Sales of high-end properties are on the upswing in the Vancouver region, spurring one of British Columbia's leading real estate firms to search for wealthy buyers by setting up shop in China.
Dan Scarrow, vice-president of corporate strategy at Macdonald Realty Ltd., said he has heard enough anecdotal evidence of well-heeled home buyers with roots in China to make it worthwhile to invest in a Shanghai office.
In February, Mr. Scarrow will start the first of two three-month assignments in 2014 in Shanghai. After his fact-finding mission, he plans to hire Mandarin-speaking staff in China to keep the overseas branch office going.
While real estate experts have estimated the proportion of foreign buyers in the Vancouver region's housing market at only 1 to 3 per cent, Mr. Scarrow said if the statistics were to include recent immigrants with origins in China, the influence of rich Chinese buyers would be greater, especially on single-family detached homes in pockets of Vancouver's West Side.
Most high-end transactions occur on Vancouver's West Side and the Municipality of West Vancouver. In the luxury market, there were 644 properties that sold for $3-million or higher in the Vancouver area last year, up 47 per cent from 439 homes that traded hands in 2012, according to data compiled by Macdonald Realty. Of homes that sold last year, there were 148 that fetched at least $5-million, compared with 107 sales in that category in 2012.
Mr. Scarrow said it is hard to determine how many of those elite sales went to recent immigrants from China, noting that the ripple effect due to an influx of new money can easily be exaggerated. Still, he believes the proportion was significantly higher than 3 per cent last year.
"There isn't this wave of offshore investors with no ties to Canada who are coming in to buy, but the genesis of their wealth is from mainland China," said Mr. Scarrow, a Canadian who speaks Mandarin fluently. "Most of these people land in Canada first as investor-class immigrants."
He dismisses tales circulating of wealthy offshore buyers snapping up Vancouver properties sight unseen as false, emphasizing that he will instead seek to nurture a market in which China-Canada family ties are crucial.
The 30-year-old Mr. Scarrow said that as a product of a mixed-race marriage, he is acutely aware that the issue of foreign shoppers is a sensitive one in British Columbia. "The perception among some sellers is that mainland Chinese money is driving the luxury real estate market here," he said.
But Mr. Scarrow cautions homeowners against hiring real estate agents based only on ethnicity, stressing that the best representatives know Vancouver's neighbourhoods well, no matter what their race.
Mr. Scarrow's mother, Lynn Hsu, moved in 1979 from Taiwan to Vancouver. Ms. Hsu is the president and majority owner of Macdonald Realty, which has more than 1,000 real estate agents and staff across British Columbia. Her ex-husband, Peter Scarrow, is a lawyer who has worked in Asia for the past dozen years, including advising wealthy Chinese on Canadian immigration and tax rules.
Dan Scarrow said there will be opportunities to tap into the Chinese market during his stay in Shanghai. Besides seeking contacts who are interested in single-family residential properties, he will be on the lookout for investors in Vancouver's commercial real estate market and also new condo projects.
Benchmark index prices, which strip out the most expensive properties, have jumped 17.3 per cent to $2.1-million for single-family detached houses over the past three years on the city's West Side, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. By contrast, West Side prices have risen only 4 per cent for townhouses and 3.5 per cent for condos over the same period.