Silicon Valley real estate may look badly bruised to those of us living here, with depressed prices, a glut of foreclosures, and a stubbornly bleak outlook. But to many foreign investors benefiting from red-hot economies around the world and looking to diversify their winnings, this region is one big luscious fruit of an investment ripe for the picking.
"Your real-estate slump makes this a great time for us to buy," said Cathy Li, a stay-at-home mother from Guangzhou, China. Along with her husband, who "works for the government," she bought a $500,000 single-family home in Fremont last year as an investment property. "I think its value will be way up in five years, so I'm telling all my friends this is the time to find good deals in Silicon Valley."
Firm numbers are hard to come by, and most investors are notoriously tight-lipped. But some data -- along with a trove of anecdotal evidence -- suggests that foreign investors, as well as recent immigrants flush with cash from investments back home, are increasingly scooping up houses, condos and apartment buildings in Northern California, either as pure investments or as places they plan to occupy in the future.
"We're getting a huge influx from China and India," said Catherine Marcus of Sotheby's International Realty in San Francisco, who specializes in upscale Silicon Valley residential properties. "There is just a lot of wealth there."
Diversifying their portfolios away from high-priced enclaves in Beijing and Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, investors are drawn here by what they consider bargain-basement prices, the potential of positive cash flows on rental properties, and amenities like the Bay Area's acclaimed schools. "Silicon Valley is the first choice because of the culture, the business environment and good education for the kids," said Helen Murphy, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from China whose company, Access China Growth in Boston, helps facilitate investments in both directions between the U.S. and China.
Foreign buyers are contributing to the large number of absentee purchases in the current South Bay housing market. Absentee buyers, which can include investors who don't intend to live in the house, accounted for nearly 15 percent of all sales in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in June, according to DataQuick, the real estate information service.
Many buyers from other countries view a piece of Silicon Valley as almost as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond, with prices here that seem cheap compared with overseas capitals where a condo can cost upward of $2 million.
Leonora Cruz, a realtor with Atlantic & Pacific in San Jose, has one client from India who is now living in the Bay Area and investing profits from his real-estate deals back home.
At a foreclosure auction on the courthouse steps, Cruz said her buyer "came up with $580,000 in different denominations of cashier's checks,'' as required by the auctioneers, and bought a $625,000 fourplex near the San Tomas Expressway. The misfortune of the seller, who'd bought the place in 2005 for $800,000, could well be a blessing for Cruz's client.
"This place will give the buyer a nice rate of return," she said. "There are some really good deals out there right now.''
Inside China, the buying power of its currency, the yuan, has been eroded by the same inflationary pressures behind what many consider to be a looming real-estate bubble. But outside China, the yuan is still strong, which can translate into prime opportunities for Chinese shopping for investment properties in the Bay Area, where prices are still way off their peaks in many cities.
"They come to the U.S.," said Bin Lee, president of the Silicon Valley China Entrepreneurship Forum, "and everything is cheap."
For a rental property, cheap can translate into positive cash flow. Newark real-estate broker Dexter Lat, owner of RE/MAX One Alliance Network, gives an example: "One client just bought a $147,000 condo that he can rent out for $1,200 and make a positive cash flow. So your investment's making you $14,400 a year. That's a 10 percent return. Plus if you hold it long enough, it's going to appreciate over time because you're buying at the bottom of our market.''
That's part of Cathy Li's thinking on the Fremont house, which she bought with cash and rents out now for $2,200 a month. "I like the big yards that single-family homes have in America," she said. "And the houses in Silicon Valley are better preserved than the houses in China.''
Michael Riese, a realtor with Alain Pinel in Los Gatos, described two types of foreign buyers in the valley these days: One has a purely business mentality, seeking a short- or long-term investment. Another is the newly hired tech executive, "coming from places with bigger problems than we have, seeing a home purchase in the U.S. as a solid investment, compared with what they may otherwise put their cash in back home."
Charmaine Wang, the first agent in Shanghai for the Bay Area's Intero Real Estate Services, estimates that "hundreds" of mainland Chinese bought property in Santa Clara County within the past year. They're buying "in all the high-end neighborhoods -- Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Atherton," she said.
The buyers are "very private people," she said. Property records won't reflect the offshore ownership, and they are unlikely to share their stories publicly.
Trulia, the online real estate information service, reports a big jump in searches for Silicon Valley real estate from other countries. Searches for property in Cupertino were up 90 percent in the first quarter of this year from a year earlier, Trulia reported. Palo Alto was up 121 percent; Los Altos Hills up 182 percent; Atherton up 68 percent and San Jose up 86 percent.
But getting the money to the U.S. can be difficult. One way is to have a business here and deposit proceeds in a local bank. Another is to pool family funds, said C. Wei, a RE/MAX Accord realtor in Pleasanton.
"In China today, each citizen can only wire-transfer $50,000 each year out of the country, though some investors find ways around that," he said. "But if you're buying a $300,000 property you have to have a whole family pool their allowances together.''
Wei had one client who bought a $600,000 home in Pleasanton that will be used as a rental for now. "But their long-term plan is to move to the U.S. in five years when their kids are older and occupy that house,'' Wei said. "It's a good area with good schools, BART and good commutes to work, and relatives who already live here.''
And best of all, said Wei, "compared to a nice neighborhood like that in Beijing, the Bay Area is much cheaper. ''
Education is also driving mainland Chinese to buy a home here. Lee said many wealthy Chinese want their children to be educated in the U.S., and either move here or buy a home in a good school district, where a family member could live while the children attend school.
Melanie Johnson, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker, said one of her buyers, a Hong Kong businessman who managed money for large companies like Citibank to buy buildings, "paid over $4 million, all cash, for a house here because they wanted their kids to go to school in Palo Alto. The kids had to be registered by Jan. 6 and I think they closed on that house in one week.''
"They like the idea owning property in the U.S., but don't necessarily use it," said John Brian Losh, publisher and chief executive officer of LuxuryRealEstate.com
. "It's kind of like a safety valve for them. For people around the world, to own property in the U.S. is as good as it gets. It's the ultimate status symbol and ultimate security. It's stable, it's safe, it's a haven."