The Saga of Buying an Apartment in Rio de Janeiro

On my last trip to Rio, I had the pleasure of accompanying the complex, yet fascinating process of buying an apartment in that wonderful city. Like anything in Brazil, this is not for the weak of heart, but things happen eventually after many complications and some faith.

I wanted to share some of the important things I learned in just a few weeks and around 15 apartments visited, each of which entailed a new discovery, a new piece of the puzzle.

This your complete guide to buying an apartment in Rio.

Where to Find Apartments?

Most apartments are listed on a website called zapimoveis.com.br (it’s the same one you would use to look for rentals, which is an important point, if you are buying as an investor and want to understand returns). In addition, each real estate company has its own website and listings, but very rarely those aren’t available on Zap. There are other small sites, but the most important one is www.nestoria.com.br that aggregates the information from all these websites. Which leads me to pitfall number 1: multiple listings (to be discussed in the next section). 

Another option is to walk down the streets you like and ask the doormen (porteiros) if there are any apartments for sale in the building. They normally know anything that’s going on and may even have the keys to show you the place. This way, you might be able to negotiate the price directly with the owner and avoid the middle men of the agency.

Pay Attention to Multiple Listings:

The same apartment easily be listed with 3-4 different real estate agencies, each with a different price, which may depend on the fee each agency  negotiated with the owner, and some kind of sales strategy they may have. For example, we found that JTavares, which seems to be marketing itself as a higher-end agency, normally has the same apartments as other agencies, listed at R$100k more.

Moreover, the information on apartment’s size and home owner association (Condomínio) fees may be different at each listing. Knowing this, you should do the following:

  • Look up the apartment in Nestoria (or google) with search term like: “apartamento a venda rua <streetname> , <neighborhood name>. Then try to identify all the similar listings by browsing the pictures . See what is the lowest price listed and have this in mind as the lowest initial price. You can still go see it with an agency that lists it for a higher price, but make sure to tell them that you know it’s listed lower with a competitor
  • Verify with the realtor the following info: the correct apartment size (it should be in the official documents), Condomínio fees, availability of parking spot and exact terms of using it – more on parking spots later).

The Realtors:

After seeing several apartments, you will soon start to realize that there is a great degree of variance in skills and attitude from one realtor to another. It seems that it’s not very difficult to get a real estate license and the agents themselves don’t make too much money therefore, don’t expect much out of them. One of them very accurately termed his colleagues as “abridores de portas” – “door openers.” Most of them don’t know much about the apartment or owner and just simply read from the paper in front of them, the same information you would get from the online listing. Every question receives the standard answer: “I will need to check.” They also send you the listings that they are trying to turn over, instead of the ones that match your profile, often ignoring all the things you told them you’re not interested in and basically waste a lot of your time on dead ends. They will tell you, however, when you meet them that they are “trying to understand your profile and needs.” Don’t be fooled.

The other interesting finding was that if you decide to make an offer, they pass it to “their manager”, who is the person in charge of negotiating with the owner. From what we have seen, these people aren’t necessary more knowledgable or skilled. They have just been there long enough to earn the status to be able to sit in air-conditioned office and not run around under the sun opening doors. Whenever the realtor doesn’t know something or doesn’t want to answer, they will invoke this imaginary “manager”, who they must first consult.

The best way to deal with realtors is to

a) search yourself for apartments that interest you and send them to the realtor to schedule a viewing,

b) be really strict and persistent on your criteria and ask lots of questions about the apartment before seeing it to make sure that they aren’t trying to sell you a lemon.

c) make sure that your realtor is actually registered and not someone who just decided to show up. They all have a registration number called CRECI – which you can look up on this website.

Once Inside the Apartment

Most apartments in Rio’s south zone are old and not very well maintained. There are new buildings but the prices of apartments in them will tend to be much higher so unless you have an unlimited budget, you’re left with the old apartments market. The actual conditions of the apartment may vary a lot and not necessarily have anything to do with the price of the apartment, therefore the best way is to just see the apartments and do your own math about what they may be worth to you. Apartments are sold as-is and owners are not responsible for taking care of any damages before handing you the keys.

The two common types required renovations are electrical – changing the wiring and increasing capacity and hydraulic – changing the pipes in the bathrooms / kitchen because they might be all rusty, full of leaks, and  water pressure may be insufficient. Sometimes realtors will tell you everything has been renovated but a quick walkthrough, a look at the electrical box, at the state of the shower and toilets, check of the ceilings and walls for stains can tell you the real story. It seems that wiring is not too expensive to do but hydraulic, depending on number of bathrooms and configurations may add up costs, because it requires breaking walls and redoing the tiling.

Some apartments may be completely destroyed and the realtors will tell you can renovate everything quickly for like R$30k, which is  of course a lie. Renovation can take months and it’s not cheap.

Cost of renovation will depend on apartment conditions and your personal tastes, but if it requires more than the basics, the total bill can easily add up to more than R$100k for a 2-bedroom, 80 sqm apartment. This is an important factor to consider when evaluating the sales price.

balcongy
A charming apartment at a first glance, with a nice balcony and view
lviing
and beautifully restored antique floors…
bathroom
But then!! The horror is witnessed in the bathroom that looks like it was bombed!

Look for Sources of Noise

Noise can come from different sources and realtors will always have an optimistic explanation why the apartment is such a great deal. One apartment we saw, was on the 6th floor of a building adjacent to a school. We could hear the noise of the kids playing in every single room, even when all windows and doors were shut. The realtor was trying to convince us that it’s not a big deal if we just installed sound-proof windows and kept them shut during the day. Another apartment, had its ground floor windows facing a very busy street, which according to the realtor, was not a problem as long as we spent time in the interior-facing bedrooms.

Elevators in some buildings can be really loud and if one’s apartment is located near such elevator, be prepared to constantly hearing the relevant sounds at all times of day and night, especially if it’s a building with many apartments.

Some apartments may be close to a favela, which in itself is not a big deal, if it’s pacified. The problem is that almost every favela will have Baile-Funks, which are big block parties. EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND, until the early morning hours. Unless you’re a big party goer, this becomes a huge nuisance and will certainly affect the resale value.

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A charming apartment at a first glance, with a nice balcony and view
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..until you take a closer look and discover the monsters lurking downstairs!!

Understand How Much You Really Care About Having a View

A typical “selling-point” we have seen in some of the listings is that the apartment is very silent and facing the “fundo” / back of the building. This can be a great benefit but more often than not, we saw apartments that have a view of the wall of the building nearby, or even worse, the view of the windows and the insides of the apartment in the next apartment block. Others have views of the internal ventilation area of the building, which aside from being depressing is a another noise hazard, because you will hear the echo of all the conversations of all the other neighbors whose apartments are facing this area.

We saw one apartment that was well located and “in a really great building”, that had a gym, pool, exercise areas, playground, restaurant, hair salon, etc etc. It only had a small problem: a little favela of 10 or so houses that formed near it. Well, when you opened the apartment window, you would be looking at the toilet area and other houses of this favela, that was located about 20 meters away. It could be a great opportunity to make friends but forget about any kind of privacy. The realtor suggested that if we put curtains, we will be able to “hide” the part of the favela from the view.

To help mitigate: from the pictures in the apartment listing, sometimes it’s already possible to identify such apartments and verify with the realtor.

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Apartment 1: view of the Sugar Loaf
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Apartment 2: view of next-door favela (illustrated)

 

Empty versus Occupied Apartments

Normally, it’s much better to see an empty apartment because you can better evaluate its conditions and identify potential problems. However, it’s not always possible and we found occupied apartments kind of a pain. First, because people had A LOT of stuff, and it was hard to understand the size and potential of the apartment. And second, because they seemed paranoid about us stealing something so they would follow us everywhere and won’t stop talking about their lives instead of properly showing the apartment.  

The silver-lining in having the owner around is that by asking the right questions, you can get some information about their chances of being a crook and also understand their current financial situation and flexibility to negotiate. They might also be able to clarify information about the apartment, which the realtor may not know.

Pay Attention to Illegal Constructions

Some owners may decide to close of part of a the building’s courtyard that is adjacent to their apartment, thereby extending the livable space. This is normally marketed by the realtors as a great opportunity/benefit. This however, may turn into a problem because you may be forced to “legalize” the extension and won’t be able to close the transaction on time or have to deal with extra costs and bureaucracy in te future.  So pay attention to those charming courtyards and balconies.

Parking Spots are a Commodity

Having a parking spot is kind of a big deal because many of the older buildings come without garages and street parking is scarce. Even if you don’t drive, it can be advantageous to have a spot because you can always rent it out for a few hundred reais. However, it’s important to understand the terms and conditions. Generally, if the apartment has one, it will be in the official documents (“escritura”) and specifically assigned to the apartment. Sometimes, there is an unassigned but guaranteed spot in the building’s garage. A third situation we saw was a waiting list for which one could sign up and EVENTUALLY get a spot. This option is clearly worth a lot less.

  • It’s important to understand the exact terms of the parking spot and not just trust the realtor’s word of the apartment having a spot.
  • Realtors try to make out of a parking spot a bigger deal that it really is in order to keep the high price of the apartment. So do your one math of how much extra it’s worth paying for an apartment if one could rent a spot for R$200-300 a month.

There are many great details yet to follow but I will save them for part II which will cover the charming legal and bureaucratic aspects and the price negotiations process. Thanks for reading so far!

 

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The Museum of the Future – Rio de Janeiro

Museum de Amanha, Rio de Janeiro best museum, melhor museu do Rio

A new and highly-praised museum called the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu de Amanhã) opened in Rio shortly before my arrival. As with any new thing in Rio, I heard horror stories about the expected waiting time to get in (4 hours. In the sun. No bathrooms. No seating, etc. etc..). So I tried to be smarter than the smart people and arrive there on a Thursday (Tuesday is a free-entry day, so I reasoned that probably this was reason for the lines). I was partially right, and the line was “only a 2-hours wait.” No way. The Museum of Tomorrow had to wait for tomorrow; I don’t do lines outside of state bureaucracy and supermarket in Brazil (can’t get food otherwise).

Today, a month later and once school summer vacation was over, I finally was able to get in with no line at all. Good things happen to people who wait. The building itself is a spectacular architectural structure. The exhibitions are really creative and inspiring us to think about how the world was created (a 360 dome theatre shows the evolution from the big bang), how different nature phenomena work (noteworthy is an installation of floating intertwined scarves that simulate the motion of oceans), the role of human interactions (fascinating photography exhibition from around the world) and how our consumption impacts the world we live in (pretty cool simulation games where one can see the footprint that his or her habits make on the world and how different personal choices can impact overall scarcity).

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Video: Motion of Oceans

The Belgian Surprise

Belgium is one of these countries you don’t really hear too much about so it has never been on my bucket list. It happened that I was attending two weddings in Europe and had to kill the time in between somewhere.  Since my significant other has academic collaboration at the KULAK university in Kortrijk, we decided to hang out in Belgium and combine work with pleasure.

I have been getting progressively worse about planning trips and therefore didn’t even bother buying a travel guide or researching the top sights to see. I figured that we could wing it by asking some locals once we get there. And this is what we did. Winging it around Belgium turned out to be a wonderful experience!

Belgium has a really nice railroad system that lets you get anywhere in the country within 1-1.5 hours. The trains drop you off in the center of all the action of each city, then all you need to do is localize the main street and start strolling towards the main square, which is always called the Grotemarkt. The Grotemarkt always has a cathedral, whose size may vary with the wealth of the city (or perhaps the ambition of its former architects). Normally, it also has a city hall which is decorated with statue tributes of all the former mayors. I could never figure out at which year cutoff happened though (as in when did they run out of space?!)..

From the Grotemarket there are always opportunities to explore side streets, visit delicatessen shops or chocolatiers and discover cute architectural treasures.  There is really no need for a tour guide or a guidebook because one can just absorb the lively atmosphere instead.

Even though Bruges is the famous touristic spot these days (probably due to Colin Farrell’s In Bruges movie), my favorite city by far happened to be Antwerp. It’s much more lively, combines the ancient and the modern, has many wonderful museums and a rich history of being a port city transporting merchandise and immigrants to the New World. Especially noteworthy is the Red Star Line Museum which tells the stories of the 2 million emigrants who went to the USA onboard of the Star Line ships in the beginning of the 19th century. The museum focuses on their story, on that of the shipping company that transported them and on the city and port from where they embarked on this journey.

On this trip I also visited Brussels and dropped by some local friends’ house, getting to experience Brussel’s version of suburb life (beautiful!) plus surveying some of the most amazing dessert displays around town. We had a meeting in the university town Leuven, where I actually tried some of the best artisanal desserts possible.  Finally, since Lille was only about 35km from where we were staying in Kortrijk, we got to have a french experience by eating (French!!) fries in a nice garden bistro, visiting their fine arts museum and stocking up on some baguette and pastries from Paul (I know it’s a chain but it was still so so delicious).

Belgian culture is a mix of french and dutch cultures and this is something quite weird for an outsider. Even though it’s a small country, you may start your journey from Brussles to “Cortrei” and 1.5 hours later arrive at “Kortrijk” – meaning that your journey starts in a french speaking area. By the time you arrive, you’re in dutch Flanders region, where everything is in Dutch instead of French, even though your’e taking a train with the same railroad company. I have to admit that reading menus and figuring stuff out in French was much easier than in Dutch! (Good thing everyone spoke in English anyways..).

Bruge

Antwerp

Leuven

Brussels

An Austin Moment

My college friend was in town from New York so we decided to check out the local comedy festival.

One of the acts happened to be a Houstonian stand-up comedian who lived in NYC and was going on a rampage about all the things he hates about it. He talked about getting angry at tourists for thinking that a New York Moment was going to the top of Empire State Building or hi-fiving a celebrity on the street, while for him, a New York Moment was finding a dead rat inside your fridge’s mechanism and trying to convince your landlord to get rid of it.

After the show, we passed by a cute Italian restaurant and decided to go in for a later dinner. “Wow, it really reminds me of some of the places I used to go to in NY,” I commented to my friend.

As we were finishing up dinner, I happened to look up at the wall in front of me and saw a GIANT rat running up to the ceiling and hiding behind the suspended speaker. Oh the screams I was able to produce…

The owner of the restaurant seemed horrified (I am still not sure how much of it was from seeing a rat in his restaurant versus me leaving a bad review). We of course got the meal on the house and promised we won’t tell anyone.

So yeah.. here’s an Austin Moment for you!

Austin, Rats in downtown, Comedy Festival, A new york moment

Finding Inspiration in Colorado

Grobetrotter

During my graduate studies on Russia, I learned of an interesting element in Russian folklore: the theme of man’s connection with the land, with nature. We came across it in the mystical children’s stories, in Chekov’s plays and in more modern pieces such as  Nikita Mikhalkov‘s films. I always appreciated this esthetic but found it hard to comprehend; why was it that with all the modernity and attractions of big cities, one would want to return back to his or her origins in the countryside?

As I grew older and accumulated more polluted air in my lungs, I started realizing the special allure of pure nature and simple things that make our lives more real and meaningful. Jericoacoara, a quiet beach town in the northeast of Brazil (of which I wrote some time ago here) was the first place that had a transformative effect on my mental state.  Even…

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