Tampa Bay's hot real estate market has drawn the attention of an unusual investor — a pioneer of China's Internet commerce.
Since March 2014, entrepreneur Bo Wu and limited liability companies connected to him have paid cash for at least 37 properties in Tampa, Brandon, St. Petersburg and other parts of the bay area. Most of the transactions happened this year, including the $2 million-plus purchase in October of a gulf-front motel on Treasure Island.
Records show that Wu bought, then resold several houses in Hillsborough County to residents of Beijing, Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.
He has spent more than $1 million for buildable lots in popular St. Petersburg neighborhoods such as Shore Acres and Historic Kenwood.
He has filed plans with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to raise millions of dollars from investors for future real estate purchases in Florida and other states.
Wu, founder of a Chinese website that offered Groupon-like daily deals, did not return numerous phone calls and email requests for comment. But his foray into the Tampa Bay real estate market is welcomed by agents such as Kelly Lee McFrederick of Sotheby's International Realty. She is among those starting a bay area chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America in an effort to better market the area to investors from China and other Asian countries.
Says McFrederick: "They definitely are a powerhouse of buyers.''
Until recently, the Chinese have been minor players in Florida. According to a study by the National Association of Realtors, they accounted for only about 6 percent of home buyers in the state last year and less than 1 percent in the Tampa Bay area.
That is changing.
"There's a flood of Chinese money coming into Florida for investment,'' says Robert Stern, a Tampa attorney specializing in real estate law. "A lot of Chinese money wants to come over for safety and security — it's the stability of the American economy. You may lose money, but you're never going to lose assets (such as real estate).''
Stern says much of the Chinese money enters Florida through the EB-5 Visa Program, which enables foreigners who invest at least $1 million in job-creating projects to apply for permanent U.S. residency. Money from EB-5 investors can be pooled to finance new developments. In the bay area, EB-5 funds helped build Tampa's Epicurean Hotel and an apartment tower rising on Harbour Island.
Wu, who has U.S. citizenship, is in the vanguard of more direct Chinese investment in real estate in Florida, Texas and other places outside of longtime favorites California and New York.
"While a currency devaluation and stock market crash has crimped (China's) buying power overseas, the resulting uncertainty is making many Chinese individuals and companies eager to invest anywhere except their home country,'' the New York Times reported in November.
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Although the Chinese home-buying spree started on the coasts, the story noted, it has spread to areas where "prices are more modest and have room to run.''
That is an apt description of the real estate market in Tampa Bay, where the median price of a single family home — $171,000 — remains among the lowest in Florida although prices are steadily rising.
Wu began buying in Hillsborough County last year with the cash purchase of seven homes, mostly foreclosures, ranging from $45,000 to $103,000. Some were bought under his own name, some under Tampa Value Properties Inc., whose mailing address is in Beijing.
Wu has since sold several of the houses to individuals in China as well as to a Beijing-based company called Wave Pacific LLC.
Records show that Wu still has at least seven properties in Hillsborough, all under the name Rich St Pete LLC. One is in Seffner and the others are in Brandon, where he bought four vacant lots near Brandon Regional Hospital for a total of $130,000.
This year, Wu turned his attention to Pinellas County.
Since April, he has paid $4.7 million in cash for properties, mostly in areas close to downtown St. Petersburg.
Among his acquisitions are four buildable lots on Masssachusetts Avenue NE in Shore Acres that he bought for $389,000 from Thomas Rinda and his wife.
"Wu was never visible; I don't think he ever drove by,'' Rinda said. "He may have done all this from the Internet.''
After months with no interest in the property, Rinda was surprised to get a full-price offer for his Spanish-style home and pool, which straddle two lots, and the two vacant adjacent lots.
"I have owned that property since 1983, and when I bought it I knew that the corner lot would be valuable,'' Rinda said. "I didn't think much about building houses on all four lots but I did check that it was grandfathered'' to allow for four.
Rinda said he expects Wu to rent out the house at least temporarily — "rental properties are as scarce as hen's teeth and prices are going up'' — but to start building soon on two of the lots.
"Clearly he's a speculator and developer,'' Rinda said.
Like other areas near downtown St. Petersburg with its wealth of shops, restaurants and cultural activities, Shore Acres is seeing heightened interest from developers looking for empty lots or low-priced homes they can tear down and replace with much more expensive ones.
Wu also owns at least three other houses in Shore Acres, none bought for more than $105,000.
To the west of downtown, in the desirable Historic Kenwood area, Wu's Rich Properties LLC paid a total of $620,000 last spring for an old duplex and five vacant parcels fronting busy First Avenue N near 21st Street. All could be redeveloped for either commercial or residential purposes.
In October, Wu made what apparently has been his most expensive Tampa Bay purchase to date — $2.125 million for the 16-unit Windjammer motel on Treasure Island. Though a low-cost lodging that has clearly seen better days, the Windjammer fronts the Gulf of Mexico and has easy access to the Treasure Island Causeway.
A receptionist said the motel will be remodeled but had no other details.
Wu purchased the Windjammer through his "Rich Treasure Island LLC.'' In a sign that he plans to continue buying real estate, the company filed a so-called Form D with the SEC in November announcing its intent to raise $2 million in equity and debt financing.
The purpose of such a filing "is to disclose risk — you can't just take $100,000 from an investor unless you tell them the risk,'' says Stern, the real estate attorney. "Typically the way this goes is that Wu might say, 'I'm going to sell units in this investment,' gets to the $2 million and then says he's going to buy a bunch of Florida real estate because Florida is a growth state.''
Investors generally are offered a minimum return on their investment, plus a share of profits when the property is sold.
"It's one form of real estate financing,'' Stern said. "The traditional avenue is using your own cash or going to a lender. This is another option.''
Two other companies connected to Wu — Rich Properties, which has a St. Petersburg address, and Rich Yucaipa IIi, with a Santa Clara, Calif., address — also have recently submitted Form D filings with the goal of raising nearly $12 million.
Records show that Wu owns a million-dollar home in Santa Clara.
According to an executive profile in Bloomberg Business, Wu founded focus.cn, a leading real estate Internet portal in China in 1999. He later founded and served as CEO of Lashou Group Inc., whose Lashou.com billed itself as the "largest group-purchasing web site in China.''
The Beijing-based company — whose name in Chinese means "hand to hand'' — offered daily discounts on hotels, restaurants and other consumer services and products.
In 2011, Lashou.com issued a news release announcing it had raised $110 million to expand. The release said Wu received his bachelor's degree in electronic engineering from Beijing's Tsinghua University and a master's degree in computer science from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
Later that year, the company filed plans with U.S. regulators for an initial public offering on NASDAQ. But it withdrew the application after the market for IPOs cooled, and last year it was sold to another Chinese company.
That was about the time Wu began investing heavily in Tampa Bay real estate.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.