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U.S. + International



Global housing boom
Price gains in some countries make the U.S. real estate market appear tame by comparison.
November 11, 2004: 11:28 AM EST
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money senior writer

SALEM, Ore. (CNN/Money) – The dream of owning property, and making a serious profit selling it, isn't unique to America.

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In fact, huge gains in home prices in some countries around the globe make the U.S. real estate market appear tame by comparison.

Speculators in Britain, where home prices increased 116 percent between 1997 and 2004, started flipping for a profit long before it was fashionable in U.S. markets.

In Ireland, home prices shot up 174 percent during that period, according to statistics compiled by The Economist. Prices increased 121 percent in Spain, 113 percent in Australia and 75 percent in the Netherlands.

The U.S. housing market, meanwhile, was up an average of 53 percent.

"The developed world is experiencing an amazing housing boom," said Susan Wachter, professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

A small world in some respects

Low interest rates deserve some credit for the global housing boom. The average prime rate for the United States and a dozen of its largest trading partners fell from 13 percent to 4.4 percent between 1990 and 2004, said Wachter.

While rates have been declining, many countries are emerging from recessions, she added. Country-specific factors have also been a boon for some markets.

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"Because countries trying to join the European Union have been forced to get their fiscal policies in order, inflation is now less of a concern for investors," said Wachter. To homebuyers in those countries, that means that credit is more widely available and with more favorable terms.

Eastern Europe and Central America, meanwhile, are emerging as popular second home destinations.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in Nicaragua, Belize, Honduras and Panama because of the proximity to the United States," said Roger Gallo, publisher of "Offshore Real Estate Quarterly" and EscapeArtist.com.

Not all of the world is booming, mind you.

Global Land Grab
Prices have appreciated significantly in most developed countries
Country Price appreciation 1997-2004* 
Ireland 174% 
Spain 121% 
Britain 116% 
Australia 113% 
Netherlands 75% 
Sweden 67% 
France 59% 
Belgium 54% 
Italy 54% 
United States 53% 
New Zealand 47% 
Denmark 41% 
Canada 30% 
Switzerland 11% 
Germany -3% 
Japan -22% 
 * as of June 2004
 Source:  The Economist, based on data from individual countries

In Germany prices have sunk 3 percent over that eight-year period. The population is stagnant or declining, while unemployment remains high, said John Vogel, adjunct professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

In Japan, home prices are down 22 percent.

It's also worth noting that prices in some of the hottest markets are cooling.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia recently reported that house prices in Australia fell at an annual rate of 13% in the first half of 2004. And according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Britain, meanwhile, home values have recently declined at their steepest rate in nine years.

"This kind of volatility is to be expected in markets with supply inelasticity," said Wachter.

Still many variations

Rising home prices aside, each country has its own cultural, financial and regulatory quirks.

In many Latin American markets, for example, existing homes for sale may be less common because houses are passed down from one generation to the next. In other markets, such as Italy, news of houses for sale often spreads via word of mouth.

Financing, most notably, varies greatly from one country to the next.

The 30-year fixed rate mortgage that is so popular with American buyers is virtually nonexistent in most other countries, according to Fannie Mae.

In Germany, for example, the most common loan carries a fixed rate for no more than 10 years, and stiff prepayment penalties make refinancing an expensive option. In Britain, loans with rates that adjust annually are still the prevailing product.

"Financing is available in most other countries, but it often doesn't make any sense," said Elizabeth Makatura, vice president for international service and operations for Coldwell Banker. "Interest rates can be as high as 30 to 50 percent in some parts of Latin America or the Caribbean."

Down payment requirements are also more stringent. While it's not uncommon to put down as little as 0 percent to 5 percent in the United States, in many other countries buyers need a hefty amount of cash to qualify for a loan.

According to Fannie Mae, buyers in Italy may need to put down 50 percent of the cost of the house. In Germany, a 40 percent down payment may be needed, and in Mexico a 30 percent down payment is the standard.

"In the People's Republic of China financing is done by the government, and you essentially rent the property for 90 years," said Makatura. "If you move out or stop paying, someone else moves in."  Top of page

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