The Wall Street Journal
May 20, 2011
The New Global City
Russians in London, Brazilians in Miami—and Chinese almost everywhere.
The biggest players in the residential-real-estate scene today often come from halfway around the world.
By Candace Jackson
This spring, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner paid $100 million for a French chateau-style mansion in Silicon Valley, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a single-family home in the U.S. In January, Ukraine's Rinat Akhmetov closed on two of London's most expensive apartments ever for a combined $222.5 million. In Paris, a Gulf princess spent $96.9 million last year for a mansion with an inner courtyard, garden and private chapel on the Left Bank.
Photo Illustration by Mick Coulas; Bloomberg News (5); Alamy (2); Evan Joseph (1)
Some of the biggest residential real-estate buyers in many cities are emerging from halfway around the globe. In London, one report finds that 65% of buyers in the luxury market hail from abroad. According to the Miami Association of Realtors, nearly 60% of all sales last year throughout the city were to buyers from foreign countries. About half of the buyers in one new luxury condominium on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue are from overseas.
While foreign purchasers make up about 7% of the U.S. residential real-estate market, their numbers have swelled: According to the National Association of Realtors, 18% of Realtors in the U.S. market reported selling a home to at least one international buyer in 2010, up from 12% in 2009.
The makeup of these buyers is changing, reflecting changes in the global economic scene. Buyers from Russia have returned, and the numbers are growing from Brazil, where the economy grew 7.5% last year. Australians are buying ski homes in Aspen. In Tampa, Fla., Venezuelan buyers are buying heavily discounted beach condos.
One of the biggest factors in many areas is the emergence of the Chinese. As housing costs on China's mainland skyrocket—raising concerns of a property bubble there—monied buyers are heading abroad, moving into markets that look, in comparison, like a bargain.
In Orange County, Calif., broker Steve High says Chinese buyers now account for more than half of his showings in tony Newport Coast, up from a very small handful two or three years ago. He says many Chinese buyers seek brand-new homes with more than 10,000 square feet to use either for vacations or as a place for their children to live when they attend college. "We have great big houses here, and they're sitting vacant," he says, "Or we have an 18-year-old kid living in the house by himself."
Amy Williamson, the vice president of sales for Prodigy Network, which markets condo buildings like Trump Soho Hotel Condominium in New York, visited Shanghai last month, meeting with local brokers and potential buyers there. Beverly Hills-based broker Joyce Rey traveled to Beijing in October, arranging a reception at an art gallery where photographs of homes priced between $10 million and $125 million were displayed around the room like artwork. Tim Swannie, the Valbonne, France, director of Home Hunts, says one of his agents is working with two Chinese clients who are looking for vineyards in the $5 million-to-$10 million range in the Bordeaux region.
In the U.S., many foreign buyers are taking advantage of the relatively weak dollar. In March, Pascale Saliou, a 44-year-old from Brittany, France, paid about $600,000 for studio in a building with a contemporary art-filled lobby in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Ms. Saliou has been visiting the city regularly for more than 20 years and finally decided to buy a New York apartment because of the exchange rate. "We never imagined we could one day do this," she says.
Not all foreign purchasers are shelling out millions (in the U.S., the median price paid for a home by an overseas buyer was just under $220,000, according to the National Association of Realtors). And not all are traveling thousands of miles. Canadians are the largest group of foreign buyers in the U.S. today, representing about 23% of foreign buyers, up from about 17.6% in 2009, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Global property buyers gravitate to a handful of highly specific locales: In London, Russians and people from the Middle East flock to central Knightsbridge, where blocks of sleek condos offer top-of-the-line amenities. In New York, newer condos packed with contemporary design attract foreign buyers. Here's a look at some of the top global real-estate markets for foreign buyers.
Evan Joseph - The Setai Fifth Avenue residences at 400 Fifth Avenue
Last month, Russian composer Igor Krutoy—who has recorded more than 100 songs in Russia and collaborated with many of the country's music stars—made headlines when he and his wife, Olga, purchased a 6,000-square-foot 12th floor condo at the Plaza for $48 million. It was one of the highest prices ever paid for a condo in New York.
According to Jonathan Miller, CEO of appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuel, foreign buyers make up 15% to 20% of all home sales in Manhattan. They're particularly strong buyers of thoroughly renovated or newly built condos priced at several million dollars or more. Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of New York-based brokerage Corcoran Group, says that in the first quarter of this year, nearly 20% of new condo sales at Corcoran went to foreign buyers. One deal under way includes a group of Asian investors who are buying 13 apartments in a building, each priced between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.
Manhattan has long been one of the most popular markets in the world for international buyers. But the makeup of international buyers has shifted. Gone are the investors from Ireland who were snapping up condos amid the economic boom in their homeland, says Mr. Miller. Today, it's buyers from China and Brazil. In the past 18 months, brokers say Russians—known during the boom years for making large real-estate purchases in opulent trophy buildings—have returned after sitting on the sidelines during the recession.
International buyers tend to gravitate to certain buildings. Luigi Rosabianca, a real-estate lawyer who works with international buyers, says the André Balasz-designed William Beaver House in the Financial District is popular with his Latin American clients. "Certain people are attracted to certain energy and aesthetics," he says. At the Sheffield, a 582-unit condo building at Columbus Circle where 28% of sold units have gone to overseas buyers, sales staff now print marketing materials in Mandarin, French, Spanish and Italian.
Kreg Holt - A unit at the Sheffield, which has many foreign buyers
At midtown's Setai Fifth Avenue Residences, where apartments are priced from $1.2 million to $15 million, about half of the buyers have been from overseas. Giuseppe Rossi, the executive vice president of Bizzi & Partners Development, who is originally from Italy, notes that many Italians have purchased apartments there. "We're Italian developers so there's a certain appeal to Italian products and the way we built," he says. Brazilian buyers have also made several purchases there, including Brazilian soccer star Kaka, who recently bought three apartments in the building which he plans to combine, says Mr. Rossi. (Kaka didn't respond to requests for comment.)
Giorgio Castro, a 62-year-old Rome-based entrepreneur, says he dreamed of owning a place in Manhattan for decades. Last year, with the euro-dollar exchange rate giving him more than a 40% discount, he finally snagged a $1.3 million one-bedroom condo in a Wall Street building designed by David Rockwell.
"It was a good opportunity to buy something I longed for," says Mr. Castro. "With the money I spent, I could not have bought something equivalent in Rome."
A three-bedroom apartment with views in the seventh arrondissement.
The Paris real-estate market is booming, driven in part by the high prices foreigners are willing to pay. In the "Golden Triangle"—the tony area near the Champs-Élysées—apartment prices rose 38% in the last year, according to the Paris Notary Chamber. For Paris apartments costing over $2.8 million (€2 million), three foreigners buy into the market for every one foreign seller, says Charles-Marie Jottras, president of the Daniel Féau network of real-estate agencies.
Mr. Jottras just closed his first deal with a mainland Chinese buyer, an apartment on the luxurious Avenue George V for $14.2 million (€10 million). The six-bedroom apartment, down the street from the Chinese embassy, features a 2,150-square-foot living room. A new influx of Chinese buyers is also looking at the 16th arrondissement near the Trocadéro Place, where stately buildings appeal to foreign buyers. The Brazilian presence is also growing; Jean-Philippe Roux, manager of luxury real-estate agency John Taylor's new Paris office, says he has nine Brazilians interested in the seventh and eighth arrondissements.
France's neighbors Italy and Britain account for about a third of the international market. These buyers often seek apartments on the Left Bank, in the Saint-Germain neighborhood, as well as in the more bohemian Marais area because of the central location for train stations.
Russian and Middle Eastern buyers tend to concentrate in the "Golden Triangle," where there are the most luxurious hotels and boutiques. A 1960s-era building at 12-18 Avenue Montaigne, near the Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores, is a big draw, as is the recently renovated building at number 51-53 on the opposite side of the street.
There are only a handful of mansions in Paris. Mr. Jottras's record sale happened last year and was for the Hôtel de Bourbon-Condé, a mansion with an inner courtyard, garden and private chapel, in the seventh arrondissement on the Left Bank. For $96.9 million (€68 million), a Gulf princess had a new home.
The Cullinan, in West Kowloon.
China's housing boom spilled over to Hong Kong, where property prices have surpassed previous historic highs and are now some of the highest in the world. According to property agency Savills, Hong Kong's homes are 52% more expensive than London's—and 111% more than New York's.
In April 2011, a 5,636-square-foot condo at 39 Conduit Rd. in the Mid-Levels district sold for $46.4 million (HK$361 million). Local newspaper Ming Pao reported that it was bought by Shi Yuzhu, the Shanghai-based founder of online gaming company Giant Interactive. Forbes magazine reported his net worth at $1.6 billion.
Meanwhile, a house on 11 Headland Rd. in Hong Kong's Repulse Bay neighborhood recently sold for $84.9 million (HK$660 million). Newspaper Ming Pao reported the buyer as Gao Yanming, chairman of Hebei-based shipping company Hosco Group. Henderson Land, the developer, confirmed the transaction but declined to comment as to the identity of the purchaser.
Mainland Chinese buyers are more concentrated in the new luxury sector of condos priced over $1.5 million (HK$12 million), like the Cullinan in West Kowloon. In this sector, they represented 28.8% of the deals during the last half of 2010. In the ultra-expensive range—$25.7 million (HK$200 million) and above—Joseph Tsang, managing director at Jones Lang Lasalle in Hong Kong, estimates that almost all the transactions involve buyers from China.
Mr. Tsang says Chinese buyers look for luxury finishes, ornate decorations and grand hotel-style lobbies. "They're into glamour and bling," he says. "In order to attract the Chinese buyer [from the mainland], you need to put out the most expensive stuff on display."
In the past, the pricey homes along the southern coast of Hong Kong island were popular among well-heeled expatriate bankers from the U.K., Australia and the U.S. But the influx of Chinese buyers and the resulting spike in prices has even forced some members of this wealthy class out of their traditional stomping grounds.
The city's largest brokers routinely organize bus tours for interested buyers from mainland China to visit new development sites.
Local brokerage firm Midland Realty recently organized three tours during the May 1 weekend, a public holiday. By the end of the weekend, the agency had 10 deals signed, starting at $643,000 (HK$5 million) for new condos. During a tour earlier this year, the agency says some buyers purchased units for $1.3 million (HK$10 million) on their first visit to Hong Kong.
"If you look at the new apartments [in West Kowloon], over 60% are mainland Chinese buyers, but if you count the lights at night, you won't see many. It's sold out, but it's pitch dark," Mr. Tsang says.
One Hyde Park, the Candy Brothers' development in Knightsbridge.
One Hyde Park luxury residences in London
According to Liam Bailey, head of residential research at real-estate agent Knight Frank, London's ratio of international to domestic buyers for prime real estate is the highest of any major city in the world. According to his report last month, 64% of buyers of central London homes priced over $8.1 million (£5 million) are foreign—"the highest of any major city, without a doubt"—and probably the highest it's ever been, Mr. Bailey says.
The number of nationalities represented has also swelled; 61 nationalities purchased homes in London last year, up from 46 in 2009, with Russian, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern buyers seeing the biggest growth, according to Knight Frank.
For many, the U.K.'s steady political environment and stable economy make London a safe haven for wealth. Sterling's decline against the dollar—around 20% since 2008—makes property even more enticing. But currency arbitrage and safe-haven status aside, different nationalities are drawn by different aspects.
For U.S. buyers, it's London's leafy Hampstead Village, according to Marcus Oliver, associate director at real-estate agent Chesterton Humbert's Hampstead office. He said 80% of foreign buyers in Hampstead over the past three months have been from the U.S. "Americans are attracted to the quintessentially 'London village' feel of Hampstead, with its quaint Victorian houses and the rolling Heath. It matches up with the clichéd impression of London."
Meanwhile, the status and bright lights of a pad in central Knightsbridge are luring the newly monied Eastern Europeans and Middle Eastern buyers, says Roarie Scarisbrick of HSBC-owned buying agent Property Vision. "Knightsbridge property is the ultimate status symbol for the new settlers of Eastern Europe with their newly amassed fortunes." Properties like the Knightsbridge, One Hyde Park and the Lancasters, where residents enjoy 24-hour security and amenities ranging from golf simulators to private movie theaters, are attracting some of the world's wealthiest oligarchs and sheiks.
One such buyer is Ukranian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who in January closed on two apartments in the Candy Brothers' new One Hyde Park development in Knightsbridge for a reported $222.5 million (£136.6 million) to combine into a triplex penthouse. Mr. Akhmatov's press secretary Olena Dovzhenko confirmed the property was purchased as investment through the oligarch's company, SCM Capital Management.
In neighboring Kensington, with its proximity to museums and coffee shops, the typical buyer is French, Swiss or Italian, says independent search agent Charles McDowell. He recently found a home for 38-year-old Parisian Michelle Dellion, in South Kensington. The five-bedroom townhouse on Mulberry Walk cost $16.3 million (£10 million) and has 5,000 square feet of living space. "We had to be in London for my husband's job. Kensington is near the Lycée [Français Charles de Gaulle] and the park—with our three children it was the best area for us," said Ms. Dellion, a stay-at-home mom whose husband works in finance.
Mindful of this tendency to flock together, developers have launched targeted marketing drives. Within the last six months, luxury London developments The Heron, Bramah Chelsea, Wellington House and Neo Bankside have held marketing exhibitions in Singapore and Hong Kong. Last September, Bramah hosted a successful exhibition at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. "We sold 50 apartments off plan over two weekends," says sales executive Matt Shenton.
— Tara Loader Wilkinson
The Icon Brickell, a three-tower complex downtown that has attracted British and Brazilian buyers
In the Greater Miami area, nearly 60% of all sales last year were to buyers from overseas, according to the Miami Association of Realtors. For sales of newly built condos downtown, that figure jumps to 90%, says the group.
Many of the buyers are from Brazil, which experienced an economic growth rate of 7.5% last year. Brazil's currency, the real, has risen about 40% against the U.S. dollar in the last two years.
Property developer and marketer Fortune International focused heavily on Brazil to sell Jade Ocean, a 50-story building the company is marketing with infinity pools, a private movie theater and a children's playroom decorated with Philippe Starck furniture. Its two-story penthouse loft apartments sold for between $3.5 million and $10 million. Nearly 85% of Jade Ocean's sales have gone to overseas buyers.
Fortune's principal developer Edgardo Defortuna says that last fall, he worked with American Airlines to invite a group of potential buyers and American Airlines contacts to a dinner party at a restaurant in Brasilia. "The Black Eyed Peas were having dinner in the next room," he says. His company is also encouraging the airline to add new flights from different cities in Brazil to Miami, which American Airlines says is in the works. In an e-mail, an American Airlines spokeswoman said, "it makes business sense to promote Miami not only as a place to visit but a place to live."
Russian buyers tend to cluster in northern, beachfront areas. Mr. Defortuna says he's planning a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg to pitch several of his Miami-area buildings. There, he hopes to throw a dinner party with Donald Trump Jr., an executive vice president with the Trump Organization.
Unlike Americans, who tend to look for single-family homes, overseas buyers favor condos. Italians have been drawn to the Capri South Beach, a condo building with downtown views and its own marina, says broker Nelson Gonzalez. The Icon Brickell, a three-tower complex downtown, has a large number of British and Brazilian owners, says Oliver Ruiz, a managing broker with Fortune International Realty.
Venezuelans are also a growing presence, as are buyers from Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Phillip Yaffa, an owner of the Miami office of Engel & Völkers, says a waterfront home sold last week for $9.4 million to a Swiss buyer.
Henrik Wiingaard-Madsen, a shoe-manufacturing company owner from Denmark, says he got a 30% discount in July for two apartments in the Icon Brickell—$520,000 for a two-bedroom and $840,000 for a three-bedroom—plus a rebate. Icon "had so many units, they were kind of desperate at the time," he says. "The price was so low compared to the quality." Mr. Defortuna says his company took over marketing for the complex last June, and that the building "has filled in significantly since then." So far, about 80% of the units have been sold.
Write to Candace Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org