Stocks have been sliding. Goldbugs are reeling. China’s growth is slowing. Speculation is flying that France and Germany may face credit downgrades. And the hefty offshore accounts of rich investors, particularly Russians, face seizure in Cyprus as bailout looms.
But one market continues to thrive on the steadfast barrage of economic uncertainty: luxury housing.
“The U.S. is just coming out of a housing downturn and it’s become a global safe haven for investors,” says Jonathan Miller, chief executive of Miller Samuel, a New York-based real estate appraisal firm. “But this time it’s not carpenters and nurses quitting their jobs to become mom-and-pop investors; it’s billionaires looking to sink money into unique properties.”
Miller believes these unique properties have become a “new global currency,” as investors view prime trophy real estate as a safe, relatively low-risk place to park cash that hedges against inflation while diversifying an investment portfolio. Couple that with historic home price drops and the waning value of the greenback, and U.S. luxury homes present a compelling buying opportunity to investors from abroad. “I have heard these homes referred to as the most expensive safety deposit boxes,” muses Miller. And there’s something to the concept.
Take One57 in Manhattan. The up-and-coming 90-story glass high rise, which will boast views of Central Park, has experienced a flurry of multimillion-dollar sales activity, particularly among foreign investors from Russia, South Korea, and China. Just recently, a Chinese mother plunked down $6.5 million on a condo there for her daughter, for when she attends an American university. The daughter is two years old. The World’s Most Expensive Cities For Luxury Real Estate Morgan Brennan Morgan Brennan Forbes Staff The Era Of The $100 Million House Morgan Brennan Morgan Brennan Forbes Staff Real Estate Tourism: Who’s Really Buying America’s Homes? Morgan Brennan Morgan Brennan Forbes Staff The Most Expensive Billionaire Homes In The World Morgan Brennan Morgan Brennan Forbes Staff
Across the park, inside the famously elite limestone building known as 15 Central Park West, a Russian billionaire heiress plunked down $88 million on the lower penthouse, last year. Amid messy allegations that the purchase was actually a front for her divorcing father, Dmitry Rybolovlev, to stash cash, the apartment is rumored to be scantly furnished and rarely used.
“We have seen a lot of negative sentiment in emerging markets that is definitely driving interest toward our hard assets that are easy to sell, the easiest of which is real estate in the best locations in the country,” explains Edward Mermelstein, a real estate attorney with Rheem Bell & Mermelstein who has handled sales for many high profile Eastern Europeans. “If you’re presenting an easy investment to a foreigner hailing from a difficult economic situation, what’s easier than an apartment overlooking Central Park?”
Russians and Chinese enjoy attention for their big-ticket purchases but Mermelstein says investors are now coming from other countries too. “Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Koreans are calling on a regular basis and these were not the typical calls coming in a few weeks ago,” he says, noting that recent inquiries haven’t simply centered around real estate investment but increasingly around visa and immigration status as well – a sign that some of these newer buyers are looking to relocate their families as political uncertainties like tensions on the Korean Peninsula mount. Inventory that has been the most in-demand among his international clients: homes priced $5 million and higher.
“All of my clients call it a hedge against every other market,” says Mauricio Umansky, co-founder and chief executive of The Agency, a Los Angeles area luxury real estate firm. “They see real estate as a hedge against inflation, against the commodities markets, and a safe haven from international political risk.”
The properties posing the most promise among safe-haven investors: highly unique, irreplaceable structures (whether due to construction costs or building regulations) on coveted swaths of land in desirable internationally recognized locales like New York, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In high-rise-centric Manhattan, the most sought-after properties are prized condominiums touting enviable views of Central Park from massive mansion-like layouts in ultra exclusive buildings with world famous addresses.
In Los Angeles, it’s all about the land. A parcel of flat acreage (a rarity in the hilly city) inside a gated community like Beverly Park is especially coveted. Beverly Hills and second home markets like Malibu, where an oceanfront compound recently commanded $75 million from a Russian couple (who reportedly paid using briefcases filled with cash), have been the hottest targets of wealthy investors. For some buyers, particularly Asian buyers, branded projects like the Ritz Carlton Residences at LA Live have been alluring for the sense of stability a global brand name elicits.
“People have wanted to take as much money out of their countries as possible so they look to buy mega mansions,” explains Umansky, adding that currency exchange rates coupled with the fact that quality inventory is at an all-time low have fueled a significant number of high-end purchases. Buyers hail from China, Russia, and, increasingly, thanks to massive tax hikes, France and Italy. “I know people who are coming out here and buying real estate, telling me they are planning to move out three years from now.”
Further north, Silicon Valley experiences similar behavior. “The two major buyers within Silicon Valley right now are international buyers, generally investors of trophy homes, and young tech looking to diversify their portfolios” says Ken Deleon of Deleon Realty, a Silicon Valley-based luxury realty firm.
Deleon, who spent two weeks in China recently, says 15% of his clientele hail directly from there, while another 35-40% are first generation Chinese. These investors have increased activity due to caps on homeownership in communist-run China and fears of eminent domain. A growing number of Indians and Russians have jumped into the market as well. “They feel that Palo Alto is a safe place to put their money with good upside potential, but more importantly as a means of diversifying funds abroad.”
The same, he says, is true of his domestic tech clients, many of which are early employees of Google and LinkedIn. “They have $50 to $100 million in equities and then they put another $10 million into a luxury home… because they still view the stock market as volatile and real estate is a good diversity hedge for them.”
Palo Alto median home prices have risen 12% since the start of the year thanks to record low inventory levels and outrageous bidding wars that have erupted over what is available. Interestingly, Chinese buyers have been a huge driving force behind the price battles, comprising about one-third of all winning offers. “They are here one week, view 10 homes and put an immediate cash offer, non-contingent, in on their favorite. They want to win that one and a $100,000 to $200,000 counter offer will not get in their way.” Of the most interest to foreign buyers looking to invest: multimillion dollar condos in new buildings that will sit there uninhabited, save for the occasional visit, once or twice a year.
In 2011 Russian billionaire Yuri Milner sunk $100 million into a 25,545 square foot Los Altos Hills mansion, breaking national sales records. When the venture capitalist, who resides primarily in Moscow, purchased the secondary home he reportedly had no immediate plans to move in; last summer, as the Santa Clara County tax assessor’s office slapped a fair market value on the home of $50.3 million or 50% less than Milner’s purchase price, rumors surfaced that he still hadn’t occupied it.
In November another Silicon Valley home fetched an even higher, even more astounding sum of $117.5 million. This time from an Asian billionaire: the nine-acre Woodside estate was reportedly snapped up by Japan’s second richest man, Masayoshi Son. Like Milner’s conquest, the price trumped market comparables, for example the nearby 92-acre Flood Estate listed for $85 million.
“People today are looking at the unique properties as they would a piece of art, fine jewelry or another collectible item,” notes Ron Shuffield, president of EWM Realty International, a Miami-based luxury real estate affiliate of Christie’s. It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by luxury real estate experts in major cities across the U.S. and the world, for that matter.
Another market that has been flooded with high-end investment activity is indeed Miami. The South Florida city has been an urban safe haven from international political instability for decades, but recently, it has welcomed an unprecedented surge in buyers of super luxury homes. Foreigners account for more than 60% of luxury property sales, most notably from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, and Europe. These buyers sink money into waterfront mansions on elite islands like Indian Creek or newly constructed condo penthouses on South Beach.
Since late the second half of 2011, Miami real estate has clocked one record-breaking sale after another, including an Indian Creek compound that fetched $47 million from a Russian billionaire in what, to date, remains county’s most expensive home sale. Luxury activity has become so great in the area that the Shuffield’s firm alone is averaging one $1 million-plus sale per day. And like Palo Alto, an increasing number of rich Americans have jumped into the ultra luxury market with similar investing goals, particularly Northeasterners lured by the lack of state income tax.
Deleon, Shuffield and others say the record prices need to be understood on a global level. Buyers, they explain, aren’t house hunting using local market comparables. Rather, they’re shelling out large unprecedented sums based on price per square foot comparisons to other trophy homes located in other major cities around the world. And when they do that, prices stateside seem, surprisingly, like a billionaire’s bargain. “When you start comparing prices in Miami to London, Paris, Hong Kong, New York and Beverly Hills, our prices are so low,” says Shuffield. Seconds Deleon: “Compared to Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, our prices are cheap. That will be the new frame of perspective.”