There’s no place like a second home for wealthy investors

The Globe and Mail
November 18, 2011

As wealthy foreign buyers snap up more and more luxury homes in Canada, high-net-worth Canadians are similarly showing strong interest in purchasing multimillion-dollar residences abroad. But while their sights were once set on a French château, perhaps, or a Tuscan villa, the trend now is towards buying in the United States.

“We’ve really seen a fall-off in buying in Europe because of all the confusion over the past 12 months or so,” says Don Campbell, president of Abbotsford, B.C.-based Cutting Edge Research Inc. and the author of five best-selling books on real estate investing.

With so much volatility in Europe, especially in Spain, Portugal and Italy, “people don’t know in which direction the market is heading, or the direction of the potential tax implications,” he says. France has just added a new tax on foreign property owners, and the market in Dubai “is getting hammered,” he explains.

Currency fluctuations can cause real estate values to plummet in real terms, while economic woes often leave European governments with little choice but to raise taxes on properties belonging to the super rich.

As a result, says Mr. Campbell, there’s a lot of confusion about where high-net-worth individuals should buy that second property. Hence the popularity of buying in the U.S., where as Mr. Campbell says “you know what you’re getting”.

Other destinations of choice right now are stable tropical nations, such as Costa Rica and Panama. But, he says, “No.1 is the U.S. There’s no question about that.”

The financial incentives for buying luxury residences south of the border are obvious. “They’re at a historic low in terms of pricing,” said Chris Potter, a partner in the Toronto PricewaterhouseCoopers real estate practice.

Lawyer David Altro, author of Owning U.S. Property: The Canadian Way, also finds high-net-worth Canadians are increasingly attracted to real estate prospects south of the border. He says his clients in the eastern part of the country tend to buy in south Florida, while those in the West are eyeing properties in exclusive California cities such as Palm Springs, Desert Palms and Rancho Mirage, or in Hawaii.

The main reasoning behind such preferences is ease of access. Direct and relatively short flights mean less stress and hassle in travelling back and forth between Canadian and U.S. homes.

“They are also liking those areas because they have health care there, too,” he says. “But the bottom line is, we like to go south in the winter to get out of the Canadian weather and play golf and go to the beach. So no matter what the U.S. real estate market is like, it’s always going to be busy.”

Mr. Altro says many boomers and high-net-worth Canadians are taking up permanent residence in the U.S. With a much lighter tax regime “on a regular annual income basis,” he points out, “we have a steady stream of high-net-worth Canadians who are moving to the States. I have a client in Vancouver, worth about $50-million, and all that invested money in Canada is being taxed at such a high rate. Move to the U.S. and it’s like they have a new annual revenue.”

Hunter Milborne, a partner at Sotheby’s International Real Estate, explains why buying a property needs to be planned correctly. If a Canadian owns a property personally, “they have a fairly onerous estate tax [on inheritances], whereas if you own something corporately or through a trust, then that’s not the case.”

For Mr. Campbell, another issue implicit in owning foreign property is having sound insurance advice. “Being such a litigious country, you better have an incredibly good insurance agent for liability, fire and all the things you need to protect yourself for down there,” he says.

“If you’re buying into a gated community or a high-end condo, check to make sure how many of those properties are actually in use, as opposed to being in arrears, foreclosure or owned by a bank,” he says.

“Because the community still needs money to run … a lot of people who buy into those semi-deserted gated communities because it’s relatively inexpensive, find that their fees and operating costs can start to really go through the roof.”

There are, however, many Canadian multimillionaires opting to simply stay put, keeping the Canadian market in luxury real estate buoyant.

“The real favourite right now is keeping money in your hands and in your own country,” says Mr. Campbell, “especially with the global confusion that’s going on, and economic and political confusion in the U.S.”