Amid trade wars, foreign investment in pricey California homes falls
Foreign buyers have cooled on the U.S. residential home market, dropping investments by more than one-third over the previous year and spending less in expensive California.
The share of foreign investment going into California residential real estate slipped in 2018 and 2019, as Chinese buyers moved out of the country's most expensive housing market, according to a new survey by the National Association of Realtors.
About one-third of foreign purchases in California during a recent 12-month period were made by Chinese citizens. In the midst of a growing trade war, overall Chinese investment in U.S. residential real estate fell from $30.4 billion to $13.4 billion in the last year.
"It's just a big drop," Gay Cororaton, senior economist for association. Political and commercial uncertainty during the trade disputes likely drove away Chinese investors. "If they don't know how business conditions will be, they might not invest."
Foreign buyers, defined as non-U.S. residents and visa-holding foreigners living in the U.S., cut their spending by more than one-third, from $121 billion to $78 billion between the 12 months periods of 2017-18 and 2018-19, according to the survey. The weariness of overseas buyers also could be attributed to rising home prices, a stronger dollar, and ongoing Chinese restrictions on moving currency out of the country, Cororaton said.
California was the second most popular destination for non-citizen buyers, trailing Florida. Roughly 12% of foreign investors purchased in California, a decline from 14 percent the previous year, according to the study.
Soaring real estate prices in California have driven many buyers to the sidelines. Bay Area home sales in June dipped to the lowest levels for that month since the depths of the financial crisis and recession in 2008. In a region with 7 million residents, just 7,300 home and condos were sold in June.
Median sale prices for existing homes in the nine-county region fell slightly in the first half of the year, to $900,000 in June, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. The median home price peaked in May 2018 at $928,000.
Nearly a decade ago, absentee owners, including many foreign investors, began snapping up homes and condos in the wake of the home mortgage crisis. Investor purchases in the Bay Area -- including vacation homes and non-owner occupied units -- peaked in February 2013, according to a CoreLogic analysis for this news organization.
Investors bought at least 1 in 5 units in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in that month. More than one-third of the homes sold in Contra Costa County were bought by investors, according to the analysis.
"There were a lot of distressed properties to buy," said CoreLogic analyst Andrew LePage, noting many homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. The real estate market has since been on a record streak.
In June, purchases by absentee owners fell to 15% of all deals, below the historic average of 16.5 percent, according to CoreLogic. Bay Area investment home purchases ranged from 12.6 percent in Santa Clara County to 17.1 percent in San Mateo County for the month.
Real estate agents report that the mix of foreign investors has changed. The new wave, often international business executives, is looking for luxury properties over $5 million in the Bay Area.
But even wealthier clients couldn't make up for a fall in activity.
The NAR report broke down investment by state, but not by region. Overall, foreign buyers accounted for 5% of sales of existing U.S. homes. About 6 in 10 are recent immigrants, drawn by jobs and higher education, according to the survey.
Foreign buyers spent roughly $280,000 for a home, higher than the $259,000 national median price. About 20 percent of investors bought in Florida, and 10 percent in Texas. They were more than twice as likely as others to buy a $1 million home. Less than half of the buyers — 47% — bought properties as their primary residence.
The survey found that about 34% of Chinese investors bought in California, followed by United Kingdom buyers (20%), and Indian and Mexican citizens (10% each).
The data is drawn from an annual survey of real estate agents and transactions. Foreign purchasers are generally not required to disclose country of origin.
For some overseas buyers the Bay Area is a bargain. Homes in the San Jose metro are about one-quarter as expensive as comparably-sized homes in London and Hong Kong, and about half the price of similar units in Tokyo and Singapore, according to the survey.
San Francisco and East Bay cities had even bigger bargains for international home shoppers.
Cororaton said the large drop surprised researchers. In California, she said, "we're attributing that drop to Chinese buyers."