4 Obstacles to Clearing an International Transaction and How to Overcome Them

Talking to Realtors® from Florida to California, even the most seasoned professionals (CIPS designees included!) experience challenges in closing international transactions. Foreign buyers have unique circumstances when it comes to buying American real estate than established U.S. residents. While this audience is motivated and eager to purchase U.S. property, helping them reach the closing table requires familiarity with these circumstances and challenges. Here are four of the most common, and the steps you can take to overcome them.

Challenge #1: Currency Issues
On my last trip to London, my friend Kelly and I were out shopping. I did my usual damage - a couple tops, a skirt, and a jacket in hand to purchase. Of course I had no idea what the prices were in American dollars, but the price tags attached to the garments looked okay to me by American standards. Kelly, who has lived in the U.K. for about 4 years now, encouraged my indifference to the exchange rate with her mantra, "Pretend it's American dollars, that's what I do." I've traveled overseas enough to know that it was NOT American dollars, but this seemed easier, so I proceeded to checkout. I returned home, checked my bank statement, and WHOA. Imagine my surprise when my purchase, which I thought was going to be in the US$400 range, was closer to US$700. Thankfully this wasn't a critical error in judgment, but I would have liked to know I was spending $700 on one outfit.

Now, imagine magnifying that "surprise" on a much larger-scale item -- like a house. Purchasing a big-ticket item like real property greatly magnifies the impact of currency markets. Buyers from abroad can spend significantly less – or more – due to nothing more than the ebb and flow of exchange rate movements largely outside their control.

Regardless of what country your buyer calls home, take a look at the recent movements in their currency’s value relative to the United States. Then crunch the numbers. It quickly becomes apparent that a property priced at $500,000 can shift by tens of thousands of dollars in the time it takes to close, due solely to currency fluctuations.

A foreign buyer needs funds in U.S. dollars in order to close on a property. So continuing to hold funds in their local currency can put the transaction at risk if exchange rates fluctuate unfavorably. To lock in the dollar value of their funds, encourage your buyers to convert them as soon as possible. Also advise them to wire transfer the funds to a U.S. bank so you don’t run into delays.

What to ask:

  • How much and in what currency are the available funds? Where are the funds located?
  • If the money is not in a U.S. bank, how soon can it be transferred?


What to do:

  • Monitor exchange rate trends and make your buyer aware of their impact on funds.
  • Work out scenarios that show your buyer what funds will be needed at closing using today’s exchange rate, a higher rate, and a lower rate. Make them aware that if funds are not available at closing, they can lose their down payment.
  • Encourage your client to convert and transfer their funds as soon as possible so that you can move quickly on good opportunities.
  • For rental properties, know how to convert rates per square foot into your client’s local currency and measurements, for instance, yen per square meter.


Challenge #2: Financing Issues

Financing can be an especially difficult hurdle for foreign buyers to clear. Unfortunately, even if your foreign client is quite creditworthy, obtaining a U.S. mortgage may be a lengthy and complicated process because credit histories and other information for foreign buyers may not conform to U.S. underwriting requirements. This is likely why approximately half of foreign buyers purchase property with cash.

U.S. lenders may want to make sure that your buyer has a visa and residential status that is appropriate for buying property here.

Additionally, some buyers may prefer an alternative to a traditional mortgage because their culture’s beliefs forbid interest-bearing loans. Luckily, there are now U.S. financial institutions that offer financing options, known as Sharia financing, through which the lender sells property to the buyer on a cost-plus basis.

What to ask:

  • Do you plan to finance the purchase?
  • Do you have a visa that will satisfy a lender’s residency requirements?
  • Will you be able to provide the financial documents needed to obtain financing?
  • Have you begun looking for a lender?

What to do:

  • Address the question of financing prior to looking for properties.
  • Make your buyer aware of the financial information needed to obtain a U.S. mortgage, and encourage him/her to begin the process of assembling it, especially if the source is a foreign bank.
  • Become acquainted with banks offering Sharia financing, so you can refer buyers to them when needed.


Challenge #3: Visa Issues

While the U.S. places few restrictions on foreign ownership of real estate, foreign buyers do face restrictions on their use of and access to property. Foreign visitors from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), including most European and many Asian nations, can stay in the U.S. for 90 days, during which time they can purchase residential and business property. However, to conduct business here, they must apply for a visa. There are many different types of visas, each presenting different restrictions. To learn more about the most common ones, visit travel.state.gov/visa.

One pathway to staying in the U.S. indefinitely and perhaps later becoming a citizen is to buy commercial property and establish a small business, such as a tanning salon or fast food franchise.  The E-2 Treaty Investor Visa, for example, allows a foreign national to do this. If you encounter an immigrant looking to start a business here, ask if they have applied for the required visa. Suggest that they contact an immigration lawyer who can guide them through the process.

What to ask:

  • How do you plan to use the property you wish to purchase?
  • Have you consulted an immigration attorney?


What to do:

  • Know your buyer’s visa status before showing properties.
  • Encourage him to seek expert advice in immigration law.

Challenge #4: Tax Issues

The tax status of a foreign buyer can significantly affect the realized gain on a residential property and the net income on a rental or commercial property. Anyone, whether native-born or foreign, should examine tax considerations before initiating a real estate transaction.

An immigrant’s tax situation is largely determined by his/her status as a resident or nonresident. Residency determination is independent of your foreign buyer’s visa type. The good news is that, in many cases, an immigrant can elect a tax status that is beneficial to his/her specific situation, or even apply for a waiver or exemption if he or she is classified in an unfavorable one.

Form of ownership will also affect tax outcomes. Direct ownership by an individual may be the simplest and most effective solution in many cases. However, owners of large or complex investment properties may find that forming a corporate entity best suits their business objectives.

Foreign buyers should be aware that laws surrounding income, capital gains and estate taxes on foreign nationals are very complex, and guide them to seek expert advice from a tax professional. Also, remember that all U.S. property transactions made by a foreign entity require a TIN (Tax Identification Number) or an EIN (Employer Identification Number).

What to ask:

  • Do you have a Tax ID Number (TIN) or an Employer Identification Number (EIN)?
  • Have you consulted an expert in immigrant tax law to determine what types of ownership and resident status would be most beneficial to your tax situation?

What to do:

  • Make the buyer aware that tax considerations are quite complex, and guide them to seek advice.

Knowing that these hurdles exist in international transactions can prevent you from being blindsided by them at some point in the process. Taking proactive steps and asking the right questions makes it much easier to face – and clear – these common hurdles for closing a transaction with a foreign buyer. Shameless plug: the most in-depth education and training for international transactions is through the Certified International Property Specialists designation. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about how to get started.

What challenges have you faced in an international transaction, and how have you overcome them?