Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

San Francisco real estate feels chill of China's economic tailwinds

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-01-28 12:10

Although the slowdown in China's economy apparently has reached across the Pacific to San Francisco's residential real estate market, the city's astronomical housing prices also play a major role.

"We've seen a sharp drop over the last three years in search activity on Trulia, about 50 percent" by Chinese buyers, Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for the San Francisco-based real estate search engine, told China Daily.

"San Francisco's more pronounced than the drop we've seen on the national level," he said. "Nationally, it's down about 30 percent."

Chinese buyers make up between 6 and 10 percent of homebuyers in San Francisco, according to Trulia.

A median single-family house price in the San Francisco-San Mateo region, home to Silicon Valley tech titans and venture capitalists, is $1.1 million.

San Francisco real estate feels chill of China's economic tailwinds

"There aren't as many bargains, discounted homes as we've seen in 2012, 2013" in San Francisco, McLaughlin said. "Deals are fewer and far between."

Part of it can just be that Chinese buyers see the San Francisco market as frothy, because as McLaughlin noted, the drop-off started three years ago, before China's stock market selloff and currency depreciation.

"In the California market, particularly the San Francisco area, the price run-up has been so extraordinary. It's not only the foreign buyers hesitating, but domestic buyers (too)," Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), told China Daily.

"Larger numbers of people are thinking whether the prices make sense," he said. "They're (Chinese buyers) looking at all the West Coast cities, and the Bay Area has become the most expensive."

Still, the economy of China looms large.

China recorded its slowest yearly GDP growth in more than 20 years - 6.9 percent - as it transitions from a manufacturing-based economy to one that is more consumer- and service-oriented.

China's major mainland stock exchanges, the Shanghai and Shenzhen, are down 23 and 26 percent, respectively, just in January.

Yun said an anecdotal NAR survey of Realtors around the country presented a mixed view on interest from Chinese buyers.

"Some were indicating that a purchase that was lined up, some people pulled out because they didn't have the finances," Yun said. But "some Realtors have indicated that they are actually getting increased inquiries about being here in the US".

McLaughlin also sees a dichotomy.

"Because the Chinese economy and stock market have fallen, that has taken some confidence from Chinese investors (but) they may be looking for safer assets, and US real estate tends to be viewed, at least historically, as a safe investment, and we may see Chinese interest actually increase," he said.

Also muddling the picture is that "some Chinese buyers of US real estate use intermediaries in the US so the transaction comes up as a US buyer," McLaughlin said.

Although many observers see a disconnect between China's stock market and "real" economy in terms of the impact a market selloff has on its overall economy (unlike in the US), the more affluent Chinese investors who buy property abroad do tend to also invest in stocks.

"People who are buying in the US have to be in the upper tier of wealth to even consider buying here or even in Canada," Yun said.

"In 2014, sales transactions to buyers outside of the US dropped 10 percent, possibly due to the strengthening of the US dollar in relation to international currencies and weakening foreign economies," Yun wrote in a June 2015 NAR report. "However, the amount of money spent has increased; this means international purchasers in the US have become an upscale group of buyers, spending more money on fewer homes."

International buyers tend to purchase more expensive properties, with the average purchase price just below $500,000, compared with the overall average US price of $255,600. Chinese buyers typically buy the most expensive properties, at an average cost of $831,800.

Chinese buyers prefer the West Coast, with its plentiful education, business and trade opportunities, while Canadians looking for winter getaways gravitate toward the Southwest and Florida.

In 2014, for the first time, buyers from China exceeded all other countries in housing units purchased and in dollar volume, buying $28.6 billion worth of properties.

"My expectation is that China will continue to hold the lead (in the next survey)," Yun said. "Even though there is some devaluation in the yuan, it's much less devaluation compared to the Canadian dollar or other foreign currencies."

Yun mentioned Tampa, Florida, as an emerging market for Chinese buyers.

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