TAMPA, Fla. – Jan. 19, 2016 – The Tampa metro area continues to be a desirable destination for international homebuyers.

Realtors cite a variety of reasons for the area’s popularity – the growth of direct international flights to Tampa International Airport, higher prices in South Florida sending people further north and stepped up marketing campaigns overseas by real estate companies.

Last year, international real estate purchases increased between 14 to 20 percent in Hillsborough County, according to Carlos Fuentes of Namaste Realty.

Despite an overall drop in real estate sales to international buyers in Florida last year, the state has long been a desirable market for foreign investors looking to purchase homes. With its desirable climate, the state accounts for 25 percent of all international real estate purchases in the United States. Half of those purchases have historically been in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region.

But Realtors say that could be changing in the Tampa metro area’s favor with the new direct international flights, better pricing on both lots and existing homes here, a secure environment in which to invest, proximity to beaches, professional sports, a new outlet mall and plans for a more vibrant downtown Tampa with more residential units.

“We have construction up in all sectors of real estate,” said Fuentes, past president of the regional Multiple Listing Service. “And the quality of life here versus South Florida is huge.”

Smith & Associates, this area’s leading luxury real estate broker, has been focusing on a marketing strategy for about four years to draw in more international buyers.

“We’ve been developing strategies, thinking about those direct flights and how to put our properties in front of these folks and build a presence,” said Bob Glaser, president and CEO of Smith & Associates, which did $1 billion in sales last year. People are a lot more likely to purchase in an area they can fly to directly, he said, and the recent addition of direct flights such as those from Frankfort, Germany could be game changers.

International buyers account for 12 percent of all sales in the state, according to the Profile of International Buyers in Florida 2015, published by Florida Realtors.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area was listed among the major destinations in Florida for international buyers, according to the Florida Realtors report. International sales in the Tampa metro area rose 6 percent during a 12-month period ending June 2015, the report shows. That figure was less than the 11 percent in 2014, which followed a similar drop in other metro areas across the state last year.

In 2014, the Tampa metro area was tied with Orlando for the highest percentage of foreign buyers in the state.

Top international buyers in the Tampa metro area in 2015 came from: Canada (31 percent), United Kingdom (19 percent) and Sweden (12 percent), according to the Realtors report.

Last year, international sales in Florida totaled 44,000 properties, or 12 percent of the state’s residential market, compared to 15 percent in 2014. Nationally, international sales accounted for just 4 percent of sales, according to the report that conducted a Realtor survey between July and August.

And when foreigners buy here, they buy more expensive real estate than Floridians. Many pay cash. The volume of international sales totaled $23.7 billion, or 24 percent of Florida’s residential dollar volume of sales (19 percent a year ago), compared to 8 percent nationally.

It’s a market worth growing, Glaser said.

The Realtors report listed the Miami metro area with 36 percent of international buyers in 2015; Fort Lauderdale got 14 percent last year and the Orlando-Deltona-Daytona Beach MSA getting 8 percent. The Northport-Sarasota-Bradenton MSA accounted for 7 percent of sales to foreign buyers in 2015.

The number of Realtors handling international sales went up from 52 percent in 2014 to 69 percent in 2015, Florida Realtors reports. Of those who worked with international clients 78 percent of them reported closing at least one sale with those clients. That is up slightly from the previous year.

Smith & Associates now works with Luxury Portfolio International to market its properties worldwide and has a working agreement with Mayfair International Realty, which acts as its London office, and links with the Financial Times to market properties in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Jacqueline Hutchinson, a Realtor with Smith & Associates, sold three homes to French investors last year. They found out about homes here through a website called French District, then contacted Hutchinson, a native of France.

“Florida is very popular with the French,” Hutchinson said. “Before, they always went to Miami, but because of the direct flights, they come here and they like it.” They like the Gulf of Mexico and they like the prices, she said.

And until recently, people from the United Kingdom and Germany targeted Sarasota and Fort Myers, Fuentes said. “Now, the prices have gone up down there and there are limits in land mass. You are seeing movement of Germans and British here. Prices are a big draw.”

Copa Airlines, which now offers direct flights from Panama City, brings in Latin American investors who previously flew directly to Miami. “Those flights, that is huge,” Fuentes said. “In addition, just in December Lufthansa added the direct flights from Frankfort, a hub for Asians who want to come to the United States.”

Glaser said a number of his Latin American clients come here because they consider it a safe place to invest their money and a safe place for their families, who in some cases are living behind barbed wire fences in their home countries.

The majority of Latin American buyers come from Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.

Part of the difficulty in bringing in foreign buyers is that they are not all familiar with Tampa, Glaser said. There’s a learning curve about where it is in relation to Miami and Orlando and what this area has to offer, from condos and suburban homes to restaurants, museums and culture.

“Walkability is big with Europeans,” said Jane Gowarty, vice president of business development and relocation for Smith & Associates. “They want to be able to walk to the grocery, the museum, to look at the water. If you can get them to Tampa Bay and give them a tour, safety is a huge factor and the pricing here is right.”

Copyright © 2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.), Yvette C. Hammett. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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