By Miriam Hall | Bisnow, New York City | October 11, 2021

Foreign commercial real estate buying lessened during the coronavirus pandemic, as the U.S borders slammed shut. But overseas buyers are said to be returning, albeit slowly, to the market.

“You just can’t get over borders easily,” Jason Weissman, the founder of Boston Realty Advisors, said during Bisnow’s National Real Estate Finance Summit in Manhattan last week. “We’ve functioned very well, actually, domestically here considering that the international capital really has not been on our soil.”

The impact of the crisis on the foreign investment appetite is certainly showing up in the numbers. In the first half of the year, inbound capital investment in commercial real estate fell to $11.6B, according to CBRE data.

That marks a 6% drop from the same time period the year before and the weakest first six months of a year since 2013. Even industrial assets, a class that has attracted significant interest from investors of all stripes, saw a 21% drop in foreign capital in the first half of 2021 from 2020. Office, by comparison, went down by only 5%, a possible indication that part of the market is beginning to stabilize, per CBRE.

“From where I sit, [foreign investment] certainly was a big part of the conversation pre-Covid, especially cheap debt coming from South Korea specifically,” Newmark Senior Managing Director Chris Kramer said. “I just got an email from a foreign lender the other day. [they’d] replied to a deal a month ago and passed on it, [but] they said, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re interested in New York and sort of the surrounding New York area again.’ So it seems like we might be starting to see it pick up.”

There are still several presidential proclamations in place restricting travel to the U.S. from places like China, the United Kingdom and the European Schengen area, which includes countries typically active in New York City real estate, such as France, Germany and Norway. But last month, the White House announced that as of November the U.S. will reopen to fully vaccinated travelers from 33 countries that are currently under restrictions.

“Anecdotally, we’ve got significant capital inflows during the course of this year from Canadians, Germans, Danish,” Nuveen Chief Investment Officer Shawn Lese said. “This week alone, I’ve probably got four or five meetings with South Korean partners who are able to apply again and are very happy to come out and start looking at transactions.”

He added the investors who have become more active are largely from family offices and pension funds, rather than the sovereign wealth funds.

“Noticeably absent, the Chinese were big investors in New York City, up until the dialogue with Trump became a little bit heated,” he said. “That has all reversed itself … I also don’t see a lot of Middle Eastern money.”

Canadian, Singaporian and Chinese investors spent more money in the U.S. in the first half of 2021 than they did over the same period in 2020, according to CBRE. The areas that saw the greatest growth were places close to gateway cities, including San Jose, Oakland, Northern New Jersey, Richmond and Baltimore. That appeared to be a trend across the board, multiple panelists pointed out during the summit.

“Pre-pandemic, we were investing outside the gateway markets, I would say aggressively, but it wasn’t the focus. We were still looking at the gateway markets,” Mack Real Estate Group CEO Richard Mack said during a fireside chat. “As Covid hit, and we saw the acceleration and growth out of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — these big gateway cities — we kind of hit the gas pedal. And our biggest equity market right now, for an investment and development perspective, is Phoenix.”

Manhattan has fallen from its former perch as a top investment market in the country for sales volume below Sun Belt markets like Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix. However, when looking at deals that are under contract, Manhattan is No. 1, indicating that the city is in rebound mode, Meridian Capital Senior Executive Managing Director Helen Hwang said.

Still, many panelists aired their anxieties about the future of the city, particularly as it relates to the population shrinking and the political climate.

“We hope that there is, with new leadership, a recognition that the city is not what it was five, 10 or 20 years ago,” Asland Capital Partners CEO James Simmons said.  “There are parts of the city that I think are never going to go back to what it was when we were growing up. But having said that, there are also things in the city, that if they continue to slide, it’s going to be much harder to retain all of the people who were here for all the reasons of why we’re all here.”