In 2013, Mary Wingo started looking for a new way to earn an income. Working as a scientific researcher, she was growing frustrated by the dwindling government funding being allocated to her field.
Her plan was to move outside the U.S., where she could live at a lower cost and create a small business that would give her the freedom to remain mobile.
“I had a friend in Cuenca, Ecuador, who was retired, so I asked her, ‘How are you liking it there?’ and she said, ‘I love it!’ I asked if I could come down, and, when I did, I was blown away.”
On her first visit, Mary decided she was going to make it her home, and she’s now been living there for four-and-a-half years. She has spent time traveling but is always happy to return to her newly adopted home. “It’s hard to beat Ecuador. It’s hard to beat the quality of life here.”
Since moving to Cuenca, Mary has started several businesses, including designing and selling fabrics, manufacturing creams derived from indigenous plants (she’s now waiting on her sanitary registration certificate), and consulting on the topic of human physiological stress—her scientific field.
More recently, Mary spotted a new opportunity. She noticed that many new expats in Ecuador didn’t know where they should start their search for a rental, because there is no comprehensive online database of available properties. “There are a lot of owners and operators here in Cuenca. It is not like the U.S. where you have fat cat companies that own 5,000 apartments. There are a lot of unique properties, but you have to weed out the bad ones in order to find a good match.
“The idea just popped into my head,” says Mary. “‘You need to help other expats.'” So she created and launched Cheap Cuenca Rentals, a real estate brokerage service that focuses on finding affordable housing for expats in Cuenca.
“I find cheap rentals and really good deals, and I weed out all the crummy stuff,” she says. “That’s what I do. I go around and talk to the people. I make sure that the dueños (landlords) are dependable. I look at the property and see if it’s something that expats would like, and I see if it’s in a good location, since many expats don’t have cars. A lot of times expats have no idea about the different neighborhood options, so I point them in the right direction.”
The units Mary locates rent for as low as $140 a month to a high of $650. Most clients are looking in the range of $300 to $600. According to Mary, for a monthly rent of $400, a unit will meet European and North American standards, with good furniture and wood floors. Below $300 a month the units are unfurnished and traditional Ecuadorian style. They may require new paint or minor repairs.
Much to her surprise, her small real estate business turned out to be profitable from the beginning. “In fact,” says Mary, “it would support a modest life in the U.S.”
For those looking to fund their life in Ecuador with a small business, Mary offers this advice: “Make low-cost investments in your business. Maybe $500 or $1,000 here or there, or better yet, $0. Really work on your market and find a product that takes advantage of the fact that expats are often living on a budget. If you do that,” she says, “you’ve got a good chance.”
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