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For foreigners, the American Dream is very much alive

August 17, 2011: 8:42 AM ET

Buyers from Canada, China, Mexico, and elsewhere are snapping up cheap housing in the most troubled markets, like Florida and California. Will foreigners save our housing market?

FORTUNE – Since the U.S. housing market went bust, plummeting home sales and record foreclosures have prompted many to question the decades-old belief that owning a home is an aspiration that all should aspire to. Last year, Time magazine published an article debunking the merits of homeownership, while federal policymakers began wondering if many might have been financially better off renting versus buying.

But while those in the U.S. question homeownership, foreigners in search of properties on the cheap have been all too eager to grab a slice of the American Dream. And to re-define it in a way that experts say could help stabilize housing markets in a few states with some of the nation's most troubled housing markets – namely, Florida and California.

In the years following the real estate implosion, foreign purchases have been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy market. In the 12 months ending in March, international sales in the U.S. totaled $82 billion, up from $66 billion in 2010, according to the National Association of Realtors. Canada led the way, making up 23% of sales to foreigners, followed by China, Mexico, the U.K. and India. Argentina and Brazil combined reported a 5% increase in foreign sales, up 2% from last year.

Admittedly, the trend isn't likely to turn the U.S. housing market around, since sales to international buyers still make up a small percentage of total sales. But for Florida and California, home purchases by wealthy foreigners and investors have proven significant. More than 40% of all international sales happen in the two states.In Florida, Cape Coral, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Naples, Fort Myers, Kissimmee (home of Disney World), Orlando and Jacksonville are some of the most popular U.S. cities among international house hunters, according to residential real estate website Trulia, which tracked international views of U.S. properties online. Roughly 20% of all residential sales across the state come from buyers abroad – the majority of which from Canada.

It helps that home prices in Florida, with its high share of foreclosed homes, have fallen dramatically from their 2006 peak. What's more, a weaker U.S. dollar, especially against the Canadian dollar, has made snapping up properties in resort and suburban areas even more irresistible. But what it means to own a slice of the American Dream differs vastly for international homebuyers, who see their investments (paid for mostly in cash) as less of a place to raise a family and retire and more of a vacation home available for rent.

However they've defined or re-defined the American Dream, international buyers are at least helping stabilize Florida's housing market, if not saving it from further collapse. In fact, while it's still more affordable in Miami to buy, the influx of foreign buyers has made it more appealing to rent. Trulia's latest price-to-rent ratio jumped 112% from 6 in January to 12 in July (ratios below 15 are places where it's cheaper to buy than rent). This is significant, since typically a healthy housing market puts renting and owning on more equal footing.

California has also gained from foreign buyers. Home prices dropped by 59% between peaking in 2007 and bottoming in 2009. Unlike in Florida, the housing market across parts of the golden state has found a savior of sorts in the Chinese investors who have been gobbling up properties globally. This comes at a time when the costs of buying in China has risen as the country's government raises interest rates and tightens lending standards to help cool off the racing economy. Among the most popular California cities to foreigners: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beverly Hills and San Diego.

One community that has gained most is San Marino, which has largely been sheltered from the housing bust amid an influx of mostly Chinese house hunters snapping up properties in the relatively wealthy residential community. Last year, San Marino recorded its highest annual median home price ever – topping $1.5 million, up 1.6% from the previous year. To Mainland Chinese, the area is often associated with the rich and wealthy. So it's no surprise that the once predominantly white community in the 1990s has dramatically changed to be more than 50% Asian (primarily Chinese).

Foreign investors won't save America's housing market. But according to a recent report by Capital Economics, if large economies such as China and India continue to develop, foreign buyers could increasingly account for a greater share of U.S. home sales.

The American Dream isn't dead -- it's just changing.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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