Yes, you may use an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) as your tax id for a real estate transaction. There are two situations in which this information will be necessary:
1. You wish to finance the property with a mortgage loan.
2. You wish to sell the property for more than what you paid for it.
In situation number 1, many banks will treat you as a foreign national buyer, unless you have work authorization or a permanent residence permit. To qualify for financing, you'll need to prove you have enough income to pay the mortgage loan and still have money left over for other expenses, just as anyone else would. If you have filed your tax return with the IRS for the past two years, this should be easy to do. If you haven't filed your tax returns, you will have to show other sources of income (foreign or domestic) that are verifiable.
Another major difference is that you may have to make a more significant down payment to qualify for the loan, up to as much as 40% of the purchase price. Every bank has its own standards, so my colleague is correct to say that you should shop around for the best deal.
Most of these mortgages are so-called "portfolio" loans, that is, they are held by the bank and not re-sold on the open market. Therefore, the bank is a bit more careful about qualification standards.
I've had good experiences for my clients with banks that also have a presence overseas. Start your research with these banks. Some community banks and credit unions also have programs for foreign nationals.
In situation number 2 (you're selling the property and expect a profit) you need an ITIN to report this profit to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980 (FIRPTA). In fact, a real estate broker who handles such a transaction has an obligation to make sure that there is a withholding of 10% of the capital gain (profit) until the seller files his tax return with the IRS. If the broker doesn't do this, and the seller doesn't pay his taxes, the broker can be responsible for the tax liability. Many buyers and sellers aren't aware of this law and the consequences can be serious.
Don't let the law discourage you from investing in real estate, though :-) Take a look at the IRS page on this subject:
The rules are quite specific and would probably apply to your situation. Also, consult a tax professional to make sure you're in compliance.
Don Pasek, CIPS, TRC, ADPR
Omniterra Real Properties