At a brand new housing development in Irvine, Calif., some of America’s largest home builders are back at work after a crippling housing crash. Lennar, Pulte, K Hovnanian, Ryland to name a few. It’s a rebirth for U.S. construction, but the customers are largely Chinese.
“They see the market here still has room for appreciation,” said Irvine-area real estate agent Kinney Yong, of RE/MAX Premier Realty. “What’s driving them over here is that they have this cash, and they want to park it somewhere or invest somewhere.”
Yong’s phone has been ringing off the hook, with more than 5,000 new homes slated for the nearby Great Park Neighborhood. Most of the calls are from overseas, but prospective buyers are not looking solely for financial returns on the real estate.
“We are seeing a lot of Asians who are buying as an investment, but their kids are going to school here, so kids live in the home. They are looking at it more as an investment in education,” said Emile Haddad, CEO of Fivepoint Communities, developer of the Great Park Neighborhood.
That is Brian Yang’s plan. Speaking from his home in China, Yang said he purchased a home in Irvine this year, but he will wait five years, until his daughter turns 10, before moving his family to the U.S. He has several reasons for taking the leap.
“Education in America is very good and world class, so the first one is for education, and I think the second one is for the property appreciation,” explained Yang.
While American secondary schools and universities are a big draw for the majority of Chinese buyers in California, Yang, and many of his colleagues, are also concerned about China’s political instability, inflation, even pollution. They are paying all-cash for real estate in California, using it as a safe-haven for their wealth. Yang was reluctant to talk about the money, but he admitted, “I feel the same way to some extent.”
For now, Yang is renting out the four-bedroom home, and, he said, getting a 5 percent return on the investment.
While Yang purchased an older home, the new model homes at Great Park are drawing thousands of potential buyers. In fact, more than 20,000 attended the opening weekend, according to developers. The vast majority of lookers were Asian, and that fact is not lost on the builders. Hoping to cash in on this new wave of investors, they are tailoring the homes to the demand. Some are incorporating multigenerational floor plans and even Feng Shui designs.
“The imbalance of supply and demand here is really driving a lot of competition for these homes,” said Haddad.
The homes range from the mid-$700,000s to well over $1 million. Cash is king, and there is a seemingly limitless amount.
“The price doesn’t matter, 800,000, 1 million, 1.5. If they like it they will purchase it,” said Helen Zhang of Tarbell Realtors.
Zhang was coming out of one of the models with a Chinese couple pushing a toddler in a stroller and carrying an infant. As our CNBC camera crew interviewed Zhang, another group of potential buyers roaming the neighborhood models raised their brochures to hide their faces when they saw the camera.
While no one would say specifically why certain families were shying away from the media, some alluded to the fact that many of the buyers don’t want any questions about where the cash is coming from. Some are buying multiple homes as investments, while others are moving their families to the U.S., intending to stay at least until their children graduate from college.
—By CNBC’s Diana Olick. Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick.
— CNBC’s Stephanie Dhue contributed to this report.