Chinese investors have been the biggest purchasers of U.S. residential real estate for six consecutive years, but President Trump’s trade war, and China’s efforts to reduce its national debt and boost economic growth, could change that.
And if the impasse continues, the effects could be even more far-reaching. “The Chinese government could place stricter capital controls about taking money out of China and buying in America,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. China’s government has already put pressure on Chinese nationals to reduce their commercial real-estate investments.Meanwhile, the U.S.-China trade dispute has sent the Chinese yuanUSDCNH, -0.0029%to new lows relative to the dollar. “It’s already making U.S. real estate more expensive” for Chinese buyers, said Michael Fratantoni, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The trade war also adds to U.S. economic uncertainty at a time when real-estate demand is weakening even in some of the country’s hottest housing markets.
China has become the largest foreign buyer of U.S. residential real estate
In 2014, China supplanted Canada as the source of the largest share of foreign buyers of U.S. residential real estate, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.
In 2018 dollars, Chinese buyers accounted for roughly 25% of total foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate. Canada was No. 2 at 9%.
Of the 284,000 properties sold to foreign buyers last year, some 40,400, or 15%, were bought by Chinese nationals. Five years earlier, Chinese nationals had purchased 23,075 homes, representing just 12% of all properties sold to foreign buyers.
Even China’s growing share in recent years represents a small percentage of overall investment in U.S. residential real estate. As of 2018, foreign buyers in aggregate accounted for just 3% of U.S. home sales, the association added. That figure had been rising, but experienced a modest decline between 2017 and 2018. The figures for 2019 are expected to be similar to the 2018 levels.Long before the current trade dispute, the Chinese government had been creating hurdles for its citizens who wanted to invest abroad. The country started restricting outbound investments in 2016, allowing residents to take only the equivalent of $50,000 out of the country, as a means of propping up the country’s currency. This not only made it more difficult to purchase real estate in America but prompted some Chinese investors to sell their U.S. assets.
A Chinese pullback could have serious effects for some West Coast markets
Unlike foreign buyers from other countries who spread their investments more evenly across the U.S., Chinese residential real-estate investment is highly concentrated on the Pacific Coast. Nearly 40% of Chinese buyers have purchased in California, home to a large Asian community.
But California isn’t the only place where a fall in Chinese buyers would make a difference. Chinese nationals represent a significant share of the foreign buyers of residential real estate in the New York City metropolitan area and growing shares of buyers in states including Florida and Texas.
Chinese buyers also play a big role in the residential-real-estate markets of college towns, as more Chinese students have opted to study at American universities, Yun said.
However, a retreat by Chinese buyers could be good news for Americans looking to purchase a home, especially in such costly Golden State markets as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. These are among the most expensive in the entire country, and their popularity had contributed to double-digit home-price appreciation in recent years.
The rate at which home prices are climbing has recently slowed as buyers have struggled with affordability. The lack of competition from foreign buyers, who typically enter competitive all-cash offers, could provide an opportunity to get a better deal on a home for locals looking to buy.