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China Backs Away From SF Real Estate...Slowly?

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Fun times with global economic uncertainty

The last few years have seen a dramatic spike in foreign ownership in the Bay Area (particularly among Chinese investors), but given the economic climate, what comes next? With China’s economy still reeling, California housing prices soaring, and the value of the dollar rebounding against the yuan, the recent big-money real estate tango between the Bay Area and the People‘s Republic might be breaking up, or at least slowing down.

So says the National Association of Realtors and the Wall Street Journal, at least. If true, it would mean potential relief for some, but the end of a once-in-a-generation boom for others. Of course, this is not the first time anyone has floated that particular forecast lately: The Wall Street Journal already said as much once before. So did Forbes, and local outlets like ABC7, just to name a few.

In fact, China Daily (one of mainland China’s prominent English-language newspapers) suggests that the great retraction began three years ago. NAR is only the latest in a line of doomsayers, but they do have a few numbers to back it up: China’s GDP growth is projected to shrink again this year, down to 6.3 percent (two years ago it was 7.3 percent.)

And while the median price of a U.S. house in Chinese yuan has risen 14 percent in the last year, home prices in China dropped six percent in the same period. China’s stock markets took a lot of hits in 2015, and investor morale isn’t what it used to be. Michael Repka, CEO of Palo Alto’s DeLeon Realty, points out that this can have a two-pronged effect on demand here.

"The ones who used to have $10 million and watched it become $6 million, they‘re not going to be buying $1 million homes in Silicon Valley," says Repka. "But those who used to have $300 million and watched that become $250 million, that will drive a flight to safety, and I expect we’ll actually see demand go up in the $8 million range, because it will feel like a safe investment."

Indeed, Mark McLaughlin, CEO of Pacific Union International, tells us that they recently got an offer to sponsor an investment fund for "high net-worth investors from China."

"They’re definitely going to be looking at real estate as an investment deal," says Brent Gullixson of Alain Pinel Realtors in Menlo Park. "And you’ll see people pulling out of China altogether and wanting to resuscitate themselves."

But Gullixson also predicts that at least a moderate downturn is probably inbound anyway, if only because prices, particularly in Silicon Valley, are getting so insane that soon there’ll be nowhere to go but down. "I get a lot of questions about whether the market is softening. A better word for it would be normalizing."

That would be a relief to those who cite (or blame) overseas investors as the force inflating our bubble. "Chinese buyers are sitting on much of this property as housing in the Bay Area becomes increasingly scarce, causing its value to skyrocket," the Diplomat wrote in 2014.

On the other hand, just a year ago Repka was marveling at Chinese buyers who pay in cash and close in seven days. You’ve got to think he’ll miss them when they’re gone. Local economies may end up missing the income too.

In the short term, there’s probably enough built-up momentum for things to cruise at status quo for a bit. Beyond that? Well, if you’re looking for guarantees, maybe investment is not your game.