Why Investing Outside the U.S. Makes Sense Now

For many years the U.S. real estate market has been a consistent performer. A stable government, economic growth and investor-friendly laws have led to dramatic increases in real …

For many years the U.S. real estate market has been a consistent performer. A stable government, economic growth and investor-friendly laws have led to dramatic increases in real estate values. Will values continue to rise as sharply in the future? Only time will tell. However, there are many factors that contribute to the theory that foreign markets will offer greater real estate and business investment opportunity in the coming years, including:

1. U.S. economy
If you haven’t picked up a newspaper recently, you might not realize that the U.S. is dealing with extreme volatility in the financial markets as a result of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Underlying it all are some serious issues with the U.S. economy that may dramatically limit the growth potential of U.S. real estate over the next 10 years.

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  • Current U.S. credit crisis!
    Radical changes in loan-to-value percentages, debt-to-income ratios and other key loan qualifiers have dramatically changed the scope of U.S. mortgages. This led to a dramatic increase in U.S. real estate values between 2001 to 2006, as more individuals than ever were able to qualify to purchase one or more homes. Homeownership rates reached a 40-year peak of 67 to 69 percent during those years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What’s in store for the market remains to be seen, but it appears that values in many U.S. markets will continue to have corrections as reductions in lending programs and credit reduce buyer demand.
  • U.S. trade deficit
    Every year we continue to expand our trade deficit. In essence, we spend more than we make—to the tune of $817.3 billion, the 2006 U.S. trade deficit, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Common sense will tell you that if you spend more than you make, at some point you have to pay for it. Many economists argue that this point is moot because we can print as many dollars as we want. Their proposed solution would be to devalue the U.S. currency. This would bring benefit to investors who own assets valued in other currencies (especially of the countries with which we have a negative trade balance), which would rise if the dollar was devalued by artificially inflating the money supply. In other words, owning property in a foreign country could be an excellent currency and inflation hedge from the imminent currency devaluation resulting from spending more than we make as a country.
  • Aging population
    The U.S. population is in decline. Between 2010 and 2040, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that people 45 years of age and older will grow from 39.2 to 43 percent of the population. 70 percent of people aged 50 to 59 who intend to move for retirement will do so because they are looking for more affordable housing, according to a 2005 Harris Interactive study on baby boomers. This has the potential to dramatically affect demand in the real estate market in the coming years, as baby boomers scale back their consumption.

2. Technology
Living in a foreign country used to have dramatic consequences for an individual’s business, family and personal life. The Internet age, however, has opened up channels that enable people to effectively communicate from just about anywhere in the world.

  • Outsourcing
    More and more American jobs are being shipped overseas to more competitive markets. In 2003, 345,000 jobs were outsourced, and that number is projected to increase to 1,591,000 by 2010, according to Forrester Research. This trend is helping gradually prop up the infrastructure and prospects of many emerging foreign markets. However, in many U.S. markets, this has had the opposite effect (i.e. Detroit); outsourcing of jobs could continue to affect industrialized metropolitan areas.
  • Travel time!
    When I travel to my home in Nicaragua, it takes approximately seven hours of flight time. That’s about the time it used to take me to drive from Seattle to Boise, Idaho, when I was in college. Technology in the airline business has resulted in significantly decreased travel times and flight costs. Distance now matters much less than it has in the past. In addition, airline travel has become much less expensive because of increased competition. That flight to Nicaragua costs me less than $700 for a round-trip ticket.
  • Telecommuting
    By 2009, Gartner Dataquest projects that more than 25 percent of the U.S. workforce will telecommute at least one day per week. While most of these workers will likely still come into the office on a regular basis, technology does provide the ability for workers to perform many job functions from anywhere in the world. As technology improves, the telecommuting trend should continue to expand (see How Telecommuting Could Affect Real Estate Values).

3. Competition
American investors seem to have discovered real estate in droves over the last five years. “We buy ugly houses” ads and posters have become as commonplace as “for rent” signs. Much of this competition comes from investors with little investment experience. Because of familiarity with local laws, limited experience and lack of capital, most of these investors are not even considering foreign property.

  • Number of “investors”
    Investing in real estate used to be exclusive to wealthy individuals. The growth in creative financing programs and strategies, however, has led to a dramatic increase in the sheer number of individuals looking at real estate as a possible investment. In 2005, 27.7 percent of second homes purchased were purchased for investment, according to the National Association of Realtors. In most foreign countries, access to capital and financing options limit the involvement of most of the newer or novice investors.
  • Access to information
    In the U.S., investors have access to an unprecedented amount of information, all available over the Internet, 24 hours a day. Examples include Zillow, Trulia, RealtyTrac—the list goes on. More and more information is available to the general public every day. This information access knocks down most traditional barriers to entry for more established investors and tends to reduce opportunity because of increased informed competition. In many foreign countries, the lack of a traditional multiple listing service and comparable models still offers benefit to investors who are willing to focus time and energy to learn an area and develop relationships.

4. Baby boomers
It’s no surprise to most Americans that the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are the most affluent demographic of the U.S. population; they account for more than 40 percent of consumer demand, according to Gary Onks of Sold on Seniors. It’s also not a surprise to most Americans that increasing numbers of baby boomers are looking to travel to and live in warmer destinations with lower costs of living.

  • Retirement and climate
    Many of these baby boomers are looking to retire (or partially retire) in warm climates. Much of the overbuilding in U.S. markets has been done in these warm, retirement-friendly climates. However, with 6.6 million Americans living abroad, according to recent estimates from the State Department, it is becoming clear that a good portion of baby boomers are flying further south for the winters (i.e., Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America).
  • Cost of living
    Because of the high cost of living in the U.S., one-fourth of baby boomers do not think they will have enough money to retire by the age of 65, according to a 2004 Del Webb study. Most emerging foreign markets, however, offer dramatically reduced costs of living. For example, in Nicaragua, I can hire a full-time housekeeper for $100 per month. In the States, I pay almost $200 every other week to have my house cleaned. Lowered costs of living also dramatically reduce costs to tourists, in the form of food, travel and lodging while they vacation. Tourism in Central and South America alone has increased 7.9 percent during the last year, while world tourism overall has grown only 3.9 percent, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
  • Travel trends
    Baby boomers have already started to affect travel trends. Overseas air travel by U.S. citizens has increased 18.2 percent in the last five years, according to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. In addition, 85 percent of baby boomers surveyed plan to travel domestically within the first five years of retirement, and 82 percent plan to travel internationally in that timeframe, according to a 2007 SunLife Financial Study. That means baby boomers are poised to have an increasing effect on global tourism. That stands to benefit people who own tourism-related companies and properties in the coming years.

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