AUSTRALIAN property investors risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars after snapping up thousands of US housing bargains at forced-sale prices, experts have warned.Another article from The Age tells the story of the following couple:
Emboldened by the soaring local dollar, Australians invested about $600 million on US residential property last year, according to the Washington-based National Association of Realtors, as overseas buying of US housing doubled.
But consumer advocate Neil Jenman predicts that thousands of Australians will lose their money after unwittingly buying undesirable property.
''It's going to be a calamity, for sure and certain,'' he says.
CLEANERS Ana and Miguel Canepa never imagined when they fled to Australia as refugees they would one day be landlords of four rental homes. But the residents of St Albans in Melbourne's outer north west are living the Australian dream, having last week signed contracts to buy their latest investment property. And it only cost them $A44,117.
That is because the three-bedroom house is in the US city of Phoenix in Arizona.
The couple, originally from El Salvador, have never been to Phoenix. But they already own two other homes purchased there this year for $A41,000 and $A52,100, as well as a fourth rental asset in Melbourne.
Real estate specialist Kevin Walters, who arranged the Canepa's purchases, will next month lead a shopping tour for 10 Australians and a tax firm that advises self- managed superannuation holders. They will visit Phoenix and Las Vegas, the foreclosure capital of the US.
''You can buy a house in the US for the cost of a deposit here,'' he says. ''Clients can purchase property in just two days, it's that easy. The only exception is that we don't have a lender for them at the moment, so they buy in cash.'' Mr Thomas says he gets rental returns of 16 per cent on his US assets, compared to about 3 per cent for his Australian properties. ''It doesn't seem a risk at all to me,'' he says.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Age quotes a Byron-Bay based buyers agent called 888 US Real Estate, which according to its website charges a "committment fee" of $380 and then a commission of $3,420 for each property purchase it handles for the Aussie battlers trying to realise their dreams. But 888 US Real Estate is just one of a handful of organizations that are sprouting up like weeds to flog US property to unsuspecting Australian buyers. Here are just a few of the ridiculous sales pitches made on some of these websites.
- "It's no secret: USA property investment gives you a 10-20% net return... Even after your expenses are paid you will still make money with My USA Property"
- "Once American banks start lending again, the USA market will recover. So you’d be wise to invest in an undervalued market now since every Australian dollar buys more" (My USA Property)
- "When you say “Go!” you set the wheels in motion for an exhilarating ride as your property grows in value giving you the possibility to create enough cash to fund the rest of your life in a few short years. Call us now!" (888 USA Real Estate)
But for now, we should concede that some of the claims they make are accurate. It is indeed true that in many parts of the US today, you can buy a house for less than the price of a new car in Australia, or for less than the average deposit on a house in most Australian cities. Which raises another question. There are a lot of very smart American investors with a lot of money to burn. If properties in the US are such a bargain, why is it that many of these American investors still don't want to touch the property market with a ten foot pole?
I'm not going to go into detail about what an absolute debacle the US property market is today, but let's just take a look at an interesting graphic in a recent report from the ratings agency Moodys. Moody's notes that there is still a massive surplus of housing inventory on the market, and that foreclosures and defaults are still skyrocketing in many parts of the country. You can see below that there are significant parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, where Moody's doesn't expect the housing market to fully recover until 2030. Yes, that's still two decades away.
And guess where the property spruikers are trying to talk Australians into buying investment properties? You're right. Places like California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida. Here's are a couple of listings in Florida from My USA Property:
Now, on the surface, property prices in Florida look like a real bargain, since they've already fallen around 45% in Miami and more than 40% in Tampa, as you can see below.
But there's no guarantee that prices are ever going to return to these peaks again, at least for a very long time in some of these areas. In fact, one recent study (which I might examine in more detail when I get the chance) argues that the housing bust may have created new types of "declining cities" across the USA -- certain cities which grew rapidly in the boom, attracting huge population inflows and investment -- but which are now facing the prospect of decades of stagnation thanks to a vicious circle of falling house prices, declining populations, rising vacancies, and increasing crime rates.
Some Australian investors are already finding this out the hard way. From the above story in The Age:
Sydney woman Kathy Graffiti bought three properties in upstate New York in 2005 and estimates she has lost between $300,000 and $400,000 on her investment. She bought two properties in Rochester and one in Buffalo for a total of $250,000, expecting rental yields of between 22-23 per cent.According to Neil Jenman, the consumer advocate quoted in The Age above, Buffalo, NY is one of the many areas where American "flippers" are buying up properties at fire-sale prices and then selling them on to "unsuspecting Australian suckers" at much higher prices.
The rental income stopped in 2007 and Ms Graffiti was forced to sell two of the properties at a significant loss. She has been offered $10,000 for the third property.
Typically, the American promoters work in tandem with Australian property spruikers who Jenman says are the "same rogues" who used highly questionable tactics when selling residential property on the Gold Coast and in the outer Melbourne suburbs.
Jenman says some Australians paid $50,000 for US houses with expectations of extraordinary rental yields and now can't sell the properties for $25,000. And he knows of an Australian who paid $80,000 for a house and now is unable to sell it for $40,000 – the best offer has been $10,000.
Without a doubt, there are going to be some good investment opportunities in some parts of the US. But how the hell are you going to identify them from Australia, and can you really trust the clowns at places like 888 US Real Estate to pick the winners for you?
And that's not to mention the myriad of other problems involved with buying property in the US, which the property spruikers gloss over, but include:
- Significant foreign exchange risk
- Major tax complications including the necessity to pay income tax in the US on any rental income
- Stronger legal protections for tenants in the USA and a greater likelihood of lawsuits which can significantly raise costs for landlords compared to in Australia (see here for example)
It's time to wrap this up. Let's end with an appropriate Aussie classic from Paul Kelly.