The Chinese are coming, and they'd like to buy your house

By Diane Francis

In 2014, a record number of Chinese, 100 million, are expected to travel abroad. Photo / Thinkstock
In 2014, a record number of Chinese, 100 million, are expected to travel abroad. Photo / Thinkstock

The Chinese are on the move. In 2014, a record number of Chinese, 100 million, are expected to travel abroad, an army roughly as big as Mexico's population.

They will visit family and friends, and real estate agents as well as tourist sites such as the Great Pyramids, Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building - the educated and well-heeled beneficiaries of the biggest economic rocket ride in history. They have money in their wallets, an appetite for the good life and ants in their pants.

Still, you can't blame them for feeling unsettled at home. Beijing's aggressive anti-corruption sweep has netted thousands of big fish, and more confiscations are on the way.

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Pollution has created an asthma epidemic, food safety scares are commonplace, and China's economic pace ebbs. There is still no true dissent or freedom of expression allowed. So the country's wealthiest are on the move and want a better life for themselves or their children.

Some 9.3 million Chinese have immigrated in recent years, and 64 per cent of the country's remaining rich households - a category that includes a few million people - want to leave or are in the process of doing so.

The United States is their preferred destination, and American real estate is becoming their new T-bills, a safe-haven asset. Like bullion, it's an asset class denominated in US dollars, safe from confiscation and, when necessary, bought anonymously to hide wealth from governments or creditors or ex-partners. But unlike bullion, US real estate can earn income, provide a roof and help obtain a visa.

A modern-day Chinese emigration wave is already underway, but a tsunami may soon hit America's shores. This month, US real estate Web site Zillow begins publishing its entire US real estate property database in Mandarin on the biggest real estate Web site in China.

This means Chinese buyers can surf the Net to find properties near family and friends in their price range. "The fact that Zillow is going there is huge," says Hall Willkie, president of New York real estate firm Brown Harris Stevens Residential Sales. "The Chinese may just overwhelm the United States with purchases."

A buyout is already underway. In 2013, Chinese buyers snapped up $11 billion worth of properties in the United States, capturing second place (at 12 per cent of all foreign buying) behind Canadians for the first time, according to the National Association of Realtors' Profile of International Home Buying Activity.

In the first quarter of 2014, Reuters reported that Chinese investors had even overtaken the first-place Russian expatriates in the purchase of Manhattan condos. Now with Zillow, they will have an even easier time prowling for properties anywhere in the United States.

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Willkie notes a spike in terms of interest in the past 18 months: "In New York, we've noticed Chinese buying very large, very expensive apartments, homes. But there are also many buying smaller apartments, $1.5 to $3 million, for their children going to school here. The parents are buying them."

In 2013, for instance, a Hong Kong woman paid $6.5 million for a two-bedroom in the tallest residence in New York, One57, for her daughter so she'll have somewhere to live when she gets into Columbia, Harvard or NYU, she told her agent. The daughter, currently, is 2 years old.

The desire to get money out of China for whatever reason, added to Zillow's foray into China's living rooms, will only enhance enthusiasm. China's biggest exports to the United States may end up being capital and people. Look out for its biggest winners in a neighbourhood near you.

Francis, former editor of Canada's Financial Post, is editor-at-large of the National Post and a professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

- Washington Post

- Washington Post

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