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Salvadorans Buying Up Stakes in the Homeland

Expatriates Reshape Housing Market

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page A01

SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador -- Behind the huge black gates of the Parque Residencial Riverside sit four-bedroom brick houses with air conditioners and washers and dryers shipped from the United States, a clubhouse, basketball courts and a barbecue area. It's a bit of Americana unexpectedly plopped in the middle of this city's Spanish-style houses.

Most of the grassy plots in the development have been bought by Salvadorans living in the United States, people like René Trujillo, 35, a Prince George's County construction contractor, who plunked down $19,200 for a 5,000-square-foot lot. This is where he plans to retire.

Parque Residencial Riverside in San Miguel, El Salvador, features American-style amenities such as barbecue grills. (Lissette Monterrosa For The Washington Post)

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"It is a Salvadoran's dream to build a modern house there," said Trujillo, who in 14 years has gone from illegal immigrant to janitorial worker to owner of a painting company and of a $300,000 house in Lanham.

"After you achieve your American dream, you have the Salvadoran dream," said René León, El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, who said he knows many "people buying lots and building the house of their dreams for retirement."

Indeed, 86 percent of the 300 families who have bought property at the Parque Residencial Riverside are Salvadorans living in the United States. And they are only a handful of the thousands of Salvadorans living abroad who, according to the Salvadoran embassy, are buying homes and land in this small country, reshaping the housing and development market and helping push up real estate prices.

This is a phenomenon of modern immigration. In an age of the Internet, satellite television and radio, cheap air fares and cheaper international phone rates, immigrants from many countries are more connected to their homelands than immigrants ever could have been in the past.

"People think immigrants come to stay," said Jorge Pinto, who has studied immigrants' financial connections to their home countries as director of the Center for Global Finance at Pace University in New York and is a former executive director of the World Bank. "Many are always with their eye to go back. Whenever they feel that they have capital or critical mass, they buy the property."

Salvadorans living in the United States have been returning to El Salvador since the mid-1990s -- some permanently, others to vacation homes.

An improved highway system, relatively reliable electricity and plumbing, and private schools have created a more comfortable lifestyle, said real estate agents. Buying a home was made easier for Salvadoran expatriates in 2001 after El Salvador's government adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency. And prices here generally are lower than those in the United States.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, more Salvadoran immigrants, like Trujillo, have become business owners, amassing enough wealth that politicians here now refer to Salvadorans living in the United States as El Salvador's middle class. Dozens of residential projects like Riverside are being marketed to them, according to real estate brokers, who say interest by Salvadorans living in the United States appears to be growing.

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