Russian billionaires have been making headlines for snapping up some of the most opulent homes in the United States. Yuri Milner ‘overpaid’ by 100% on a $100 million Silicon Valley mansion in 2011. Dmitry Rybolovlev’s daughter bought an $88 million penthouse in New York City (after spending $100 million on Donald Trump’s Palm Beach palace in 2008). This week, an anonymous Russian buyer plunked down $47 million in Miami’s most expensive sale ever.
But Russians certainly aren’t the only foreigners plowing money into American real estate. “The reason the Russians get so much attention is that they buy the highest ticket trophy properties,” says Jacky Teplitzky, a managing director at Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, who peddles property in New York City and South Florida. “But if you go by number of buyers, you have much more activity coming from places like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.”
To name a few. Since the housing bust, foreign buyers have flooded the U.S. housing market, taking advantage of favorable exchange rates, weaker prices and, in some cases, record-low mortgage rates. Foreign nationals accounted for $82.5 billion, or 8.9%, of the $928 billion spent on U.S. residential real estate from April 2011 through March 2012, according a June survey from the National Association of Realtors. That was up 24% from $66.4 billion the previous year. More than 50% of sales over the past year occurred in just five states: Florida, California, Texas, Arizona and New York.
Chinese are also shopping in the U.S. in growing numbers. Buyers from mainland China and Hong Kong account for over $7 billion in sales annually, or 11% of international sales activity in the year to March, according to NAR, making them the second-largest foreign buyers of U.S. homes. The influx of newly minted millionaires has inspired developers to reserve units on floors with the number ‘eight’ in new condo projects — like Manhattan’s One57 — for Chinese buyers (Chinese consider eight to be a lucky number), and real estate brokers are embarking on overseas marketing trips that have resulted in big-ticket purchases like Beverly Hills’ $34.5 million Wehba Mansion.
If the Chinese are the second-largest foreign buyers of U.S. homes, who’s No. 1? Our neighbors to the north in Canada. Canadians accounted for 24% of sales to foreigners in the year to March, according to NAR. And it’s not likely to let up: Realtor.com says Canadians account for the most international search activity on the listing site every month in nearly all of major U.S. metro areas.
Canadians have been a dominant purchasing force in hard-hit Sunbelt states like Arizona and Florida. A relatively weak greenback coupled with low home prices represents an opportunity to scoop up a home that could be used for vacations now and retirement later.
Canadians have also been buying in the Midwest, including Chicago. “Close proximity to Canada makes it an easy place for Canadians to invest money,” says Bob Krawitz of RE/MAX Signature in Chicago. He says interest runs along all price points, from distressed properties that can be fixed up and rented out to seven-figure mansions along Lakeshore Drive.
Brazilians are getting attention for their buying sprees in markets like Miami and increasingly, New York City, but Argentineans have been just as active. “The foreign buyer story should be as much about Argentineans as Brazilians,” asserts Philip Spiegelman, a principal at International Sales Group, a marketing and sales organization for real estate developers. “The market in downtown Miami has been principally dominated by Argentineans, then Brazilians, then Venezuelans.”
Increasing numbers of Venezuelans are pouring money into American real estate, seeking a safe haven for their wealth from political and financial uncertainty back home. Teplitzky says many of her South American clients, who also include Colombians and Argentineans, seek out rental units, especially in Miami. “The new landlords in Florida are South Americans and their tenants are Americans,” she adds.
Spiegelman says Europeans, particularly French, have been buying more in southern Florida in recent months as well. “The real attraction here is cheap, cheap, cheap waterfront real estate: these buyers look at this and think it will never be as cheap again.”
Given the uncertainties of the European Union’s fiscal crisis, many wealthy Europeans are desperately trying to shed their euro zone homes and reinvest that money in American real estate. A growing number of brokers, like Italian-born Richard Tayar of Keller Williams NYC, cater to clients looking to do that.
French and Argentineans have become a notable part of the buyer pool in New York City as well. In the luxury condo building Trump SoHo, Argentineans have accounted for the second largest number of sales this year. “Argentina is an unsung element of our demographic base,” says Amy Williamson, vice president of sales for the Prodigy Network. She says Mexicans and Peruvians have been very active also, particularly at the higher price points.
South Koreans have quietly been scooping up investment properties in the New York metro area. Brokers like Martin Chung, a senior vice president at Corcoran Group, are looking to market to them, printing up property postcards in Korean.
Sang Oh, president of Asia operations for Platinum Properties, just returned from a month in South Korea, where he pitched prospective clients a new development called Sky View Parc in Flushing, Queens. “Korean buyers have come back on very strong in the past year and a half,” notes Oh. He says most buyers he deals with want to be landlords. With rents up 40% from 2002 to 2008 in Flushing, it’s the reason he’s peddling Sky View Parc. “There’s a lot more interest in areas that you wouldn’t have thought of — tertiary markets like Flushing, Long Island City, areas of Brooklyn.”
On the West Coast, Asians have been busy buying homes as well. In addition to the Chinese, Singaporeans, Indonesians and Malaysians have been active, says Christophe Choo, a Los Angeles-area luxury real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Previews International. They typically want new construction, particularly condos, that they can use as pied-a-terres.
Armenians and Croatians – many under the age of 30– are plunking down millions for homes too. “[Armenian nationals] are very similar in ideals and philosophies to Russia,” asserts Choo. “They are on a major spree, buying large properties for family compounds that they buy, tear down and build major homes on.”
By Morgan Brennan , Forbes Staff