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January 27, 2015

Asian real estate buyers: First they want to meet the mayor

Puget Sound Business Journal

Marc Stiles

Measured in dollars, 75 percent of the land sales in downtown Bellevue over the last 18 months have involved Asian buyers.

That's the estimate of two commercial real estate brokers, who, like others in the industry, predict that the trend of Asians buying commercial real estate will accelerate.

"Asians, for some reason, love to buy real estate. It's in their blood. They want to own something," said one of the brokers, Sophia Wong, who works at the Kidder Mathews brokerage. She and a Kidder colleague, Holly Yang, are capitalizing on Asians' love of real estate investing.

You can tell that by what their co-workers hear every day: Wong and Yang estimate they speak Mandarin 90 percent of the time at work.

Asians, including an increasing number of Chinese, have been buying more and more real estate in the Puget Sound region in recent years. In downtown Bellevue, four commercial deals have added up to nearly $74.2 million, according to Kidder Mathews, with two of those transactions accounting for 92 percent of this total. Several years ago, Kidder Mathews launched a China Services division, and formed an alliance with Synergis, an asset management company in China.

"It was funny at the time three years ago when we announced this arrangement, we got a few chuckles from some of our competitors," Kidder Mathews Executive Vice President of Brokerage Brian Hatcher said. Now, "I guarantee you the amount of business we've done with the Chinese dwarves what anyone else has done mainly because of these two women."

Wong is from Taiwan, and Yang immigrated from mainland China. Their success in commercial real estate is remarkable given that the industry is dominated by white men.

Their ability to speak Mandarin has been key to capturing Chinese business, but it's only one part. You also have to know the culture of business, which in China is even more driven by relationships than in the U.S. "We have a lot of inbound Chinese investors," Yang said. "The first thing they say is, 'Do you know the mayor?' Do you know the governor? We want to meet them.' To them that is the foundation."

Understandably, some foreign investors are perplexed by U.S. regulations, such as zoning, and the rules' effect on land values. Why not buy a property where you can build only a 20-story tower and go talk to the mayor about building a skyrise two or three times as tall?

In China, regulations are "very subjective and open to interpretation," said Yang, who explained that in China, it's more who you know, not what you know, and knowing the right person allows people to bypass rules that might get in the way of doing a deal.

Myriad factors are driving the Asian real estate boom, but at the core is basic economics. Yang said the economy in China is slowing down significantly, and as a result people are looking to invest elsewhere.

Combine this with Asians' belief that real estate is the most solid investment and the Chinese's inability to own property outright on the communist-controlled mainland, and it's clear what's going on. Another factor driving the investment is the Northwest's relatively pristine environment. Chinese investors "come here and say, 'Wow, the sky is bluer. The air is so pure. And I can own this and I can pass it onto my children,'" Yang said.

For the full story, go to Puget Sound Business Journal.

© 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved.

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