Patricia Ng looks around her office pointing at brokers and listing the languages they speak: Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Cantonese, Russian.
“I have 16 different languages here,” she says proudly. “Still, I’m desperate for someone who speaks Vietnamese. Good brokers who speak Vietnamese are in high demand these days.”
Just as baby boomers reshaped the housing market in the 1950s and 60s, immigrants, by their sheer numbers, are redefining the way business is done today in real estate.
Immigrants who came to the U.S. during the 1990s wave have started buying homes and that is forcing real estate professionals — including lenders, developers and bankers — to adapt.
“If you look at the next wave of consumers, they are it,” said Frances Martinez Myers, chairwoman of the San Diego-based National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals. “There is now a whole campaign around 'What do I need to do inside my shop to reach out.'"
The United States is home to about 34.2 million immigrants, or 12 percent of the total population, and their numbers continue to grow as the native-born population shrinks, according to the U.S. Census.
Since the 1990s, immigrants have accounted for a third of household growth, and they represent about 12 percent of first-time buyers nationwide, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
Rachel Drew, a researcher at the center, said immigrants are making up for the decline in native born populations entering their 30s, which tend to be home buying years.
“They’re filling the gap left after the baby boom,” she said. “That is making a big difference in keeping home buying and home demand strong.”
Renato Cruz, 33, is one of them.
The native Brazilian arrived in the United States 13 years ago during the immigration boom of the 1990s. Last year, he bought a one-bedroom condominium in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood for $149,000.
“I just got tired of paying rent,” he explained.
Cruz, a banquet chef, worked a couple jobs, shared an apartment with friends and put away every extra penny he had to save money to buy. He also worked to establish credit and studied the home-buying process by talking with friends and agents.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Cruz said. “My house has already gone up in value, so if I ever decide to leave, that’s money in my pocket that I couldn’t have worked a year to get.”
On average, immigrants who purchase homes do it about 10 years after they arrive in the U.S., Drew said. For many, it can take that long to feel comfortable with the process, save enough money for a down payment and establish credit.
“When you have immigrants coming to the United States, they’re unbanked,” said Cristina Miranda, a spokeswoman for Fannie Mae, the biggest U.S. buyer of mortgages. “Many have no idea what to do with a credit card and they keep their cash under a mattress.”
Businesses forced to adapt
For the past several years, brokers, lenders, agents and other organizations have offered classes for immigrants to learn how to buy a home and manage their money. They also publish multilingual brochures and have hired more multilingual agents.
Bank of America has partnered with community organizations for classes and counseling on the buying process.
“To help them get into homes, we need to be in the neighborhood,” said Gwen Thomas, Bank of America Neighborhood Lending executive. “It’s very grass roots and it’s very simple, but banks need to be in the community and reflect the community.”
Companies also offer diversity training and cultural sensitivity seminars for real estate professionals so they know how to approach immigrants who want to get into the market.
Different ethnic groups have their own ways of negotiating, discussing money and making decisions, said Century 21 agent Cristina Maltez. They also have different things they look for in homes.
“Brazilians, for example, want to be close to transportation. We thrive on busy roads,” Maltez said.
Ng said some Asian clients will ask for houses that conform to the principles of feng shui, which dictate how positive energy flows through space. Many Hispanics, she added, will look at multifamily homes, where several generations can live together.
Banks and mortgage companies also have tried to open doors by becoming more flexible in what they consider as evidence of good credit history.
Lenders will sometimes look at rent or utility bills to see that they were paid on time, Miranda said. They also may require a co-borrower.
Developers, as well, have responded to the growing immigrant market, offering home designs to suit different cultures’ preferences, for example.
KB Home, one of the top five home builders in the country, has designs for homes that meet feng shui principles for markets where research has shown a demand. The company also just launched a Web site in Spanish, spokeswoman Sierra Wilson said.
Despite these moves, however, the immigrant homeownership rate continues to lag that of native-born residents by as much as 30 percent.
Myers said real estate professionals still have a long way to go to make immigrants more comfortable navigating a foreign and complex system. She said only about 10 percent of real estate agents nationwide are from ethnic backgrounds.
“The number one reason people don’t buy homes is lack of information,” she said. “If they don’t speak your language, if they don’t understand your customs and culture, then how can you get the information and feel good about it?”
Added Ng: “You need somebody to encourage you, be your counselor. Somebody who will give you the strength to know that it’s the right thing to do.”