Nov 12, 2020 - Economy

Foreign investors poised to flood U.S. real estate markets

Illustration of a wave of money overtaking a house

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There's huge pent-up demand among wealthy foreigners to buy property in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities — and some people began calling their money managers as soon as Joe Biden's victory was announced.

Why it matters: Cities whose economies are withering under the coronavirus may see a fresh jolt of life from the high-end real estate sector in 2021 and beyond, with money from abroad creating new jobs and business opportunities.

Driving the news: It's been a terrible year for commercial real estate. Foreigners who covet prize properties have been sitting on the sidelines — not only because of the pandemic and travel restrictions, but also because of the Trump administration's hard line on immigration and foreign ownership of U.S. assets.

  • The situation seems to be thawing instantly. Overseas investors are sending out queries for both commercial and residential properties, according to lawyers and asset managers who serve this customer base.
  • Wealthy families from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America are again starting to shop for high-end homes for their children who want to study or work in the U.S.
  • Foreign investors are suddenly making inquiries about the types of properties that the pandemic has practically left for dead: office buildings, retail centers, hotels and hospitality complexes.

'There's very much an optimistic feel in the air," says Edward Mermelstein, CEO and founder of One and Only Holdings, a luxury real estate investment consulting firm in New York that caters to foreign nationals.

  • "Everyone is looking at the United States," he said. "All the high net worth families that we've been speaking to in the last few weeks have been saying this in unison."

Yes, but: The "ifs" involve whether there is protracted wrangling over succession at the White House and whether Congress can pass a big stimulus bill.

  • Federal stimulus dollars would act as a welcome mat for foreigners seeking real estate deals.
  • The Federal Reserve's successful actions to backstop the economy have heartened foreign buyers through the thick of the pandemic.
  • "That positivity is something that everyone is counting on, and it's going to create a wave," predicts Mermelstein, who foresees a return to the real estate boom years of 2014-2015.
  • Such buyers typically pay top dollar and stick to the big cities they're familiar with rather than venturing into smaller markets or the heartland.

What to watch: Expect to see a surge in applications for EB-5 visas, which allow foreign nationals to get green cards if they invest enough money in certain business ventures that create jobs for Americans.

  • The 30-year-old program has been controversial because of fraud, and the rules were tightened last year under the Trump administration, which raised the minimum investment by an immigrant from $500,000 to $900,000.

What they're saying: "We had half a dozen people who were just waiting" to see the election results before seeking an EB-5 visa, said Mona Shah, head of the law firm Mona Shah & Associates Global, which specializes in this visa category. "People are willing to come in and invest in the United States again."

  • While applicants from China, Vietnam and other countries face years-long wait lists for EB-5 visas, fresh interest is flooding in from Kenya, Egypt and other nations that don't have such hurdles.
  • "A lot of it is coming from countries where there is a Muslim population," Shah said, "but I wouldn't say it's just a Muslim thing — it's coming from everywhere."

And not every investor is making a beeline for big cities, Shah said: "We were we were surprised as to how many people wanted to start projects and invest up in the Catskills."

Go deeper