A record amount of foreign money is flowing into the U.S. housing market.
Overseas buyers and new immigrants accounted for $92 billion worth of home purchases in the U.S. in the 12 months ended in March, according to a study from the National Association of Realtors. That's up 35 percent from the year before, and the most ever.
Nearly one-fourth of those purchases came from Chinese buyers. And the place they're looking most is Southern California. Among U.S. cities, Los Angeles was the top destination for real estate searches from China on the associations Realtor.com website, according to the study; San Francisco was second; followed by Irvine.
The report highlights the growing effect of global capital on some local housing markets. The $92 billion amounts to 7 percent of all money spent on homes in the U.S. during those 12 months, and nearly half of it was concentrated in a fewcities, including Los Angeles.
There are several reasons why so much global - and especially Chinese - cash is flowing into Southern California real estate, said Jed Smith, managing director for quantitative research at the Realtor group.
Some families are buying houses for their children attending California universities, or even high schools in some top districts. Others see the U.S. as a smarter investment than the overheated Chinese housing market. And in some cases, wealthy Chinese are parking money in a safer haven than is available at home.
"California's a nice place to live, and by and large the U.S. is a good place to put your money," Smith said.
That's driving prices in parts of the region that have long been popular with Chinese buyers. Home values have returned to pre-recession levels in parts of the San Gabriel Valley, for example. And in Irvine, home to a booming population of young Asian families, new residences are getting scooped up by Chinese buyers.
Many international buyers are drawn to parts of the region where their fellow countrymen already live, said Sheril Liu, a real estate agent with ReMax Premier Realty in Irvine. Whether it's family connections or simple familiarity with the names, new buyers tend to follow the old ones.
"These are famous cities they know," said Liu, an immigrant from China who estimates that half her business now comes from Chinese buyers. "They know San Francisco. They know Los Angeles. They know Irvine."
Good schools help. Liu said many of her clients are families with children, planning to move to the U.S. and looking for a top-ranked school district. And the high-cost Chinese housing market means that even neighborhoods in the U.S. where the median price is pushing $900,000 can look like a steal.
"The real estate market in China is crazy right now," Liu said. "You can sell a little condo over there and easily afford a big single-family home here."
As the Chinese-to-U.S. market grows, more agents are trying to find ways to tap it. MSM Luxury Estates in Beverly Hills, for example, opened an office in Hangzhou last year to better reach new customers. So far, said chiefeExecutive Moe Abourched, it has done quite well.
"We're seeing more of an influx all the time," he said.
Abourched said his firm is working with a range of customers - including would-be immigrants who need mortgages, wealthy younger Chinese who can pay millions of dollars in cash, and investment groups aiming to buy land to build new subdivisions aimed specifically at Chinese buyers.
They wouldn't be the first to build with the foreign market in mind. Some home builders in Irvine have started incorporating Chinese design principles into their houses. And Chinese state-owned Greenland USA is launching a $1 billion project in downtown Los Angeles, including a 38-story skyscraper with condos aimed at an "international clientele."
Sales will start in September, and interest has been strong from foreign buyers, said Horacio LeDon, president of Douglas Elliman Development Marketing, which is handling sales for the project - though he notes it has been almost as strong from local buyers.
LeDon said he sees high-end buyers from all over the globe - the sort of people who typically stuck to New York or London or their own countries - taking a closer look at Los Angeles. And not just Asians. The weather of Southern California appeals to Europeans; the glamour to buyers from Russia; and the economic stability to Latin Americans looking for a haven.
"The world has really opened its eyes to California," he said.
Still, he noted, these global elite are only active in a certain slice of the market. And while that may keep driving up prices at the high end, it probably won't make much difference to the average first-time home-buyer in a middle-class neighborhood.
Smith agrees, noting that beyond a few pockets like the San Gabriel Valley or Irvine, the effect of foreign buyers, even in Southern California, is muted.
"I don't think the foreign buyer is cutting very many people out," he said. "There are plenty of other houses available."