The Cindy Shearin Group: Global Investors Looking for Real Estate Bargains Flock to Spain

As one of the most moribund housing markets in Europe, Spain has become a magnet for global bargain hunters. Real estate prices are down as much as 50 percent from their peak during a housing bubble, and investors from Asia to the United States and Britain are flocking to Spain to try to catch the uptick.

British Airways flights to Madrid are packed with London-based real estate executives. The hedge fund Baupost is buying shopping centers, Goldman Sachs and Blackstone are buying apartments in Madrid, and Paulson & Company and George Soros’s fund are anchor investors in a publicly listed Spanish real estate investment vehicle. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts just bought a stake in a Spanish amusement park complex. Big-name private equity firms and banks are teaming up with and competing against one another on huge loan portfolios with names like Project Hercules and Project Octopus.

“It’s surreal,” said Dilip Khullar, a 25-year veteran of Spanish real estate investing and director of Cadena, an investment fund. “One day it’s the worst place in the world to buy real estate and the next, it’s the best.”

Low interest rates, set by the European Central Bank to help buoy Germany’s market, helped to fuel Spain’s housing boom. Real estate developers teamed up with local savings banks to borrow and build over and over again. “We were a train going 200 kilometers an hour and it was hard to stop,” said Jaime Pascual-Sanchiz de la Serna, executive director at Aguirre Newman, a leading real estate consulting firm. Construction reached a staggering 12 percent of gross domestic product, more than double the proportion in Britain or France.

When the bubble burst in 2008, Spain became toxic. “Nobody wanted to invest a penny in real estate,” said Mr. Pascual-Sanchiz de la Serna. “Spain was overbuilt and it was going to take 10 years to work through.”

It hasn’t taken that long.

The real estate market started to revive in 2013. Government reforms, including a relaxation of labor laws and stricter rules for banks related to accounting for bad real estate, meant that banks could no longer ignore the assets on their balance sheets. Once the banks had to hold more capital — in some cases drastically more — they started to think it was better to sell, analysts and bankers said.

Spain’s “bad bank,” called Sareb, formed in 2012 with the real estate assets of the country’s bailed-out banks, started to close deals. Separately, last July, Blackstone bought 1,860 apartments for 125.5 million euros, then about $166 million, and in August, Goldman bought a block of public housing in central Madrid. This combination of deals set a floor price, analysts said.

The recovery is still nascent. About €5 billion worth of real estate transactions took place last year, according to the consulting firm CBRE Spain — more than double the amount of the previous year but still small compared with the €166 billion in commercial real estate deals made in Europe last year. At the peak, Spain issued 120,000 mortgages a quarter; in the fourth quarter of 2013, the figure was 15,000. Fitch Ratings recently issued a report saying that real estate prices would continue to fall through 2014, not rebounding until 2015.