Shortly after headlines proclaimed Manhattan real estate was feeling a “Russian chill” in early 2014, Chinese cash flooded the New York City market. The trend was so pronounced that 2015 was declared the “Year of the Chinese Investor” in these pages. Now, amid global economic turmoil, the residential market here is leaning on the good old domestic buyer to prop up sales.
Despite the eye-popping purchases of foreign buyers in recent years — many of whom invested in New York because it’s considered a safe haven — deep-pocketed domestic buyers made some of the biggest purchases of the year in 2015.
The priciest residential sale last year, for example, was at Extell Development’s One57, where an investor group led by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman scooped up the “Winter Garden” duplex for a cool $91.5 million, or $6,750 per square foot.
Meanwhile, Netscape co-founder James H. Clark bought the 11,000-square-foot Mellon townhouse at 125-127 East 70th Street for $37.5 million. (Not to mention the fact that Clark and his wife also purchased director Ron Howard’s $27.5 million mansion in suburban Westchester last year.)
Elsewhere on the Upper East Side, Elizabeth Right — daughter of Blackstone Group chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman — and her husband, Andrew, purchased a triplex penthouse at 775 Park Avenue for $35.14 million.
While there are few stats tallying the total number of foreign buyers making residential purchases in New York City, anecdotal evidence (and not just at the highest price points) suggests they are playing a less important role than they used to.
“Clearly the strength of the dollar has indicated that foreign buyers are not as active as they have been in prior periods,” said Richard Smith, CEO of Realogy Inc., the parent company of Corcoran Group and Citi Habitats, during a Feb. 24 earnings call.
And in public comments in late January, Related Companies CEO Jeff Blau signaled that Chinese investment is waning. “We should be looking at other places for capital over the next couple of years,” he said at an Urban Land Institute New York conference.
While the pool of Russian and Chinese buyers hasn’t completely dried up, global economic turmoil has thrust domestic buyers into the spotlight.
Merav Shalhon, a director at residential brokerage Essential New York, said she stopped seeing Asian investors in mid-November after the stock market crashed over the summer. “I assume it’s their down-trending economy,” she said. Overall, “foreign buyers are taking a little longer in purchasing.”
Shalhon said domestic buyers, on the other hand, have been acting faster. “Their funds are in the U.S. and they have been tracking the sales market,” she said.
Those who are monitoring the market closely are seeing luxury inventory pile up.
Buyers signed just 74 contracts for properties $4 million and up in January, a steep drop from 98 contracts during the same period in 2013 and in 2014, according to Olshan Realty’s weekly luxury market report.
Overall, the median sale price during 2015’s fourth quarter reached a record $1.15 million, up 17 percent year over year. But the number of year-to-date sales dropped 5.8 percent, to 11,962.
Nicholas D’Addario, an agent at William Raveis NYC, said his foreign clients have lowered their target price points. They are now focused on properties under $2.5 million. “I think these buyers are nervous that they may have missed an opportunity to invest foreign currency in New York City properties,” he said.
Meanwhile, Level Group’s Eric Levine said clients who work on Wall Street — or whose income is tied to financial markets — have put their searches on hold.
“This holds true for foreign purchasers as well, especially those whose wealth and income is tied to oil,” he said. “I expect the premium segment of the market to remain softer so long as the financial markets and other global factors remain in the forefront.”
Miron Properties CEO Jeff Schleider said domestic buyers sense an opening after losing deals to all-cash foreign buyers for so long. Local buyers also hope to take advantage of low mortgage rates. “Foreign buyers have pulled back because of the turbulent markets and local buyers are trying to get in,” he said.