Foreigners flock to Florida real estate bargains

MIAMI (AFP) – Foreign tourists who for years have crowded Florida's shopping malls to buy clothes and electronics, are now flocking to real estate offices to snatch up apartments and homes at bargain-basement prices.

The investors, mainly from Europe and Latin America, are jostling over apartments in Miami's trendy South Beach neighborhood selling for 70,000-100,000 dollars, and in less exclusive areas to the north where they start at around 50,000.

"The buying opportunities are maybe the best ever. Who knows if we'll see prices again like today's in Miami Beach," Keys Real Estate agent Michelle Iglesias told AFP.

Property prices in Miami have fallen by almost half (47 percent) since the real estate bubble peaked in 2006, according to Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price index.

Analysts predict that real estate market prices will not increase until the banks get rid of all their foreclosed properties and there are more jobs in the region.

"Unemployment is still high. People are afraid of losing their homes and credit is hard to get," said Standard & Poor's vice president Maureen Maitland.

In and around Miami, banks each month repossess about 5,000 properties, including apartments and commercial real estate, for delinquent mortgage payments, according to real estate brokerage Codovultures Realty, which has 250,000 such properties on its books across southern Florida.

But foreign investors have kept prices from plunging even further, the Miami Association of Realtors said in its November report.

"The international buyers continue to fuel market strengthening, we continue to observe positive signs," said association president Oliver Ruiz.

Beatriz Lamanda, from Venezuela, bought two apartments north of Miami Beach for 80,000 dollars.

"I'd rather put my money in real estate than leave it in the bank. In a few years I'll make a nice bundle because the prices are going to go up, no question," she told AFP.

In the "Icon," a three-building apartment complex by French designer Philippe Stark in Brickell, Miami's newest financial district, apartments are selling for 250,000 dollars, down from 370,000 two years ago.

"We've sold 350 units in the last few months. Most of the buyers are international, from countries like Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil and also Colombia, Italy, Mexico and Canada," Fortune International's Alejandra Castillo told AFP.

Foreclosed properties owned by banks in the area go for less than 100,000 dollars, and two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments for as little as 130,000.

Daniel Lemin came from France on a three-day business trip and promptly sought a real estate broker to look over some apartments.

"It's a great time for investing, and while I wait for prices to go up, I've got an apartment in Miami I can use or rent out," he added. ... ateflorida