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A Welcome Mat For Foreigners Buying U.S. Homes

When you buy a house, you get to live there. Unless you can’t get a visa to stay in the country where your new home is located.

As Americans continue to struggle with unemployment and underwater mortgages, foreign investors have helped fill the housing market’s demand gap. In the year ending in March, international buyers spent around $82 billion on U.S. residential real estate, up from $66 billion during the previous year, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Foreign buyers have been particularly active in retiree-friendly markets, accounting for at least 5.5 percent of home sales in Miami and 4.3 percent of home sales in Phoenix during the month of July, according to MDA DataQuick.

But because of visa restrictions, many of those foreigners are unable to spend as much time in their new homes as they might like.

A bill proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would change that. Under the Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America (VISIT-USA) Act, foreign nationals who spent $500,000 or more on U.S. residential real estate would qualify for three-year residential visas, which could be renewed if the buyer remained in the same home, or one of equal or greater value. To qualify, new homebuyers would have to pay cash rather than take a mortgage, spend at least $250,000 of the $500,000 on a single residence, and live in the residence for at least half the year.

The incentive would be similar to existing programs that grant visas in exchange for business investments.

At a time when the housing market continues to lag, the visa program makes excellent economic sense. We need an injection of capital. Foreign buyers see attractive opportunities. We ought to make it as easy as possible for them to bring their money, and themselves, here.

The main objection that has been raised is that foreign buyers don’t need any further incentives to invest in U.S. real estate, since they are already doing so.

But even if the visa program does not encourage many people who wouldn’t otherwise buy U.S. property to do so, it may prompt those who would otherwise buy properties only for investment purposes to consider spending more of their time, as well as their cash, in the States.

The greater likelihood is that many affluent foreign buyers will jump at the chance to buy the right to reside in the safe, orderly United States along with their property. Attracting these moneyed residents will send beneficial ripples throughout the communities where they settle. The newcomers will need furniture and cars to go with their new houses. As they stay longer, they will spend money at restaurants and at clothing stores; provide work for condo employees ranging from housekeepers to security guards; and, most likely, many of them will bring friends and family to visit and spend their money as well. To avoid the common – though, I believe, spurious – argument that easing immigration takes jobs from Americans, the new homebuyers’ visas would not confer working privileges in the U.S.

The bill also includes a number of other provisions to make it easier for foreigners, especially those with money to spend, to enter the U.S. and to stay here. Chinese visitors, who now must apply for new visas each year, would get the opportunity to obtain five-year, multiple-entry visitor visas. A special program aimed at wealthy Canadian retirees seeking to maximize their time in the sun would allow Canadians over 50 to spend 240 days in the U.S. each year, extending a current 180-day limit. Other measures would create an expedited visa application process, available for a fee, and provide a discount visa application option to those who choose to tour the U.S. during the colder months.

The VISIT-USA Act will not provide an overnight fix for the housing market. It certainly is no substitute for wider-reaching, more comprehensive immigration reform. But it is a positive step on both fronts. And, with any luck, it will prove to be something that even our polarized politicians can unite behind.

All I have to say is “Willkomen, bienvenue, welcome!” Oh, and also, “Bem-vindos” (Portuguese) and “Huan ying” (Mandarin).

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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One Response to "A Welcome Mat For Foreigners Buying U.S. Homes"

  • Marvin Van Horn
    November 11, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    If I were advising these foreign buyers, I say buyer beware. You may be getting trapped into all the FBAR and FATCA disclosure issues and tax burdens you never imagined could be possible. So, better factor in the cost of good and expensive tax attorney and CPA advice before you take the bait. Once you become a U.S. person for tax reasons, you are hosed. Once you look at all the tax and compliance downsides, that visa and that house might not seem like such a good idea.