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Ontario’s lack of foreign-buyer data sparks concern about a Toronto housing crisis

Anecdotes abound throughout the GTA of foreign buyers calling realtors from overseas to bid tens of thousands of dollars over asking price to secure new homes.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

'Up! Up! Up!"

That's where Toronto's real estate market is heading, according to a Chinese-language promotional article posted last month on Fang.com, a Beijing-based web portal that lists thousands of homes for sale in countries around the world.

"You will really cry if you still don't buy," the same posting blares.

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Toronto has become the "dark horse" of the Canadian real estate market, asserts Haifangbest.com, another site jammed with Canadian home listings. It contrasts Vancouver's continuing drop in prices with a prediction that Toronto-area homes will rise 8 per cent in value this year.

In the months since British Columbia began taxing international buyers 15-per-cent extra on homes in and around Vancouver, those marketing Canadian real estate overseas have shifted their focus to Toronto. Last year, Toronto overtook Vancouver to become the most sought-after Canadian city for Chinese home buyers searching the property listing service Juwai.com, peaking in August just after British Columbia announced the tax aimed at curbing the public outrage over skyrocketing prices. Searches for properties in Toronto proper now surpass the total inquiries for Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa combined.

Richard Silver, a Sotheby's realtor and past president of the Toronto Real Estate Board, estimates close to 20 per cent of his clients are international buyers – from China, India and the Middle East – interested in the luxury condos and houses he sells in and around the downtown core.

Prospective clients he talked to on his latest business trip to East Asia, just over a year ago, were curious to learn more about the city.

"When I've gone to China, people ask me the difference with Vancouver and I say, 'Toronto's where you make the money, Vancouver's where you spend the money.'"

Anecdotes abound throughout the Greater Toronto Area, notably in places such as Markham, describing international buyers calling their realtors from overseas to bid tens of thousands of dollars over asking price to secure a new home.

Despite fears that foreign speculators are juicing the region's already-booming real estate market, it is impossible to know what impact international capital is having because no official data are being collected.

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And, as long as this statistical black hole remains, observers warn Toronto could be following in Vancouver's footsteps toward a housing crisis for locals.

"One of the risks that Toronto has is that, because wages are a little bit higher there, prices could escalate for longer than they did in Metro Vancouver before the government takes action," Vancouver MLA David Eby, the New Democratic Party's housing critic, says. "It's hard to know where the ceiling is on these real estate prices if international speculation is left to run its course. We don't know how much capital is out there looking for investment in housing in major Canadian cities."

The best and latest data – provided by Toronto's private real estate board last month – peg international citizens as representing almost 5 per cent of all home buyers last year. For years, B.C. relied on similar industry-provided data that showed foreign investment in the single digits, before it modified its land-transfer documents last spring to force buyers to disclose whether they are a citizen or a permanent resident of Canada and, if not, where they hail from.

Cameron Muir, the economist in charge of tracking B.C. housing prices for the province's real estate industry, says until the government heeded his trade association's call to begin collecting this information, realtors provided some of the best data. Still, surveys of real estate agents are not complete enough to inform official policy or assuage public anger over the murky role foreign money plays in a hot market, he said.

"The issue is welling up in Toronto the same way it did in Vancouver … The government collecting accurate data on the extent of foreign ownership would be a really good way of at least having the focus on actual data rather than supposition, which was rampant in Vancouver before the government monitored it."

In B.C., the first 2 1/2 weeks of foreign-buyer statistics surprised the government by showing pockets of investment – such as double-digit percentages in the suburbs of Burnaby and Richmond – that were much higher than previous estimates. After this first tranche of data, B.C. secretly went to work on the tax that would help flatten a market that was already cooling.

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The Ontario government has repeatedly said it opposes any move to implement a B.C.-like tax on international buyers, which the province worries could crash the housing market and decimate the equity built up by homeowners.

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was unavailable for an interview, but his spokeswoman Kelsey Ingram told The Globe and Mail that Ontario is working with stakeholders to bring in a new system for collecting more data by this spring as part of an effort to modernize the Land Transfer Tax Act. She said this data may include whether the new owner intends to live in or rent the home, as well as the citizenship or residency status of the buyer.

"We are working closely with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario in developing this regulation to ensure appropriate steps are taken to protect any personal information collected," she said in an e-mailed statement.

This week, Markham city council voted down a motion brought by councillor Karen Rea calling on the provincial government to introduce a foreign buyers' tax.

Ms. Rea, a licensed realtor, said she began the push after seeing more homes being left empty ("three vacant properties on the same block") and watching her city become way less affordable for locals.

"If you want to buy a property here and you're living here and you're putting gas in your car and you're eating at restaurants … you're contributing to the economy, I have no problem with that," she said. "What I have a problem with is somebody living in another country and using our homes as commodities."

Her motion was defeated 8-4 after a heated debate and correspondence from residents and stakeholders, including a letter from the province's real estate industry association, warning that such a levy would have no effect on affordability in the region and could hurt the broader economy.

Tim Hudak, chief executive officer of the Ontario Real Estate Association and former leader of the province's Progressive Conservative party, told The Globe after the vote that any tax on foreign buyers – most of whom are immigrants looking to buy a family home – is based on the "cheap politics of division." (In B.C., permanent residents are not taxed and the government announced last month it was relaxing the rules to allow those on work permits to also avoid the levy.)

"Scapegoating foreigners as the reason for increasing home prices is not based on sound public policy or reliable data," he said.

Mr. Hudak maintains the only way to make homes more affordable is to build more throughout the region.

Mr. Eby, whose Vancouver riding houses some of B.C.'s most expensive mansions, said focusing solely on increasing supply to meet demand does not work.

"That belief, unfortunately, was clearly mistaken and resulted in prices that bear no recognition to the amount of money that people can earn locally," he said. "At first, as prices started to rise people were generally happy about it, but then as the prices continued to go up they realized that they couldn't actually access the money without selling their home or going into debt on the belief that the market would continue."

Ms. Rea, who has seen homes around her increase in value by over a million dollars in the past five years, said she doesn't understand how such a levy could be so disastrous if foreign buyers truly are such a small percentage of the market.

"You can't have it both ways: if it's less than 5 per cent, implementing a tax will have no effect – but the real estate industry is up in arms over it."

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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