The chives growing in one crypto tycoon's California mansion carry a hidden message.
Guo Hongcai, a beef salesman turned early bitcoin adopter from China's Shanxi province, is one of many freshly minted millionaires funneling parts of their wealth out of the country by purchasing real estate abroad.
In April, Hongcai sold 500 bitcoin in the U.S. then used that money to buy a 100,000-square-foot mansion in Los Gatos, a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, California. His Rolls-Royce, also purchased with the fruits of bitcoin arbitrage, sits in the driveway close to a small chives garden.
"It's very normal to sell bitcoin in the U.S. After selling bitcoin, you can just buy anything you want," he told CoinDesk.
Guo calls this secondary residence his "Mansion of Chives," because the vegetable is also Chinese slang for crypto investors who prove vulnerable to big sell-offs.
As Chinese regulators clamp down on industry business on the mainland, crypto millionaires are turning to foreign real estate markets to diversify their holdings. Some purchase property directly with crypto, others like Hongcai use bitcoin to gain foreign currencies without going through a bank.
The founders of one U.S. crypto real estate startup, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CoinDesk roughly one-third of their prospective users hail from Asia, figures which include Chinese investors seeking tokenized property rights through Hong Kong securities brokers.
According to the South China Morning Post, real estate purchased in Hong Kong doesn't require the same taxes and documentation as other financial assets held abroad. Chinese investment in foreign real estate, often through Hong Kong brokers, has been rising for years. Now early bitcoin adopters are utilizing new wealth for familiar patterns.
"The requests we have from them start at $50,000 or $100,000 up to, the latest one was $3 to $4 million for Silicon Valley," Natalia Karayaneva, CEO of Propy, another crypto-powered real estate marketplace, told CoinDesk.
"We're seeing that more and more people are willing to buy properties with cryptocurrencies because it's getting easier to get their money out of the country using bitcoin, rather than establishing a bank account based in Hong Kong and getting their money out of the country using business channels."
According to Karayaneva, the U.S. and the U.K. are the most sought-after locations for real estate, especially fintech hubs like London or California's Bay Area.
"They were mostly interested in residential properties next to good education, like Stanford," she said. "Also, they want to diversify. They want to have parts of their assets abroad in more stable countries."
So far, around half of the traffic to Propy's website comes from China, out of 50,000 monthly views.
It's a trend that has implications far beyond China, though, especially in California, where, according to statistics gathered over a decade by ATTOM Data Solutions, nearly a quarter of all single-family homes are now purchased in all-cash transactions without a mortgage.
According to CEO Roy Dekel at SetSchedule, a California-based startup helping licensed real estate agents connect with buyers and homeowners, it's more common for Chinese bitcoin veterans to convert cryptocurrency into cash than to buy property directly with it.
"We have noticed a drop in Chinese interest, but certain cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York remain strong," he told CoinDesk. "The ultra-wealthy Chinese have used this source as a diversification of investment."
On the other hand, Dekel also noticed "many blockchain enthusiasts" are buying second homes or investment properties, leading to an uptick in sellers interested in accepting cryptocurrencies directly from international buyers.
Since platforms like Propy are compliant across jurisdictions, the reason behind this trend may go beyond tax evasion, speaking to real pain points in legitimate markets.
In January, The New York Times asserted that China's exorbitant housing market is "like a casino." Further, Reuters reported property development restrictions continue to tighten, such as reduced subsidies for housing developers.
"In Beijing, only last year they saw a 40 percent rise in price," Karayaneva said. "Historically, real estate investors from China are very active abroad because their own property market is going crazy."
All things considered, Chinese buyers are hardly the only ones purchasing property with cryptocurrency. In 2017, Europeans used bitcoin to buy luxury apartments in Dubai's Aston Crypto Plaza, a project spearheaded by British Baroness Michelle Mone.
Wherever it's taking place, though, it has become increasingly clear that crypto wealth could have a real impact on global real estate patterns.
Door image via Shutterstock