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Welcome Buyer/Users/adamp/Desktop/Stuff for FAR/Magazine Assets/OCT08/images/welcome

Lower home prices and a weak dollar make Florida a prime location for international buyers and investors. Here’s how to get them to realize it.

Maile Aguila has been working with international buyers for more than
20 years. A broker for Swire Realty in Miami, she’s helped hundreds of buyers from throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe buy condominiums on Brickell Key, a residential island just off Miami’s Brickell Avenue financial district.
“We’ve had many overseas repeat buyers who started as young couples without children,” she says. “Now, they have children and are buying larger units, as they spend more time in Miami with their families and nannies.”

At the other end of the state, Teri McCall, a sales associate with Compass International Real Estate in Destin, is focusing her marketing efforts on introducing international buyers to the Panhandle. She participated in a recent mission to the United Kingdom, and established a referral relationship with a London agency.

“We’re starting to get a lot of calls from the U.K., Ireland and the Netherlands,” she says. “On the other hand, there was a recent article in an Irish paper about buying in Florida, but [that] map didn’t even include the Panhandle!”

A Booming Market
Throughout Florida, international buyers constitute an increasingly important market segment. A 2007 study by the National Association of Realtors® found that Florida had 26 percent of all U.S. international real estate transactions, making it first in the nation. According to the study, 65 percent of Florida real estate professionals had foreign customers in the previous year.

With the weak U.S. dollar, Florida properties are highly attractive to buyers from Canada and Europe. “We’re seeing a large Canadian influence, and buyers from the U.K. are all over the place this year,” says Sean Ferguson, a sales professional with Classic Homes GMAC Realty in Clermont. “It’s a big change from even a year ago.”

Jacksonville is drawing buyers from the Pacific Rim, as well as Latin America and Europe, says Debbie da Silva, broker-manager of Prudential Network Realty in Jacksonville. Many of them are relocating to Northeast Florida for business reasons. “It’s [international business] as much as 10 percent of our client base, and we hope it will be larger soon.”

Many Latin American buyers are actively seeking vacation homes and investment properties in Florida. Political and economic uncertainties in their home countries—as well as the desire to scoop up a bargain—are among the motivating factors.
On the other hand, some international buyers are wary about making an investment in Florida during a period of economic uncertainty. High property taxes and insurance premiums are concerns, and tighter U.S. residency and visa requirements have also discouraged some buyers.

“There’s a great deal of interest from U.K. buyers, who find the exchange rate appealing,” says John Mike, a sales associate with Prudential Florida WCI Realty in Wellington and leader of a recent statewide real estate mission to the United Kingdom. “The main deterrents in recent times have been the surge in Florida property taxes and U.S. visa rules, which limit the time buyers can spend in Florida.” (See “Overcoming Objections,” on opposite page for more information.)

What a Buyer Wants
Clearly, Florida’s beaches, golf, boating, shopping and visitor attractions have appeal to foreign buyers. Traditional second-home and resort markets near major international airports are natural choices for vacation home purchases.

However, there are variations in buying patterns, particularly when language issues are involved. As a result, most major Florida markets have clusters of buyers from certain countries: French Canadians along the Daytona Beach coast, Germans in Naples and Fort Myers, South Americans in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and Brits and Latin Americans in the Orlando-Kissimmee area (see “Destinations: Hot or Not?” left).

That’s a real advantage for real estate professionals because they can target specific international markets.

In Southwest Florida, for instance, Gregg A. Fous, broker/owner of Engel and Völkers in Fort Myers, has developed a multifaceted outreach program to attract German buyers. Fous recently hired a Florida-based relationship manager to promote the firm’s listings on leading online portals in the U.K. and Germany, and connect with prospective buyers. “Working with European buyers involves a lot of Web work and follow-up to cultivate those leads,” Fous says.

Just a few months after launching this outreach program, Fous says, his sales associates have already closed several transactions with German buyers. “They fly in for a week, tour the homes and leave with an executed contract in our hands,” he says.
Fous notes that Europeans today are not buying $10 million trophy homes in Naples. Instead, they’re looking for modestly priced single-family homes in markets like Cape Coral or fractional ownership residences along the Gulf of Mexico.

Because residential buying patterns vary from market to market, sales professionals should do their homework to see which kinds of homes draw the most interest. In Palm Beach County, for instance, British buyers tend to prefer newer homes in gated beach and golf communities, according to Mike. “Security is a big issue for them,” he says. “They want to know their property will be safe when they’re back in England.”

In Sarasota, Anita Boakes, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Real Estate Inc. in Sarasota, says she’s seen a strong upsurge in interest from Swedish, Norwegian and British buyers in golf communities this year. “Many Scandinavians long for the sun, and love getting out on the course,” she says. “They like to buy single-family homes, villas and condos in a golfing community.”

Consider the Individual
Florida sales professionals point to the importance of treating each international buyer as an individual. Because of the wide range in incomes and lifestyles, one buyer might purchase a $125,000 two-bedroom condominium while another might select a $5 million penthouse overlooking the ocean or gulf.

“It’s a mistake to think that international buyers will just buy anything in your market,” says Mike.

That means taking the time to build a relationship, find the right properties and be sure the buyer understands the financial and legal aspects of the transaction.

“Imagine you had to buy a home in Hamburg, Paris or London, where everything would be foreign to you,” says Fous. “Almost every aspect of our transaction process is new and different to an international buyer. It’s almost like helping a first-time U.S. buyer, because you need to take the time and explain how everything works.”

Knowing the numbers is another aspect of helping international buyers, particularly if they’re looking to generate income from the property. “Many international buyers are interested in Florida’s investment opportunities,” says Matey Veissi, a sales associate with Veissi & Associates, Inc. in Miami. “They want to use the residence themselves, but have someone else manage and rent it out during the rest of the year.”

For international investors, the timing is right to buy residential and commercial properties in Florida, according to real estate analyst Lewis Goodkin, president, Goodkin Consulting, Miami. “I’ve never witnessed a more opportune time for the international investor,” he says, “particularly those who have currency advantages. While there are few bargains in commercial real estate, currency advantages can convert a so-so buy into a bargain, generating healthy returns.”

Making Connections
Florida sales professionals are using a variety of approaches to connect with international buyers, including these:
• Seeking referrals from foreign customers who already live in Florida.

• Building Web sites aimed at international audiences, with content about the U.S. buying process, area lifestyle information and a translation feature for non-English-speaking buyers. Boakes has taken it one step further: setting up a Web site hosted in Sweden (sarasota.nu), managed by a former customer. “I send photos and information regularly to update the site, and it’s generated a lot of referrals for me,” she says.

• Learning a foreign language. “When building relationships, it’s important to know both the … language and the culture of the prospective buyer,” says da Silva. “How you gesture, make eye contact, shake hands or bow can have an important influence on that relationship.” Sales associates who don’t know a second language can hire a team member with those skills or focus marketing efforts on the U.K. and Canada.

• Marketing properties in Canadian, European and Latin American publications and vacation home Web sites. For instance, Ferguson has been successful in advertising with “A Place in the Sun” (www.aplaceinthesunlive.com), an online and print magazine based in the U.K. that reaches buyers throughout the world. It can get expensive at more than $1,500 for a half-page ad, but Ferguson says it’s worth it. “About 10 to 20 pages are devoted to Florida each month,” he says, “and our ads get a lot of visibility.”

• Networking with sales associates in other countries. “I reach out to CIPSs [Certified International Property Specialists] in Europe, Mexico and other countries and ask for their referrals,” says Veissi. For more information on the CIPS designation, go to www.cips.org.

• Take part in an overseas business mission. Many Florida economic development organizations and chambers of commerce sponsor business-generating missions to international destinations. Some larger real estate associations also organize overseas trips for members. The best way to find them is to check the upcoming calendars of local, regional and state organizations. A calendar of trade missions sponsored by Boards/Associations and local groups can be found at www.realtor.org/cipshome.nsf/pages/Trade_Missions.

And more Florida sales professionals are equipping themselves with the tools they need to build their international business. 

Patsy Smith, CIPS, a sales associate with Wyant Realty in Ormond Beach, helped start an International Council in the Daytona market through her local real estate Association. Wanting to build buyer awareness of her region, she invited Association members to begin meeting monthly, sharing ideas and building networking relationships with each other through the International Council.  “We had about 50 people sign up immediately,” she says.

Now, Smith is organizing an outbound mission to the U.K. in October while planning to host an incoming group in November. Most people overseas has “heard of Daytona Beach, but they [don’t know where it’s located],” says Smith. “We want them to experience this side of the coast and show them the lifestyle and the bargains here. By pooling our resources, we hope to play a much bigger role in the international market.”

Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer.