Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big advocate of expatriation from expensive, unhealthy, collapsing locations like the European Union and the United States. But every part of the world has its benefits and drawbacks. Here in Ecuador, one of the biggest drawbacks is lying landlords. I’ve had 9 or 10 landlords in my time in this country, and it is no exaggeration to say that half of the them fit into the “lying landlord” category. The problem seems a lot worse than what I experienced in my decades of living and renting in the USA.
In this post I’ll start by giving you a few recent examples. I’ll wrap it up with a stab at explaining why this happens. Hopefully reading some of my experiences will prepare you for similar problems if you expatriate some day.
Anyone who has rented a house or apartment has probably experienced exaggerated claims about the property. Whether it is the landlord of a property or some kind of rental agency, the person trying to get you to sign the contract is a salesman. They’ll puff up the positives and downplay the negatives. And, honestly, they will often lie to you to get the deal. And at the end of the contract, the landlord probably exaggerated the wear and tear on the place in order to keep more of your deposit than was justified.
But this isn’t what I’m talking about when I refer to a “lying landlord.” Here in Ecuador I have experienced a whole new level of dishonesty from landlords and their underlings (I am including both in the lying landlord category). I am talking about blatantly violating the contract and fun stuff like that.
Let me give you some examples.
NOTE: I am writing about these things from memory, so I might have some details wrong. But I have tried to be as objective and fair-minded as I could. There’s no need to exaggerate with situations like these!
I rented one apartment for almost two years. It was in a very nice, upscale building, with all the amenities. Expensive, but at the time I felt it was worth splurging. I actually never met the owner of the apartment. All my interactions were with the lawyer representing her. He is a big-name attorney with private clients as well as a government contract for certain services. Seems like an ideal guy to deal with, right? Not so much.
After the year of my original contract, we agreed that I would rent month-to-month instead of doing a new contract. So far, so good.
When I decided I was ready to move to a new place, I contacted him. I told him I wanted to move out by a particular day and that I would pay the prorated portion of that month’s rent. He said that was unacceptable and that I would have to pay an entire additional month’s rent if I went past the 25th or whatever day the lease would have otherwise expired. So we agreed that I would move out by that day.
As we got close to that date, Ruth and I got everything moved to our new place, making sure to leave ourselves a few days leeway. There was no point in giving this guy a chance to screw us out of a month’s additional rent.
Two days before I had to be out of the apartment, the attorney calls me. He starts ranting in high-speed Spanish that I have trouble following. I put Ruth on the phone so she can try to find out what is going on. She tells me that he claims I have violated our agreement and did not vacate the apartment on time. He also tells her that my car is parked in the apartment’s assigned parking space and that my lock is still on the apartment’s assigned bodega (storage space). As a result of these violations, I need to pay him an additional month’s rent immediately.
Once she gets off the phone, we talk about the situation among ourselves. Our conclusions:
Ruth consults with an attorney she knows, who tells us that the guy can’t do what he is claiming and to fight him. We decide to go to his office and talk to him face to face. We go to the guy’s office and he and Ruth try to come to some sort of agreement. Eventually, they agree that if have the apartment clean and turn over the keys by the end of the day he will stop demanding additional rent.
So we scramble like crazy to get that done. Right at the end of the work day, we return to his office with the keys. The three of us go to inspect the apartment. There are a couple of minor things like scuffed paint that need to be fixed, but otherwise the apartment is good. Then we go to check out the bodega and the parking space.
The bodega is empty and so is the parking space. We have no idea what the deal was with those, but he is satisfied. Even better, he pays our deposit, minus the costs we have agreed for fixing up the apartment, in cash, right on the spot.
Another time, we rented a place for a year from a guy who was going to be living in Spain for a while. He said that we would probably be able to extend our lease after the first year. From our initial interactions with him, we were sure that he would try something sleazy at the end, but we wanted the place and figured we would deal with it when the time came.
A few months before the lease expired, he contacted me and asked if I wanted to extend the lease. I said yes. He said he would like to inspect the house and sign a new contract as soon as possible. We agreed to a date and time for him to come by. When he arrived, he carefully inspected the place. Everything was in good shape. However, he spotted that I had mounted a pull-up bar in one of the doorframes and immediately stated that this was going to be a problem. I told him that it was just screwed in place and would require a couple of minutes and a bit of putty to be good as new again. He merely grunted.
Then we sat down to talk about extending the contract. Except, that wasn’t why he was there. Instead of extending the contract, he demanded that we move out a month early! He said that his wife wanted to make changes to the place before they moved in, and that he needed us to get out of the house so his workmen could come make the changes. He then offered us the choice to leave voluntarily, without creating a new contract, or he would force us to sign a new contract stating we would leave early.
In places like the USA or Europe, renters are protected from bullshit like this. In Ecuador, the consumer is not as well protected. This guy comes from a wealthy family, and we were confident that they had an attorney on retainer to deal with annoying peons who wouldn’t do what they were told. We also concluded that his inspection of the house was aimed at looking for a reason to evict us and/or reasons to avoid returning our retainer at the end of the rental.
Fortunately for us, we found a new place within days. As a result, we were able to move out 2 months earlier than this lying landlord wanted us to. He protested vigorously, but since he insisted that we scrap the old contract and we hadn’t signed a new one, we were under no obligation to stay until he was ready for us to leave. While this may have caused him problems, he deserved it. He brought this upon himself by tearing up our original contract for no good reason.
These are the two most extreme examples of lying landlords that I have experienced. The rest have involved lying to try and keep the deposit at the end of the lease. In addition, I have heard dozens of stories like mine from other expats and natives here in Ecuador. The question is, why?
I think there are a few factors at work. They include:
As you probably know, this part of the world was colonized by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. This had many negative results, one of which I think comes into play for this issue. There is a definite class system here. The rich, who mostly have at least some Spanish blood, generally look down upon everyone else. Over the years I have heard from several landlords that they prefer renting to foreigners, because the locals (those with darker skin and more indigenous blood) don’t pay their bills and don’t take care of the rental units. On the other hand, non-rich people expect that they will be screwed by their landlords and all have their own horror stories.
As a light-skinned foreigner, you would think that this would work in my favor. In some ways it does, particularly at the beginning of a contract. Landlords are usually anxious to rent to me. But that doesn’t prevent about half of them from trying to pull some sort of dishonest shit at the end of the contract. It seems to be just the way they do business.
Another issue here is that the consumer protections are weak. I don’t even know what the laws actually say. What I do know is that in practice it is foolish to go up against a landlord in any kind of legal action. The upper-class all know each other and look out for each other in a small city like Cuenca where I live.
The final factor that comes into play is the “screw the foreigner effect.” If you know anyone who has spent time in this part of the world, you have probably heard of “gringo pricing.” It is common for the price of a product or service to increase drastically if someone who looks like me is involved in the transaction.
Part of it is due to the perception here that gringos are rich and ignorant of what things are really worth. Because prices are so much lower here than where we came from, many gringos will pay inflated prices for things without even realizing it. They go away thinking they got a great deal on whatever it was, when in reality they paid 2 or 3 times what a local would have paid. Ruth will frequently negotiate prices for things while I stay out of sight just to avoid this problem.
However, this isn’t just a Latin American thing. As far as I can tell, anywhere you go in this world, some people will try to take advantage of you because you are a foreigner. It is something to be aware of whether you are moving to a new country, or simply vacationing somewhere far from home.
And one more thing. The screw the foreigner effect doesn’t just come into play between you and the natives of wherever you are. Sometimes the people from your own country are the worst crooks. Anyplace where there are lots of foreigners will have problems like this:
You go to scout out Upper Slobovia as a place to live. Right away you meet some guy (or girl) from back home who says they have been living in Upper Slobovia for years. What a relief! A friendly face. Someone who speaks your language and knows their way around the country. Even better, they offer to help you find a place to stay, show you around, whatever. This is too good to be true.
After a little while you discover that it was too good to be true. You discover that you paid way too much for your hotel, the clubs they showed you specialize in ripping off foreigners, they sponged off you for a month then disappeared, or even worse. Anywhere you go there are predators looking to rip someone off. Being a stranger in a strange land makes you more vulnerable to people like this.
If you come to Latin America, you need to be prepared for the lying landlords. Make sure you get someone fluent in Spanish (and ideally the local rental laws) to review any contract before you sign it. This will help, but expect problems sooner or later. And when you are tearing your hair out, or swearing about the jerk you rented from, remember that anywhere you go there will be good and bad situations. Also remember that as a foreigner, there will be people specifically looking to take advantage of you.
Also keep in mind that every country and region (not just Latin America) has its own good and bad points
These are not reasons to avoid travel or expatriation. Simply things to look out for when you start serious travel.
Do you have your own horror stories about lying landlords? Got advice for international travelers that can help stay out of trouble? Share your stories in the comment section below!