The opportunity of a lifetime or simply risky business? John Collett looks at the options.
It could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Certainly a lot of people think so as they take advantage of the high Australian dollar by picking up bargain properties in the US or Britain.
In the US, houses are selling for less than $50,000 and can be leased out on double-digit rental yields after US banks were forced to foreclose on home buyers during the global financial crisis, flooding the market with houses.
And with the eventual recovery of the US housing market, nice capital gains could be pocketed down the track.
"This is one of the biggest opportunities in property on the planet," says Vincent Selleck, the founder of buyer's agent 888 US Real Estate, which helps local investors buy and manage residential property in the US.
While there can be opportunities in overseas properties, there are also many potential hazards. Whether it is an apartment in London, a ski chalet in New Zealand, or a villa on a Greek island, property promoters are targeting Australia's swelling ranks of self-managed superannuation investors. The internet is full of opportunities to invest overseas, with the US the most heavily promoted property market.
However, investing overseas has many more risks than investing in domestic residential property.
Australian-based companies helping local investors buy and manage residential property in the US say business is brisk. Selleck says he has "closed" more than 450 US residential properties, mainly with local investors, since 2009.
"We see properties over there where you are getting genuine net yields of up to 15 per cent," he says.
Yields like that are unheard of in Australia, even in the mining towns, where prices have risen strongly, he says.
His Australian investors often hold several properties in their self-managed superannuation funds. "They want to have good management and support for the whole process and good value for money," he says.
But some property experts are sceptical. The principal of Smart Property Adviser, Kevin Lee, who specialises in Australian residential property, says when he was in Las Vegas a year ago, there were 26,000 empty residential properties.
"You can buy a two-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas for $20,000 but you are not going to be able to put anyone in it," he says.
The American economy's prospects are still not that good, so any substantial rise in house prices could be some way off, he says.
"I would not put my dollars there, and I certainly could if I wanted to. I have been there [the US] twice and had a good look around. But if my hand is not going into my pocket, I cannot suggest to my clients that it's a good idea.
"I have clients who have bought houses for about the $50,000 mark in country NSW, renovated them and are getting a yield of 15 per cent," says Lee.
The head of technical services at self-managed superannuation funds administrator Multiport, Philip La Greca, says there are many compliance issues when investing overseas. For example, depending in which state of the US the property is purchased, a super fund may not be able to own property directly.
That may mean setting up a limited-liability company, which the super fund will own and through which the property is held. And there are restrictions on how the company invests if it is not to fall foul of the "in house" asset rule. However, it can be done.
There is also the currency risk, La Greca says. Exchange rates can change quickly. If the Australian dollar should rise in value against the US dollar, the value of the US property will fall in Australian-dollar terms. That could affect how much of the pension from the self-managed superannuation fund the investor can draw.
For any investment, investors have to consider the exit strategy. "That's probably the thing that bothers me the most about international property," La Greca says. "With a limited-liability company, it sells the property, but how does the investor wind up the company and get the money out through the US tax system and back to Australia?"
The costs can add up, and investing in overseas property may not be practical. There is also the risk of the unknown, he says.
"It is almost like the Gold Coast 25 years ago," he says. "How many people actually saw the property they were buying on the Gold Coast and bought on the back of a photo of the property in a glossy brochure?"
Selleck says a lot of people facilitating investment in US property are "double dealing" - taking large commissions and kickbacks from vendors in the US and selling the property here at highly inflated prices and not disclosing their interests.
Selleck had a US house listed on his website for $40,000 and he saw the same house on another website for $60,000.
"We operate as a buyer's agent and receive no commission from the seller and keep our focus completely on delivering services to the buyer, with no conflicts of interest," he says.
"We try to take the complications out of the picture with professionals both here and in the US to make the process as easy as possible."
Pooled property investments
WHILE there are significant costs with holding residential property overseas, there are a small number of pooled investments that invest in overseas property.
For example, the Cashel USA Residential Property Fund has purchased properties in Dallas, Houston,Atlanta and Cleveland and is currently evaluating another five locations.
The fund is seeking to raise $25 million from Australian investors. It will run for between seven and 10 years before the properties will be sold.
In the meantime, the fund aims to produce a yearly yield of about 10 per cent.
The chief executive of the fund, Jodie Hannaford, says the fund has its own buying offices in Dallas. It is partnered with US based Property Access.
Compliance and fund management is run from the funds Melbourne office.
I have two properties in America and I probably spend as much time on them as I would managing my investment property here, she says.
It does take more time than you anticipate.
Some people want to be really hands on, she says. But her fund is catering for those who want the exposure to US property but do not have the time or interest to
invest directly in property.
Dixon Advisory, which specialises in advising trustees of self-managed superannuation funds, has an ASX-listed real estate investment trust that invests in US residential property.
The head of fund management, Alex MacLachlan, says the trust, called the US Masters Residential Property Fund, has invested about $130 million of the $160 million raised.When fully invested, it is expected to yield between 5 and 10 per cent.