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Fully digitizing the complaints process will greatly improve a system that was roundly criticized for slapping realtors on the wrist when they were caught engaging in cut-throat and illegal practices

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

British Columbia's real estate regulator is struggling to clear a mountain of public complaints and staff are in danger of burning out, the regulator's acting executive director says.

Complaints jumped 61 per cent following a year of unprecedented public attention over the industry's inability to police misbehaving realtors in the province's superheated housing market, Erin Seeley told the Real Estate Council of British Columbia during its May meeting at a downtown Vancouver hotel earlier this month.

That means more than 700 complaints will be carried over into the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, and there is no new staff to investigate these cases, Ms. Seeley said. Investigators used to handling an average caseload of 30 to 45 files are saddled with about a hundred each.

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"Media interest has fallen off, complaints haven't," staff told the council, which had its realtor members replaced by public appointees last fall as part of British Columbia's push to end the real estate industry's decade of self-regulation after widespread problems were revealed in The Globe and Mail.

In total, council staff have logged almost a thousand hours of overtime dealing with upward of 655 complaints so far this fiscal year, and will have difficulty continuing at that pace, Ms. Seeley said. The council hopes to hire 12 more employees over the next two years, with some of those hires helping to investigate complaints, she said.

"These are all written complaints, submitted on paper, so this is another opportunity for council," Ms. Seeley said during a presentation to council members, some of whom chuckled in disbelief at the use of the traditional mail system.

Fully digitizing the complaints process will greatly improve a system that was roundly criticized for slapping realtors on the wrist when they were caught engaging in cut-throat and illegal practices.

This streamlining, coupled with a forthcoming confidential tip-line for realtor misconduct, will make it easier for a wronged home buyer or seller to pursue justice, Ms. Seeley said. But the council's workload will only continue increasing with these measures, as well as the eventual takeover of all public complaints from the province's 11 private real estate boards, she added.

These boards, which guard access to the lucrative Multiple Listing Service, confuse consumers with their separate – and confidential – disciplinary processes for their members, according to the independent panel that reviewed the state of regulation last year.

Now, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, which counts about half the province's 25,000 realtors as members, and the Okanagan Mainline Real Estate Board are referring any complaint that involves the public to the council, with two other boards beginning that process, she said.

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"Initially, we're going to have to go with a phased approach to this," said Ms. Seeley, who began her position in November.

The council also has about 100 advertising complaints – which often involve small issues like illegal font sizes – that it is waiting to investigate, Ms. Seeley said.

The council has asked the Office of the Superintendent of Real Estate, the sole rule-making authority for the industry, to create a new category of administrative penalties for these complaints so that the council can investigate and rule on these more quickly than it does with other, more, serious allegations of realtor misconduct, she said.

Both the Real Estate Council and the Superintendent of Real Estate would not comment on the overhaul, citing a need to remain impartial until the election writ period ends this week.

At the council meeting, the first ever attended by the media or general public, members also voted to take $500,000 from their current budget surplus to set up a legal-defence fund that will help deal with the increased scrutiny the complaints process will be under from realtors facing fines of up to $250,000, up from a maximum of just $10,000 before the ongoing overhaul.

Ms. Seeley also told the council that she is pushing to modernize the organization's leadership by giving more autonomy to department heads and taking it away from the approach of "very centralized decision-making" – favoured when the industry led the council for decades.

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Another key reform is moving away from a one-year budget process to forecast for the coming three years, as is common in government, said Ms. Seeley, a former high-level B.C. bureaucrat working on immigration issues.

She said she is confident the overhaul will help lead the public to recognize the council as "an accountable, transparent and efficient regulator."

Personal finance columnist Rob Carrick shares a positive note about the rising housing market in large Canadian cities like Toronto.
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