A line in the movie The Big Short came to mind the other day as I thought about the panel appointed by the B.C. government to investigate some of the more unsavoury practices plaguing Metro Vancouver's real estate market.
"Truth is like poetry. And everyone hates poetry."
The question on the minds of many, including decent and upstanding real estate agents justifiably angry over the damage done to their industry's reputation by a cohort of duplicitous colleagues, is: How much truth is this advisory body prepared to accept? And one early concern that has emerged over the recently announced make-up of the committee is the fact it does not include an active local agent, someone who might have valuable insights into what is taking place on the ground.
This is not to say that those picked by Carolyn Rogers, the superintendent of real estate for the province and the head of the advisory group, are not qualified. They are. But it is going to be imperative the panel canvas the opinions of those who have been witnessing – and complaining internally, in some cases for months – about activities such as "shadow flipping."
Formally known as contract assigning, this is an arrangement in which a home is sold to a purchaser and then flipped (in some cases more than once) to another buyer willing to pay more before the deal closes and the property is registered. The original seller sees none of the newly inflated price of the home and the agent takes a cut of the higher value. And the practice is entirely legal, as a Globe and Mail investigation by reporter Kathy Tomlinson into the pyramid-like method revealed.
It has become somewhat of a phenomenon in recent months as the local real estate market has gone into overdrive, creating a frenzy fed in part by foreign investors from mainland China. This has opened the door to all sorts of opportunities for agents to find ways to take financial advantage of that hunger.
Which brings us back to the question of truth, or rather how deep this panel is prepared to probe to get at it. Is shadow flipping being conducted mostly by one sub-set of the fraternity, as many inside the business suggest is the case? Is one particular group of buyers being targeted, such as people from mainland China? A large swath of the industry would like to see the panel crack down on those at the heart of some of the more questionable activities.
That would apply to agents who market newly built properties as personal residences, a tactic being used to attract buyers because it would allow them to avoid paying a GST levy while letting sellers avoid declaring capital gains or income on multimillion-dollar transactions. While again brought to public light by Ms. Tomlinson, this is a scheme that many people in the industry knew has been going on for some time – yet nothing was done.
Beyond just confirming these nefarious goings-on are real, and need to be stopped, I would hope Ms. Rogers's committee is also going to wade into the area of governance. There is something very Wild Wild West about what is taking place in Vancouver and its environs at the moment. It is not precisely analogous to what happened with the U.S. mortgage housing crisis, but elements are eerily similar. In the same way that many people in the U.S. financial-services industry turned their heads from activities that were at best deceitful and at worse criminal, some of the same see-no-evil, hear-no-evil mindset is creeping into the Metro Vancouver real-estate industry.
But as was the case in The Big Short, there are also people here furious that the body responsible for regulating the real estate sector seems to be doing a lousy job. It is almost like the business is being governed by a couple of codas: one being "Get while the gettin's good," and the other being "Thou shalt not do anything that might kill thy goose that lay the golden egg."
It should not take an investigative reporter to bring this stuff to light, to serve as the public watchdog. That should be the job of the Real Estate Council of B.C. and the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board. It would appear both agencies have been asleep at the oversight controls while some agents have been skirting the rules, or twisting them badly, or taking advantage of massive loopholes and making out like bandits.
A lot is riding on the work of this real estate advisory committee. It has an enormous task ahead of it and a short amount of time in which to get it done. Unless it talks to the right people, and is able to ask the right questions, the entire exercise will be a sorry wasted opportunity.