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Chinese Cash Floods U.S. Real Estate Market

Canyon Lake Ranch was once a playground for Christian day campers, and then was a corporate retreat with water-skiing, barbecues and cowboy shoot-’em-up shows. Hawks now circle above 108 sunbaked acres occupied by copperhead snakes, a few coyotes and the occasional construction truck.

Soon this ranch will be a gated subdivision of 99 mini-mansions designed for buyers from mainland China. The developer, Zhang Long, a Beijing businessman, is keeping three plots to build his own estate along the site of an old rodeo arena.

This luxury development 35 miles northwest of Dallas is the latest frontier in a global buying phenomenon as Chinese money becomes a major force in real estate around the world. The flood of money is likely to persist despite the current tumult in China. While a currency devaluation and stock market crash have crimped the country’s buying power overseas, the resulting uncertainty is making many Chinese individuals and companies eager to invest anywhere except their home country.

In London, Chinese investors are purchasing high-end apartments in wealthy neighborhoods and big skyscrapers in the financial district. In Canada, they are paying $1 million for modest Vancouver bungalows. In Australia, a Chinese sovereign wealth fund bought nine office towers, one of the biggest real estate transactions in that nation’s history.

In the United States, the home-buying spree began on the coasts, where Chinese buyers snapped up luxury condos in Manhattan and McMansions in Silicon Valley, pushing up home values in big cities. It is now spreading to the middle of the country, where prices are more modest and have room to run.

The homes here in Corinth will feature two master suites, one for the buyers, the other for aging parents. A concierge service will help new arrivals from overseas order Internet service and pay electric bills. Chauffeurs will ferry homeowners until they learn to navigate the loops and spurs of Texas freeways.

“When Chairman Zhang saw the strength of the Texan economy, he decided it was time that the Asian community should be presented an opportunity to invest in the American Dream,” marketing materials for the development read.

The great property rush is part of the tidal wave of Chinese money that is pouring into the global economy and reshaping financial markets. In residential and commercial real estate, the new flow of cash is upending the traditional dynamics of buying and selling.

This year, Chinese families represented for the first time the largest group of overseas home buyers in the United States. Big spenders on new homes are helping prop up local economies in the Midwest. But in dense areas like San Francisco and Manhattan, they are also affecting the affordability and availability of housing, as demand outpaces supply and bidding wars ensue.

While Chinese purchases make up a small sliver of overall sales in the United States, they have had a disproportionate impact on the market for more expensive properties, buying one in 14 homes sold for more than $1 million. On average, buyers from China, including the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, pay $831,800 for a home, more than three times as much as Americans spend, according to a National Association of Realtors survey.

Some Chinese are buying homes purely as investments, capitalizing on surging rents in many parts of the United States. Others are trying to move their money beyond the reach of the Chinese government.

Many buyers have their children’s education in mind, picking up homes in good school districts or close to universities. At the upper echelon, the wealthy are hoping for green cards, joining with developers to take advantage of a federal program that fast-tracks them for residency.

Eric Du, a management and investment consultant from Beijing, was motivated by the potential for his family and his fortune. Over the last two years, he bought a townhouse ― sight unseen ― and two single-family homes in Northbrook, Ill., north of Chicago. He paid cash for all of them.

He plans to live in one, to give his children a chance to breathe cleaner air and learn at a better school than he could find in his hometown. He will rent out the other two.

“The price of property in Beijing is very high, the stock market is crashing, and the real economy is not stable,” Mr. Du said of the environment in China. “The people here have some money, but they don’t have enough good ways to invest their money.”

In Shanghai, not far from the banks of the Huangpu River, the offices of Windham Realty are tucked inside a glassy tower where the walls feature a poster of a development in Michigan: the Stonewater community on 366 acres in Northville, a suburb of Detroit.

“The most magnificent waterfront community and the most grand eco-redevelopment project in the U.S.,” the poster reads, highlighting six artificial lakes and 424 luxury villas.

Other posters of properties line the office space. Chic townhouses in San Diego. A golf course community in Fort Myers, Fla. Spacious homes in a Los Angeles development.

Eager to tap the new market of buyers, the American real estate firm has established two offices in China, first in Shanghai in 2007 and then last year in Beijing. It has attracted clients with events like traditional American Thanksgiving dinners and real estate showcases where Chinese film stars appear.

“The market is definitely larger and broader than when we started,” said Steven M. Lawson, the chief executive of Windham China. “They’re very different than the people we were working with in 2007. If we want to cut right to it, they’re less wealthy, a lot younger and a lot better educated from an international point of view.”

The company is among many hoping to capture the wealth pouring out of China.

Chinese buyers spent $28.6 billion on American homes in the year ended in March, more than double their purchases two years before, according to the Realtors association. Chinese purchases in overseas commercial real estate jumped 49 percent last year, Jones Lang LaSalle, a big real estate brokerage firm, has estimated.

The real estate deals follow a broader exodus of money from China to countries and companies around the world. An estimated $590 billion moved out of China in the 12 months through June, according to Fitch Ratings. And the amount of outflows most likely set a record in the third quarter, although detailed data will not be available until next month. In the past, they tended to stay under $200 billion a year.

The swell of funds from China represents the confluence of several big trends.

Over the last six years, the Chinese government has kept the country awash with cash to stimulate the economy, which means a lot of extra money available to slosh abroad. The Chinese government has also made it easier for individuals to move large sums out of the country, as part of a broader liberalization of the nation’s heavily regulated financial system.

The government is loosening the rules for corporations, too. Beijing now allows insurance companies to invest as much as 15 percent of their assets overseas, helping drive a surge in commercial purchases.

Chinese companies have been buying stakes in American trophy properties like the General Motors Building and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The situation is drawing comparisons to the 1980s, when Japanese companies invested heavily in American commercial real estate at premium prices.

But the highflying deals may have only just begun. By the end of last year, Chinese insurers had only 1.44 percent of their money overseas.

“The Chinese are deliberate; there will clearly be large capital flows coming to the West,” said Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, the largest private landlord in the United States. “That will increase in frequency until the Chinese government decides it shouldn’t happen anymore ― they’ve opened the spigot.”

Companies are racing to develop services for Chinese customers. This year Zillow, the real estate search website, began publishing its database of American homes on a Chinese real estate site, Leju.com. American real estate agents are advertising in local Chinese newspapers.

On the front lines are brokers in the Dallas suburbs like Roddy de la Garza, who arrives at homes with a video camera and a compass. The camera is for sharing video of house tours with his clients who live in China; the compass is to make sure the homes have a north-south alignment, to ensure proper energy flow in accordance with Chinese principles of feng shui.

“I’ve learned these things,” said Mr. de la Garza, who works for the realty firm Redfin, “so they trust me.”



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