Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2023

Preserving the past

Latiff honors Brazilian heritage, Chattanooga’s architectural history

Latiff’s loves include family, real estate, dance, old houses, piano and classical guitar. - Photograph provided

Alex Latiff’s very first real estate transaction in late 2022 would have been enough to send other new agents packing.

The 1,400-square-foot house in Hixson was perfect for the buyer: three bedrooms, two baths, a lovely fireplace, timber-framed ceilings, a spacious living room and a small garage.

“It was on a quiet street,” he says. “Everything was very pretty. It was really cute in a nice residential neighborhood. My client was really happy.”

But over the course of the next few months, Latiff notes, “It fell through.”

As bankruptcy lawyers battled over a lien on the house, he says, “I had to ask Vicki [Trapp, his managing broker at Crye-Leike Realtors], ‘Is this supposed to be normal?’”

It wasn’t, of course. Even so, he says, “It was so hard. … It was an absolute disaster.”

Fortunately for 23-year-old Latiff, an agent at the firm’s downtown office, “Everything from there has been so much better.”

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a while the curious, upbeat Latiff thought he wanted to be a lawyer, even starting a yearlong internship at age 16 at the public defender’s office, where he was responsible for routing the proper documents to the prosecutors and judges. “It was just not what I thought it would be,” he says. “It’s a very, very chaotic environment and you see some very sad stories, very sad things.”

 There was, however, nothing sad about Latiff’s favorite after-work pastime. Thanks to his older twin brothers – both are professional dancers, one in France, the other in Austria – at 15 he took up Zouk, a Brazilian partner dance that evolved from the lambada and now fuses other styles like contemporary and hip-hop. He enjoyed it so much he went pro.

 “I’m very curious to learn new things, and the only thing I had access to at that time was Zouk. I loved samba, but I didn’t have the opportunity to learn and become a professional.”

 He was 18 when, at a social dance, he met his future wife Anna, a Chattanooga native and Zouk enthusiast who was studying abroad in Rio. Following a romantic proposal in Paris, with a view of the Eiffel Tower, the couple moved to Anna’s hometown in July 2019 and were married the following month on a farm on Signal Mountain.

Before long, Latiff had started Zouk Chattanooga, bringing together people of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels for weekly dance lessons and social events. (He later cut the superlong hair he sports in the group’s YouTube videos because it was “too much of a hassle.”)

Not yet sure of his career path, he took a job in the child care program at the J.A. Henry Community YMCA before becoming director of food insecurity, providing healthy options for residents living in food deserts in isolated neighborhoods in Chattanooga.

Some had disabilities or experienced roadblocks to public transportation, and the Y’s food truck, which Latiff describes as a grocery store on wheels, could drive straight up to their doors, allowing them to shop without ever leaving home. “It was a phenomenal program,” he says.

Thinking about his professional future, he realized he’d always had a penchant for architecture – and talking to people. Real estate seemed like a natural way to focus on both.

At a luncheon he attended while earning his license, Latiff met Trapp of Crye-Leike, and the two hit it off. Instead of interviewing multiple brokers after real estate school, he went straight to Trapp. “And,” he says, “I was so right.

“I just fell in love with her. She is phenomenal. She’s so knowledgeable. I’ve called her at midnight, and she answers right away and she doesn’t say, ‘Oh no, I’m sleeping.’ She says, ‘Alex, I’m here for you. Call as much as you need.’ She’s so good with people and the way she treats them with respect and love.”

Latiff now specializes in historic houses in neighborhoods like the North Shore, St. Elmo, Highland Park, Brainerd and East Brainerd. Buyers looking for older homes, he says, tend to have an eye for authentic details, like graduated fenestration, the practice of building large first-floor windows, with each one above them smaller than the ones below. “It’s like the trunk of a tree. As you look up, it starts to get thin,” he explains.

Proportion is also important to buyers who prefer homes built before 1940 or 1950, he says. “[Those houses] were based in classical architecture. You don’t have a skinny column under a huge entablature (the horizontal features that rest on the columns) because it doesn’t seem strong and it’s not proportional.”

Latiff also runs his own renovation business, Latiff Historical, using traditional window, door and millwork construction to restore elements of decades-old homes. If a client wants to install energy-efficient windows, he says, “We can go with the same materials they went with 120 years ago – same screws, same locks, same methods. If we’re going to rebuild the window, we use mortise and tenon joinery.”

When possible, Latiff Historical also uses old-growth, salvaged wood such as Douglas fir, characterized by its tight rings and resistance to rot.

Versed in Spanish, Portuguese and French, Latiff finds that his cultural background is a huge plus for selling real estate. “I have clients from Brazil, and we speak Portuguese because they have a really hard time speaking English. I have clients from Mexico. I have clients from Guatemala. I have Spanish-speaking clients who have trouble speaking English. So they call me for assistance and to represent them.”

Latiff considers himself a “people person” who happens to have a solid understanding of the buildings they want to buy. “I love working with people. I just love talking. Many of our clients at Latiff Historical end up becoming friends. I love connecting with people and listening to them. I just love it.”

One of his goals for 2024 is to bring more people into historic preservation and train them how to restore local structures that might otherwise be lost. “What is a nation without its architecture?” he says. “You go to Colonial Williamsburg, you see how it was 300 years ago and you say, ‘Oh, that’s how they lived in the past.’ I want to keep our historic buildings and houses from falling apart and educate people about historic architecture.”

Another priority for Latiff, who also plays piano and classical guitar, is to expand his own growing family and spend more time camping, hiking and being in nature with his wife, 3-year-old son Angelo, and 7-month-old daughter Alana. And yes, their names all deliberately start with an “A.”

“We’re like the A-Team,” he says. “Family is the most important thing in my life. They’re my everything.”