ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Las Vegas, the housing market continued to struggle this year, but investors from Asia are seeing opportunity there. They're taking advantage of housing prices that have plummeted in recent years, buying foreclosed homes at below what it would cost to build them. From member station KJZZ, Jude Joffe-Block reports.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: This is Kevin Chu's first visit to the U.S. and first time driving around Las Vegas. His Hong Kong investment firm owns property here, but he's never seen any of it until now.
KEVIN CHU: The first time and I'm very excited.
JOFFE-BLOCK: In the last 18 months, the firm he works for, The Creations Group, bought up distressed homes all over the U.S., including 13 Las Vegas houses at fire-sale prices.
TRACY BENNETT: These homes here are going to be a little smaller.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The local property manager, Tracy Bennett, is driving Chu to see one of his firm's houses that's just been renovated.
BENNETT: And we have arrived. Now, this is your house right here.
JOFFE-BLOCK: She points to a disaster of a house that's clearly vacant. Blue graffiti covers the garage. Trash is piled in the yard. Before anyone can say anything, Bennett laughs.
BENNETT: I was just kidding.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOFFE-BLOCK: But it is a reminder of the bleak housing reality here. Foreclosure rates that are more than three times the national average. And thousands of bank-owned properties that sit empty. Thankfully, for Chu, his real house down the block is in much better shape.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
JOFFE-BLOCK: It's a modest one-story house. The firm bought it for $55,000. At the height of the market, it could have sold for over $200,000. Inside, it's clean, with fresh paint. It's ready for a tenant.
CHU: It looks very good, much better than I expected.
JOFFE-BLOCK: And the U.S. housing market as a whole looks much better than expected to Chu's boss, Danny Lim. We reached him by phone in Miami, where he was looking for more property.
DANNY LIM: In some places, the types of prices that we are getting, I think, it's, you know, once-in-a-generation, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity.
ANDY CHU: So what we are doing is advertising in the Asian newspapers.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Andy Chu is a local realtor. He points out the strong rental market in Las Vegas means houses here can quickly become income-producing properties.
CHU: We let them know, hey, look, U.S. is a good place to invest.
JOFFE-BLOCK: His clients from Asia are now a quarter of his business, and he wants more. They're good customers. They often will buy several properties and pay in cash, which means he doesn't have to spend months waiting for financing to be approved.
CHU: From a business perspective, you can get paid in four days or get paid in six months.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The 2012 strategy for the Las Vegas chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America is to help local realtors get even more international business through new Web tools and networking opportunities. Joseph Lai is the chapter president.
JOSEPH LAI: If you're a homegrown product, how do you network with someone in Canada? How do you work with someone in China or Vietnam or, you know, Taiwan? It's very hard. And so that's the reason why our association is trying to bridge that gap.
JOFFE-BLOCK: There isn't reliable data to know just how many properties in Las Vegas are selling to out-of-country buyers. Local realtors say the bulk of their international business is coming from Asia and Canada. Joseph Lai says these buyers are helping the local housing market recover.
LAI: International investors, we see them as absorbing a lot of the inventory.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Empty houses that otherwise might be left vacant.
LAI: They are going to come in. They're going to make them income-producing properties, and then, they're going to fix them up, get them into livable shape, get them rented out.
JOFFE-BLOCK: There's a backlog of tens of thousands more foreclosures expected to roll onto the Las Vegas market in the coming months. So that means soon there will be a lot more empty houses for eager investors to buy up. For NPR news, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Las Vegas.