Foreign buyers are back and they’re betting big on NYC, brokers say

They’re putting their money where their masks are.

Alibaba billionaire Joe Tsai, a citizen of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Canada, was outed this month as the mystery buyer behind a $157 million Manhattan sky palace at 220 Central Park South — the largest residential sale of the year.

For some, the monster deal signaled that a lucrative part of the NYC ecosystem had returned: the well-heeled foreign buyer.

For decades, foreign buyers have buoyed the highest end of Manhattan’s bonkers residential real estate market — using the city at times like a Swiss Bank vault to safeguard questionably earned fortunes.

Now, after a slow year of global transactions in the Big Apple, realtors report that they are seeing international interest rebound despite ongoing travel restrictions.

Hong Kong and Taiwan residents, Kevin Johan Wong, 33, founder and CEO of Origami Labs, and his wife Tina Lin, 33, are two of NYC’s newest investors.

A side by side of 220 Central Park South and Joe Tsai.
Billionaire Joe Tsai (right) dropped $157 million at 220 Central Park South (left), the largest sale of the year.
Matthew McDermott; David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After experiencing life in New York as an NYU student, Wong said pandemic property discounts gave him a chance to return.

“My wife and I decided that we want to spend the next stage of our lives here,” said Wong. “Not for dazzling lights, but for the diversity, the long evening walks and the grit, grime and art. Benefits to our careers were an added bonus.”

They arrived in the city this winter, quarantining and filling out plenty of COVID-related paperwork for apartment viewings. Their search took three months and began with virtual screenings alongside Keller Williams NYC broker William Tabler.

Outside the condo building on East 75th St.
Wong and his wife snagged a deal for a condo here on East 75th Street.
Stephen Yang

In late April, they finally closed on a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on East 75th Street for $1.1 million, a 15% discount on the $1.3 million asking price.

“We felt that things were going to pick up,” he said. “The city is never gonna die.”
Tabler sees their buy as part of a larger trend impacting the city’s housing stock.

“A lot of these buyers are looking for condos with potential to appreciate,” he said.

“They chose to buy because prices have come down, rates are low and believe in NYC coming back.”

Residential sales dropped 28% year-over-year in NYC between March 2020 and February 2021, according to a Property Shark report.

But as soon as COVID-19 measures were eased, the foreign investors began to return, lured by 10% to 20% price discounts, Tabler said. Now, thanks in part to these foreign investors, those discounts are quickly vanishing.

The average sale price of a Manhattan apartment rose 12% in the second quarter of 2021, topping $1.9 million, according to a report from Douglas Elliman.

The speed off the rebound also served as an advertisement for the long-term strength of the NYC market, experts said.

With the vaccine becoming readily available, an easing of travel restrictions and the anticipation of increasing prices, many international buyers have realized that the opportunity to purchase and finance an apartment at historically low rates won’t last.

John Tashjian, managing partner at Centurion Real Estate Partners

“In their home countries, buyers might find it unrewarding to park money in available instruments such as stocks, which might be too volatile at this juncture of global economy,” said Kunal Sawhney, CEO of the Kalkine Group, a Sydney-based independent equities research firm. “America’s housing market is among the brightest pieces in the economy during the tough pandemic times. This has made the landscape attractive for foreigners.”

While Russian, Chinese and Canadian citizens were always major players in the NYC market, Tabler noted that recently he’s spoken mostly with buyers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

Cat Liu, director of sales at Extell’s new waterfront condo One Manhattan Square on the Lower East Side, added that the building has recently sold to residents from the Netherlands, France, Canada, China, South Korea and Japan.

“Investors are still eager to capture COVID-19 discounts,” she said.

On the West Side, John Tashjian, a managing partner of Centurion Real Estate Partners, said that there has been a 33% spike in international traffic from January to June at 212 W. 72nd St., a 20-story condo tower near Lincoln Square.

A living room inside 212 W. 72nd St.
A unit at 212 W. 72nd St. where international traffic has spiked 33%.
Scott Frances

“With the vaccine becoming readily available, an easing of travel restrictions and the anticipation of increasing prices, many international buyers have realized that the opportunity to purchase and finance an apartment at historically low rates won’t last,” he said.

Compass broker Charlie Attias agrees.

“Foreign buyers are definitely back,” Attias said, noting two recent international deals at the Plaza Hotel for $8.9 million and $20 million, both sold via virtual tours.

But not everyone is quite so optimistic that the foreign buyers’ frenzy has returned in earnest to NYC.

“I just got back from a trip from Europe and a lot of [potential buyers] don’t feel comfortable coming back to the states,” said Douglas Elliman’s Tal Alexander. “The majority of them will not arrive until the borders are officially open.”

Side by side of Matsui and her NYC home.
Earlier this month, Kazuyo Matsui (left) closed on a one-bedroom unit at the Billionaire’s Row tower One57 (right) for $2.9 million without ever setting foot in the city.
Kazuyo Matsui; Evan Joseph

Nevertheless, Kazuyo Matsui, 64, who has worked in film and television in Japan for 47 years, felt the Empire State’s lure during the pandemic.

Working with Patricia Parker at Sotheby’s International Realty, Matsui conducted the entire home buying process remotely.

She settled on a one-bedroom, 1½-bathroom residence at One57 for the price of $2.9 million.

One57 Skyscraper south of Central Park in New York City
The tower where the Japanese actor bought to demonstrate her love of the city.
Alamy Stock Photo

“I wanted to help New York recover from the pandemic,” she said. “This is my way of showing how much I love the United States. New York is the most exciting city in the world for me.”

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