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Chinese buyers fall in love with Seattle real estate

Direct flights, studying opportunities and romantic films boost appeal of Washington state

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 2014, 10:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 8:02am

Savvy Seattle-area real estate agents have gained an advantage by paying attention to the growing connections between China and Washington state.

"I'm so glad my mother made me study Chinese," laughed property broker Janie Lee, after showing a client from Beijing a US$4 million home in the suburb of Medina. "I've been using it a lot."

This year, Chinese visitors are on track to top the list of international travellers to Washington. More than half of the 7,300 international students at the University of Washington are from China. And a recent top-grossing Chinese romantic comedy featured a Beijing woman who finds love in Seattle.

The influx has made its way to high-end property markets, and observers don't expect it to slow down any time soon. "This is just the beginning from just a few years ago. So in a few years there will be even more," Lee said, interpreting for her prospective buyer, Wei Hongbin.

In anticipation, some Seattle-area homes are being built or remodelled to improve their fung shui, but other factors can help make a property attractive.

As Wei considered the Medina mansion, Lee asked the seller whether all five bedrooms had their own bathrooms. "Most of the buyers, the Asian buyers, like private suites for their parents or extended family," she said.

Behind their growing economy, wealthy Chinese homebuyers have poured into the US, spending US$22 billion on property, topping all foreign purchasers over the 12 months preceding a March study from the National Association of Realtors. That was up from US$12.8 billion the previous year, when Chinese buyers also took the top spot. The homes had a median price of more than US$500,000, which trumped other international clients.

Washington state received a hefty share of attention, ranking second only to California in sales to Chinese buyers.

The China-Washington ties include direct flights between Seattle, Beijing, Hong Kong and several other Chinese cities, and that proximity is part of what makes the West Coast attractive, said Jed Smith, a research director with the Realtors group. Other foreign investors followed similar patterns, he said, noting that Mexican buyers often purchased in the Southwest, while Europeans favoured the Northeast.

Nationally, Smith said, foreign buyers spent about US$90 billion on US property last year, out of about US$1.3 trillion in total sales. The international impact had potential to raise spot prices, but not enough to inflate costs across the US or crowd out local buyers, he said.

The recent links - including the film Bei Jing Yu Shang Xi Ya Tu, which Lee says literally translates to "Beijing Meets Seattle" - come as other major US cities have experienced a tourism boost from the Far East.

Chinese tourists have been among the fastest-growing and highest-spending US visitors in recent years. In 2013, about 1.8 million Chinese travellers came to the US, contributing about US$21 billion to the economy, according to a White House release.

State Department figures show Chinese tourists spent about US$7,000 per person in the US, compared with the average of US$4,500 for all overseas visitors.

To encourage such travel and spending, the US government last month expanded the availability of visas to Chinese visitors. In announcing the change, the White House said it could bring an economic impact of US$85 billion by 2021.

In Washington, Visit Seattle, a travel industry group, said more than 100,000 Chinese travellers would visit the state this year, top among all overseas travellers to the state.

Education has been part of that draw, and veteran Seattle-area real estate agent Tere Foster said it had been common for Chinese parents to buy homes for their children while they attended school.