- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

The fantasy of owning a chateau in France, a villa on a Caribbean island or an apartment in London may be common, but the reality of buying property outside the United States can be daunting and may discourage people from chasing the dream.

Buying overseas might be complex, but it is not impossible. In fact, many Realtors around the country pursue training to achieve a Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation in order to tap into the worldwide marketplace.

Not only do these Realtors work with U.S. residents looking for investments or homes overseas, they also work extensively with overseas buyers interested in investing in American real estate from abroad or moving temporarily or permanently into a Washington-area home.

The Internet has simplified the process of buying property across borders, but national and international regulations, local customs and cultural differences can add complexity to the buying and selling experience on both sides of the table.

“Real estate is not a regulated profession in most countries, and buyers need to understand this and be very careful to work with a reputable, experienced real estate agent,” says Angela Eliopoulous, a Realtor with Global Owner Property Consultants and Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

“Most places don’t have a multiple listing service like we do, so there is no centralized source of information,” she says. “It helps to work with an agent from this country who collaborates with a local broker where you want to buy a home, because otherwise you’d have to go to 15 or more agents, each showing just their own listings.”

The differences don’t stop there.

“There are no price comparisons and comparative market analyses in most countries, so you have to work with someone you can trust,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says. “Most other countries don’t have real estate licensing laws, so anyone can sell real estate.”

If you are interested in buying a home overseas, a local real estate agent usually can recommend an affiliate broker in another country.

“First, you should get a local Realtor to give recommendations for someone they know overseas or know of through friends, then get an introduction to the affiliated broker,” says Naila, a Realtor with Long & Foster in the District who uses a single name. “Many companies here, including Long & Foster, have reciprocity arrangements with real estate companies overseas.”

Donna Evers, president and broker of Evers and Co. Real Estate Inc. in the District, recommends researching real estate agents overseas through the International Real Estate Federation, which provides contact information for finding Realtor associations around the globe.

Mrs. Evers and her husband have purchased homes in Paris for themselves, so they have firsthand experience in the complications of buying overseas.

“It’s important to get someone English-speaking even if you have some ability to speak the language in the country where you are buying a home,” Mrs. Evers says. “When you are talking about highly specialized transactions and technical or financial stuff, you need fluency in the language. The language barrier is extremely important.”

Mrs. Evers recommends finding an agent who lives in the area where a buyer wants to purchase a home because local expertise can be very important.

“I wanted to use a French agent who speaks English rather than an American agent who works in Paris,” says Mrs. Evers, who has purchased properties in Europe.

“E-mail has made the world a smaller place, and people can learn a lot just by visiting Web sites. After that, it is really important to have a detailed conversation on the phone to get to know the agent before choosing one to work with.”

Mrs. Evers agrees with Mrs. Eliopoulous that the lack of a multiple listing service makes buying overseas more complicated.

“In France, some agents have gotten together to put their listings on an Internet posting service, but it’s very hodgepodge and not really organized,” Mrs. Evers says. “Also, there are far more sales directly by owners in France. There, for-sale-by-owner properties represent as much as 60 percent of the market, while here it’s only about 4 percent of the market.”

Mrs. Eliopoulous recommends that potential buyers begin by making a list of what they want in a home, such as the size, proximity to the beach or golf courses and in what country they want to live, then research the cost of living in that location to make an estimate of what they can afford.

The State Department Web site (www.state.gov/travel) provides comprehensive information about the political and economic climate for individual countries around the world, along with other advice about living overseas.

“Many Americans are choosing to purchase vacation homes and retirement homes in other countries where the cost of living is less,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says. “For instance, more than one million Americans own a home in Mexico.”

After making a decision about where to begin looking for a home, Mrs. Eliopoulous recommends finding an international agent in this country.

“Sometimes international agents in this country have listings overseas, but even if they don’t, they always cooperate with a local agent in another country,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says.

“It’s very important to make sure that the agents work together, first scrutinizing the property on the Internet, then working together with a collaborating broker. International agents usually work with a team of experts on both sides of the border, such as lawyers, loan officers and title companies.”

“These agents usually have contacts for renovators and contractors and property managers, too,” she says.

The next step is to visit an American lender to discuss financing. Banking customs also differ in other countries.

In some countries, banks are unwilling to loan money to someone from another country. In other lands, it is more common.

Mrs. Eliopoulous says a 20 percent to 30 percent down payment is required for the purchase of property in most countries.

“Most countries lack a secondary market for selling mortgages similar to what we have in the United States,” Mrs. Evers says. “Wall Street’s backing of the U.S. mortgage market is what makes mortgages competitive and so easily available in the country. With fewer choices, banks can charge what they want for mortgages in other countries. In our case, we chose to work with a British company for our financing in Paris, mostly because they were English-speaking and that made things simpler for us.”

Mrs. Evers points out that in some countries there are expectations of bargaining that go beyond what Americans might expect, and full-price offers are never made. This is another reason working with an experienced local real estate agent can be an advantage.

“Commissions and settlement costs will vary a lot from one country to the next,” Mrs. Evers says. “In France, the settlement costs were fairly high compared to this area.”

Mrs. Eliopoulous says closing costs and commission fees in Mexico total about 10 percent of the selling price of the home, while in other places the total is about 12 percent.

In the Washington area, commission fees are negotiable but frequently are about 6 percent of the selling price, and closing costs average about 2 percent of the selling price, Mrs. Eliopoulous says.

In other countries, both the buyers and the sellers pay fees to their agents, unlike in the United States, when just the seller pays the commission fees.

Another important factor when buying overseas is making sure the title to a property is clear.

“Buyers and their agents need to pay attention to the laws in other countries, and they need to make sure they are buying in a place with a stable government so their ownership is protected,” Mrs. Evers says. “There are plenty of international lawyers in Washington who can help buyers with this.”

Mrs. Eliopoulous recommends that buyers work with lawyers in the country where property is being purchased to do title searches.

“Some American title insurance companies are doing something revolutionary, beginning to open offices and sell title insurance for properties in other countries, which could be a huge benefit to buyers,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says.

Working with a team of real estate experts can protect American buyers, who may not be aware of common practices in other countries.

For instance, in France, buyers have a seven-day “walk-away” period after the contract is offered, during which they can rescind an offer without penalty, Mrs. Evers says.

In England, properties can be sold to a higher bidder anytime before the settlement, even if an offer has been accepted.

Just as Americans must make adjustments to cultural and legal differences when buying property overseas, buyers from other countries of property in the United States experience culture shock when confronting our complex real estate market.

“Foreign buyers can be suspicious of things they don’t understand, things that we take for granted, such as signing so many documents,” Naila say. “It’s so important for Realtors to explain everything to them and to make sure that they understand the entire process.”

Mrs. Evers says, “People from other countries often don’t want to tell us as much about how much money they have or where it is. There are ways to get around this without the need of their disclosing everything.”

Being cognizant of cultural differences can be important for the foreign buyers, the sellers and their real estate agents.

“When you are working with buyers from other countries, it is so important to be diplomatic and respectful of their cultures,” Naila says. “For instance, many people from other countries find it insulting when they are asked for too much financial information. Sometimes they think this information will be allowed to become public or even given to the CIA or the FBI. One way to handle this is to say politely, ‘The sellers have requested that your bank give you a letter of qualification,’ rather than to ask them to complete a lengthy purchasers’ information form.”

Buyers from other countries who wish to purchase in the United States should first establish a registration number with the State Department.

“In this country, investors can get mortgages; you don’t have to be a citizen or have a green card,” Naila says. “Usually, though, if someone is not a citizen, he or she must pay an investor rate for the mortgage rather than the standard rate, and that can cause confusion sometimes.

“There is difference, however, when you sell the home. If you are an investor from overseas, 10 percent of the proceeds will be held back at the settlement to cover taxes.”

Obtaining financing from a U.S. bank can be more complex for buyers from other countries.

“Pre-qualifying for a loan usually requires a 20 percent down payment for people from other countries, although there are special programs for people with diplomatic status so they can obtain financing with just 5 percent down,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says.

“To qualify for a loan with just 10 percent down,” she says, “foreign nationals need a passport, employment verification, proof of immigration status, three credit references from the country of origin — preferably a mortgage or rental history for one reference — and a U.S. bank account with enough money to cover the down payment, closing costs, and two to four months of principal, interest, taxes and insurance. The money must have been in the bank for at least 60 days.”

Property owners in the United States who think their home might be of interest to international buyers should work with a listing agent with experience working with foreign nationals, Mrs. Eliopoulous says.

“Anyone who owns a property in the D.C. area which could interest diplomatic personnel or other foreign buyers should work with someone who can market the property internationally,” Mrs. Eliopoulous says. “But foreign buyers are not just interested in city properties. They want resort-area homes near beaches or golf courses and country estates, almost anything unique could be worth marketing overseas.”

Several Web sites list information for buying property overseas.

www.FIABCI.org, the International Real Estate Federation, provides contact information for Realtor associations in 50 member countries.

www.Realtor.org/International, the National Association of Realtors, provides a wide range of information on buying property overseas, including a link to find a Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS).

www.state.gov/travel, the State Department Web site, provides country profiles with information on the local economic and political situation and information on living abroad.

www.GlobalOwner.com provides international property listings and information about purchasing overseas.

www.ired.com, the International Real Estate Digest, provides links to international property listings and real estate agents, along with links to consumer services related to buying overseas.

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