Why Nobody Is Retiring To Loja (Yet)
Big opportunities await the expat entrepreneur in Loja, Ecuador. This is a city that’s just coming into the limelight as an expat destination, and the field is wide-open for creative people with pioneer spirits.
On my most recent trip to Loja, I was reminded why I like the city as much as I do. One of Loja’s best features is the setting. The city is surrounded by tall, green Andean peaks, lush valleys, and broad meadows. And, as the music capital of Ecuador, this relatively small city of around 185,000 people has more than its share of arts and culture. And its laid-back, polite, and old-school values harken back to what Ecuador was like before it became such a hot expat destination.
Loja enjoys great weather, and the real estate is inexpensive, both to rent and to buy. The cost of living is also low here, lower than you’ll find in any city with a comparable level of amenities. Healthcare and health insurance, in particular, are very affordable.
However, the thing that really caught my eye during this most recent trip was a handful of small business opportunities that could support and even enable Loja’s eventual popularity as an emerging expat destination.
The first opportunity that jumped out at me was in real estate.
I spent several days looking at properties available for sale in the city, reading newspaper ads, photographing signs in windows, and combing the streets. Never did I find a single English-speaking real estate agent in downtown Loja.
And the Spanish-speaking agents I worked with were nothing to write home about. They couldn’t keep appointments. In one case, I persisted for three days but ended up seeing only one house…despite having made my initial appointment more than a month in advance. Another real estate agent had more than 20 listings…but only 3 homes that had not already been sold.
The first North American who opens a real estate business here will have a wide-open market. Team up with an energetic and well-connected local entrepreneur, and you could grab a good share of the local market just by running a tight ship and providing good service.
Granted, there are not a lot of North American clients in Loja right now. But remember Cuenca. The first professional English-speaking real estate agency in this city pre-dated its discovery as a top expat retiree destination. In fact, to some extent, CuencaRealEstate.com helped to enable the expat migration that followed.
The second opportunity I noticed was for a good Spanish-language school.
Loja is known throughout the country for its Spanish. The version spoken in Loja is crisp, clear, well-enunciated, and true to form. Lojanos take pride in the quality of their Spanish. I’ve seen bumper stickers calling out their linguistic purity.
Yet I couldn’t find a Spanish-language school. I went to the department of tourism to ask about this, and the best their agent could come up with was a tutor I could hire privately. (She was the young lady’s mother.) I asked at a couple of English schools (there are plenty of these in Loja). They all said they could fix me up with private lessons with a freelance tutor, but none offered actual Spanish courses.
So, again, the first person to open a quality Spanish school in this city will have the market to himself. As with the real estate idea, there is not a huge pent-up demand for language study in Loja right now, but one big reason is that there’s nowhere to study. With a good quality school in place, I think Loja’s linguistic reputation (and maybe some smart international exchange student agreements) would bring plenty of students.
My final observation was in the area of short-term rentals.
On my most recent visit, I looked at a good bit of real estate, again, both for sale and for rent. But I found only one quality furnished rental. It wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t be among the finalists for a Good Housekeeping Award either.
I’d say there is a market for a handful of modern, short-term, furnished apartment rentals, built and equipped to higher-end U.S. standards, apartments of the type that are so popular in nearby Cuenca.
A skeptic might say that, if there were a good market for these kinds of units, there would already be a supply of them. In a more developed market, that would be the case, but, in Loja, we’re at a pre-market stage. The demand for these kinds of short-term rentals is coming. As Loja becomes more popular as an expat destination, this demand will grow. At the same time, the existence of these kinds of rentals will create their own demand.
I’ll use Medellin, Colombia, as an example. In Medellin, the existence of these high-quality units has actually changed people’s habits and enticed many travelers away from hotels. In my case, I’d never used short-term rentals for business travel. But when I found out that I could get a luxury apartment, all to myself, for less than the price of a hotel, I switched to short-term rentals right away. And I’m not alone.
Lots of expats like Loja. I hear from more and more people each year who find Loja’s cultured, low-key lifestyle to be just what they’re looking for. But, in the end, almost no one actually moves to Loja. And I think I know some of the reasons why.
I’ll use Cuenca’s success as an expat destination as a benchmark.
Of course Cuenca is a great city to start with. But when a potential expat comes to check it out, they can stay at their leisure in a quality, furnished, short-term rental, equipped with cable TV and high-speed internet. They can shop for real estate on an English-language site with a good inventory, and they can view properties with an English-speaking agent. Meantime, then they can master Spanish at one of Cuenca’s excellent language schools.
In other words, they can pretty much just show up and rely on this infrastructure to get them going.
In Loja, none of these things exist yet. But once they are available, the scene will change. And it will be a handful of expat entrepreneurs who are paying attention right now who will help to make that happen.