House hunting has never been simpler. Real estate listings for any city, suburb or rural hamlet across Canada are just a search term and a mouse-click away. You can see asking prices, take a virtual tour, look up heating costs, check out the latest property tax assessment – but don't ask the realtors' associations who control the main listing services to make public the price these houses sold for. They'd rather keep that private and proprietary.
The thing is, this is public information. Anyone with the time and inclination can wander down to the nearest civic or provincial land registry office to look it up. But that is extremely time consuming. So why not make sale prices, which realtors have access to, freely available online to everyone else?
The federal Competition Bureau thinks that's an excellent question and has asked it, repeatedly, in court. The latest chapter of a lengthy legal fight between the watchdog agency and the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) recently unfolded in the Federal Court of Appeal. A judgment is expected next year, and it could well set a national precedent.
Lawyers for the board invoked privacy rights to support their position that home-sale information should not be widely disseminated. Essentially, they're saying it's about protecting personal financial information. That's a stretch, which is why the board finds itself at odds with some of its own members.
The Competition Bureau's contention – that TREB and its analogues are engaging in behaviour that thwarts competition and hinders innovation – is more persuasive. Who does the secrecy benefit? Certainly not the public.
Information is what makes markets work. The more information, the better for buyers, sellers and the health and efficiency of the market itself.
The delayed reaction from governments to the vertiginous rise of the Vancouver and Toronto housing markets provides evidence of what can happen in the absence of comprehensive public data.
There are easy and straightforward ways to maintain the privacy of sellers and buyers, but the fact is real-estate transactions are and must remain a matter of public record in this country. Canada's real-estate market needs more transparency, not less.