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The Treasure Coast is attracting a growing number of international real estate buyers, from Canada to Latin America and Western Europe, buying second homes and rental properties.

Helped by a weaker dollar, they are attracted by home values lower than other parts of Florida and their native countries and a less-crowded area. And with rising property values in traditional hubs for foreign buyers, such as Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Treasure Coast could be the next hot spot for those clients.

The presence of international buyers has been prominent on the Treasure Coast since at least 2008, when the housing market started to decline and the dollar began losing its value compared to foreign currencies. A research published in August by the National Association of Realtors found that Port St. Lucie and Vero Beach rank No. 9 and 13 among top destinations for nonresident foreign buyers in Florida.

The two towns are among the top destinations for Canadians. Port St. Lucie is one of the preferred locations of Venezuelans, Brazilians, other Latin Americans and Western Europeans.

"The Treasure Coast is close to Orlando and Miami and one day it is going to become a great center as well," said Walter Mello, who is from Brazil.

Mello moved to Miami-Dade County in 2008 to manage his aircraft exporting business. He owns cotton, corn and soy bean farms in Brazil and properties in Orlando and Lakeland. He is looking for homes in the area from Stuart to Fort Pierce to escape the traffic of big cities. He also is interested in farmland in Indiantown to raise cattle or fish.

The growth of the Brazilian economy and its middle class, paired with easier access to loans, have caused demand for the country's real estate and prices to soar. Mello said this is the time for Brazilians to sell their properties there and invest in Florida. He's not alone in this thought.

If foreigners choose the Treasure Coast, they should come now, said Donn Wonderling, president of the Realtors Association of St. Lucie County. Home values, in St. Lucie County in particular, are starting to pick up.

"They are not going to find inexpensive houses like years ago," Wonderling said. "They will be surprised that a lot of homes have multiple offers."

According to reports from October, St. Lucie County inventory was down 52 percent compared to October of last year and the median price of a single-family home was up 16.7 percent. That trend is caused mostly by a decrease in foreclosed homes and short sales, Wonderling said.

Martin County home values dropped 6.5 percent, but inventory also was down 41.7 percent. In Indian River County, single-family home prices have risen 27 percent while inventory fell 40 percent.

There are no local numbers that show how much of real estate sales go to international buyers. Across Florida, they represent 19 percent, the National Association of Realtors found. And Wonderling said since he moved to St. Lucie County in 2005 he has seen a growing number of foreigner buyers, in particular Canadians and Europeans.

Traditionally, many Canadians have bought property on the Space Coast and in Broward County, said Sonny Solomon, a broker with the Keyes Company whose clientele is 50 percent Canadian.

"They are doing their homework," Solomon said. "They are not saying, 'I'm going to go to Hollywood (Fla.) because that's where all of my friends are.' They are looking at other options."

Yves Gougoux from Montreal has owned condos in Palm Beach County since the 1990s but picked Vero Beach to build his dream winter home. He purchased an old house in cash and tore it down to build a 5,500-square-foot, two-story home in March.

"Vero is a very nice ocean community with beautiful beaches, nice people, very nice golf courses and I'm really looking forward to spending a lot of time there," he said.

Gougoux, 61, owns an advertising company in Montreal and will spend up to six months in his new house at a time. That is the maximum time foreigners on a tourist visa are allowed to stay in the U.S.

According to the research by the American Realtors Association, if visa regulations were more flexible for foreign homeowners, more international buyers would purchase property in the U.S.

Financing regulations also are stricter for foreigners, the research found, because it is difficult for them to confirm credit worthiness. They do not have Social Security numbers or credit ratings computed on scales similar to U.S. practices. About 82 percent of Florida international buyers use cash.

Despite those hurdles, foreigners see Florida's housing market as advantageous. The U.S. offers more political stability than other countries, and international buyers expect real estate values will appreciate over time.

For Marcel Warmenhoven of the Netherlands, U.S. laws make it easier to screen a tenant's background and to evict them if necessary.

Warmenhoven bought a single-family home at Jensen Beach Golf and Country Club in May and is renting it out. He said he picked Jensen Beach because of low prices and because local tenants plan on settling down for longer than in areas that have a more transient population, such as Miami and Orlando.

The Treasure Coast Global Business Council, anchored by the Realtors Association of St. Lucie County, teaches Realtors in the tri-county area and Palm Beach County how to help foreigners navigate the American real estate system.

The council recently received an award from the National Association of Realtors for its work with international buyers. Only three other councils in the country were recognized — in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and one in California.

Yazcara Bradley, the council's chairwoman starting in 2013, said the fact the Treasure Coast council was recognized along with two South Florida counties known as hubs for international buyers proves the importance of foreigners in the local real estate market.

"More Realtors are interested in catering to them," said Bradley, who is Costa Rican and speaks Spanish and Italian. "In the council, we have people who speak at least 10 languages — French, Hebrew, Russian."

She said a growing number of home sales are to foreign-born clients. Most are naturalized or resident immigrants who have lived in other parts of the U.S. and do not fall under the international buyer designation. Still, Bradley said, they are more comfortable dealing with a real estate agent who speaks their language.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed that the foreign-born population on the Treasure Coast increased from 10 to 13 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population jumped from 8 to 14 percent. St. Lucie County had the highest increase with 102 percent growth.

New businesses have flourished to cater to that demographics — Cuban and Colombian eateries and Bravo, a Latin grocery store chain, just to name a few.

Local real estate agencies are starting to adapt to that growing diversity by hiring more agents who speak Spanish and other languages. Other Realtors are acquiring necessary accreditation — called certified international property specialist program — to work with international buyers.

That shows the Treasure Coast is becoming more like the rest of South Florida, said Keyes Company broker associate Tom Anton in Port St. Lucie.

"I find Port St. Lucie to be the most eclectic market I've worked in," said Anton, who moved from Maryland 12 years ago. "On my street alone, I can think of six different nationalities. It's a melting pot type of thing."

1/29/2014 05:37:49

The good news is that all buyers are offering real estate at affordable prices


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    As a seasoned real estate investor I have used bank financing, hard money financing, mortgage loan brokers to fund my deals. Because these are very limited in the type of "loans" they are allowed to sell they can only accommodate a certain few types of real estate deals.

    For individuals who like to "keep their money working" through these "lenders", thinking that their investment money is more secure through them miss out on investments "secured by real estate", (just as secure as the lenders deals) some deals will have much greater returns under terms that can keep your money longer and that you decided upon.


    January 2014