Tampa Bay is bucking the trend as turmoil abroad — be it Brexit in Britain or upheaval in Venezuela — is taking its toll on Florida's real estate market.
While sales to foreigners dropped 15 percent statewide last year, the bay area managed to slightly increase its share of buyers from other countries, according to a new study by the National Association of Realtors.
Broker Alex Jansen attributes the gain in large part to "the ease of access'' through Tampa International Airport.
"Accessibility is typically why people from other countries come here,'' he said. "That's why Miami has always done so well — you basically have access to the entire globe from Miami whereas Tampa Bay didn't have that luxury before. Now with an international terminal and more flights we're seeing a lot more activity from countries where those flights originate.''
Since 2011, the number of international passengers at Tampa's airport has soared 140 percent. The bay area currently has nonstop service to England, Germany, Switzerland, Iceland, Panama, Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and several cities in Canada. Delta launches nonstop flights to Amsterdam in May.
Canadians still make up the overwhelming majority of foreign buyers in Tampa Bay although homes have also sold in the past 15 months to buyers from Bulgaria, Malta, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and 35 other countries. Tampa Bay gets a more diverse group of foreign buyers than do other major metro areas in Florida, the Realtors study found.
Over the past two decades, Re/Max agent Anne Pallister has worked with many buyers from Iceland. It's so easy now to get to Tampa Bay on Icelandair that four Icelanders bought condos last year in Heather Lakes, a complex close to downtown Dunedin, the Pinellas Trail and the beaches.
"I think there are probably about 12 owners in there from Iceland at the moment and they are all my customers,'' Pallister said. "They are mostly retired or coming up for retirement. They seem to have a strong sense of community and help each other quite a lot. They are so loyal and I always get referrals from them.''
Statewide, foreigners bought 52,000 houses, condos and townhomes last year, representing 13 percent of Florida's residential real estate market. That's far higher than the national average but a two percent decline from the previous year.
Like U. S. buyers, foreigners have been thwarted by the scant supply of homes for sale. Rising prices have also pushed some foreigners out of the Florida market, especially those from Brazil, Venezuela and other countries whose currencies have weakened against the dollar. With Venezuela mired in an economic and political crisis, the drop in buyers from there has been especially striking — Venezuelans accounted for just 5 percent of Florida's foreign buyers last year compared to 15 percent four years ago.
The number of buyers from the United Kingdom has also plunged as British politicians dither over leaving the European Union as mandated by a 2016 referendum. Jansen, founder of Pinellas County's Coastal Properties Group, was attending a recent conference in London where a British agent lamented Brexit's impact on real estate.
"He said it's mess, the market is at a standstill,'' Jansen said. "I think they're going to put things on hold (in Florida) as well until they really get a handle on what this means.''
Next to Miami-Fort Lauderdale, the bay area and Orlando are the most popular destinations in Florida for foreign buyers. Each had about a nine percent share of the foreign market last year, a slight increase for Tampa Bay and a slight decline for Orlando.
At the request of the Tampa Bay Times, the property appraisers in Pinellas and Hillborough counties searched their databases for all homes bought in the two counties since Jan. 1, 2018 by buyers with foreign addresses. The total came to 440 in Pinellas and 151 in Hillsborough, with Canadians accounting for more than half in both counties.
Five of the homes sold for more than a million dollars, including a waterfront house in Belleair Beach bought by a Canadian in February for $1.745 million. Re/Max listing agent Alllison Estabrooks said that was an anomaly because a weak Canadian dollar is making U.S. real estate less affordable to Canadians.
"They were fabulous when they propped up the economy during the recession but now I'm finding fewer people form Canada,'' she said. "It's hard for them financially to pull the trigger.''
Indeed, many of the homes recently purchased by Canadians -— and other foreigners — are worth less than $100,000, property appraiser records show. A Largo mobile home park with homes worth as little as $42,000 has attracted a dozen Canadian buyers in the last 15 months.
Latin Americans have traditionally gravitated to the Miami area but the Pinellas Realtor Organization's International Council hopes to lure more to this part of Florida. It arranged a visit this month by 20 real estate agents from Brazil.
"They're going to tour the airport and then they want to tour real estate offices because they're starting to have an interest in the Tampa Bay area,'' said Jansen, who is hosting the group at a Christie's office in Tampa.
Jennifer Zales, a Coldwell Banker agent who has had many foreign clients, is not surprised that a place with stable government — and good weather — would appeal to people from volatile Latin American nations.
Said Zales: "The political climate overseas lends itself to them wanting a safe haven for their money here.''
Foreign homebuyers in Florida in 2018 by the numbers
$22.9 billion — total value of homes bought by foreigners
$286,500 — median price of homes bought by foreigners
67 percent — percentage of homes bought in cash
36 percent — percentage of foreign buyers from Latin America
22 percent — percentage of foreign buyers from Canada
19 percent — percentage of foreign buyers from Europe
11 percent — percentage of foreign buyers from Asia
Source: National Association of Realtors
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.