Foreign buyers snap up U.S. real estate

— -- Real estate agents are increasingly courting foreigners to buy homes in the USA — hiring agents fluent in other languages, marketing to foreign buyers and in some cases, offering to pay the airfare and hotel bills of foreign shoppers who buy a home.

The agents are eager to win the business of foreign investors who are swooping in to buy property in the USA as home prices plummet and the dollar's weak value produces eye-popping deals for international buyers.

Because of the sinking value of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies, a home bought by a foreigner comes with a discount averaging 30%, the National Association of Realtors estimates. Between April 2006 and April 2007, about 30% of foreign buyers came from Europe, according to an NAR survey.

Nearly one-third of Realtors reported in that survey having had business with foreign buyers. Activity is especially busy in affluent cities such as New York and in warm-weather vacation destinations such as Miami and San Diego. Many of these investors, Realtors say, are buying homes as vacation retreats.

"With these prices, you can't say no," says Monique Burger of Belgium, who's buying a Miami Beach vacation condo for $270,000. "With the low dollar against the euro, it helps. And the low housing prices made us want to buy."

Agents are seizing the opportunity:

•In New York, real estate agent Jacky Teplitzky's firm has staff lawyers who specialize in foreign buyers. Sales to foreigners jumped from 10% of her business to nearly 25% in the past year or so.

Teplitzky says she's seeing a surge in interest, especially from Britain, Italy, Spain and Russia. In April, an Italian buyer in town for Easter took just 48 hours to buy a $3.8 million two-bedroom condo. Teplitzky recently sold $30 million worth of property to Russians who are using the homes as pieds-à-terre.

"We're a bargain right now for foreign buyers," she says. "A lot of them looked two or three years ago and found themselves in too crazy a market."

•Jenny Pruitt & Associates, Atlanta-based Realtors, is wooing foreign clients by maintaining agents who speak such languages as Dutch, Korean, Farsi and Arabic. A search function on its website can help locate a foreign-language-speaking agent. Recently, the agency sold a $2.2 million listing to a British couple who were amazed at the value for the price. The couple had upgraded from a 2,000-square-foot flat in London to a 9,000-square-foot home in Atlanta.

•At Wohlfarth & Associates, a New York firm, Rick Wohlfarth is traveling regularly to Brazil to help link buyers with properties, often ranging in price from $5 million to $15 million. Foreign buyers make up about 20% of sales.

"People are looking to diversify their investments," Wohlfarth says. "Buying power has increased tremendously."