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Tampa Realtor uses Brazilian background to help other international home-buyers

Corina Lessa Silva immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil in the early 2000s, and now heads a realty firm where agents speak several languages.
Corina Lessa Silva
Corina Lessa Silva [ Courtesy of Corina Lessa Silva ]
Published Mar. 30
Updated Mar. 30

Many home-buyers know the process of buying real estate can be stressful — but it can be even more-so for people who are buying Tampa Bay real estate from outside the country, or who have recently moved to the U.S.

Corina Lessa Silva knows this firsthand, because she moved to the Tampa Bay area in the early 2000s from Brazil and didn’t know much about how to buy a house here. Now, she’s the broker and founder of Tampa Bay Key Realty, a firm that specializes in helping international buyers. She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about how her own story of coming to the U.S. helped her build her business, and how the pandemic’s travel shutdowns have affected it. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

How did you come to specialize in international real estate buyers?

When I first moved here, I managed a travel agency. The owners were Brazilians, and they sold tickets to Brazil. After a certain (number of) years, I decided to change my career path. It all started with my husband who decided to buy a house and he said, ‘You should get a license and that would help us know more about the process.’ He is also from Brazil and we didn’t know any Brazilian Realtors and I was just starting my life in the U.S. again. And that’s how I started. I got my license, and then the first house I ever sold was the house to myself — it was our first property ever.

Usually when you start your real estate business, you have this sphere of influence, you go through your database and you start calling friends. Because I wasn’t born here, I didn’t know that many people. I only had the database of clients who flew to Brazil and would go back and forth. So I started telling them that I was licensed and that I could sell real estate, and then it started with a friend who bought a property from me and she started telling other friends. All of a sudden, I’m building this business on just Brazilians. They wanted to deal with me because I had the background: I knew their culture, I knew how to speak their language, I knew their questions when they were comparing how real estate is done here to how it’s done in Brazil.

And you have agents in your firm who also specialize in international buyers from different countries? Tell me about that.

I do a lot of social media advertising — I do all of my videos on YouTube, all of my posts on Instagram in Portuguese. One specific agent that we have in our brokerage today, Kristina, she’s from Russia, and she loved what I was doing online. So she started doing the same thing online in Russian. It’s been a couple of years, and she started from almost zero. Now her whole business revolves around Russians who buy here in the Tampa Bay area.

When people think of international buyers buying property in Florida, most people probably think of Miami. What do international buyers like about Tampa Bay?

International buyers have different goals when they buy properties. Some of them will just be interested in the return on their investment. Because Miami is the place that you know — it’s out there, there’s so much advertising. But now people are finding out about Tampa and they understand that it’s more affordable, that it’s a very large metro area that’s growing a lot and they can get really good returns.

But then there’s also those international buyers who, their goal is to send their kids to college, or their goal is to eventually open a business here and move here. They feel like they will have better opportunities in the Tampa Bay area. Tampa Bay has the water just like Miami so Brazilians are very attracted (here) because of the beaches.

The pandemic has caused a dramatic slowdown in international travel. How has that affected your business?

As far as the sales from Brazilians that are in Brazil, that has put a big stop on it. We did sell a couple of properties right in the beginning of the pandemic, and in fact, one of them, she’s waited a year to see her condo she bought in downtown Tampa. She bought it when the pandemic started, so she’s never seen her property — she bought it sight unseen.

(The pandemic) has stopped people from coming, but it hasn’t stopped people from making plans and dreaming. We now do consultations over Zoom, and we probably do about four to five consultations a week with people that are down in Brazil. They have questions about how to invest here, how to move here, how to open a business here. I know that as soon as the borders are open, a lot of people will put those plans into action, because, unfortunately, the way that the governments are dealing with the pandemic varies a lot.

Worldwide, we’re very fortunate to be able to get vaccines here and to have the support we have, but in Brazil, for example, people are not getting vaccinated right now. What’s happening in the pandemic, people want bigger homes with more backyard and more space and more privacy — people also want to live in a better place and invest their money in a safer place. So I’m very much looking forward to when this is over because it’s just going to be a lot of people coming here and investing here.

What additional challenges are there when it comes to international purchases? I imagine that the currency exchange is something you have to consider.

It is probably one of the biggest things. Because when you have your income divided by three or divided by six to be able to send it over to a country, that definitely makes a big difference, and that’s what’s been happening in the past couple of years. The exchange rate went from three-to-one to six-to-one. So now, people are having to save more money or they’re having to plan way ahead.

If we talk about specifically about Tampa, not having a direct flight to Brazil. When you have a direct flight to a destination, that certainly attracts a lot of investors. For example, within the top five buyers we have Canadians, we have English, and we have Germans, and we have nonstop flights to those places, so they come here, and it’s so easy to simply fly in and out.

The third thing that can be a burden to some people is understanding the law, understanding how the transaction happens, and having to trust people to do so many things for you when you’re not there. It’s very hard for you to be in a different country, not know the place well and then send $300,000 to a place and trust the person who’s on the other end. I think that Brazilians have this idea that things work here, and they feel comfortable doing business with Americans. So that’s good, but it’s a difficult situation when you have to trust so many things with your money, with your dreams.

When it comes to Brazilian buyers, are there any common trends that you see in terms of the types of properties that they’re looking for?

They really like single-family homes, because the majority of them, if they come from big cities they would live in apartments because it’s safer.

They like a two-story home where there is a suite in the first floor, because if they plan on moving here, they can have guests and other people stay in that guestroom. And when they buy it as an investment, if they’re just coming here for vacation, they like to bring the entire family and friends so it has to have a lot of bedrooms.

They love modern finishes. One of the hardest things that I have to explain to them is that here in Florida, in the suburbs, we don’t have that modern architecture. In Brazil we’re used to very modern finishes, European cabinets and straight lines. They hate carpet, it’s sometimes hard to find the ideal house for them. I just have to say, ‘Hey, this is how we do it here. We have carpet in the bedrooms.’