Every so often, I hear from aspiring real estate investors around the world who are trying to buy and sell properties in the United States from another country.
There are some fascinating challenges that can come up when you’re trying to buy, sell, manage or simply own real estate from another part of the world – especially if you have no intention of actually setting foot inside the United States. Things like banking, logistics, currency exchange, due diligence, taxes, legal considerations, and language barriers can suddenly become significant challenges.
Depending on a number of factors, some of these challenges may be easy to overcome, while others might be more cumbersome – but wherever you’re working from, my goal with this article is to help you maneuver through some of the most common obstacles for those who are buying and selling U.S. real estate as a foreigner.
Of all the issues I’ve heard from those working outside the United States, this one tends to rank high on the list. It’s a multi-faceted issue that involves banks, currency exchange and payment mediums through which to send and receive funds.
Option A: Wherever you’re working from, the most ideal scenario is for you to open up a bank account in the United States (this will make it MUCH easier to send and receive U.S. dollars quickly, from within the country).
In my conversations with bankers in the U.S. – I was told that you do not need to be a U.S. Citizen or have Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status in order to open a bank account in the United States. However, most U.S. banks will require you to be at least one of the following things:
1. A Foreign National currently residing in the United States
2. A U.S. Citizen living outside the country
The bank will verify that you meet at least one of these criteria by collecting two forms of identification from you. One of them will need to be a government issued ID (like a passport or driver’s license) and the other can be something less formal, like a Credit Card, Debit Card, pay stub or Rental Agreement showing your U.S. address (if you are not a U.S. Citizen or and LPR). Granted – any bank could have a different set of rules and turn you down… but generally speaking, most banks want your business, and will do what they can to help.
Note: Something to keep an eye on is Stripe Atlas. While it’s still in its infancy, this service is one that can help you set up a U.S. based company and bank account quickly and inexpensively. For more information on how it works, see their FAQ page.
If you are not a U.S. Citizen, do not have LPR status AND you do not reside inside the United States, you will probably find it difficult to get a bank account in the U.S. If you fall into this camp, then let’s look at Option B…
Option B: If you are a “Foreign National” living outside the U.S., your next option is to simply handle your business from a bank account in your country. There could be some added obstacles if you’re going this route – but most of the challenges will come in the form of currency exchange and lag time. Most banks will not have issues with sending or receiving wire transfers to/from a U.S. bank account. While it may create some minor added headaches, it’s shouldn’t present any impassable problems.
Another thing to keep in mind is currency exchange rates. To keep a proper perspective for how far your country’s currency is going to go in the U.S., use a simple currency converter to make sure you understand the true cost of what you’re buying and selling stateside.
Depending on which country you’re working from, what currency you’re using and how flexible you’re willing to be – you could have several ways to send and receive money in your ongoing business operations.
Depending on what you’re trying to buy and sell – one of the most universally accepted payment mediums on the internet is PayPal.
This service can be great for sending and receiving money… the only problem is that PayPal strictly prohibits the use of their service for buying and selling real estate (which is a bit of a problem, since this is our primary method for making money).
I didn’t figure this out until 2011 when I asked one of my buyers to pay me $2,500 for a property I was selling. PayPal somehow caught on, and froze the funds in my account until I signed an Affidavit promising never to use their service for any future real estate transactions. I signed the affidavit and regained control of my account – but still, the event was a little scary.
Why is real estate such a problem? I’m honestly not sure – but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I don’t need a huge chunk of my working capital frozen because I didn’t abide by their rules. With this in mind, I don’t use PayPal for ANYTHING related to my real estate deals. I don’t use it to send or receive earnest deposits, monthly payments, assignment fees, or handle the outright purchases of real estate.
Probably the most solid and trustworthy (and least convenient) way to send and receive funds is through a bank wire.
Sending a bank wire to another person’s account (whether it be domestic or international) usually requires a small fee and requires the sender to complete a form detailing the sender’s and receiver’s information, including their bank account details, country, currency selection and more (you can see an example of what Citibank’s form looks like right here).
It’s not hard, but it’s also not quite as simple as clicking a button (like PayPal and Checkbook.io). And after you’ve done it once – you’ll see what I mean.
Bank wires are often used when sending LARGE amounts of cash and/or when transferring funds between banks from different countries. I’ve used them on a few occasions when closing on some of the larger properties I’ve bought and sold.
If you’re looking for a way to collect ongoing payments for a property (e.g. – rent payments, lease payments or even loan payments in a seller financing situation), there are a few services that have made it significantly easier to collect monthly payments in a completely automated fashion.
One way to do this is through a service called ZimpleMoney – which can be used to automatically withdraw money from the borrower’s bank account on a recurring basis. Setting up a new loan is easy!
To learn more about ZimpleMoney, be sure to check out this blog post.
Something most people outside the U.S. will have to deal with is the simple logistics of sending out offers and handling closings through the mail.
Nowadays, it’s easy to make offers and send Purchase Agreements digitally (without the need for “snail mail”), but there are still many cases when it’s crucial to have original copies of the documentation (e.g. – Deed, Certificate of Trust, Death Certificate, Power of Attorney, etc). Many counties still require original signatures with “wet ink” in order to record these documents, and in these cases – digital signatures are NOT acceptable… which means you simply can’t rely on email for everything.
If you’re working with a title company to close a deal, they will take much of this logistical legwork off your plate – but if you’re trying to close a real estate transaction in-house, this can be even more labor intensive for someone who is out-of-the-country.
If you’re trying to handle the transportation of original documents and signatures, there are a few different ways you can manage this from afar (and a few alternative ways to approach the situation altogether).
When you need documents to be signed and notarized in the United States, there are several mobile notary services that can be hired to facilitate this process for you (usually, for less than $100 per job). Many of them will meet with your buyer or seller in the states, obtain all the signatures you need, deliver/receive any cashier’s checks or other original documents on your behalf AND notarize any signatures that require notarizing.
Keep in mind – a mobile notary is NOT the same thing as a professional closing agent from a title company or real estate attorney’s office (i.e. – they can’t verify the accuracy or completeness of the documents or packages you’re sending back and forth), but if you simply need some “feet on the street” to act as a liaison – these paid services can be extremely helpful.
One service that may be of use for this purpose is 123Notary.
Also note – when it comes time for YOU to sign documents that require notarizing (like Deeds, Affidavits, and Memorandums), you’ll need to get these document notarized, but you won’t necessarily need to use a U.S.-based notary. In my conversations with several county Recorder’s offices around the country, ALL of them told me that when a foreign citizen gets a document signed in their country of origin, they can use a notary based in their country.
I actually found this surprising, because it’s not always easy to verify the legitimacy of a notary outside the United States – nevertheless, that was the answer I consistently received. The only caveat they added was that if any part of the notarized document was written in another language (e.g. – the notary block, the notary stamp, or even the entire document itself) – these portions of the document would need to be accompanied by an “Affidavit of Translation”, so the county Recorder would be able to understand what the entire document says.
If you’re working on a deal of notable value (e.g. – the kind that will generate more than a few thousand dollars in profit), it’s usually a wise decision to simply hire a title company or closing attorney to handle this process for you.
Closing a real estate transaction in-house can save you a good chunk of change if you’re pinching pennies, but it also involves a lot of extra work (along with the potential for error). When you outsource this work to a qualified title company, this will take the whole “logistics” hassle off your plate (since they should be handling ALL of the back and forth communication between you and the other party), and they’ll also make sure everything is being done right – which can be a HUGE mental burden off your mind (especially if you don’t know what you’re doing).
Even though I know how to deal with the complexities of most closings… when I’m working on a property with a market value of $10K or more, I am always handing these closings off to a professional closing agent. Just from the standpoint of “time-saving”, it’s a no-brainer!
We now live in an age where digital signatures are making it MUCH more convenient to get documents signed. Services like DocuSign and RightSignature (among many others) have brought this technology to a new level, allowing users to quickly and conveniently get signatures that are legally binding and recognized by the U.S. government.
These services offer a great deal of speed and convenience for those working outside the U.S. who need documents signed quickly and easily (WITHOUT waiting for 3 – 4 weeks for papers to go back and forth through the international postal system).
However, it’s important to realize that even though the federal government now recognizes digital signatures, many individual counties are not necessarily on the same page yet. In my conversations with the county Register of Deeds offices in my state, ALL of them said they would not accept digital signatures for recording (they could only use the original copies with “wet ink”).
This doesn’t necessarily mean you can never use digital signatures for your deeds and other recordable documents, but it’s worth noting that these digital signature services are still not a viable solution in many cases (and before you go down this road, you’ll want to check with the county office to see what they’ll allow). Hopefully, this will change in the years to come, but as of now – many counties still seem to be behind the times.
That being said – if you do get the wet signatures and you’re holding the original copy in your hands, there is the potential that you’ll be able to “e-record” the documents with a service like Simplifile. Check out this page for a list of states and counties that DO and DON’T allow for the e-recording of documents (and for the ones that do, you should be able to save quite a bit of time in getting document recorded in those counties).
If you’re in a situation where you need to send or receive documentation yourself – it always helps to use an official (and sometimes expensive) UPS or FedEx envelope. This doesn’t just help to speed up the transportation of your documents, it also helps your recipients to take you seriously.
For most people, when they receive an envelope like this in the mail…
THEY’RE GOING TO OPEN IT.
This kind of envelope immediately tells send the recipient a message that says “This is important.” or “Someone spent $20+ to send you whatever is inside the envelope, so open it up!“
Did you know that you can send and receive your physical mail from within the United States, even if you’ve never set foot in the country before? There are several remote mail services out there (e.g. – Traveling Mailbox, iPostal1, Earth Class Mail, Virtual Post Mail,) that can send and receive your mail from a domestic address – and then scan all of the items you receive so you can view it digitally from anywhere in the world.
They’ll even go so far as to mail the physical copies to your location (say, if you need an original copy of a deed, or cashier’s check). The benefit of this is that to your recipients, it removes one of the most obvious clues that you’re not actually working from within the United States.
Whether you’re using a paid service like FreedomVoice or Phone.com, or even a free one like Google Voice – just about every virtual phone service will allow you to establish a phone number with an area code based anywhere in the United States.
Even if you’re working from within the U.S. and you want to appear as though you’re calling from the market in which you’re working – you can still use a phone number based in the area in the area code of your choice.
Whatever you decide to do, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of communication. DON’T assume the other party will understand what’s going on.
- If you decide to close a transaction with a title company, call and/or email your buyer or seller and let them know!
- Alternatively, if you decide to close the deal in-house, call and/or email your buyer or seller and make sure they’re fully informed about what the next steps are (and when they can expect to receive the documents from you, and what to do once they’re complete).
- If you decide to hire a mobile notary, call and/or email your buyer or seller and let them know who the mobile notary is, and when/where they can expect to meet up with them to close the deal.
See what I’m saying? No matter where the deal is at, no matter how long it takes to reach the next step, or whose job it is to make the next move – you should constantly have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and make sure every party fully understands what is expected of them and when it’s expected by.
Whatever type of property you’re looking to buy, you’ll almost always have to do some kind of due diligence (i.e. – property research, verifying information, fact-checking) before you send your money and finalize the deal.
The good news is – if you have a phone and a computer, this process can be just as easy for you as it is for me.
I almost never leave my house to do property research these days. When I’m buying vacant land, it’s as easy as hiring a service like WeGoLook to prepare a simple property inspection report – and when I’m buying a rental property, I work with a company like HouseMaster to prepare an extremely detailed report, telling me everything I need to know about the property before I invest my money.
You’d also be amazed at how much information is actually at your fingertips with some of the real estate data services in the U.S. – and with free tools like Google Earth. For an overview of how I do much of my basic property research from afar, you might also find this blog post helpful.
Depending on what your native language is (even if it’s English), there are two aspects to think about when it comes to “Language Barriers”.
If you’re someone who speaks English as a first language, you already have a built-in asset when it comes to working in the United States.
Those who reside in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand (and even those who have been trained in English since childhood) – chances are, you won’t notice any significant verbal communication barriers as you’re speaking over the phone with those in the U.S.
If you’re someone who speaks English as a second language and you have a heavy foreign accent (which is somewhat of a subjective thing), this isn’t necessarily a “problem” per se, but it may be an issue if people in the U.S. find you difficult to understand.
Even if this is a known issue, it won’t necessarily be a deal-breaker, but if you aren’t fluent in speaking English, there may be times when you’ll have to speak very slowly and repeat things until understood.
You’ll most likely find that it’s okay – most people will be patient and will try to understand you (and even if they aren’t patient, don’t take it personally – they may just be having a bad day). As with anything, the more conversations you have in English, the better you’ll get at it, so keep at it!
Even if you’re fluent in English, don’t forget that it’s still important (perhaps even more important) that you understand how to write in a way that is easy for people to understand.
Even amongst my friends and colleagues in the U.S. – I’m always surprised at how many people send emails that are HORRIBLY written (e.g. – incomplete sentences, bad grammar, missing words, improper spelling, failing to explain points in clear detail, etc).
It’s not enough to simply speak the language, you need to be able to communicate your message with clarity and tact, in a way that is easy for anyone to understand. Most people can do it, but even for me – it takes time and thought to write well.
The funny thing is, I’ve had interactions with people in Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Trinidad and Tobago who were FAR better writers than some of the “home-grown Americans” I work with every day… so wherever you come from, always be sure to take your time when crafting your written communication. Never underestimate the power of a well-written message.
The ability to write effectively is a major asset that will serve anyone well in the real estate business. Even if you’re not an expert at speaking English yet, keep working on it, and don’t forget that you can go a LONG way by simply taking your time and writing a clear, easy-to-understand email, letter or postcard.
This is probably the least pressing issue, but if you’re located in a place like Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand (or anywhere on the other side of the world), this difference in time zones can add some challenges when it comes to real-time communication.
If you’re running a business like mine, you’ll find that most of the ongoing communication with your clients and customers is NOT terribly time sensitive, and much of the back-and-forth correspondence can be done through emails and/or voicemails. That being said – if you NEED to have a live phone conversation with someone in the states, be sure to schedule your day so that you can contact them near the beginning (8:00am) or end (8:00pm) of the day in the North America time zone.
Use this time zone calculator to figure out what time you’ll have to get on the phone in order to catch your contact in the states.
The areas of “tax” and “legal” encompass A LOT of different variables. Some of the intricacies you need to know about will vary depending on what type of business you’re running and what the tax laws are in the state(s) where you’re working. With that said, there are some pretty standard things to be aware of if you’re planning to work in the United States from a foreign country.
Whatever type of real estate you’re planning to own in the United States, you should always plan to pay property taxes to the city or township where your property is located.
Additionally, if you’re going to earn any ongoing rent revenue from the property, you should also plan to file a U.S. tax return to pay state and federal taxes as well. If you have a typical rental property, you should be able to take advantage of the standard tax deductions (like depreciation and interest expense) to minimize your taxable income. This is why it’s important to hire a competent tax professional in the U.S. – as they can help you handle this process the right way.
Owning U.S. Real Estate as a “Foreign National”
If you are a “Foreign National” (i.e. – if you are not a U.S. Citizen and do not have Legal Permanent Resident status in the United States), there are a few things you should know about.
- You DO NOT have to be a U.S. Citizen or have a Green Card (LPR status) in order to own U.S. real estate in your personal name.
- You DO NOT have to be a U.S. Citizen or have a Green Card (LPR status) in order to own a U.S. business entity.
- You CAN own U.S. real estate in the name of a foreign business entity.
Although you don’t necessarily need to be a U.S. Citizen or have a Green Card to own U.S. real estate, you will be required to obtain an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The IRS issues ITINs to foreign nationals who are required to file federal tax reports and do not qualify for a Social Security Number (SSN).
However, you decide to hold title to your U.S. real estate – each of these scenarios will have different tax advantages and disadvantages to consider (some of which is detailed here and here). As usual, if you want to understand the FULL tax and legal implications involved with owning real estate from your respective country (with or without the involvement of a U.S. business entity), you’ll have to talk directly with your legal and/or tax professional.
If you’re interested in forming a Corporation or LLC in the United States (note: you do not have to be a U.S. Citizen in order to own a U.S. business entity) – one of the easiest ways to get the job done is with MyCorporation. If you’re working from a foreign country, you can also pay a small additional fee for MyCorporation to act as your Registered Agent (something that will eliminate one more hassle that comes with doing business internationally).
Creating your own business entity is easy! If you need a quick walkthrough, I’ll show you how to do it in this blog post.
There are all kinds of various documents that can come into play with a real estate investing business – but once you’ve been through your first few transactions, you’ll likely find that there are just a few key documents that can be re-used over and over again. Given this, it’s important to start from the correct template.
Whenever I’m working in a new state and I’m not sure what specific language should be included in the contracts and documents I’m working with, I go to RocketLawyer, which is one of the most user-friendly platforms I’ve ever found for creating legal documents in the real estate business.
Another place to get state-specific documents is USLegal – which has a VAST library of forms and templates for just about every possible scenario in the U.S.
With everything we’ve covered above, I should clarify that this article is aimed at real estate investors who are planning to be absentee owners (i.e. – those who are buying and selling U.S. real estate for investment purposes, with no immediate plans to visit the country in-person).
If you have other plans in mind (perhaps you’d like to own vacation property or your primary residence in the U.S.), there may be other considerations to keep in mind. For a more all-inclusive look at your situation, be sure to see Zillow’s Foreign Buyers Guide – which details many more of the intricacies that can come into play when buying U.S. real estate from another country.