Real estate in Rio is not so different from anywhere else - it's about location, location, location. As a gringo coming to teach at UniRio, the federal university in the neighborhood of Urca (5 minutes walk from the base station for the Sugarloaf cable car), I wanted to find a place that was convenient (not too far by foot or bus), reasonably safe (didn't want to get mugged, or take a stray bullet), and didn't bust my budget (my salary being generous, but not absurdly so). I had a temporary place to stay while I looked (a rented spare room in a friend's apartment), so I didn't have to rush into anything. I could afford to look around, be choosy.
I made it a priority to look in the Zona Sul (South Zone), since that would cut down on commuting time. Some places which might have been conceivable with a car - Barra da Tijuca, or other neighborhood in Zona Oeste (West Zone), are just impossibly far without one (and even if you are driving sometimes the traffic jams will double your travel time).
South Zone neighborhoods have nuances which you may not pick up on the first time through. Different places have different amenities, and the higher-ticket neighborhoods may not always have the amenities you want. Herewith a survey moving from the center of town south.
Every gringo's dream is to live in Santa Teresa (up the hill by trolley from the center), to buy a late 19th-century mansion, and restore it to its original baroque splendor. The fact that there are so many houses means that there are proportionally fewer apartments to be had. The first place I looked at was in a fascinating condominium which had originally been for musicians (and hence named after St. Cecilia), built up the side of the steep hill over Almirante Alexandrino. So steep in fact, that residents arriving home would walk up a set of stairs to the base station for a little gasoline-powered trolley (seats for passengers, and a little cart towed behind for packages), to take them up hill (through a sort of tunnel that reminded me of Disneyland). The apartment was a little odd (the back of the first floor was the solid rock behind), and its condition was not very nice - the window with a fine view of North Zone had Venetian blinds that no longer worked). The condition, plus the fact that the building was almost all the way out towards the Prazeres favela added up to a no.
Santa Teresa is a wonderful place to visit (delightful restaurants, music at night, the trolley with its 19th-century charm), but the downside of its location is that you always have to take a second bus to get anywhere.
No one thinks of the center as a residential neighborhood. Nevertheless there are some pockets with apartment buildings from the thirties and forties, though these are rarely to be found in the classifieds. Once I had finally moved in to my present apartment, I went to take a look at a penthouse apartment at a corner of Avendia President Antonio Carlos. It was high enough up so that the street noise from below wouldn't be maddening, and had a balcony with a stunning view of the bay and Sugarloaf. The balcony also meant that one had to trust that the neighbor (with an even better view from the corner apartment) wouldn't be coming over the balcony with nefarious intentions.
The center is full of cultural amenities, but has fewer of the day-to-day necessities such as supermarkets and bakeries.
Glória, Catete and Flamengo
These are the neighborhoods along the Metrô (subway) heading south from the center, once prestigious neighborhoods which still retain some of their past grandeur - the down-at-the-heels, rather grimy looking official residence of the Archbishop in Glória, the former seat of the government, now the Museum of the Republic, in Catete, the various palatial residences in Flamengo which have now become cultural centers. The blocks between the hills and the bayside are full of apartment buildings from the last sixty years, the transportation is ample and convenient, and there are plenty of amenities, supermarkets, stores, and especially more good and inexpensive kilo restaurants than you will find in any other spot in Rio. Rents are higher but not absurdly so.
Laranjeiras is a relatively quiet neighborhood which runs up the valley of the Rio Carioca (now underground) from Largo do Machado (where Catete and Flamengo meet) to Cosme Velho, where you can take the train up to Corcovado, and where Machado de Assis once lived (his house is gone, but a plaque remains). The set of grand apartment buildings along Rua General Glicério, the wide sidewalks, the quiet (!!), the greenery, make this a very desirable spot. I looked at a lovely apartment up the hill from General Glicério, with 180-degree views, but even had the price been within my budget, walking up and down that declivity without a car every day might have gotten wearing. And, as with Santa Teresa, you are off the main-lines in the area of public transport.
Urca is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Rio - no through traffic, no noise, no favelas, and a wonderful view of the bay. It has many individual houses, and few apartments. There are apartments for rent, but they are steep in price and rare. The level of service of the three bus lines can be maddening, especially in the later evening (think 60 minute waits). Not surprising, since the residents are likely to own cars.
In spite of the fact that Copacabana Beach is world-famous, no one who lives in Rio has anything good to say about the neighborhood behind the beach. The cultural amenities are few (one movie theater, the Roxy, one concert space, the Sala Baden Powell), the level of traffic, traffic noise, and dirt is astounding, the number of people living on the street in conditions of squalor is shocking, the level of street crime and muggings is high, the beachfront Avenida Atlântica is a long market for prostitution at night.....the situation of the neighborhood is dire. There are plenty of apartments to look at, but unless you are dying to be close to the beach, it's not worth it. I did see a one-bedroom with air-shaft view (the advantage of this is that you don't have the street noise). No thanks.
Ipanema, Leblon, Lagoa and Gávea and Jardim Botânico
These are the prime South Zone residential neighborhoods, which means that you pay a premium for apartment dwelling here. New buildings, fancy shopping, close to the beach (Ipanema, that is, much more chic than Copacabana). Rents are high, condominium charges are high, restaurants are more expensive, botequins are more expensive, supermarket prices are more expensive (a friend from Ipanema does her grocery shopping in Copacabana, where there is a branch of Mundial, the leader price-wise in Rio). And unfortunately the main subway line has not made it out here yet .(We now have two stops in Copacabana, with a third under construction at Cantagalo. Theoretically the terminus is to be Praça General Osório, in Ipanema. Someday...) Yes, there is plentiful and frequent bus service towards the center. But it can take a long time to make your way through crowded Copacabana. Nice neighborhoods, if you can afford them and have a car, but they are less characteristically Rio than the rest of the city (the epitome of this being Barra, which would prefer not to be in Brazil at all, with shopping malls like "New York City Center", and "Cittá América").
This leaves... Botafogo. Botafogo was once the inheritor to the social position of Flamengo, with wide tree-lined streets and beautiful mansions, at the turn of the 20th century. There are still a few of the old mansions to be seen, as well as smaller houses from a century ago, but most of the housing stock is apartment buildings, more spacious than the warrens in Copacabana, and there continues to be residential development, with new, large buildings going up.
Botafogo's advantage is being between - between the bay and the Lagoa, between downtown and the beaches. Prices are much lower than in Ipanema/Leblon, and the quality of life much higher than in Copacabana. You can walk to Copacabana (through the Old Tunnel, though I wouldn't do it at night), or even to Ipanema in less than an hour via Lagoa. You can even walk to downtown in about an hour. Botafogo can also boast a healthy number of restaurants, particularly on the Humaitá end, closer to Lagoa (as well as the best Bahian restaurant in the city, Yorubá, delicious, but so expensive that I only go when someone else is treating).
Closing the Deal
Even once you have found a nice-looking apartment, it can be difficult to close the deal. I made offers on two. From the first, I heard that they had rented to a family member instead. And from the second, I never heard anything one way or the other.
How did I finally get my apartment? It helps to have connections. Since I had been looking for weeks, I had a good sense of what the market was like, what was available, what level of rent corresponded to what level of apartment in what location. A friend with a couple of rental properties learned that her tenant (in Botafogo) had moved out after ten years. I took a look and saw that it was a nice, airy apartment, with plenty of light, and a view of Cristo and Corcovado from the living room window.
My rent is a little lower than market would be elsewhere in Botafogo. Why? My building is located on the main road up to Botafogo's favela, Dona Marta. The location has its advantages and disadvantages, including a certain amount of "radical chic". But that's another story.
Tom Moore is a classical musician and translator who lives in Rio de Janeiro. His most recent CD of trio sonatas by Boismortier is available from A Casa Estúdio.
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