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Chinese Investors Pursue US Property Deals

Chris Hondros | Staff | Getty Images

First, it was the Japanese. Moneymen from Tokyo blew into the United States to buy famous pieces of the American landscape, from Rockefeller Center in New York to the Pebble Beach Golf Links in California.

Now, about a quarter-century later, another set of deep-pocketed foreign buyers is pushing ever deeper into United States real estate: the Chinese.

Undaunted by Japan's real estate misadventures in the 1980s — some Japanese investors wildly overpaid for United States property, and Japan eventually suffered one of the biggest property market collapses in history — Chinese investors are fanning out in the United States.

What began with a few isolated purchases two years ago has become a hunt for trophy properties and billion-dollar deals. So far, the kind of fears that arose in the 1980s — unfounded talk that Japan was "buying up" America — have not surfaced this time. To the contrary, the Chinese, or at least their money, are being welcomed, even celebrated.

(Read More: Chinese Buyers Flee Hong Kong for Overseas Property Markets)

Some caution that China could quickly retreat, as Japan did, if its economy worsens. Signs of economic weakness in China have been mounting, and the country's financial system has recently come under stress. Those concerns could dissipate if Beijing steps in to ease strains in the nation's banking industry and to spur growth, but many economists see real and growing dangers within China's economy.

And yet in recent weeks, several big deals in New York City have set real estate circles abuzz. Zhang Xin, a Chinese business magnate and chief executive of the largest commercial real estate developer in Beijing, joined forces with the Safra family of Brazil to buy a large piece of the General Motors Building in Midtown. Dalian Wanda Group, a big Chinese developer, said it intended to build a luxury hotel in Manhattan. (Wanda is also planning to build a hotel in London.)

The deals go beyond shimmering glass-and-steel towers: Chinese and Hong Kong investors have also become the second-largest foreign buyers of United States homes, after the Canadians.

"They're just getting started," said Steve Collins, the international director at Jones Lang LaSalle Capital, a real estate services firm that recently held conferences for potential buyers in Shanghai and Beijing. "There's just been some incredible wealth creation there."

For the moment, the Chinese government is encouraging the investments and even helping to finance them. The state-owned Bank of China has become the largest foreign lender in commercial real estate deals in the United States, replacing big European banks. Beijing is eager to diversify its investments. The Chinese government owns more than $1 trillion of United States Treasury securities, but those investments generate little return given how low interest rates are.

"The political support for investments beyond U.S. Treasuries has increased significantly over the last couple of years and that has encouraged Chinese investors to look at real estate in big, stable markets like New York or other big cities," said Thilo Hanemann, a research director the Rhodium Group, a firm that analyzes global business and economic trends.

The Chinese aren't limiting themselves to megadeas. Some purchases have been relatively small by the standards of commercial real estate. Ms. Zhang, who is the chief executive of SOHO China and one of the richest women in the world, paid about $600 million in 2011 for a 49 percent stake in the Park Avenue Plaza, a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper. That same year, the real estate arm of the HNA Group, a Chinese airline company, saved an office building at 1180 Sixth Avenue from foreclosure for $265 million. HNA also bought the boutique Cassa Hotel in Times Square.

(Read More: Two Big Manhattan Property Deals Signal Recovery, China Interest)

Chinese investors or firms have also bought large hotels in California, including the Sheraton Universal in Universal City; the Crowne Plaza in Burlingame, near the San Francisco airport; and the Hilton Ontario in Ontario. They have also purchased a riverfront parcel in Toledo, Ohio, and, earlier this year, an office building in Morristown, N.J.

Chinese firms and investors are also betting that the potential returns in American commercial property markets will be higher than in other areas of the world. The market for office, industrial and retail property appears to have bottomed out. Office vacancy rates have fallen and rent prices have stabilized amid signs of economic improvement. And while competition is heating up — three Manhattan office buildings have sold for more than $1 billion so far this year — many of the big bidders and lenders from Europe have pulled back as their home economies struggle.

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In addition to buying commercial real estate, China is emerging as a powerful force in financing other players' deals. In particular, the Bank of China, China's premier lender and one of the country's four major state-run banks, has assumed an increasingly large role. "A few years ago, the U.S. branches of German banks were the top three or four foreign lenders for commercial property deals, now it's the Bank of China," said Matthew Anderson, a managing director at Trepp L.L.C., a data and analytics firm that tracks bank lending.

Chinese development firms are also lining up large United States commercial real estate projects. In February, China Vanke, a development company, made its first North American investment when it formed a joint venture with Tishman Speyer to build luxury condominiums in San Francisco. Another Chinese developer has agreed to provide funding for a $1.5 billion project that will transform 65 industrial acres in Oakland, Calif., into a waterfront neighborhood with 3,100 homes.

And the Chinese have even arrived in hipster central: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A Chinese firm has purchased a site and plans to build a 216-unit condo project there.

Some analysts say the Chinese money flowing directly into real estate pales in comparison with the money that is moving through private investments or real estate funds.

(Read More: Fundamentals No Longer Driving China Housing Market?)

In recent years, China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which manages foreign exchange reserves, agreed to invest $500 million in a $13 billion real estate fund overseen by the Blackstone Group, a Wall Street investment firm.

China's main sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, has taken direct stakes in properties but has also invested more billions of dollars in real estate funds overseen by large private investment funds.

"The overwhelming majority of Chinese capital is getting into the commercial property market through third parties," said Dan Fasulo, a managing director at Real Capital Analytics. "They're getting billions of dollars into the system almost unnoticed."

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.