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International real estate

Before there were religious wars, there were wars in which conquering land was the goal.

Real estate is again a universal industry, for wherever there is money and ambition, there is a growing desire to own a piece of U.S. real estate, be it land, building or a participation.

Since I have worked in countries on every continent, I share my observations: At present I am busy in China and Mexico, plus with activities concerning resorts in several additional locales. Let's explore some idiosyncrasies of certain notable foreign cultures, easily matching our own domestic proclivities.

Years ago, when the Shah of Iran fell from power, I was referred to several escaping Iranians to counsel them on what investments might be good for them. This I define as "flight-capital" -- "just get me out of this place and keep my wealth safe." It is filled with fear of the unknown and a need to feel physically safe, rather than ensuring a yield for their investments.

This is like our pension funds some time ago, where they were interested in safety, with little risk of losing the principal, rather than what their money would earn at the time. Many Iranians -- men with power who suddenly were faced with powerlessness -- were guided by British advisers, as the British always had a global orientation in their educations and business interests, while we were mostly insular in ours.

Later, the Japanese were not in an escape mode, but laden with liquidity and what I found to be living an arrogant fantasy which convinced them that they knew values better than locals, especially concerning prestigious trophy properties. These consisted of famous treasures of real estate, like the Empire State Building and such. They were especially trawling for properties in California and New York, or wherever Japan Air Lines landed.

Realtors and sellers loved the Japanese because they paid so much more than appraised value; the explanation came to be that they were long-term players who would hold these properties for a relatively long time, better to establish value rather than a current appraisal for a short-term hold -- which was more our fantasy rather than reality. I was guilty of that fiction as no one could figure why they were paying so much for what they bought -- trophy or not.

The Canadians had been previously afflicted with a similar defect in judgment when they severely overpaid for rental apartments because they were planning to convert them into for-sale condos (sound familiar?). Both were battered by the ultimate reality -- the marketplace -- which painfully educated them on real values of real estate. Shopping centers were another Canadian fiasco, committed mostly by one buyer whose vanity took up too much space in his cranium.

In contemporary times, the Chinese culture is most interesting because it is in rapid evolution, accelerating to heights that most of the world's leaders felt would be an impossible pace. They are known to love taking risks and gambling. My first experience was after lecturing in Hong Kong, meeting people who were in fear of what the Communist Chinese government would do when it did take over.

Today, Chinese capital is heavily invested in mainland China's voluminous property deals, though they remain active in areas of North America, such as British Columbia. No matter what the initial generalizations and instant experts from journalists to investment bankers conclude, there are several kinds of Chinese cultures, just as it is with Latinos.

Each has nuance, which I have found to be more instructive, yet less predictable than anthropological conclusions.

My approach has always been to meet the investors, spending hours interviewing them, until I feel that I can track their true motivations over and above escape.

I am still forming conclusions about the fast-emerging Asian-Indian culture, whose ambitions are enormous and whose middle class has been growing and still very influenced by their nurturing under British bureaucracy.

Goodkin has been a business ethicist and housing analyst since 1956. He may be reached at sanford.goodkin@sddt.com.

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