Local appetite for US property on the rise

In a slow US housing market overshadowed by great uncertainty, one type of buyer is still bullish on America - Israelis.

In a slow US housing market overshadowed by great uncertainty, one type of buyer is still bullish on America - Israelis. "The dollar continues to fall opposite the major basket of currencies as well as against the shekel, creating investment opportunities in the real estate market in the US," said Eli Kazhdan, CEO of Citibook Services Ltd. Israel, a US-based company that provides title insurance and lease abstraction to major real estate firms. "The fact that in Israel the dollar is weakening presents a great opportunity for the Israeli investor to view the US as a good place for investment." As the dollar has continued its slump for more than a year (since the beginning of 2008 alone, the shekel-dollar exchange rate has dropped 11.5 percent) and the US economy slows even more, an increasing number of Israeli investors have bought trophy buildings across New York city, representing one of the dominating foreign investors. Although the range has proven extraordinarily diverse, the focus has been on commercial property rather than residential for the purpose of investment mainly in trophy buildings, condominiums, office space and hotels. These types of properties have been less affected by the subprime lending crisis. Prime examples are Lev Leviev's quick purchase of the 41-story Clock Tower on Madison Avenue for $200 million or Yitzhak Tshuva's purchase of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Just to mention a few. Israelis are certainly not going to miss out on any bargain opportunity in particular in a market they already feel very comfortable. Israeli investors are known for thinking "out of the box" and acting swiftly to take advantage of opportunities and ventures and pursue them as quickly as possible. The Israeli investor differs to the traditional investor in that once an opportunity presents itself he will grab it no matter what. "In the American market, there's a sense of a lack of consumer confidence. Israelis buyers are coming in and saying 'If you don't buy, I will,'" said Oren Heiman, Managing Partner at Shiboleth law firm serving mainly Israeli clients investing in the US. "For Europeans and Americans shaky markets are unacceptable. While Israelis are more flexible to take advantage of opportunities than Americans despite the fact that in many cases there is language barrier, cultural differences and different concepts such as the concept of appraisal and title. From the beginning of the year we see this trend continuing. Now, Israeli investors and developers raise private placements for two purposes - to attract sponsors for new constructions, and to find foreclosure specialists around Manhattan for assets that sell at 55 or 60 cents to the dollar." Heiman added that today, about 20 Israeli developers are counted among the 100 leading developers in the New York area. "There are some new Israeli players coming into the market but not as many as we have seen before," said Heiman. "Furthermore investment is no longer tied to Manhattan but the trend is moving to more rural areas as well." At the same time, Florida and Las Vegas, prime investment targets of the likes of Yitzhak Tshuva, are now considered overdeveloped. "In Miami the balance between supply and demand is still shaky," said Heiman. Although the trend of Israeli buyers is focused on commercial property, the weakness of the dollar has opened more opportunities for the wealthy to make purchases in residential properties in major international cities, including New York, which are better understood as luxury markets for the international elite than markets for the middle-class. "With the shekel-dollar exchange rate being more attractive than ever, you also see a lot of Israeli individuals purchasing residential property in New York but more for the purpose of reinvestment than to buy a second home," said Heiman. "A typical example is a recent deal which we closed where a 65-year-old Israeli couple had sold their furniture business and reinvested into the purchase of two apartments in New York." The weakness of the dollar makes New York attractive and affordable if the financing is available since mortgages are harder to get because of the subprime mortgage crisis. "Israeli buyers, if they are able to provide proof of a sound credit history and finance conditions they can also benefit from the subprime crisis as banks in such cases are offering very low and attractive interest rates," said Heiman. However, in a US housing market characterized by mixed real estate prices spotting and assessing buying opportunities at a fair price generating a good yield is more challenging for foreign investors such as Israelis mainly because of the distance. "In the wake of the US subprime mortgage lending crisis a wave of foreclosures and evictions are expected representing good buying deals for foreign investors such as Israelis," said Benny Loval of the Anglo-Saxon real estate agency. "In some cases properties originally priced at $600,000 are offered at $400,000. However, the problem for the Israeli investor in such deals is the limited ability to assess the real value of the property on offer from the distance." Still some industry watchers are wondering if foreign appetite for US real estate could be waning these days. International buyers could be feeling some of the same jitters that domestic buyers are. "Although Israelis today have to put down more capital for financing investment in the New York area and housing prices are coming down they are still in a position of an opportunity to generate a high yield as rentals have remained stable or are rising," said Heiman at Shiboleth. Loval, at Anglo-Saxon real estate agency, added that the Israeli individual investor had become much more sophisticated over the past five years in that some are purchasing property without going through an Israeli real estate broker the current situation of uncertainty in the US market would require a local US expert opinion or real estate appraiser to assess the real value of properties. "This process is difficult to handle from afar and therefore potential Israeli investors could be expected to be more hesitant," said Loval.