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The Expat Life: Dishonest Salesmen and Unexpected Costs

Let’s talk about the expat life again. While there are many positives to starting over in a new country, there are negatives as well. Two of them are dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs.

Dishonest Salesmen

Wherever you go in the world, you will find dishonest salesmen. I’m sure you’ve experienced sharp sales pitches that leave out inconvenient details. And you’ve probably had salesmen lie to your face trying to get you to sign on the dotted line.

That stuff happens everywhere to everyone, but there are some twists to watch out for when you are an expat. Here are two I’ve seen:

“Gringo” Pricing

Most foreigners come to Ecuador from a place that has a much higher cost of living. And many are downright ignorant. Both of the language (Spanish) and of what things actually cost around here. As a result, prices often shoot up when a “gringo” is buying or is even in a party of shoppers.

Whether it is a price in a local market, or the rent on an apartment, some people try to take advantage of foreigners. Here in Ecuador, it is called gringo pricing.

For example, my brother and I went to look at an apartment that had been listed in a local newspaper. The rent was something like $325 per month. But when us two foreign boys showed up at the door, the landlady insisted that the rent was $375 per month. She stuck with it, even when we told her we had seen the $325 advertised price.

Your best bet here is to wait outside while a trusted local friend shops for big-ticket items. Once they settle on a price, you can go inside and pay the bill.

Different Ways to Play the Game

Another thing to watch out for is that the tricks salesmen use can vary from place to place. When I lived in the USA, the price that was posted in a store was the price you paid. That is not always the case here. In most stores, prices are open to negotiation.

But you need to know how to play the game. My wife illustrated this brilliantly when we were buying a rice steamer of all things. I should have realized something was up when she got dressed up to go to the appliance store. We are not part of the local elite, but she can present herself as someone of importance when she wants to.

I didn’t wait outside the store but followed her around the store, trying to look imposing. I am about 6 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than the typical local guy here in Cuenca.

She spotted the rice steamer that we wanted, but the price was something ridiculous like $109. She told the salesman that we wanted that rice cooker, but were not going to pay that price for it.

He countered by offering to let us finance it at some ridiculous interest rate.

She told him no, we were going to pay cash, but we would only buy it if he gave us his best price. She looked and acted like someone important, and I didn’t do anything to disabuse him of the notion.

He caved and gave us the rice steamer for $58.

Later, my wife explained that the high posted price was for regular people. It was also useful for making things too expensive for many local people to buy with cash. They would then have to use the store credit. As a result, they would end up paying several times what we did for the same item.

Unexpected Costs

The rice steamer incident leads nicely into the topic of unexpected costs. But here, I am referring to different kinds of costs. Some things that are cheap in your home country will be expensive in another country and vice versa. This goes for services as well as goods.

Unexpected Costs of Services

In the last year, I’ve had to get a lot of documents notarized and mailed to one place or another. In the US, that is not a big deal. You go over to your local bank and get someone to notarize the document, then you throw it in the mailbox. Cheap, easy, and quick.

getting documents notarized can be costly

Notarizing documents is easy in the USA. Not so in Ecuador.

But getting things notarized here is harder. There are a limited number of notaries that you can use. The price for notarizing a document is low, if the stars align for you. Some documents first need to be translated into Spanish by an approved translator.

Other documents need to be apostilled (authenticated in some government office in your own country). Once apostilled, they need to be translated, then notarized.

It Gets Worse

Sometimes a local notary is not acceptable. For most of the documents I was dealing with, the notary had to be an official US notary. And the only allowed official US notaries in Ecuador are in the US Consulates.

For me, that means making an appointment with the Consulate days or weeks in advance. Then a 3 1/2 hour trip over the mountains, several hours at the Consulate, and a $50 fee for each notarization. All followed by the 3 1/2 ride back home.

Once the documents are properly notarized, I can’t simply toss them in a mailbox. It will usually take weeks for mail to get from here to the US, if it even arrives at all. So mailing a notarized document means a trip to the DHL office on the other side of town. Depending on the size of the document it costs around $60 in shipping fees.

Unexpected Costs of Goods

Aside from examples like my rice steamer, you may still find that certain things cost far more than you expect. Your favorite brand of pretzels may cost double what they do at home, since they now have to be imported.

Depending on your new country’s trade policies, other costs may be far higher than you expect. Ecuador has had large import tariffs on hundreds of products for years. Phones and computers are particular sore spots. The latest tech is often not available here at all. And when it is, the price will be at least double what you would pay in the US.

A popular tactic is to get someone coming in from the States to carry these kinds of items into the country for you. Many people travel to a country with more liberal trade policies once or twice a year. One goal of the trip is to stock up on stuff that is way too expensive here. I’ve heard that if you do it right, you can save enough money to more than cover the cost of the trip!

Conclusion

Wherever you go, there are negatives as well as positives. The key is to be aware of the negatives so you can at least try to avoid them.

Things in the USA look ever worse for anyone who wants a freer tomorrow. Charlottesville is just a taste of what’s to come. Things like dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs may mar the expat lifestyle. But they are small things compared to what’s happening up North. If you value your freedom, I urge you to consider getting out while you still can.

P.S. For a fascinating take on the current events in the USA, check out this post by Scott Adams.

Lying Landlords Impact Expats

The Expat Life: Lying Landlords

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.

What Qualifies Someone to be Called a “Lying Landlord?”

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!

What Do You Mean I Owe an Additional Month’s Rent?

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.

Things Fall Apart

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:

  1. The agreed move-out date was still two days in the future
  2. We don’t own a car and have never used the apartment’s assigned parking space
  3. We have never used the apartment’s assigned bodega and don’t even know where it is located
  4. This guy is trying to screw us out of a month’s rent

Defending Ourselves

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.

Would You Like to Extend Your Lease?

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.

Surprise Sucker!

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.

lying landlords will violate your contract

A signed, legal contract will only protect you so far.

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.

Possible Reasons for the Lying Landlord Situation

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:

The Legacy of Colonialism

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.

Weaker Consumer Protections

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 Screw the Foreigner Effect

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.

a screw

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.

Conclusion

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!