Forget the old joke that Brazil will always be the country of the future, it’s the country of the present and its epicentre is São Paulo.” So says Zack Henry, a New Yorker who moved to the city in September 2008. “You can feel the electricity – lots of new construction, hordes of well-dressed professionals descending on lunch spots in the business districts, bars and restaurants packed almost every night. When they get used to the traffic, most people end up loving life here.”
São Paulo, long maligned as Rio de Janeiro’s ugly sister, is finally coming of age. Waves of migrants from across Brazil who have made their homes in the city are being joined by newcomers from foreign shores. New wealth is targeting both the bairros nobres (residential areas traditionally favoured by the bourgeoisie) and the gated mega-communities on the city’s lush periphery that are an alternative to the urban sprawl of many central areas.
Henry, a Brooklynite who manages the Brazil office of information services company Gerson Lehrman Group, bought a 130 sq metre apartment just over two years ago in the district of Vila Nova Conceição.
“Vila Nova is very green and something of an oasis compared with much of São Paulo, where concrete tends to dominate,” he says. The neighbourhood offers easy access to Ibirapuera Park – the main “lung” of the city’s prosperous south west – and is a favourite with families. It is also one of the city’s most expensive locations.
Henry secured his unit in December 2008, when Brazil was briefly affected by the global downturn. Since then, the country’s economy has recovered. Brazil’s central bank estimates that the nation’s GDP will grow 7.5 per cent this year and there is no sign of the city’s property boom stalling.
According to data from www.123i.com.br, prices for most categories of residential property rose 20 per cent in the year to October. The average cost of a new-build apartment in Vila Nova Conceição is R$10,500 (£3,835) per sq metre. Second-hand units in the same neighbourhood exchange hands for an average of R$6,000 per sq metre, twice the value of equivalent properties in downtown São Paulo.
The Brazilian press carries an increasing number of advertisements for mortgages, which are now typically over 30-year deals. A decade ago terms were for as little as five years. Total lending remains low.
Rents increased in São Paulo by an average of 11 per cent over the past year (inflation is at 5 per cent). Does this make the city an attractive option for adventurous buy-to-let investors? According to Steve Sandberg, a Canadian building up a portfolio in the city, the answer is “yes, with reservations”.
“Rental law is generally landlord-friendly, but contracts are written in Brazilian reais,” Sandberg says. “The problem is that the currency’s volatility makes it difficult to plan ahead, although my overall impression is that the real will harden further over the medium term at least.”
If history is any guide, units are likely to find takers. Migration to São Paulo from other parts of the country, particularly in the past 50 years, has been intense and shows no sign of slowing. Practical issues, however, are putting a brake on some groups of potential new residents: “There are long waiting lists at the city’s English-speaking schools,” says Celina Sampaio, administrator at the American Society of São Paulo. “This tends to cap the numbers of English-speaking executives with children settling here. But we’ve noticed a great increase in other Latin Americans, as well as Japanese and Koreans, moving to São Paulo in the last few years.”
Another aspect of the city that should be addressed is the neglected downtown. Its solid, shuttered apartment blocks, unexpected gardens and shopping streets have lost much of their shine in recent years. A century ago, the city landmark Avenida Paulista – with its towering office blocks and vertical shopping malls – was lined with the elegant mansions of Brazil’s coffee barons. Today, only a couple of these symbols of bygone affluence remain, blackened by traffic fumes and left to fall apart. Can the centre regain its former glory? Perhaps.
Argentine architect Pablo Georgieff has been highlighting the waste of empty buildings in the city centre by turning the 23-storey Wilton Paes de Almeida building (a sometime police station) into a temporary arts centre. “Downtown has clear advantages,” Georgieff says. “You have so much on your doorstep. Not everyone wants to be stuck in a traffic jam for hours. But to make progress a critical mass of people need to learn to walk from place to place again.” This may be a less scary prospect than it once was. Although São Paulo is hardly a safe city, as Formula 1 driver Jenson Button discovered last week, homicide rates are almost a third of those a decade ago. The city is now the least unsafe of the 10 main Brazilian urban centres recently assessed by researchers at the Instituto Sangari. Georgieff is optimistic: “For now, the city authorities are waiting for the property developers, and the developers are waiting for the city. But as Brazil gets richer things will certainly change.”
● Brazil has a booming economy with a large housing deficit
● Easy access: an increasing number of international flights service the city’s Guarulhos International airport
● São Paulo has a flourishing arts and dining scene
● Condominium fees are often expensive
● The city can get choked with traffic
● Consumer durables are often twice as costly as in Europe or the US
On sale in São Paulo
● A 14th floor, three-bedroom apartment in the Higienópolis neighbourhood, R$2m
● A four-bedroom apartment in the Jardim Paulistano district, with access to a shared swimming pool, is R$5.9 million
● R$4.5 million will buy you a modern, four-bedroom brick house in the Avenida Morumbi neighbourhood
All through Imobiliária Maber, tel: +55 11 2148 2400, www.maber.com.br