Foreign investment in Chicago real estate reaches record high

Chicago was an appealing city for international real estate investors in 2015:

Chicago’s continuing rise to prominence on the world stage was further boosted by the latest figures indicating that 2015 will not only be a banner year for new construction and hotel occupancy, but a record-breaking period for foreign real estate investment as well. 2015 saw $3.27 billion of new overseas capital flow into the Windy City, according to recently published report by Crain’s Chicago Business, a figure that shatters the previous record of $2.18 billion set in 2013. Citing data from New York-based Real Capital Analytics, Crain’s reports that foreign buyers accounted for roughly 16 percent of Chicago’s total $20.2 billion of real estate sales this year. Chicago now ranks as the fourth largest market in the nation for foreign investment — up from last year’s eighth place — and trails behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.

These positive figures are attributed to several factors. Oversaturation of traditionally stronger coastal markets has driven up prices to the point where commercial investors are often finding more lucrative opportunities in Chicago. Chicago is seen as a somewhat riskier choice for firms taking on commercial properties due to the relative ease at which new buildings can be added and tenants relocated — similar to CNA’s announcement earlier this week — but foreign buyers willing to take on this risk have enjoyed greater returns. In 2015, investment in Chicago saw first-year rates of return (“capitalization rates” for you finance-minded folks) averaging 5.1 percent, outperforming the 4.1 and 4.7 percent yearly yields of Manhattan and San Francisco, respectively.

While this sounds like good news (more capital flowing into the city and the potential for these investments to lead to other deals), I could imagine two downsides:

  1. This recently happened in Chicago, but it wasn’t the first city of choice for international investors. It is suggested here that investors are now turning to Chicago because the more desirable markets – NYC, LA – are oversaturated. So, this may confirm that Chicago is still the third city – or maybe even the fourth city if you include Washington, D.C. This may just feed the anxiety some in Chicago have of their place on the world stage.
  2. Even as investment from outsiders is viewed as good, would investment from foreigners be viewed as positive by all in Chicago? Americans occasionally have periods of fear that people from other countries are taking over and Chicago is a more parochial/less cosmopolitan market than some on the coasts. Foreign investment may be good but do Chicagoans like the idea that others are benefiting greatly off the Midwest?

How big investors buying up properties may be limiting cheaper housing

The economic crisis opened up space for bigger housing investors yet here is one argument about how their actions may be limiting the supply of cheaper housing:

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted how some investors are using algorithms to quickly parse housing data and formulate bids on undervalued properties, site unseen. While doing so is a cool technological feat, it can spell trouble for normal people trying to navigate the often complex home-buying process in order to make offers on similar homes. And algorithms aren’t the only benefit that more sophisticated investors have. “Investors are winning over the first-time buyers in some bidding processes because investors are all cash,” says Lawrence Yun, a chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. For a seller that means a smoother deal: no waiting around on financing, loan approvals or other inconveniences that traditional buyers bring to the table.

For their part, some investors contend that the homes they purchase don’t put them in direct competition with first-time buyers. Invitation Homes, an investing and leasing company owned by Blackstone says that they typically funnel another 10 to 12 percent of the purchase price into renovations in order to make a property market-ready—an investment that most first-time home buyers wouldn’t be able to afford. Many investors also contend that compared to the number of homes that are bought and sold nationwide, their activity is just a drop in the bucket.

When looking at the big picture, that’s true. Nationwide, large institutional investors made up only 4.3 percent of the single-family home purchases in the market during 2014, according to RealtyTrac a real-estate data firm. And overall investment activity is dwindling as home values return to normal and there are fewer deals to be had. Dallas Tanner, the chief investment officer at Invitation Homes says that the group currently buys about $25 to $30 million a week of single-family properties, that’s down from their 2012-2013 peak when the group spent upward of $160 million each week.

But like all things in real estate, it’s also a matter of location. Lots of investor activity is concentrated in markets where homes are still available at reasonable enough prices that purchasers can turn a profit. According to a February 2015 report from RealtyTrac, “There were 35 zip codes nationwide where at least 50 single-family homes were purchased by institutional investors in the fourth quarter, with institutional investor purchases representing from 17 percent to 74 percent of all single-family home sales in those zip codes.” Places like: Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Memphis. Those are also places that first-time buyers have the best bet of stretching their dollar far enough to purchase a home. Herbert, of the JCHS, says that that in some places, developers may in fact be pushing out normal home buyers, “For certain property segments, they may be creating competition.”

Even as the higher end of the housing market does well (see recent evidence here, here, and here), any impediment on the lower end of the market isn’t helping these days. With developers not showing much interest in building starter homes, these institutional investors may be grabbing up homes that those who want to join the housing market – whether recent college graduates or those working lower-income jobs – would need to get their foot in the door.

So if Americans – from politicians to average citizens – want to push homeownership, are these institutional investors good for this in the long run?