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Asians spinning the wheel

Investors take a gamble on recovery in Las Vegas, writes Susie Watkins Polakova

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:16pm

Astute Asian investors are taking a big gamble, putting their money and faith in one of the most dire real estate markets in America, one billed as the entertainment capital of the world which has not been at all enjoyable for investors since 2008.

The lights went out on the housing market of Las Vegas overnight with prices slashed, foreclosures blighting whole streets and estimates of up to nine out of 10 homeowners under water.

But now there are widespread reports of cash happy investors from the mainland and Hong Kong snapping up property in the city, having decided that their luck is about to turn.

The question is, are they placing a winning bet? At the University of Nevada, globally respected economists say the answer is maybe.

In their latest Economic Outlook, there are tentative signs of a recovery in the housing market, which has been dragging the rest of the local economy into deeper mire.

According to figures from the financial, property and consumer information group Core Logic, two years ago a staggering 70 per cent of Nevada home owners were in negative equity.

Today, that figure is just shy of 60 per cent, which is still a stark reminder that in any street in Las Vegas there are more losers than winners.

But according to Professor Stephen Brown from the Center for Business and Economic Research, there are signs that a recovery is under way, although he adds wryly one that only an economist could appreciate.

Unemployment levels in the area are down 0.1 per cent, per capita income in Las Vegas is ticking up, after years of falls, and, since January, the numbers of condos and single family dwellings available on the market are slightly down. It all adds up to a small turn in the tide which is encouraging investors.

Kristen Routh-Silberman is a Las Vegas luxury and value home expert at Synergy Sotheby's International Realty. "At Sotheby's in Las Vegas, we see more international buyers than most realty companies because we are a worldwide brand. The majority of Asian buyers coming to Las Vegas are from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. We are closing several transactions each month with Asian buyers and the numbers are climbing," she says.

The city has more direct flights to and from China than any other in the US and the gamblers on the planes are enjoying some pretty reasonable returns. "There are some great deals out there yielding over 15 per cent, but they're harder to find and also require more capital. There is, however, a consistent flow of income property producing 7 per cent minimum returns in Las Vegas at the moment. It won't always be like that. But, for now it is. Asians are savvy buyers; they are focused on Las Vegas now because it is the right time to invest," Kristen says.

Brown says Las Vegas crashed hard during the bust because its prices were partially based on rising real estate prices in Los Angeles. Easy credit helped support the residential real estate boom which then saw around 65 per cent wiped off prices during the crash.

Today, that leaves homes in Las Vegas underpriced relative to construction costs, but to be a buyer seems to mean you have to have the cash. Brown reports that the numbers taking out 30-year or 15-year mortgages in order to fund a house buy are down 18 and 21 per cent respectively year-on-year.

Las Vegas is seeing visitor volume approaching levels seen in 2007, when 3.2 million people visited. To hit this target the city need only experience a 0.7 per cent increase on 2011, which his team at the Centre of Business and Economic Research predict will happen this year. But not everyone is bullish.

Realtor Leslie Hoke, a passionate smaller business owner, who offers a personal service via her company Las Vegas Homes by Leslie, warns that although there is a recovery under way it is slow and fragile.

"There was a bill passed in October 2011 that suspended all notice of defaults, the first step in the foreclosure process. Since there have not been filings of notice of defaults, there are fewer bank-owned properties on the market. That is why we are currently experiencing a low supply," she says.

"Because the real estate market is still on the low end, it's creating more buyer demand. So now we have many buyers, not enough houses, multiple offers, generating higher sales prices. Even new home sales are reporting an increase of sales. However, once banks start to file notice of defaults again, there is speculation that more bank-owned properties will become available to the market."