House Hunters International in Ecuador: Answers to the Questions

(Blogger’s Note: The House Hunters International episode featuring our home buying experience in Ecuador will air this Thursday night at 9:30 Central on HGTV.)

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Setting up living quarters in another country isn’t something you do every day. Dana and I always dreamed about it, but until about 18 months ago never knew if things would come together in such a way that we could actually pull it off. So because written communication is what I do, and is actually the way I process things mentally, we decided from Day 1 to take the unique experience and chronicle much of it on my blog so family and friends could take part, too.

The whole ordeal has made for some interesting conversation, and we get lots of questions almost every day about all sorts of things. People want to know what it was like to do what we did, and what it was like to be on the show.

house hunters international in ecuador

Our “realtor,” Joel Lewis, getting wired for sound in one of the three homes we toured on the show. The mother and daughter in the left background are from Australia, and are the actual residents of this home.

These are some of the questions we’re often asked, and the answers we give:

Q: Is House Hunters International real? I’ve read it’s fake.

A: The short answer is this: It’s television. HHI is a reality show, and in my opinion, an entertaining and educational one. The television medium has lots of restrictions. It’s not easy to convey a couple’s home buying experience on another continent in 22 minutes. So for the sake of television, concessions are made. No one in their right mind flies into a new country, looks at three houses in a day and decides to buy one at the end of the day. Our actual experience in deciding to build a home in Ecuador was a 10-day process, and I would never recommend anyone move as fast as we did because that’s very fast. Still, the producers worked very hard to replicate our experience as best they could, and I think the show will be an accurate reflection of what it’s like to buy a home in Puerto Cayo. It glosses over a lot of the hard stuff, and our experience in building a home and acclimating to a new culture posed some real challenges, but that’s not what the show’s about. Is House Hunters International real? It’s more real than most of the television you probably watch.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being on the show?

A: Dana and I became fans of HHI during a formative time in our marriage. In 2009, the economy and a few bad decisions forced the closure of my publishing business and a career that I loved. For the first time in my life, I was uninspired, very uncertain about the future and pretty depressed. There were many nights when we’d watch the show, and for 30 minutes I’d be rescued from that depression. HHI actually inspired me to dream again, and ultimately took our life, and our marriage, in a direction I never imagined. The day we learned we’d been chosen for the show, it felt like a victory over something that had been a very hard fight. So being on the show was very much a celebration of that victory.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

Q: Have you seen the show yet?

A: No. We will see if for the first time when it airs.

Q: What is life like in Ecuador?

A: That’s a lot like asking what life is like in the United States. It depends on where you live. The coastal region where we built our home is not a tourist or expat destination as you might imagine. Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse country and life can be radically different depending on your locale. The Ecuadorian coast is actually very rural, and has a relatively poor economy. Locals make their living fishing, farming or making crafts. The infrastructure (roads, utilities and other basic services) is in its infancy. We’ve driven lots of gravel roads, and became accustomed to very sporadic electric service. I think many times people believed we were sipping pina coladas by a pool every day, and nothing could be further from the truth. Latin America is not for everyone.

Q: So why would you want a home thousands of miles away in a place like that?

A: Many reasons. First of all, because it is the education of a lifetime. Learning to live a new way, and making friends in a different culture is riskiest, and most educational thing I’ve ever done. Dana and I are never more alive than when we are pushing our comfort zones in Ecuador. Secondly, it gives me an entirely different perspective on my writing, and our lives in general. And finally, even though the economy is still very much emerging and developing, we are going to see unbelievable opportunity on the Ecuadorian coast over the next 15 years. I want to see that, and be part of it.

Q: What do you do when you’re there?

A: Mostly, I write a lot and take a lot of photos. Travel and major changes of environment really inspire my writing. But when we’re there, the culture forces us to slow down a lot, and that’s another reason we enjoy it. We spend a lot of time visiting with local friends, sharing new experiences and we learn something new almost every day.

Q: How did you find a realtor?

A: We didn’t. There are some people who call themselves realtors in Ecuador, but most have no formal training or licensing credentials, and a good number of them are fairly corrupt. Not all, just most. Dana and I conducted our search on our own which made the learning curve even higher.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

Q: Is it safe in Ecuador?

A: In the US, I think we unfortunately stereotype Latin America to be unsafe. I’ve never been fearful in Ecuador, but I also always use a lot of common sense, and am very respectful of the culture. Any international traveler I’ve ever visited with said the media almost always paints a darker picture than that which really exists, and that’s true all over the world. Ecuador is quite safe.

Q: Biggest challenges?

A: (1) Driving in the big cities is madness. Crazy madness. If you don’t have nerves of steel, avoid it. (2) Always remembering that even though I’m a property owner there, I’m still a guest. This very much requires us to forget everything we think we know about right and wrong, take one day at a time, lose our judgmental nature, and laugh a lot. (3) Knowing that when someone in Ecuador says that something conforms to US standards, it will never be true. Only two or three people in Ecuador even know what US standards (especially in construction) mean. That’s partly joke, mostly truth.

Q: Biggest perk?

A: Gas prices regulated by the government at $1.48 per gallon. No contest.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: I think anyone who builds a home from the ground up knows what it is to have hindsight. We definitely made some mistakes. But do I regret even the most difficult experiences we had? No way. And I’m eager to see what future adventures are in store.

Q: What advice to you have for other people who are even remotely considering doing what you did?

A: (1) Do a lot of research, but understand that no amount of research can substitute an exploratory trip to wherever you may be considering. (2) It’s very easy to get into a mindset that you could never do something like this. Lose that mindset. Barriers are easier to overcome than you think. (3) If you are close to buying a new house in a foreign country, never, never, never close the deal until you personally witness how the property reacts to a heavy rain. Oh, the humanity.

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From Arkansas to Ecuador: We Finally Made It.

At the East entrance to Casa Azul with my new moto and our rented Chevy Spark.

At the East entrance to Casa Azul with my new moto and our rented Chevy Spark.

My last post was one week ago today as Dana and I prepared for a 100-day trip to Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, where we traveled to see our new home and launch a coastal marketing and property brokerage business.

Without internet for a week we’ve been out of touch with most of the world, not only in the blogosphere, but with our family and friends. These are the quick highlights of our trip so far, with a few random thoughts thrown in at the end.

Last Friday – A long travel day, but all smooth sailing from Memphis to Quito. We departed Memphis at 2 p.m., arrived in Quito at 11:20 p.m., went through customs with no hassle, and arrived at our hotel around 1:30 a.m. That’s when the fun began.

Friday night and Saturday – We knew we’d only get three hours sleep at best since we’d need to be back at the airport by 6 a.m., in hopes of catching a domestic flight from Quito to Manta. An hour into our sleep, I woke up gasping for air, and immediately knew the culprit.

Steve and Dana Watkins

Steve and Dana Watkins

Altitude sickness. I’d experienced it once before in Denver, but never to the extreme that this would take both Dana and me. There wasn’t a single flight to the coast for three days (Christmas had everything booked solid) so it was off to find a rental car, and we didn’t depart Quito (elevation 9,300 feet) until 10 a.m., and we were already drained.

Getting out of Quito was some of the most difficult driving I’ve done, and the altitude sickness became much worse through the day. An hour into our drive (still in Quito) Dana vomited, I felt as though someone were sticking a toothpick in my eye, and we were both almost violently nauseated. Fourteen kilometers outside Quito, we rented a room in need of a bed. After 3 hours sleep and a bit of food, we drove another 100 km to Santo Domingo where we spent the night still much in need of rest.

Sunday – We departed for Puerto Cayo at 5 a.m., and arrived at 2 in the afternoon. We drove straight to the house where we found the crew working on windows, cabinets and plumbing. The next two days, we’d spend at Sanctuary, one of the nicest and newest hotels in Puerto Cayo http://www.sanctuarypuertocayo.com

Me with a little pescado (with some added facial personality) on the beach.

Me with a little pescado (with some added facial personality) on the beach.

Monday – Shopping for the essentials. In Jipijapa, we purchased a bed, refrigerator, gas stove, a 150 cc moto scooter for local transportation and a few other essentials. The items were delivered same day … and then we learned we really have no “address.” No such thing here. Our address is “Casa Azul, Puerto Cayo” which only means we have to describe where we live! How do you help a delivery man find your home? You ride with him if you have to! Our young friend, Carson Scarborough, was invaluable to us on this day, translating our business deals and making sure we got the best prices.

Tuesday – Christmas day. We packed up our belongings at Sanctuary and moved in to our home. It was a quiet day, and we enjoyed watching the locals celebrate the holiday in their own many ways. We also traveled to Puerto Lopez to buy a few groceries.

Wednesday – Spent most of the day with workers at the home, finishing touches and such, internet hookup, and I drove probably 50 miles on my new moto scooter which has given me a new level of awesomeness. I totally love my moto scooter!

Today – We’ll head back for Jipijapa for more living room, office and bedroom furniture.

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A few random thoughts so far:

Our House: We absolutely love it. Gary and April Scarborough are our marketing clients and good friends who own Las Palmas Properties, and they were our home developers and builders. They’ve gone to great lengths to create the home we wanted on a limited budget, and we have not one disappointment.Their 38-lot development just two miles up the beach, now has only 3 lots remaining. They are leading the way toward an economic uprising in Puerto Cayo, and we are so fortunate to know them. http://www.laspalmasecuador.com

Business: The opportunities appear (at least to me) to have escalated 10-fold since our visit eight months ago. There is much more land and property for sale, infrastructure is improving and the early days of a strong migration from the north to here are visible everywhere. In addition to my writing, it now appears much of our time in the marketing business will be focused on land and property brokerage. We’ve set up a website for that purpose at http://www.proecuadormarketing.com

Cost of Living: As we already knew, costs for things such as food, medical services, labor and construction are very good. As we did not know items such as appliances, furniture, vehicles and technology are considerably more expensive in the states. I’m very pleased with my moto scooter (did I mention how awesome I am on it?). With fuel at $1.46 per gallon, I get 75 miles per gallon and can drive for days on just more than a buck.

The People: The local people here are a wonderful culture. Hard working, friendly and willing to overlook all our gringo mistakes. The expat community grows by the day, and it’s so refreshing how everyone works together and looks out for one another.

Wildlife: This place is a birder’s paradise. I’m pretty sure we saw four canaries in our back yard yesterday, and I’m told there are monkeys just a few miles behind our home. The Antarctic whale migration begins in August and we’ll be able to watch from our deck as they jump just a few miles off the coast.

Writing: More about this in tomorrow’s post, but our location is the perfect place to write. There are so many things to write about, and I can hardly wait to get started. I may even write some fiction here, something I thought I’d never do.

The Climate: We’re now entering the warm season here. Temperatures are consistently 80 to 85, and the skies are clearing. When you’ve been gone from this country for eight months, you forget how spectacularly beautiful it really is.

We’ll post our final construction photos, immediately after this post goes live.

(Tomorrow’s post: What’s Next.)

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