By Michelle Balani and Mary Murphy
Dressed in an expensive pinstriped suit and sporting the latest Louis Vuitton sunglasses, Miami real estate broker Cristiano Piquet is ready to make a sale. He has a client in his shiny new white Rolls-Royce, and they’re on their way to see $9 million apartment at the W Hotel on South Beach.
Piquet’s client, 32-year-old Antonio Luciano, who comes from a wealthy family in Brazil’s sugar cane and commodities business, had already purchased two properties from Piquet over the phone. Now he is in search of a larger home with a better view. Like most rich Brazilians, Luciano is ready to pay cash for that perfect place.
Waves of wealthy Brazilians such as Luciano are landing on South Florida’s shores and spending millions of dollars on vacation condominiums, clothes, furniture, cars and art, all of which are much less expensive here than in their homeland.
They started arriving in the past few years when South Florida was one of the epicenters of the real estate crisis, with vacant buildings and foreclosures all around. At the same time, Brazil's economy was starting to surge, and as costs in Brazil soared, the United States and its depressed real estate prices made it the land of opportunity.
“The prices here are really cheap now,” said Luciano. “If you look for the same type of unit to spend a vacation in Brazil, in a place like Rio, it's double the price. If you go to Rio de Janeiro, you have problems everywhere. You have all the violence. Here, no problems, no violence. You can do whatever you want. You do a nice investment and spend your vacation at the same time.”
“The dollar exchange rate now is very good for the Brazilians,” added Piquet, “so now is the time to buy. And on top of that, the prices of the properties, they went down big time, about 50 percent. It's a big discount.”
Catering to fellow countrymen
Benefitting richly from these spending sprees is Piquet. A Brazilian himself, he launched his own brand seven years ago when he opened a real estate firm catering to his fellow countrymen.
The former race car driver, who moved from Brazil to Miami in 2000, got into the business to guide his fellow countrymen through the process of purchasing properties in the United States, and to make a nice profit from the burgeoning market.
“I was trying to help the Brazilians because I knew how it was to come to United States, trying to do something. There’s nobody that speaks the language (Brazilians speak Portuguese as opposed to the local English and Spanish), nobody that could give us good service. So I said, ‘You know what? I'll do this myself,’” Piquet said.
Now offering a range of concierge services from decorating to luxury yacht rentals, Piquet has become a one-stop shop for his Brazilian clientele.
In addition to the affordable real estate and the climate, Piquet said, his clients love the shopping in Miami, and shopping centers such as Bal Harbour Shops in Sunny Isles have been benefitting from Brazilians’ business.
“Brazilians will not buy anything that is not the best or close to the best,” he said. “They love shopping, and they love the beach. They love the Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Trump. … A brand name, they love it.”
The economic impact would be even greater, say local economists, if Brazilians, like Europeans, could come and go using only passports rather than wading through the red tape of applying for tourist visas. In recognition of this obstacle, President Obama recently discussed the subject with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff during her first official visit to the White House.
Despite this impediment, Brazilians spent an estimated $1.6 billion vacationing in Florida in 2011, an increase of nearly 60 percent from the previous year. Brazil also happens to be the state’s top trading partner -- in 2010, Florida's trade with the country topped $14.4 billion.
All of this was welcomed news for Frank Nero, who heads the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development agency.
“Brazil is our China,” said Nero. “That's where the economic opportunity here is. … Much as China is to perhaps other areas in the United States, because of our culture and our language, our greatest opportunity is to the south of us. And Brazil right now is the area that I think has the greatest opportunity and potential for us. …Wise folks will be learning their Portuguese.”
For now, the Brazilian wave continues to grow. And Brazilians are not just taking Miami, but New York City too -- buying up multimillion dollar apartments at some of New York’s best addresses. Getting in on the action is Piquet, who is opening an office in downtown Manhattan.
As for Luciano, he’s still shopping. The $9 million apartment wasn't quite right and he’s now looking for something with a little more room. He was last seen on Miami’s Star Island, touring a house that’s on the market for $17 million.