Cover story: International buyers a local submarket

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Washington, D.C., once known as a sleepy Southern town, has developed into a global city with residents from around the world working in international organizations such as the World Bank, at embassies and for corporations.

The comparatively stable economy of the region has attracted new residents from around the world, many of whom opt to buy homes. The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that the foreign-born population in the Washington region increased from 13 percent in 2000 to approximately 20 percent in 2008.

Interest in residential and commercial real estate investment has grown along with the international population. The Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate surveys its members each year to determine where they intend to invest. According to the 18th annual survey, conducted at the end of 2009, the District is the No. 1 city in the world for commercial real estate investment.

On a national basis, the 2009 National Association of Realtors (NAR) Profile of International Home Buying Activity shows approximately 4 percent of existing-home sales across the U.S. involved nonresident foreign buyers.

NAR surveys report that residential real estate transactions involving international buyers occur for a wide variety of reasons, including foreign expatriates with international corporations needing housing while working in the U.S., foreign residents buying second or vacation homes in the U.S. and foreign-born nationals looking for a permanent U.S. residence once they have immigrated here. About 50 percent of buyers intend to use the home as a primary residence, while the other 50 percent are split between investors and vacation-home buyers.

Foreign residential real estate buyers in the Washington region tend to buy here because they are relocating for work for a long period or are immigrating permanently to the U.S.

“Washington, D.C., is a place where people come to live and stay because of a job or for family reasons, not for vacation homes or second homes,” says Guy-Didier Godat, a Realtor with Evers & Co. Real Estate in the District. “While some international buyers may choose to have a home in New York City or Miami for frequent visits or a place in Florida for vacations, the D.C. area tends to attract long-term residents.”

Mr. Godat and other Realtors suggest international buyers in the D.C. area are so diverse that there are few generalizations to be made about them. Home sellers who may want to make their homes more attractive to international buyers may simply need to rely on the same techniques that attract American buyers. In general, this means presenting a clean home in excellent condition, in a good location with a reasonable asking price.

“There are as many different tastes and desires among homebuyers as there are people,” says Miguel Avila, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in McLean, Va. “About the only thing I can think of that buyers from Europe, the Far East and Latin America appreciate that Americans don’t usually look for is a bidet. It would be an asset to have one in the master bath of an upper-end property.”

Mr. Godat says many buyers from other countries think American homes have too many bathrooms.

“There is an element of culture shock for buyers from other countries because they are not impressed with a home that has five bedrooms and five or six bathrooms,” Mr. Godat says. “Of course, there isn’t much a homeowner can do about that, since you cannot hide an extra bathroom.”

Sari Dajani, an associate broker with Weichert, Realtors in Vienna, Va., says that while American homes tend to be larger than many European homes, sellers can identify individual features that may appeal to foreign buyers.

“Sellers and their agents can find certain features to emphasize, such as, if the property is located in the city, the cosmopolitan atmosphere and proximity to embassies and international organizations,” Mr. Dajani says. “Homes located near one of the airports could be marketed as a place to easily reach other parts of the country, which is important to people who travel a lot.”

Mr. Godat says many international buyers are concerned about energy efficiency, so sellers can emphasize green features in their homes.

When it comes to marketing a home to international buyers, Mr. Avila suggests sellers work with a Realtor who will include as many photos as possible and a virtual tour, especially if the potential buyers are still overseas and will be searching online before coming to the area.

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