SEATTLE -- One of the biggest stories in the Seattle-area real-estate market continues to be the strong interest among homebuyers coming from China.
Although foreign sales here are down a bit lately, King County in recent years has become one of the most sought-after U.S. regions for people in China looking for a home as an investment or to move to. While a boon for home sellers and real-estate companies, buyers from China have been blamed for soaring home prices, and foreign speculators became a main topic in the Seattle mayoral election.
So why are so many people from China interested in buying here, and will it continue? To find out, we joined a delegation of 15 top real-estate brokers from mainland China who are in town this week to check out the area for themselves and tour homes with the help of Windermere -- the latest sign of China's interest in Seattle. The brokers include the leadership of the China Alliance of Real Estate Agencies, whose membership handles about 60 percent of home sales in China.
The brokers all said good schools, clean air, proximity to China, beautiful natural resources like lakes and mountains and the growing economy are the main draws, with most citing Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing as internationally renowned companies.
"It's like Vancouver, but cheaper," is how Yi Liu, a broker in China who serves as the real-estate alliance's vice president, sums it up. Vancouver, B.C., has long been a major destination for Chinese homebuyers.
Are the homes used as investments or actual residences?
"It's about 50/50," said Chris Hu, vice president of B.A. & 515J Group, a brokerage in Beijing. Those who rent out the homes can see 5 to 6 percent profit a year, he said, as the local market continues to see rising prices. "The investment return is very nice to them," Hu said.
Families in China will often send just their kids to live here and go to school, or the breadwinner will stay behind and work in China: "A lot of Chinese buy here as an investment in education for their kids," Hu said.
Local brokers have long reported Chinese money flowing strongest into luxury homes in places like Medina and West Bellevue. But that's beginning to change, Hu said.
"These days, a lot of Chinese buyers who want to be in Seattle are middle-class," he said.
Will this trend continue?
In the short term, foreign sales have stagnated, largely because China has made it harder to get money out of the country, Aijing Wang, the real-estate alliance's CEO, said through an interpreter. But in the long run, Seattle looks like it will remain a desirable market, she said -- it's especially attractive because homes here are cheaper than Vancouver, San Francisco and New York, which traditionally have been popular for foreign homebuyers.
"I think it's just the beginning," Hu said.
But we're getting more expensive, and catching up with those cities
If anything, that only builds more confidence among foreign buyers because they know they'll get a better return on their investment, Liu said. And we're still dirt cheap -- and seeing prices rise a lot more slowly -- compared to China's top cities.
"People can buy a house like this," Liu said inside a $5.3 million listing in Medina, "for the cost of a three- or four-bedroom apartment in Beijing."
But our rising prices are already starting to price out some of the middle-class buyers in China. "One of my friends looked here but bought in Maryland" because it's more affordable, Liu said.
Have President Donald Trump's anti-immigration stances dissuaded any buyers?
Not yet, because most people from China looking to buy a house and move here are using the federal EB-5 program, which Trump and Congress haven't touched, Wang said. The program, which has led to fraud in some cases, allows foreigners to become permanent U.S. residents if they invest at least $500,000 in certain U.S. projects.
They said they've felt welcome so far in America.
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