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Condo towers are seen in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday Aug. 15, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canada Revenue Agency is casting a wide net in its investigation of condo presales, with court documents indicating the agency will seek "any and all correspondence, including emails," between all parties involved in the transactions, including developers, buyers and agents.

The agency in July obtained two court orders related to large condo projects in Vancouver and in September, applied for two more, after CRA investigators flagged potential problems in the sector. The CRA wants to ensure all applicable taxes have been paid when a person flips, or assigns, a sales agreement for as-yet-unbuilt condo to another buyer.

The CRA knows "from past experience" that profits from assignments may not have been reported for income-tax purposes, CRA investigator Amandeep Sandhu said in a July 20, 2017, affidavit for one of the court proceedings.

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The CRA is seeking information that would help it identify people who buy and sell presale contracts before a building is completed.

Currently, only the transfer of legal title from the developer to the final purchaser is registered with the BC Land Title Office, the affidavit said; any assignments along the way are not registered.

As a result, the agency is unable to identify the assignors – people who sell, or assign, their contracts – from the BC Land Title Office "or any other sources to which the CRA has access," the affidavit says.

Developers targeted in the proceedings say they want to co-operate with the CRA but must also comply with privacy laws, and so are releasing information only under court order. The court actions come amid continuing concerns over housing prices in the province, particularly the Lower Mainland. Last week, citing affordability concerns, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced he would introduce a motion at the next city council meeting to prioritize sales of new homes to local residents.

And housing concerns dominated discussion leading up to Saturday's Vancouver by-election, in which Non-Partisan Association candidate Hector Bremner took a seat formerly held by a Vision Vancouver councillor. (Mr. Robertson and other Vision Vancouver councillors now hold six of 11 council seats.)

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It is difficult to determine the scope of potential tax issues that may result from presale flips or assignments. The CRA does not track any statistics specifically related to presale flips or assignments.

Individual developers track the transactions, which usually involve a fee for developers, but that information is not public.

In general, about five or six per cent of overall condo sales in a given year are assigned, or flipped, said Anne McMullin, president of the Urban Development Institute.

That percentage varies according to projects and areas and tends to increase when demand is high, she added.

According to figures from Urban Analytics, a real estate consulting firm, only 3 per cent of all high-rise units in preconstruction or under construction and scheduled to complete between now and the end of 2022 remain unsold.

"This speaks to why prices have continued to escalate, which in turn makes assignments increasingly prevalent," managing principal Michael Ferreira said in an e-mail.

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The B.C. and federal governments could work together to improve reporting requirements for presale assignments, said Ron Usher, a lawyer and one of the members of a 2016 panel struck to review real estate regulation in B.C.

"We've not had a system in place … that requires reporting of the acquisition and disposition of real estate, or interests in land-like contracts that get assigned," Mr. Usher said.

"That's what missing from the system."

Authorities could address that gap by making it mandatory to report the acquisition and sale of land, including assignments, Mr. Usher said.

CRA could match up the information with tax returns, just as the agency does currently with information for, say, mutual funds or other investment income, he added.

People assign contracts for many reasons and the tax consequences vary according to circumstances, Mr. Usher said – some people might be taxed on income, for example, while others might be taxed on a capital gain.

"If I do five of these [assignments], it's pretty clearly my business," he said. "If granny is 78 and no longer needs a two-bedroom, she probably is not in the business of flipping condos."

The provincial NDP campaigned on commitments to tackle real estate concerns, including a potential speculators' tax.

Following the May election, the NDP and the Green Party struck a power-sharing agreement and took power from the former Liberal government.

In a recent statement, B.C. Finance Minister Carole James said the government remains committed to reducing speculation in the real estate market and will review changes to the tax system as part of the planning process for the 2018 budget.

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