By Prashant Gopal at Bloomberg
The six-bedroom mansion in the shadow of Southern California’s Sierra Madre Mountains has lime trees and a swimming pool, tennis courts and a sauna -- the kind of place that would have sold quickly just a year ago, according to real estate agent Kanney Zhang.
Across the U.S., the story is much the same. The world’s economic woes -- from China to Russia to South America -- are damping sales in the high-end real estate market. Haywire overseas stock markets and dropping currency values caused in part by plummeting oil prices are dulling demand for mansions, penthouses and winter escapes.
“There’s volatility in China and Russia and there’s the oil issue in the Middle East -- I have no doubt there’s an impact overall on the market,” said Dan Conn, chief executive officer of Christie’s International Real Estate, the luxury-property brand of the auction house. “You’re not going to see material price increases in most markets.”
Prices for the top 5 percent of U.S. real estate transactions remained flat in 2015 while all other houses gained 4.9 percent, according to data from Redfin Corp., a real estate brokerage and data provider.
In the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, where Zhang is struggling to sell the six-bedroom home, dozens of aging ranch houses were demolished to make way for 38 mansions built with Chinese buyers in mind. They have manicured lawns and wok kitchens and are priced as high as $12 million. Many of them sit empty because the prices are out of the range of most domestic buyers, said Re/Max broker Rudy Kusuma, who blames a crackdown by the Chinese on large sums leaving the country.
The stronger dollar is driving South American buyers away from the 23,000 condos in the pipeline for Miami’s downtown area, said Peter Zalewski, owner of South Florida development tracker CraneSpotters.com. Buyers signed about one-fourth fewer pre-construction contracts last year than in 2014, according to Anthony M. Graziano, senior managing director at Integra Realty Resources Inc., which tracks condo data for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.
In nearby Sunny Isles, Florida, faraway currency fluctuations are endangering the sale of a $3.7 million condominium. A Colombian woman who put down a 50 percent deposit is fretting over how she’ll cover the other half over the next year, said her agent, Mauricio Rojas. The Colombian peso, dragged down by the commodity slump, has lost about 30 percent of its value since she signed the contract in December 2014.
In Houston, the plunge in oil prices to a 12-year low is killing the luxury boom. Sales for homes priced at $500,000 or more dropped 17 percent in December from a year earlier, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.
The city, Texas’s biggest, lost more than 30,000 engineering, manufacturing and exploration jobs in the first 11 months of 2015, said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership.
The whole Houston real estate market is going to take a hit “but the upper end is going to be impacted most,” Jankowski said.
Manhattan resale prices for the top 20 percent of the market peaked in February and have fallen every month since, according to an analysis through October by listings website StreetEasy.
Even in San Francisco, where the market for luxury properties remains strong, the inventory of listings for $2 million or more jumped in October to a record level, said Patrick Carlisle, chief market analyst for Paragon Real Estate. Both buyers and sellers were getting increasingly worried about the direction of the economy, he said.
“More sellers are jumping in and more buyers are holding off because they’re worried about where the volatility is going,” Carlisle said.
The economic turmoil, along with new regulations, slowed demand around the world. In London, the market weakened after the government increased a stamp-duty sales tax and Russians and Chinese buyers began pulling back. Luxury prices in London rose only 1 percent last year after jumping 5.1 percent in 2014, according to Knight Frank research.
Hong Kong prices rose 1.5 percent last year. They fell 5 percent in Paris and 3.5 percent in Singapore, according to Knight Frank.
Many families from Asia and the Middle East are still turning to the U.S. because it’s the safest place to park their money and to live if they need another home, said Tim Lappen, chairman of the luxury home and family office groups at the law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP in Los Angeles.
The real test for the U.S. market will come after the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, when the prime home-buying season begins.
As the U.S. jobless rate hovers at 5 percent, the lowest in almost eight years, demand for lower-priced homes has increased, said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at real estate data provider CoreLogic Inc. The cheapest U.S. ZIP codes had annual home-price growth in November that was more than twice the 4.3 percent rate for the most expensive ones, according to a Zillow analysis of ZIPs representing each metropolitan area it covers.
“The stock market is the consumer-confidence barometer of the upper-end real estate buyers,” Khater said.
After a flat 2015, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has tumbled 8 percent. Benchmark oil prices are now around $30 a barrel compared with more than $100 in 2014. The dollar has climbed 8 percent against 10 leading currencies in the past year, making U.S. real estate more expensive for foreign buyers, according to the Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index.
Buyers are now on the hunt for deals, said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin.
“There’s a limit even to what a wealthy person will spend,” she said.