By Herbert Lash and Barbara Liston
NEW YORK/ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – In sunny central Florida, some 4,400 miles (7081 km)across the Atlantic from London, real estate broker Paul Torola is already sensing a chill from Britain’s decision last week to leave the European Union.
In the days since the June 23 “Brexit” vote that has rattled global financial markets and sent the British pound to 31-year lows, Torola has seen potential UK-based buyers suspend their searches for vacation homes in the Orlando area.
“We’ve had people looking that have delayed because their money doesn’t go as far,” said Torola, a 64-year-old broker for American Ideal Homes. “It’s not that they’re not going to buy, but they’re waiting for things to settle.”
While equity markets have bounced back, the pound has barely recovered and traded below $1.33 on Thursday, still off 11 percent since last week.
Jane Dowle, an eight-year U.S. resident from the United Kingdom who sells vacation homes around the Walt Disney World theme park to her fellow Britons, echoed Torola’s assessment.
“It’s very, very quiet,” Dowle said. “There are people we’ve been speaking to since before the Brexit vote. Now they’ve decided to wait a little longer.”
The British have long been a significant force in Florida real estate, especially around Orlando where they rank first among foreign buyers. In 2015, they accounted for 28 percent of the area’s property sales to non-U.S. buyers, and statewide they were the top group from outside the Americas.
Real estate officials already expect fewer British buyers due to the Brexit vote, as currency moves have a history of substantially affecting foreign investment in residential property.
“Now with the British pound much weaker, it will make it much more difficult for the British to buy just on the currency translation,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors in Washington.
Indeed, if the recent experience of Canadian buyers of holiday homes in warmer climates, nicknamed “snowbirds,” is any guide, British purchases of Florida real estate are about to hit a wall.
When the Canadian dollar tumbled by 16 percent against the dollar because of swooning oil prices, Canadians’ share of foreign purchases in the Sunshine State slumped from 32 percent to just 11 percent in the 12 months ended June 2015, according to the latest available data.
The threat of a recession in Britain – a high probability in the view of many economists – could also trip up hopeful buyers, Yun said. Britons’ absence from one of the top U.S. destinations for foreign investment in residential property would also bode ill for the Florida market as a whole, he said.
Last year, foreigners bought 12 percent of homes sold in Florida, but accounted for 24 percent of the overall dollar value of the purchases. Nationally, foreigners accounted for 4 percent of unit sales and 8 percent of dollar value. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/291iMRx)
Britons paid $289,600 on average for their Florida properties last year, 12 percent above the state average, though less than $538,600 average for all foreign buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors.
The British, like most foreign buyers, paid mainly in cash. Such transactions, which accounted for about 83 percent of last year’s total, are particularly susceptible to sharp currency swings seen since the referendum.
In fact, realtors should expect to see some contracts busted in the weeks ahead because the sterling costs for many pending transactions have surged by tens of thousands of pounds in the past week, said Kelly Cutchin, Orlando-based country manager for Moneycorp, which helps foreigners execute cash transfers for their Florida home purchases.
“Unfortunately there are some clients that cannot afford to close on those properties that they have contracts because the rate has moved so much against them,” Cutchin said.
Lenders helping to bankroll development projects targeted at British and other international buyers are getting nervous, too.
“Our banker has already spoken to us and said how is this going to affect your UK sales,” said Garrett Kenny,a Dublin native and owner of Feltrim Group, a developer that specializes in vacationand investment homes for international buyers in the Disney area. “I said it’s a little bit early to tell.”
Still, with the uncertainty prompted by the Brexit vote, Kenny this week pulled three ads that had been scheduled to run in a UK magazine that promotes international property sales.
“Definitely I’m concerned” Kenny said.
TIME TO CASH OUT
The pound’s decline is a double-edged sword and may motivate Britons who bought homes in recent years to capture the windfall from their dollar-based assets.
“We’re going to see an increase of British sellers over the next couple of months,” Cutchin said. “If they sell right now they’re going to make huge returns because the exchange rate is going to be better for them than it has been for 31 years.”
At least one deal has already been struck.
On Monday, Kissimmee real estate broker Jon Penny said he negotiated a dealthat helped a Scottish man get out of a house he bought during the pre-2008 property bubble. The seller, who paid $456,000 in cash for his house in December 2005 when the pound was trading well above $1.70, signed a contract to sell to another Briton for $360,000 in cash.
In his case, sterling’s crash made all the difference. Deeply underwater on the house in dollar terms, the pound’s post-Brexit plunge means he is getting back the same 270,000 pounds he paid for the property 11 years ago.
“He’s extremely happy,” Penny said. “Everybody wants to say doom and gloom. But it’s never bad for everybody.”
(Reporting by Herbert Lash; Editing by Dan Burns and Tomasz Janowski)