International Buyers Still Flock to Manhattan, Despite Nationwide Drop in RE Investments

Mary Prenon | August 2019

New York ranks among the top locations for foreign investment worldwide.

With more than 1.6 million people, over 60,000 buildings, and a real estate net worth of some $1.74 trillion, it’s no wonder that Manhattan continues to hold the reputation as the financial capital of the world.

For decades, the 22.7-square mile island has attracted people from all over the globe, yearning to experience life in one of the most exhilarating cities on the planet. From its towering skyscrapers in midtown, to SoHo’s chic lofts, trendy living spaces in Greenwich Village and iconic residences of the upper east and west sides, Manhattan real estate has always been a beacon to local as well as international investors.

In fact, in a 2019 survey by the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate (AFIRE), New York was ranked as the most stable and secure real estate opportunity by 30% of investors. New York also ranked first among cities where respondents indicated they would like to increase their exposure.

The survey included participation from 200 members from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Norway, Japan, China and other nations and focused mainly on commercial real estate. It concentrated on investments in very large buildings including industrial, retail, office and healthcare. Compared to some 30 cities around the world, New York City ranked the highest due to the large quantity and quality of commercial real estate.

“This market is always more liquid than in other parts of the world and investors always seem to be very active here,” said Jim Costello, an economist with Real Capital Analytics, who worked with AFIRE in preparing the survey. “Commercial property also has a big impact on the residential side because the jobs and the people are there, and that means more tenants or home buyers.”

Emilce Cacace, Broker/Owner of Portico Realty Group in Manhattan and Westchester, is constantly working with international buyers looking for property in Manhattan. Cacace’s clients include residents of Argentina, Panama, Guatemala and even Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Originally from Argentina, Cacace deals with both residential and commercial clients, some who have been to New York many times, and others, first-time visitors. “For those who are new to Manhattan, we become like city tour guides,” she quipped.

Most though have done their homework online and have an idea of the properties they’d like to see. “Dealing with international clients does take more time and attention,” she revealed. “They usually make a few trips before making any decisions, and a lot of times you have to drop everything to devote time to them while they are here. It’s also important that you show them properties that meet 90% of their criteria.”

Some of her clients are seeking to purchase a co-op or condo for their own use, or for investment purposes, while others are looking for rental properties. International business owners are often shopping for commercial or office space. Cacace relies heavily on referrals. “I belong to business networks and I also know a lot of people in the embassies,” she said.

Diplomats, she added, often look for townhomes, anywhere from the flatiron district to the upper West Side. Columbia University and Lincoln Square areas are also quite popular.

A consistent requirement of her international clients is that they are able to walk to work, restaurants and stores. “Some of them like to be in the tourist areas, while others want to be far away from that,” she added. “Sometimes, it also depends on where their friends or family are living.”

Cacace has a strong and loyal network of past clients and colleagues. In 2017, she was a guest speaker at the Latin American Congress for Real Estate Professionals, which brought more than 500 people from around the word to Argentina. Last year, she attended the FIABCI World Real Estate Congress in Dubai, meeting real estate professionals and developers from all over the globe.

Cacace’s professional network includes individuals from many countries including France, Spain, Brazil, Panama, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. She also works with them to find homes overseas for New Yorkers, and quite often her clients will ask her to go with them. “I like to help them through the process when I can and sometimes they need assistance with the language. It’s very exciting but it’s also a lot of work and very time consuming,” she said.

Kazuko Boylan, a Realtor with Furumoto Realty in Tarrytown and Manhattan, deals mostly with Japanese clients looking for a second home or an investment property in Manhattan. “Some of them are here already for a job and after renting, they want to buy something,” she explained. “Others are new to New York and are just excited about owning real estate here.”

A view of Central Park from a residential property in Manhattan.

Some of the most popular areas for her clients are Central Park and the upper West Side. “Many love the Plaza Hotel condominium residences, and they like being so close to shopping, restaurants and museums,” she added. A typical request of many of her clients is a building with a concierge.

Boylan also works with local clients who are interested in purchasing properties in Japan. Originally from Osaka, she has lived in the U.S. for 30 years but often travels back to visit family. “I work with a lot of Chinese clients who want to visit Japan on their way back to China from the U.S.,” she said. “They like to spend time in Tokyo or Osaka before returning home to China.

While Tokyo has always had a reputation for high real estate prices, Boylan said that Manhattan residential real estate is now about three times the cost of Tokyo properties.

Boylan has also worked with Japanese business owners looking for commercial properties in Manhattan, including everything from hotels to restaurants and multi-family buildings.

Like Cacace, she also relies on a strong networking group for referrals and maintains membership in the Asian Americans Real Estate Association (AAREA).

Gay Cororaton, Director of Housing and Commercial Research for the National Association of Realtors, reported that New York always ranks in their top 10 list of location preferences for international buyers. “New York is a gateway city, plus it offers great universities, jobs and the technology growth is also a big factor,” she said.

What’s surprising though is a recently released NAR study that showed an overall drop in foreign investment in the U.S. over the past year. The study indicates that a decline in global growth and low housing inventory may have contributed to this decline.

The NAR “Profile of International Transactions in U.S. Residential Real Estate” found that foreign buyers purchased $77.9 billion worth of U.S. existing homes over the past year, representing a 36% decline from the level reached in the previous 12 months ($121 billion).

“There is definitely a housing shortage across the U.S., with the most pronounced areas in the West,” added Cororaton. “Increasing interest rates may have also contributed to the drop in foreign home purchases.”

Of the $77.9 billion in foreign investments, the top five countries included China with $13.4 billion, followed by Canada at $8 billion, India at $6.9 billion, the United Kingdom at $3.8 billion and Mexico at $2.3 billion. Foreign buyers were able to purchase 183,100 properties (266,800 in the previous period) at an average price of $426,100.

While New York and Manhattan continue to be among the most popular destinations for international buyers, Florida took the top spot with 20% of foreign buyers coming to the Sunshine State. California followed Florida, with 12% of international purchases. The third most popular destination among these buyers was Texas, at 10%.

The median purchase price for foreign buyers was $280,600, slightly higher than the $259,600 average for all U.S. existing homes sold. Eight percent of international buyers paid $1 million or more for their property, compared to just 3% of all U.S. existing homebuyers.

The NAR survey also showed that international buyers are more likely to purchase their homes in cash than all existing homebuyers. Forty-one percent of the reported transactions were all-cash sales.

NAR landing page for all things global: https://www.nar.realtor/global

For real estate professionals considering doing business with international buyers, both Cacace and Boylan reiterated the importance of networking and referrals.

HGAR, along with four other regional Realtor Associations, will be presenting the Global Real Estate Summit on Nov. 4 at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway in Manhattan. The full-day event will feature the region’s top brokers, investors, developers, legal and technology experts addressing the issues impacting the global real estate market. For more information, visit HGAR.com.

Mary Prenon
HGAR, Director of Communications