Rich Foreigners Buy U.S. Homes: Unreal Estate

MIAMI ( TheStreet) -- The nation's real estate market is starting to show a pulse again, and international buyers have been partly responsible for its improving health.

Price reductions in the U.S. have made its real estate offerings more attractive to foreign buyers who see an entry point into purchases they have long coveted. On a routine basis, tour groups from China are visiting New York, Boston and San Francisco to scope out potential buys. Investors from Spain and Italy have emerged among their European peers. Latin American countries are taking advantage of bottomed-out prices in Miami.

Rodrigo Nino, president of the global real estate firm Prodigy International, is among those betting on the trend to continue and grow. He recently launched Prodigy Network to purchase residential condominiums for international investors. The company will initially buy approximately $100 million worth of new condominiums on behalf of investors located in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

A Russian billionaire bought a mansion in Miami from NBA star Shaquille O'Neal earlier this year.

He is focusing on projects with units that cost $350,000 to $3 million in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Miami.

Miami, a city whose property prices have been pummeled, is of particular interest to Latin American buyers, he says. Home prices have been slashed by as much as 65% to 70%. Even beachfront condos are selling for a song.

"You are making the money the developer is losing," Nino says. "That is something the investors like and they are coming in at full swing."

Nino says his Miami buyers hail mostly from Venezuela, but Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Argentina are also represented. European buyers largely come from Spain and Italy. The majority of buyers from these countries pay cash and don't need loans, Nino says.

"They didn't invest that much in the stock markets and paper market," he says. "They like real estate above anything else."

The National Association of Realtors has been tracking international buying since 2007. The recently released 2009 Profile of International Home Buying Activity says that almost a quarter of its realtors had at least one foreign client during the past 12 months, a decrease from 26% in 2008 and 32% in 2007. The drop is in line with an overall trend in home sales, which fell 39% between September 2005 and January.
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"Some foreign buyers may have been waiting for U.S. property prices to continue their decline or to reach bottom," the report says. "The prospective buyers may have been reticent to invest in a U.S. property until they are assured that their investment will 'pay off.'"

The majority of international clients purchased homes in four states, the group says. Florida ranked No. 1, representing 23% of all international purchases. California was second with 13%. Texas and Arizona accounted for 11% and 7%, respectively.

Canadian buyers were the most common, accounting for 18% of international real estate purchases in the U.S. this year. British buyers were the second-largest group with 11%, followed by Mexicans with 9.8%, Indians with 8.5% and Chinese with 5.4%.

Foreign interests paid more for U.S. homes than domestic buyers during the period covered by the survey. The median price foreign buyers paid from late 2008 to early 2009 was $247,100, compared to the overall national median of $198,100 for existing homes.

Buyers from India paid the most, a median price of $322,200, with those from the U.K. and China shelling out an average of $275,000. British purchasers were more likely than those from other countries to spend more than $1 million for a property. Buyers from Mexico increased their share of million-dollar purchases as well, from 3.9% in 2008 to 6.8% in 2009.

"Real estate in the United States is still viewed as a very safe, very good investment by the foreign buyers," says Norman Flynn, the association's past president. "They will still maintain a very positive impact on the market as it continues to move forward."

Florida is starting to recover from its "cataclysmic drops," Flynn says. "It is the one state that is probably the most attractive to foreign buyers."

Flynn finds it intriguing that Asian buyers are, for the first time, starting to show interest in the Sunshine State. These buyers, who once primarily bought property on the West Coast, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are also showing new interest in other regions.

"I'm aware of one firm that strictly works with Vietnamese clientele in Virginia and does extremely well," he says. "You wouldn't think of Northern Virginia as a hotbed of Vietnamese buyers, but they have 42 agents -- all of them Vietnamese -- and they are doing very, very well."

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.

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