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Big Apple tempts Chinese buyers
Published on: 2012-10-08
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Long-term view, rather than quick profit, drives New York home prices
It used to be that Chinese buyers who purchased property in New York did so because the city’s durable real estate market was both a reliable and potentially lucrative investment.
Now, however, affluent Chinese buyers are more likely to seek out Big Apple properties as a way to hang on to their wealth, according to real estate brokers.
Wealth preservation is a factor and "they take a long-range view’’, said Kevin Brown of Sotheby’s International Realty.
Brown and partner Nikki Field decided to focus on China when the US real estate market softened in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. They visit the Chinese mainland a few times each year to host events and meet potential buyers referred to them by HSBC, Citibank and Singapore banks.
One of their first Chinese clients, a mainland woman who now lives in Hong Kong, bought a $6.5 million apartment at One57, a midtown Manhattan tower that, at 90 stories, will be the city’s tallest residential building upon completion.
"She wasn't concerned about the rate of return," Brown said. "She told us she wants her daughter to attend Columbia University and she would like an apartment in midtown Manhattan.
"When we talked about her daughter afterward, I realized she is only 2 years old."
According to the National Association of Realtors, China-based clients are now the second-biggest group of foreign buyers of US residential real estate, eclipsed only by Canadians. In 2011, Chinese buyers accounted for 9 percent of international sales of US homes, up from 5 percent in 2007.
There are nearly 1 million mainland Chinese with a personal wealth of at least 10 million yuan ($1.6 million), according to the Hurun Report, a publisher of magazines for China’s wealthy.
Cash-rich Chinese buyers typically favor new Manhattan buildings such as the One57, near Central Park, as well as "trophy properties" with a history, such as Walker Tower, an art deco highrise in the trendy downtown neighborhood of Chelsea that was converted into luxury condominiums.
Apartments at One57 are priced between $7 million and $64 million, according to Field.
This year alone Brown and Field sold nine properties to Chinese clients in Manhattan, at prices from $3.5 million to $50 million, mostly at One57.
In an attempt to court rich buyers, other New York real estate agents are visiting China regularly or have established links to firms.
Two years ago, the Corcoran Group, one of New York’s biggest residential brokers, began a partnership with two China-based real estate firms. Corcoran also works with several individual agents who represent clients in China.
Corcoran President Pamela Liebman anticipated at the time that about 10 percent of luxury residential purchases in Manhattan would come from the Chinese mainland in the near term.
"In the past we saw real estate deals of $1.5 million to $2.5 million," she said. "Now we see super-rich Chinese making significant purchases of New York real estate valued at $40 million per apartment unit."
Most of Liebman’s higher-end Chinese clients (those who bought properties valued at $40 million or more) have tended not to care about rates of return, which is just one method of valuing a property. She added that she has seen smaller deals made expressly for investment purposes, however.
Relatively high prices and ownership limits in the Chinese real estate market are also factors in buying US residences, said Kathy Tsao, a New York real estate agent who is chairwoman of the Asian Real Estate Association of America.
The government discourages the purchase of more than two residential properties by setting a higher down payment rate and other barriers, although Shanghai and other cities have begun to relax such rules.
Rather than seeking to profit from flipping or subletting their New York properties, Chinese buyers have long-term plans, especially if they have very young children.
Earlier this year Tsao helped a mainland couple scout an apartment for their son, who is the ripe old age of 7.
"They are already planning for his high school and college education in the US. They are putting all their resources into their only child," the broker said.
"It speaks of the growing wealth in China. These buyers have a lot of disposable income to spend. It is very attractive for them to own properties here."
A Chinese-born marketing executive and her Shanghai-based parents bought a one-bedroom unit on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for under $1 million in 2009, when the New York market was in a rare, and brief, downturn. The young woman cited convenience and safety for her choice.
"I just wanted to settle in a nice neighborhood; I wanted to have stability. If you rent, you may consider moving from time to time," she said.
Her parents didn’t even fly over to check out the apartment, as they were familiar with the neighborhood and confident about investing in US real estate.
Some China-based buyers have even asked their New York agents to pick out an apartment for them.
"It is very important for these Chinese buyers to feel that the agents they are working with are trustworthy," Liebman said.
Field has learned that it’s important to establish a strong relationship with a Chinese client upfront, and adapt to their way of doing business. Some clients took more than two years to get back to them, after an initial consultation.
"Establishing trust with Chinese buyers was surprisingly a challenge for us," Field said. "It is very different in the Chinese mainland. We have to understand how the Chinese negotiate."
Her partner Brown agreed.
"Years ago it was East meets West. Now it’s West meets East," he said. 
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