B.C.'s new real estate watchdog says the public should be confident that realtors are operating fairly, and he says much heavier fines, which have increased to as high as a quarter-million dollars, will help him tamp down agent misconduct in a housing market fuelled by speculation.
Mike Noseworthy, who became provincial superintendent of real estate last week, is now in charge of implementing a host of new consumer protections at the Real Estate Council of British Columbia, including stiffer fines, increased transparency and additional education requirements, language proficiency and background checks for aspiring realtors.
The most significant change was the province's decision to take regulation out of the hands of the real estate industry after a Globe and Mail investigation found realtors were skirting the rules and facing little, if any, punishment.
In an interview Monday, he said he views the ability of the council to issue new fines of up to $250,000 for agent wrongdoing as one of the most significant changes to the regulatory body. The maximum fine had been just $10,000, and most realtors who broke the rules received punishments far less than that.
"This is a reset and it's an entirely new system and those new fines are going to play a big part," said Mr. Noseworthy, who is in charge of regulating the province's 22,000 licensed realtors and investigating anyone operating without a licence.
"These are big significant numbers that we're talking about here."
Starting this month, realtors can face penalties of up to $250,000 for agent wrongdoing and up to $500,000 for brokerage firms.
That increase was a major recommendation from an independent panel headed by Mr. Noseworthy's predecessor, which found the council had become dominated by industry members who had taken disciplinary action only reluctantly over the past decade. A Globe investigation earlier this year found real estate agents in Metro Vancouver who are disciplined for wrongdoing faced fines and suspensions that were dwarfed by the hefty commissions they earn in B.C.'s overheated housing market. Records from more than 100 disciplinary proceedings showed only a fraction of agents ever lost their licences over misconduct, and that fines averaged $4,850 or less.
"You can't give out the maximum every time, but I can tell you there are certainly instances where the maximum would be appropriate," Mr. Noseworthy said. "It's a public safety and it's a public-protection issue."
Mr. Noseworthy can force the council to investigate a particular matter as well as appeal a disciplinary action, but he said he is confident that existing council staff can regulate the industry more effectively thanks to new positions that have been created and greater resources.
The government is in the process of reconstituting the council with all non-industry appointees, who must pass a skill-based eligibility assessment. Nine new council members were appointed earlier this month and the provincial government is expected to announce the remaining eight appointees soon. Under the old regime, only three government-appointed members represented the public's interest at the council.
The council is also hiring a new executive officer, with current head Robert Fawcett, who has led the organization for three decades, expected to retire in the coming months. The council has also hired, or is in the process of hiring, two more investigators and another liaison to join Maureen Coleman in helping the public and members of the industry understand the rules and regulations.
Mr. Noseworthy said he wants it to be incredibly simple for consumers to have their concerns investigated promptly and effectively.
Mr. Noseworthy recently left his condo in Whitehorse, where he worked as a senior bureaucrat in the Yukon government, and bought a condo in Vancouver's trendy Gastown neighbourhood. Buying in Vancouver's dizzying market was stressful enough that the former real estate lawyer and career regulator said he couldn't imagine how an average citizen must feel.
"I certainly want everybody who goes through that process to have a good experience, like I did," he said. "[But] you shouldn't have to have a law degree to buy a house and use the services of a realtor in British Columbia."