It's Official: Chinese Buyers Have Left The U.S. Housing Market

Overnight the NYT wrote a gargantuan, 3,800-word piece titled "Chinese Cash Floods U.S. Real Estate Market" discussing the impact of Chinese buyers on the US housing market. There are just two problems with the NYT's herculean effort: i) it is 5 years late in covering a topic this website has discussed extensively since 2010, and ii) it is wrong.

Recall that as we forecast in our take on a post-devaluation China in early September, with Beijing now actively cracking down on hot money outflows and instituting draconian capital controls, two things would happen: bitcoin - as China's most recent preferred mechanism of circumventing capital controls - would surge (it did), and Chinese investment in offshore real estate would tumble.

It has.

Because while the NYT was writing an article titled "Chinese Cash Floods U.S. Real Estate Market" that should have been published in 2010, the WSJ came out with a far more accurate piece, titled the opposite of the NYT piece, i.e., "Chinese Pull Back From U.S. Property Investments" about how Chinese buyers are no longer the marginal buyer of high end US real estate.

Here, just as we predicted, is a summary of the state of the US housing market and the one key support pillar which is no longer there.

Capping a five-year real-estate binge, Chinese nationals surpassed Canadian snowbirds as the top foreign buyers of U.S. homes for the year that ended in March—the most recent annual data—scooping up everything from $500,000 condos in New Jersey to $3 million vacation homes in California to $13 million Manhattan condos.

 

 

But in recent weeks, some Chinese buyers have started to pull back, scared off by China’s stock-market selloff, slowing economic growth, currency devaluation and tightened restrictions on capital outflows. On Friday, China’s benchmark stock index fell by 5.5%, its biggest daily slide since August, as Beijing authorities stepped up a crackdown on the securities industry.

 

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Yang Bin, a 38-year-old businessman from Beijing, said the economic slowdown has stoked his desire to purchase a home in Silicon Valley. “I see many problems with Chinese universities, and the environment and air quality here aren’t very satisfying,” Mr. Yang said. With a budget of about $1 million, he said he wanted to buy a home that his now-8-year-old child would one day occupy. 

 

For now, Mr. Yang is caught in the dilemma prompted by China’s economy, which, he said, “has increased my desire to buy a house in the U.S., but also requires me to wait and watch more carefully.”

Winter is coming.

“We are ready to embrace a winter for Chinese buyers in the next one year, two years,” said Daniel Chang, a New York City-based broker at Sotheby’s International Realty. Mr. Chang, who sells properties in the $2 million-to-$10 million range, said about half of the clients served by his team are Chinese.

It also means the end of obnoxious, scripted "realty TV" shows about millionaire real estate agents .

Christina Shaw, a Realtor with Re/Max Fine Homes in Newport Beach, Calif., said one client who gave her a budget of $10 million to buy two houses in the area was now looking to reduce his budget by about one-third.

A butterfly flaps its wings in the Shanghai Composite and luxury home sales in the US tumble:

Interest from Chinese buyers “went dark” for several weeks after stocks becan their sharp fall, said Tom Mitchell, president and chief operating officer of Tri Pointe Group, a home builder in Irvine, Calif. China’s main stock index, the Shanghai Composite Index, is down 38% since its June peak.

If it seems like it was only two months ago when we wrote that "80% Of All New Home Buyers In Irvine Are Chinese", it's because that is the case. However, the Chinese buying frenzy is no longer present. "Foreign Chinese buyers make up about 30% of customers in a handful of the company’s developments in Orange County and the San Francisco area. Price increases there, he said, have prompted clients to “pause and think.”"

Chinese buyers are now officially spooked: Zhang Xin, chief executive of SOHO China Ltd., a real-estate developer, said last month she wouldn’t buy overseas real estate today because many cities abroad are too pricey.

Some are hoping the lull in Chinese buying will be short-lived: "real estate consultants and brokers say the pullback likely is temporary. Many Chinese view U.S. real estate as not only a good investment but as a haven for savings. Some Chinese buyers also figure a U.S. address would make it easier for their children to enroll in an American college."

“In the very short term there will be some impact for people who don’t have a foreign income stream or who don’t have a bank account or funds in overseas banks,” said Frank Chen, executive director and head of research at property consultancy CBRE China. “But the outbound real-estate investment trend is likely to remain quite strong.”

Perhaps. For now, however, the US luxury market is about to enter freefall, as the marginal buyer enters hibernation.

Even a temporary pullback could hurt markets where Chinese buyers target some of the priciest American homes, often paying in cash. The average purchase price of existing homes in the U.S. by foreign home buyers in the year ended in March was nearly $500,000, nearly double the price for all buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors. One-third of Chinese purchases were concentrated in California for the year ended in March, according to the National Association of Realtors, trailed by Washington, D.C., with 8% of purchases, and New York, at 7%.

Many are eager to spin this as good news:

Some builders also could feel the effects. The chief executive of Walnut, Calif.-based Shea Homes, Bert Selva, told investors this month that the company has seen a “significant slowdown” in Chinese buyers in Orange County.

 

“That buyer is really drying up. To be honest, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because I think there was a lot of frenzy driven by that, pushing up prices a bit,” he said in a conference call.

We doubt Bert will share the same sentiment about the collapse in his company's revenues.

Going back to the NYT being woefully inaccurate with its report, here is why they are, as we said, about 5 years late.

Chinese residents began buying American homes in large numbers about five years ago, driven largely by growing wealth and a desire to safeguard savings against political instability, brokers and economists said.

 

American homes looked like a bargain after the real-estate crash, drawing busloads of Chinese buyers to see properties in California and Manhattan. To many, it seemed “a gold mine everywhere,” said Calvin Lo, a real-estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Southern California.

Better make that bitcoin mine, because unless the Chinese find a way to smuggle billions using the only method left available, the luxury US housing market is looking at what may be unprecedented freefall.

Chinese individuals are limited to annual overseas investments equal to about $50,000. For years, Chinese have surpassed that limit, in part, by funneling money through relatives and employees. In recent months, the government has made it tougher to transfer money abroad, said real-estate brokers in both countries.

 

“It’s like barbarians at the gate,” said John Chang, a real-estate broker with Re/Max in New York City. Chinese families want to buy, he said, “but they just can’t get the money out.”

Of course, those betting on a return to the US luxury market may be better off just buying the medium which the Chinese will use to funnel the required funds to the US - bitcoin, which a quick check shows has resumed its climb and has again jumped by about 20% in the past week alone.

Finally, our condolences to the Fed: as Chinese buyers exit US luxury housing double time, watch as the bottom falls off the top in housing, and slowly at first then very fast drags the rest of the market lower, forcing the Fed to undo whatever tightening in monetary conditions it may have launched, or is contemplating.

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