Home prices keep falling. The value of the greenback against foreign currencies has eroded. But there hasn't been a rush by international buyers to purchase homes on American soil. In fact, a recent suggest of real estate agents finds that international demand for U.S. homes might actually be lower today than it was a year ago.
The National Association of Realtors polled about 4,000 of its member agents across the country and found that 26.2% had at least one international client between May 2007 and May 2008. More than half of those clients bought a house, and foreign buyers represented an average of 16% of the respondents' sales during that period. NAR estimates that between 150,000 and 190,000 homes were sold to foreign nationals during this period.
The NAR compared these findings with a similar survey it conducted earlier, when it found that 32% of agents polled had had at least one international client between April 2006 and April 2007. Again, about half of these prospects became buyers. (The NAR did not provide an estimate for the total number of homes purchased by foreign buyers during this timeframe. However, its latest survey infers that buyer activity was off.)
The typical international buyer during the period assessed by the latest poll purchased a single-family vacation home costing $297,400. Four in 10 paid with cash, compared with 7% of domestic buyers. Prospects from Canada and the United Kingdom accounted for 36.1% of all foreign prospects. Mexico, which ranked second in the 2006-2007 poll, fell off considerably to third place in the latest poll, followed by China, India, and Germany. The NAR found that single-family detached homes are still the most popular among international customers, accounting for 75.2% of their purchases in the 2007-2008 period. (It's much higher—91.8%—among purchasers who are permanent residents of Mexico.) Condos and apartments represented 19.2% of international purchases, and townhouses represent 6%.
While foreign prospects showed interest in houses all over the U.S., nearly 47% of their purchases were of homes situated in the South, and another 30% were in the West, which the NAR found is more likely to attract Asian buyers. More than one quarter of all foreign purchases was made in Florida (which was unexpected, given that nearly three-quarters of the Realtors polled in Florida said they had no international clients), followed by California, Arizona, and Texas (8.9%, 8.7%, and 6.8% respectively).
"There is definitely a lot of interest among European and Canadian individuals and private equity groups in American property," says Jack McCabe, president of McCabe Research and Consulting in Deerfield Beach, Fla., whose client list includes builders, developers, property management companies, and banks. However, he is quick to point out that international buyers are like their American counterparts in that they, too, are looking to see where the price bottom is going to be.
McCabe suggests that the Patriot Act, with its restrictions on travel by foreign nationals, could be one reason why international demand for U.S. homes isn't stronger. "I hear that Europeans and Latin Americans are particularly frustrated,” he says, pointing specifically to one of his clients in Brazil who told him that if he purchased a house in Miami, he would have to apply to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security 120 days in advance just to stay there for a weekend.
That being said, McCabe notes that several local builders and developers are marketing their products to international buyers, citing Miami-based The Related Group (whose founder, Jorge Perez, was born in Argentina to Cuban parents) as being especially aggressive. "They are over in Europe monthly" making presentations, he says, and Related is spending a larger percentage of its marketing dollars on ads in luxury-oriented magazines in Latin America and Europe. (BUILDER was unable to reach officials from Related at press time.)
McCabe cautions American builders and developers, however, that international buyers—especially those looking for homes at the high end—have a lot more residential choices in their own countries, with resort construction activities to be found in Mexico, the Bahamas, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rico. "Many of these [developments] are targeting retiring U.S. baby boomers and could become burgeoning American enclaves," he says.
John Caulfield is a senior editor for BUILDER magazine.