South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
In Brazil, a country known for its paradisiacal beaches and luscious jungle, São Paulo often comes as a shock and a disappointment. Ten-lane motorways rip through the country’s biggest city, while its main rivers are so heavily polluted with frothy sewage, chemical waste — and even the odd body part — that the stench reaches for miles.
Upon their arrival, wide-eyed tourists take refuge in São Paulo’s overcrowded parks, squeezed between brutalist concrete behemoths and endless high-rises. Others try gallantly to make sense of the disorientating megalopolis by heading to the central Sé Cathedral, only to beat a retreat after finding it a home to the city’s crack cocaine addicts and wired religious fanatics.
Even otherwise gushing guide books refer to São Paulo as “a monster”, “intimidating” and just “grey”.
But Paulistanos — as inhabitants of the city are called — and expatriates will tell you they would live nowhere else, that this is the ugliest city you will ever fall in love with.
And, as the country heads for its deepest recession since at least 1901, it has also become one of the world’s more affordable major cities to own property.
“You have a market suffering from rising unemployment, high interest rates and a lack of available credit,” says Eduardo Zylberstajn, one of the founders of Fipe-Zap, the country’s leading housing index. “Everything that worked in the market’s favour in the past few years is now working against it.”
According to the index, prices in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro rose about 200 per cent and 250 per cent respectively between 2008 and 2014.
But over the past year, prices have stagnated in nominal terms in both cities and fallen significantly in real terms on account of the high inflation rate, currently close to 10 per cent, says Zylberstajn. The sharp depreciation of the Brazilian currency, the real, to an all-time low against the dollar at the end of last year has made the market particularly attractive for foreign buyers.
“The residential market in São Paulo is small for foreigners but we have seen many Brazilians who live outside Brazil taking advantage of the exchange rate to invest in real estate,” says José de Albuquerque, the director of incorporations at Brookfield Incorporações.
“We are at the bottom point, an inflection point in the cycle,” he says.
While most foreigners choose to buy in Rio or in Brazil’s sunny north-east, São Paulo is popular as a base for doing business. There are also those who have succumbed to the strange charms of “Sampa”, as the city is lovingly known.
Some praise the city’s world-class restaurants and diverse cultural scene — testimony to the communities of Japanese, Lebanese, Italian and African descendants. Others point to the brutal aesthetics of the city, which inspire artistic endeavours as a form of protest against the oppressive surroundings — be it the street art or pop-up galleries. “Activist knitters” have even taken to crafting decorative woollen sleeves for the city’s precious trees.
For those who choose to buy in São Paulo, there are even bigger discounts to be had if you know where to look, says Marcelo Gurgel, property broker to Brazil’s rich and famous. In the south-western neighbourhood of Morumbi, Gurgel’s own home is an example of the grand houses he has made a fortune selling. His vast living room, adorned with ornate furniture and artworks, looks out on to a pristine pool flanked by palm trees. A white butterfly darts from one manicured shrub to the next, unaware of its remarkable existence in a city generally populated by cars and little else.
“A good adviser discovers who really needs to sell,” says Gurgel, who started in the business more than 40 years ago as a teenager.
Rather than rubbing shoulders with the city’s elite at social events, he spends his time gleaning information from neighbours, doormen and cleaners, as well as searching through documents at local notaries. “You have to be a good investigator because there is a lot of lying and bluffing that takes place [when people sell a property],” he says.
While location is important in any property market, it is even more so in traffic-clogged São Paulo, where wealthy Brazilians insist on travelling by car (when not in their helicopters) and would never take the metro.
While in Rio the closer a property is to the beach the more expensive it is, mapping out São Paulo’s most desirable locations is not so straightforward.
Gurgel’s neighbourhood, Morumbi, is across the river from the financial district and relatively remote. However, its ample plots of land have allowed Brazil’s wealthy to build extravagant and eccentric homes, turning the neighbourhood into a type of architectural theme park. Replica Tuscan villas, complete with cypress trees, sit alongside faux medieval castles guarded by stone lions.
A five-bedroom Belle Époque-style villa is on sale in Morumbi for R$17.5m ($4.95m) through AxPe, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, while a four-bedroom villa with open-plan living areas and a pool is on sale for R$16m, through Bossa Nova Sotheby’s International Realty. However, Morumbi’s proximity to some of São Paulo’s most dangerous “favelas”, which have grown to accommodate the cooks, cleaners and drivers who work in the mansions, has put off buyers.
Gurgel says he pays the equivalent of $250 per month to about 30 groups of heavily armed off-duty military police who patrol the neighbourhood. When he plans to leave the house, he summons them by walkie-talkie and they escort his car to the main road.
José Eduardo Cazarin, founder of AxPe, says that while many clients would prefer to buy such lavish houses with their own garden they end up living in apartments for security reasons.
For more traditional buyers there is the Jardins area, just south of Paulista Avenue. Home to some of the best restaurants and boutiques, the neighbourhood has the air of a European city and is popular with foreigners. In the Jardim América area, a four-bedroom villa is on sale for R$80m, through Bossa Nova Sotheby’s International Realty.
But apartment buildings here are generally older and lack the mod-cons found elsewhere, such as pools, gyms and multiple parking spaces.
For Brazil’s wealthy, this is not a problem, says Octávio Flores, business director at Gafisa, a construction company, because however much Paulistanos love their city, the best thing about being rich in São Paulo is having the option to escape it in search of those paradisiacal beaches or the luscious jungle.
“These are people that get in their helicopter on Friday lunchtime and go to their house on the beach or in the country — they don’t even spend their weekends in São Paulo,” he says.
● Temperatures range from an average high of 29C in February to 23C in July
● Foreign buyers are not subject to any specific restrictions although they are unable to take out mortgages in Brazil
● Buyers can expect to pay 3 to 4 per cent of the sale price in taxes and legal fees
What you can buy for …
$500,000 A three-bedroom apartment in Jardins
$1m A four-bedroom house in Morumbi
$4m A penthouse five-bedroom apartment overlooking Ibirapuera Park
Brazilians love the beach, carnival, barbecues and football — the stereotype is largely accurate. But perhaps more than anything, they love their dogs. In São Paulo there are bakeries for pampered pooches and getaway retreats offering doga — or dog yoga. There are therapists for terriers, priests willing to bless your chihuahua and even stylists for bulldogs in need of a new wardrobe.
It is an obsession that Brazil’s apartment builders are more than happy to indulge as they battle for customers in a highly competitive market. According to Euromonitor, Brazilians own about 32m small dogs — those under 9kg — more than any other country. Many new apartment blocks, such as Oliva Vila Mascote, to the south of the city centre, now come with dog enclosures complete with agility equipment. Some buildings even have doggie salons where owners (or, rather, their maids) can give the four-legged residents a scrubdown and a blowdry.
But it’s not just dog-lovers that developers are desperate to impress — São Paulo’s largest apartment complexes now offer up to 50 in-house activity areas. Pools, barbecue patios, gyms and a room to hold parties in are the basics.
There are also spas and “lady spaces” where owners can bring their own hairdressers and manicurists. For sport-lovers, there are tennis and squash courts, basketball and football nets, skateboarding ramps with pre-painted graffiti and even mini-golf courses.
Small cinemas with popcorn machines are common, while some buildings, such as Paradiso Freguesia and Follow Santo André have their own dancefloors, art studios, band practice rooms and racetracks for remote-controlled cars.
In São Paulo, where traffic and crime (including a spate of dognapping) make the streets unappealing, it’s no surprise that staying in is the new going out.