Investment: A fistful of dollars

America's meltdown brings opportunities for UK speculators

Property news from America has been unremittingly grim for months. The sub-prime lending crisis devastated the real-estate market, and the dollar is flat on its back.

But amid the wreckage, some British property investors are sensing opportunity. The combination of the property price dive and the weak dollar has given huge buying power to investors armed with sterling.

Reports from estate agents selling US property in the UK suggest that British buyers are already moving in. Adrian McDermott of Escapes2.comspecialises in the Orlando area of mid-Florida, and has seen a revival of interest after a long period of stagnation.

"We've been very quiet over the last 18 months but in the last few weeks there has been increasing interest from investors," he says. "A lot of investors have their currency organised and are waiting for the new year to see if the market has hit rock bottom."

The Orlando area is popular with British investors because Disney World and the other theme parks attract huge numbers of British tourists. This enables US landlords to market their properties over here as well as locally.

A huge surge of construction, however, had the effect of swamping the market, and prices have declined steeply. As a result, buyers can find bargains – especially on estates where the developer is keen to get rid of the last few units, the so-called "inventory stock".

"In the Orlando area there is an oversupply, and people who bought off plan two years ago are now coming up for completion, so buyers can negotiate substantial discounts of up to 20 per cent off the list price," McDermott says. "We have had clients arriving on the site in person and driving a hard bargain. A typical four-bedroom holiday home with swimming pool in Orlando costs around $300,000, which is now less than £150,000."

Investors are also looking at bargains from victims of the US property crisis who are facing repossession. In a process called "short sales", the investor buys the property at a discount from the owner with the agreement of the mortgage lender. The investor gets a bargain, the owner escapes debt-free, and the bank does not have to go to the expense of legal proceedings. Although this is perilously close to profiting from someone's misfortune, short sales can often be a relatively painless way out for families in distress.

The upmarket estate agents Savills has also seen a new interest in top-end US real estate. "We had stopped selling in the US completely but have just started again," says Charles Weston-Baker, who runs Savills' international arm.

Detailed research is needed to identify the areas that may be at the bottom of the property cycle. "It varies so much from place to place. In South Florida [the Miami area] there is massive oversupply and it is likely prices will reduce further, but in other areas there is limited supply and good demand," Weston-Baker says.

Savills is also selling apartments in the Spire, a dramatic new skyscraper in Chicago. Designed by the trendy Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, the unicorn-spike tower will be the tallest all-residential building in the world when it is completed in 2011.

The Spire, though, will certainly not be cheap: prices range from $750,000 for a studio flat to $40m for the penthouse right at the pinnacle, 2,000ft above the ground.

The boutique developer Bonnie Copp has a unique perspective on the US and UK markets, as she operates both in London and New York. "Anyone coming over to the US with sterling at the moment finds that everything is incredibly cheap," she says. "It is like a third-world country. There is a huge influx of global buyers due to the weak dollar."

The sub-prime scandal directly impacts only the bottom end of the market. At the upper end, prices are affected only indirectly by the limited availability of mortgages, so cash buyers have a very considerable advantage in places such as Manhattan.

"The US market is still strong at the top end in good locations. New York is incredibly strong," Copp says.

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