The Best Ways to Buy Foreign Real Estate

There has never been a better time to buy development land in Latin America. It’s a buyer’s market…and there are many creative ways to buy – for large and small investors alike.

Many landowners in Latin America are under financial pressure…and buyers are thin on the ground. Sales in many markets have slowed as a result of financial and economic problems in the US. This has kept land prices artificially low, and means that many developers need to tap alternative sources of finance.

This slow-down in demand is temporary. The medium-term drivers in the market are just too strong. One of those drivers is a large group of Americans, born in the years 1946-1964, and dubbed the baby boomers. More than 4.5 million North Americans (mostly baby boomers) are now considering living in, or owning property in, Latin America.

Baby boomer retirement will largely drive the market for overseas real estate in parts of Central and South America for the next 20 years. This trend is in its infancy. Financial and economic difficulties in the US will increase this trend, not retard it. Many retirees simply can’t afford to live in the US on their retirement savings. Boomers will look to the tropics for new, affordable lifestyle opportunities. There’s more than one way to profit from this trend.

You could just buy retail property (lots, condos, etc)…or you could take another approach: investing in a development.

The biggest returns in development come to those who get in at a wholesale level. Buying large tracts of land, obtaining permits, planning and building, selling and marketing is only for those with the experience, resources and the team to pull it off…or for those of us who invest in the right people.

Today, there are opportunities to get in at this ground-floor wholesale level and let someone else do all the work. But you should look for deals where the developer has the same type of equity at stake as you…so he’ll work just as hard for you as he will for himself. Don’t invest in a developer who’s going to use your money to pay himself a fat cut before he puts your money to work.

Look for deals where you get to participate in the purchase of development land at undervalued prices. This land needs to be in a market you like. Debt should be kept to a minimum.

Most importantly the development team needs to have a track record of delivering projects like this and getting things done. And the deal needs to be structured in a way that you get to enjoy the maximum upside potential. There are a number of ways you can participate at an investment level from your armchair:

Pure equity investment. This amounts to becoming a shareholder in a development company. You make an investment, and you get an agreed number of shares in return. Invested amounts vary from a couple of hundred thousand dollars to seven-figure sums. Some groups offer opportunities where smaller investors can get in with as little as $50,000. Return on investment can take several years – but sometimes deals like this can start making disbursements to shareholders as soon as sales start flowing. I like these deals because investors’ returns are uncapped. They enjoy the same upside potential as the developers.

Hard money loans. More and more developers are offering this type of investment as banks tighten their lending policies and credit dries up from other sources. A hard money loan behaves in a similar way to a corporate bond. A developer borrows money from you and agrees to pay it back in a fixed time period. Meantime, you get monthly or quarterly interest payments. Your loan should be backed by a real and liquid asset. You need to be comfortable that in a default scenario you could recoup your investment by selling the asset your loan was secured on. Interest rates can be high, 20% and higher. Unlike the equity play, your return is capped at this level. With the right security available, this can be a relatively easy way to earn an annualized 20%.

Bulk purchase of units. Once a developer has locked down a piece of land, it takes time to nail down the master-plan and get all the relevant permits. During this period, a developer may offer an agreed number of lots in return for a cash investment. In effect, you are buying lots before the master-plan has even been drafted. In return, you get lots at a deeply discounted price to the projected retail price.

Sometimes deals like this are structured in a way that you buy shares, and your dividend payout is lots. You receive your dividend once the master-plan is finalized and permits are in place. I like this type of arrangement because once you are allocated your lots you have control and flexibility. For example, you might want to sell some of your lots to recoup your original investment.

The bulk purchase of lots is perfect for a small or mid-sized investor who wants to retain full flexibility and control over his asset. Again, security is key. You need to be sure that your investment is secured against land or held in escrow until title is transferred on your lot.

For smaller investors, there’s another compelling way to invest in foreign real estate…and you may not even know about it. I’m talking about using your IRA.

The IRS is flexible and accommodating when it comes to doing this. You can do this as long as your IRA is “self directed” and you don’t work with a custodian who imposes his own investment restrictions.

Many Americans I know have already done this. You can own pretty much any kind of real estate in your IRA or other retirement account. Everything from raw land to single-family homes to condos to office buildings…once the investment complies with some straightforward rules that outline what you can and cannot do. A simple rule of thumb is that your retirement plan is designed to benefit you at retirement and not beforehand. That means that you can invest in any type of real estate, as long as it is an investment and not for personal use before your retirement.

You can buy your dream retirement home using IRA funds today. Once you retire, you can take possession of the property…in effect taking it as a distribution of your plan. Between now and retirement, you can generate income for your plan by renting out the property. You can buy and flip properties within your IRA and you can even use your IRA to buy an option on a property or piece of land.

International real estate continues to offer both diversification and growth opportunities. Diversify your investment portfolio outside the US economy and the dollar into growth markets and appreciating currencies. Real estate in Brazil, for example, continues to rapidly appreciate, while the real (Brazil’s currency) has strengthened in value against the US dollar.

So, not only can you finance your dream home using IRA funds…you can put your retirement planning on a more diversified footing.


Ronan McMahon
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning