fruits like bananas and papayas to grow yet the humidity is still low and you don’t have as many bugs come out in the evenings and nights as in the lower elevations (5,500 feet and below is pretty buggy and the humidity climbs fast as you head down towards sea level).
For people who prefer a colder climate within a half hour’s drive from Cuenca there are properties in the cloud forest with elevations of 10,000 – 11,000 feet; these properties are also much lower in cost per acre than properties in semi-tropical areas.
One advantage of living in Cuenca is there are many more English-speaking people around. Many of the owners of local business speak English and there are hundreds of translators to choose from when you need to deal with anything that requires a higher level of Spanish fluency.
In rural Ecuador there are few people who speak any English at all and it is usually only school children with what little English they may have learned in school. They may be able to ask you your name or tell you what time it is but that’s about it.
It is advisable for those living in rural Ecuador to be at least somewhat conversant in Spanish or possibly to live with someone bilingual. At the very least it would be a good idea to have a caretaker on the property that you can communicate with who can deal with many of the things that require Spanish.
Although there are quieter parts of Cuenca for the most part Cuenca has a lot of noise pollution. Although there are linear parks with wide green belts along the rivers, in most parts of the city yards (when the do exist) are tiny so there is little to deaden noise. If you are likely to be annoyed by car alarms, horns, and barking dogs then a place in the country is worth considering. Although the countryside is not necessarily quiet per se it is considerably quieter than Cuenca and apart from occasional fireworks it will be fairly quiet unless you have a neighbor who likes to blast their music.
In Cuenca you just open the tap and clean, clear, drinkable water comes out. If you need to water the plants or grass if you have a yard then no problem, water is plentiful and cheap.
Before purchasing a rural property it is important to understand clearly the water situation. There are 3 types of water generally available on rural properties.
1. Potable Water: Treated water varies in quality and just because a rural property has “potable” water does not mean it has not gotten contaminated between the water treatment plant and your property. Unlike in the city of Cuenca where it is safe to drink out of the tap, in most rural properties it is best to boil the tap water before drinking it or purchase bottled water for drinking.
2. Fresh Spring Water: Usually referred to as “agua entubada”, is untreated spring water. It is usually delivered by a black poly plastic pipe that is around an inch and a half in diameter. Normally this water is gravity fed rather than pumped and it is often better water than potable water, however, there are no chemicals in it so if it gets contaminated at any point from the spring to your house then it can become dangerous. For some people this is their only source of water and is used both in place of potable water and as irrigation water for smaller properties.
3. Irrigation Water: This water is only for irrigation and drinking water for farm animals. It comes through a system of open cannels using gravity to move the water. Often one is assigned usage rights for certain days and or hours of the week. The water is not switched by the people who manage the water so in order to use it you or someone who works for must walk along the canal, sometimes for several blocks, and manually open and close connections with other canals in order to route the water to your property.
Irrigation water rights are tied to the property but may not necessarily appear in the existing title even though they should. Also sometimes lawyers or notarys will forget to transfer the water rights into the new title when the property is transferred into your name so this must be watched closely to ensure that these rights are officially transferred to you.
In the city property boundaries are normally clearly defined so disputes are rare but in rural Ecuador boundary disputes occur frequently. Several years ago Ecuador began requiring GPS surveys to be done on all rural properties before the property could be sold. Prior to that it was common for properties to be sold with boundaries only defined in the title as the names of the neighboring owners or by geographic features like roads and rivers when the property line coincided with a road or a river. Some rural properties on the market today still don’t have well documented boundaries. If you happen to choose one of these properties then a surveyor needs to be called in at the seller’s expense and a survey needs to be done. In these cases the survey should be done in the presence of owners of adjacent properties to ensure there are no future boundary disputes. Another thing to look out for is if people have been crossing the property you are buying for many years to get to theirs then they have the right to continue accessing their property through yours.
Like in the city Direct TV is available to any rural property in any part of Ecuador provided an unobstructed view of the sky towards the west. Direct TV is the best option for most expats due to having more channels with English language options than any other TV service provider in Ecuador. There are other companies such as TV Cable and CNT which also have satellites and minidish systems and require pointing in different directions. Both Direct TV and TV Cable can be installed either under contract or pay as you go like a cell phone. Plans start at around $20 a month but $40 to $60 is required to get the International channels that offer English language options. Technologies like slingbox that send your TV service from another country, such as the U.S., to Ecuador via the Internet and services like Netflix will not work reliably in most rural properties due to slower Internet speeds.
One of the most difficult things when buying a rural property is verifying that high speed Internet access is available there. Although there are isolated incidents of people purchasing satellite equipment and contracts from a foreign country and pointing to the satellite of a neighboring country, as of the time of this writing there are not any satellite Internet options in Ecuador. Internet is usually available on the cell phone networks and USB modems can be purchased from any of Ecuador’s four cell phone companies. Technically speaking you can probably get “Internet” anywhere there is a good cell phone signal but speeds are often so slow that it is only usable for text-only emails or text chats. At best a rural cell phone modem will get you ¼ of a megabit which is enough speed for browsing the web on one computer, downloading audio files, audio only Skype calls, and youtube videos if you watch them in VHS quality resolution (240p) or the lowest setting(144p). Some rural properties have access to Internet via the phone company that can get speeds of up to 12 megabits; this is highly location dependent is available in some areas near Cuenca such as Tarqui.
High speed Internet, 1-5 megabits is available only on rural properties that have a direct line of site to a microwave antenna. Fiber optic lines often run along the highways so if you are somewhat close to a major highway someone likely has an antenna up on a hill somewhere that connects to the fiber optic line along the highway, either via a wireless relay or copper wires underground. There are companies such as Cesacel who specialize in rural internet service in various provinces of Ecuador. Most of these companies are small companies that only cover a small geographic area. Before purchasing a rural property it is best to confirm the availability and speed of Internet service. In the city of Cuenca Internet speeds start out at around 3 megabits for a basic plan, although slower than Internet speeds in the U.S., 3 megabits allows for watching youtube videos at DVD quality (480p), video conferencing, and can even work for two computers at the same time. For a rural property 2 megabits is the minimum most expats would be comfortable with, assuming one computer, with an additional megabit required for each additional computer. As with most internet connections speeds during peak usage times are likely to be less than the advertised speeds. Also advertised speeds are download speeds whereas upload speeds will be considerably slower. A 2 megabit connection will often only have between ¼ and ½ a megabit of upload speed, just enough for your webcam to send a signal over Skype if you are not uploading any other data.
You will likely have to pay out of pocket to have a rural Internet service provider come out with a meter and see if your property has line of sight to an antenna and if there is enough signal strength. The best thing to do is ask the seller who in the area has Internet and then go talk to them and find out which company they are signed up with as they may be the only company providing service in that area. These companies often have prices starting around $25 a month but most expats will require at minimum a connection costing around $40 a month.
Another consideration for rural properties is security. In Cuenca security is usually solved by a guard at the entrance of the condominium but with a rural property you must take personal responsibility for your own safety and security. Personal Safety is often not much of a concern for expats living in rural Ecuador because for the most part it is a peaceful country. On the other hand security for one’s possessions is a big concern especially for people who will be spending time away from their properties for extended periods of time.
It is not realistic to expect to protect your possessions with an alarm system and alarm service if you live out in the country. The best option for people who will be spending a lot of time away from their property is to have a caregiver living on site. Typically caregivers will live for free in a 400-600 SQFT adobe house, it will usually be a family but you will only employ the husband or the wife. The cost for this will run you around $500 a month in order for your caregiver to receive the minimum wage of $375(2017).
One advantage that Ecuador has, especially in rural areas, is that building codes are much less restrictive than in the countries that expats come from. Construction permits are required along with basic architectural plans but the details of how structural, plumbing, electrical, etc are done is up to you and there are no inspections to worry about.
Looser laws also mean that you must be extra careful when choosing a contractor to ensure quality construction and that things are completed as planned. If you have always dreamed of building a house out of natural building materials such as a timber frame, bamboo, straw bale, ecological bricks, Adobe, etc. then Ecuador is the perfect place. Not only are such buildings legal, there are also low labor rates and workers can be hired for between $10-$40 a day depending on skill level (at the lower pay levels you will also be required to feed them lunch). You can hire a guy with a tractor or excavator for an all inclusive rate that includes his time, the cost of fuel, and use of the machine; this can range from $15-$50 an hour depending on the size of the unit.
For a house with standard finishes the cost to build per square foot, if you act as your own general contractor, runs around $35 for concrete block, or $25 for Adobe. For higher end finishes and the nicer kitchens and bathrooms that expats tend to want the prices per square foot run around $45-$60 for concrete block construction and $32-$43 for adobe.
Considering that property taxes in Cuenca are less than $300 a year it hardly seems worth mentioning that rural taxes are lower than in Cuenca but most rural property owners pay less than $50 a year for property taxes and some pay a lot less than $50 per year. Low property taxes and minimal permitting and land use rules allow you to truly be an owner when purchasing property in Ecuador, rather than merely renting the property from the government as “owners” do in so-called “first-world” countries.
With plenty of taxis and inexpensive cab fairs averaging around $2.25 per ride there is really no need for owning your own car if you live in Cuenca. If you live in the country however driving is pretty much a necessity unless you are willing to walk to a rural bus stop and ride the crowded dirty buses or hire a private driver for $10 an hour.
Unlike the United States Ecuador does not have many big box retailers and the ones they have are only in the larger cities. In rural Ecuador you will find all the basic staples needed to survive but there is little variety. At the nearest town you will probably be able to acquire the basic staples like eggs & milk and get your banking needs handled, pay bills, or buy tools but there will be a very limited selection of items available, especially in rural pharmacies. You will probably not be able to get more exotic things like Olive Oil, Cheddar Cheese, Peanut Butter, Whole Wheat Bread, Mushrooms, and Brown rice without making a trip to Cuenca.
It’s not uncommon for people to arrive in Ecuador with intentions of buying rural property only to end up buying an apartment in Cuenca when all is said and done. It does not necessarily have to be a question of rural vs. urban. Many of the happiest expats are those who live out in the country part of the week and spend the rest of the week in Cuenca. Even if you can only afford to purchase one property, with Ecuador’s low rental rates, you could buy a place out in the country and rent a place in Cuenca (or visa versa) and go back and fourth between the two places.