Nobody said life was a rose garden, and nobody said immigration reform by the U.S. Congress couldn’t give well-off foreign home buyers a hand up in the fierce competition to get an American visa, either.
That’s the aim of newly proposed laws now before Congress, laws designed in large part to make enforcement of immigration policy more effective.
At the same time, those laws might also make American real estate markets more lucrative, especially in Florida.
Sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans such as Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, the new legislation aims well away from the tired, the poor and the huddled masses. Instead, it would open the American door wide to foreign buyers of properties valued at $500,000 or more.
Such buyers would have to be 55, have health insurance, pass a criminal background check and maintain ownership of their properties while remaining in the U.S. for at least six months of the year to benefit from the more liberal new rules.
If buyers meet those qualifications, temporary visas would be automatically granted, along with the opportunity to apply for permanent visas.
Foreigners who buy or rent properties valued at $250,000 or more, meanwhile, could extend the 180-day visa which is now the maximum allowed by law, to 240 days.
Canadians, in particular — because of proximity, common language and a robust economy — could take advantage, many Realtors predict. That might help everybody.
“As long as their currency stays at an even rate or is positive against the dollar, I think this has a huge potential upside for Southwest Florida,” says Rowan Samuel, who with his wife, Karen Samuel, heads the Samuel Team at John R. Wood Realtors in Naples.
“That’s across all (economic) categories. Most Canadian buyers are looking here for a second home. A lot are condominium buyers in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.
“But there are also a lot of upper-level executives purchasing multi-milliondollar properties who would like to spend more time here.”
That in itself would prove a huge benefit to retail businesses in the region, Mr. Samuel adds.
“The idea is that an extension of a visa is also a central revenue generator. People who stay here longer will spend more in restaurants and stores and in other various ways that have a tremendous benefit.”
All that sounds pretty good for everybody, in a Sunshine State where almost one out of five home purchases last year went to foreign buyers, about 80 percent of them paying cash.
But that doesn’t mean the law and the opportunities couldn’t be even better, suggests Jim Green, a Lee County Realtor.
“Why do we want any of these investors to leave at all? With the age restriction we don’t have the issue of workforce competition. We have people with what I’ll call reasonable wealth who discover how delightful it is to live in America. To me, they’re storybook residents, people with money coming in and in effect creating jobs, not taking jobs.
“So I would (propose) even more leniency. Don’t put them in a situation where they’re forced to go back for some amount of time, because that’s money they’d spend here.”
That opinion is echoed by others from east and west and north to south.
In such markets as Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter, Naples and Marco Island, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers, or Punta Gorda and Venice Beach, Canadians and Western Europeans, with some buyers from the Americas, all have shown interest in the markets, Realtors say.
Even Chinese nationals, whose home purchases in the U.S. amounted to 1 percent of the total two years ago, doubled that last year, picking up 2 percent of homes sold to foreign buyers, notes Mr. Samuel. (Coincidentally, a Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, reportedly moved last week to buy the world’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc., headquartered along the James River in Smithfield, Va., for $4.7 billion, suggesting how deeply China’s interest in U.S. products reaches.)
“In time, Chinese home buyers could become a huge factor here, too, although at the moment California and New York markets are (more attractive) to them,” Mr. Samuels predicts.
Wherever they come from, foreign buyers can help American sellers and the American economy.
“We definitely have seen an increase in foreign buyers, especially Canadians, and we personally know several who have said they would stay longer if their visas allowed them to,” notes Curtis Mellon, a Realtor in the Multiple Listings Detective Group of Re-Max’s Anchor Realty, in Punta Gorda.
In Charlotte County, he adds, highend foreign buyers who can no longer find a fabulous turn-key deal at the half-million to $1 million range, are now looking for land on which to build special homes —another way of powering up the American economy.
Dave Kaster, who has been selling real estate in the Naples-Marco Island market for almost three decades (the third biggest market in Florida behind Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice and Miami- Fort Lauderdale for Canadian buyers), agrees that such legislation could give the market a boost — maybe from the Europeans, whose business began to drop off a few years ago.
“I have seen a lot of Canadians buy,” he notes, “especially in the last 18 months. They want to be here for the weather. But the German and European market was bigger when I started my career, and that’s dropped off. This could encourage them.”
From the perspective of David Fite of Fite Shavell & Associates in Palm Beach County, the current demographics of foreign home buyers breaks down this way.
“Besides the tri-state market up north (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), Canadians are the biggest buyers.
“We do a lot of advertising in their magazines to give them a feel for the properties we have from the $2 million up to the $15 to $20 million range. And we have agents who make trips to Canada.
“The Germans, the English, the French — most of the Western Europeans are represented here. The South Americans seem to stay more in Miami.
“We are seeing more Brazilians and Columbians coming up to Palm Beach. A lot of it is land banking. They’re buying beautiful properties in the U.S., and putting their money into the U.S. because they feel safer here.”
Because they feel safer, they’re pumping money into the U.S. economy — which is part of the goal, at least, of the newly proposed legislation.
But if Congress is really interested in bringing money into the economy from overseas, Mr. Kaster has another suggestion.
“It would be nice if they’d get the corporate tax structure under control,” he says. “It’s so confusing for American companies, and we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world — I think that’s a hindrance to bringing money back into the U.S.”
Partly as a result, American companies have shipped many jobs overseas, Mr. Kaster concludes.
“That’s why we need to do anything we can to bring foreign investment into Florida.”