International buyers spark Miami condo boom

Nicola Schon, an Italian restaurateur with homes in Monte Carlo, Milan and New York, wanted the perfect pied-a-terre in Miami, with plenty of space, water views and amenities such as a spa, concierge and room service.

So he bought a $1.8 million condo at Epic in downtown Miami — and persuaded 19 friends from Italy to buy there, too.

"The building is half-Italian now," joked Schon, who owns eateries Quattro and Sosta in Miami Beach. "We should put an Italian flag on the roof!"

International buyers are quickly converting their currency into real estate in South Florida, snatching up property at floor-sweeping prices. At high-end Epic, Schon paid about 25 percent less than he would have at pre-construction prices a few years ago.

Add low interest rates and a deadline for federal tax credits, and overall sales of single-family homes and condominiums in South Florida soared during the first three months of 2010, according to quarterly figures released Tuesday by Florida Realtors. The association's April numbers will be out May 24.

In Miami-Dade, sales of condos skyrocketed 46 percent during the first quarter, to 1,920, compared to the same period of 2009. Median prices fell 9 percent to $136,100, figures from Florida Realtors show.

The numbers reflect a real estate market where prices have generally bottomed out, said analyst David Dabby, president of Coral Gables-based Dabby Group Advisors.

"It's a continuation of the trend that has been in place for close to a year now. Prices have been reduced by 50 percent over the 2006 highs, and that has increased sales significantly," Dabby said. "Hopefully it will continue, because since 55 percent of the sales are [short sales and foreclosures], the more sales we have, the quicker we will be able to clear the foreclosure pipeline."

In fact, real estate agents say that buyers who were on the fence before are signing contracts, and renters are realizing it now makes sense to own.

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