Miami real estate market may benefit from Italy’s economic woes

September 5, 2011

Paola Iuspa-Abbott, DBR Staff Writer

08-23-2011

When Miami Beach broker Pietro Belmonte walks into the garden of Casa del Popolo on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo next month, affluent Italians savoring summer cocktails will be waiting for him.

Armed with brochures promoting condo projects in Miami Beach and New York, he will spend an evening speaking about prices, neighborhoods and the fast-appreciating condos in South Beach. While he doesn’t expect to walk out into the urban square that night with signed contracts, he does expect to emerge with a lengthy list of quality leads. Unlike any other year, more Italians have signed up to attend the Rome event, he said.

“This year we are expecting a bigger size [crowd],” said Belmonte, a broker with Douglas Elliman Florida of Miami Beach. “It has to do with the economy in Italy.”

Staggering beneath the weight of an enormous sovereign debt and a soaring budget deficit that is 3.9 percent of its gross domestic product, the Italian economy in is on the brink of collapse.

Early this month, the European Central Bank agreed to buy some of Italy’s debt in exchange for pension cuts and tax increases, among other austerity measures. Some experts said the deal — still in the making — could determine Italy’s political and economic future.

Italy’s national crisis could, in a way, benefit Miami real estate, according to Belmonte and other brokers. They expect more wealthy Italians to invest in Miami real estate, especially condos, as they search for ways to preserve capital until their nation’s economy stabilizes.

Italian investors are also concerned that the euro will weaken with the looming eurozone financial crisis which has the capacity to erode the price-discount advantage they’ve enjoyed when buying real estate in the United States. They now buy properties at more than a 40 percent discount because of the weak dollar.

“The fear that the euro will go down and the dollar will get strong makes us a safer place to park their money,” said Belmonte, who represents the luxury Mondrian South Beach, a new condo hotel project. “They want long-term investments.”

A Growing Presence

The crowd at Casa del Popolo set to gather Sept. 15 will most likely pay attention to Belmonte’s analysis of the South Beach condo market, where some properties have appreciated 25 percent in the past 18 months, he said.

Some of the fast-appreciating high-rises are Continuum, Icon South Beach and Murano Grande, located south of Fifth Street in Miami Beach. Many of those luxurious buildings are already dominated by Italians, said Vanessa Grout, president and CEO of Douglas Elliman Florida. She lives in the Continuum’s north tower.

“The majority of my neighbors in my building are Italians,” she added.

Those buildings have great amenities and have direct ocean views. Their fast appreciation is a rarity in a real estate market that continues to struggle to overcome one of the worst value drops in more than half a century.

Italians represent a small percentage of the pool of foreign buyers snatching Miami real estate, said broker Melissa Rubin, vice president of Coral Gables-based Platinum Properties.

Venezuelans, Canadians and Brazilians lead the pack, according to the Miami Realtors.

Rubin, who works closely with French buyers, said she has seen an increase in the number of French investors coming to Miami, as France’s economy is also uncertain. She said French investors represent 6 percent of all foreign buyers in Miami.

“French … are buying because the economy is challenging there,” she said, adding they prefer Aventura and Miami.

Real estate broker Philip Spiegelman said he has noticed a jump in inquiries from Italians looking to buy condos in Miami.

“For the last couple of weeks at our sales office, we’ve seen an increase in traffic, which we are attributing directly to the instability of what is going on in Europe,” said Spiegelman, a principal with Related ISG, a real estate firm that caters to international buyers.

Spiegelman said his company has money allocated for off-shore marketing, and he is looking at “whether we need to rebalance or reallocate some of it” to target the Italian market. For now, most of Related ISG marketing money goes to enticing Latin Americans to the Miami condo market. Yet, that could change if he thinks Italian buyers are ready to come in draw.

“The whole volatility in Italy and Europe has increased in the last couple of weeks and we are very much in tune with that and looking at how we can expand if there is an opportunity,” he said.

Capital Flight

Italian restaurateur Cristoforo Pignata, who moved his family from Naples, Italy, to Key Biscayne three years ago, said some of his friends in Naples are considering relocating to Miami or buying condos in the area.

“I have a lot of people calling me because they want to come here,” said Pignata, owner of Puntino restaurant, with locations in downtown Miami and Key Biscayne.

Pignata said some Italians want to take their money out of Italy and place it in a location they think is safe.

Commercial real estate broker Luigi Mercurio said the cash-strapped Italian government is going after the wealthy in a hunt for tax evaders, he said.

“If you have money, the government has a magnifying glass on you,” said Mercurio, who moved to Miami from Italy in the 1990s.

“Taxes there are more than 40 percent, and it is easy to find loopholes to take the money out of the country and avoid paying taxes.”

Mercurio, with Esslinger Wooten Maxwell Realtors in Miami Beach, said Italians like Miami because they share similar industries, including tourism and hospitality.

Like Pignata, many Italians who move to South Florida either open restaurants or boutique hotels in Miami Beach, Mercurio said.

For wealthy foreigners, obtaining a visa to live in the United States is not hard, he added.

“The real kicker has been the immigration law that allows you to get a visa with a $500,000 investment,” he said, referring to the EB-5 visa for immigrant investors. [Cont.]

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