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Soros and co help China surge in Spanish property

Asian buyers are joining a number of high-profile investors hoping to find riches in the Spanish property market, with an influx of Chinese investors looking for their own place under the European sun.

Between January and March, house purchases in Spain totaled 83,022, according to government data released in May. This was a 14 percent increase in purchases compared to the previous quarter. Prices are still languishing at mid-2003 levels after the financial crash but the fresh statistics signal a change in trend.

Purchases by foreigners were high in the first quarter, amounting to 12 percent of the total. Europeans still make up the backbone of that demand, but industry experts have told CNBC that growth in buyers from China in particular is bolstering the sector.

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"(In 2013) the greatest growth markets for enquiries and property viewings came from the Far East market," Jason Ham, the head of business development at Spanish-based property company Lucas Fox, told CNBC via email. The Chinese are most attracted to Barcelona and Madrid as well as the southern city of Marbella for its golf courses and "good, cheap deals," he added.

Ham, who travels to China to meet with potential buyers, said that the Chinese are generally interested in apartments in city centers which are close to luxury shopping centers and good international schools and amenities.

Hedge fund billionaires George Soros and John Paulson have both made moves in the market too, snapping up major stakes in Spanish property firms. Bill Gates has also bought a slice of Spanish infrastructure group FCC.

"This has created a lot more consumer confidence, mainly amongst commercial investors," Ham told CNBC.

Natalia_Saardam | iStock / 360 | Getty Images

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""The last 12 months has been a pivotal year in the Spanish property market. Confidence has returned and, along with it, increasing numbers of international buyers, enticed back to the market by historic low prices in some of Spain's most desirable places," he added.

Jesus Gonzalez Mas is a lawyer and a director at the Barcelona office of Sotheby's International Realty. He has noticed a "spike" in interest of high-profile Asian investors in the last months looking for hotels and big investments to develop new projects.

"There are big ideas in discussion and the city has great potential to develop new projects," he said. China and Russia are the two main sources of investors in his office in Barcelona, he added.

Business is looking up for both firms thanks to this international interest. At Sotheby's, operations with foreign investors now represent 11 percent of the total market while in 2009 it made up just 4 percent. Meanwhile, Lucas Fox has just posted its highest annual sales ever in its nine-year history.

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Both agree that a mix of different factors is helping foreigners to splash the cash in the region. Spain is renowned for its glorious Mediterranean weather, its laid back lifestyle and its stylish soccer leagues, but it's also a relatively secure and stable country with internationally famous prime property locations.

The government has also initiated a "Golden Visa" program, whereby non-European investors who buy property worth over 500,000 euros ($682,235) or more can gain Spanish residency. This can then lead to free movement within the European Union for holidays, as well as the luxury of being able to send children to globally renowned universities.

Francois Carriere Pastor, CEO of Barcelona-based real estate firm Coldwell Banker agrees that high-profile investors like Soros have lead the way to a change of opinion towards the Spanish market and made the country a point of focus for foreign investors.

"After being seen as a very expensive country especially from 2005 and 2007, very unsafe country for investment due to Euro crisis from 2008 to 2012, now for a majority of foreign clients Spain is becoming a land of opportunities," he told CNBC via email.

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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.