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Finance Minister Bill Morneau answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, April 11, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Bill Morneau won't put a timetable on when the federal government might consider further action to cool the country's housing sector, even as concerns escalate about runaway prices in the key Vancouver and Toronto markets.

"We're making sure that we have a deep dive into the information to ensure that any considerations we have for change are evidence-based," he told reporters following an address to The Economist magazine's Canada Summit in Toronto on Wednesday.

"Our ongoing goal is to ensure we understand the market in all of its complexity; that we consider all the evidence to determine what measures are necessary on an ongoing basis to ensure that Canadians have the ability to buy homes.

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"When and if we have something to say, we'll say it."

Mr. Morneau made his comments shortly after another set of economic reports pointed to moderating but still relatively strong levels of home building in Canada. May housing starts came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 188,570 units, down only slightly from 191,388 in April. Meanwhile, the value of municipal building permits dipped 0.3 per cent to $6.9-billion in April. Residential permits fell 1.8 per cent to $4.3-billion.

"We intend on continuing to look at what the drivers are," he said. "There are underlying impacts around population demographics, there are impacts around the labour market, there are impacts around supply, and we're also looking at the impacts of foreign investors. All of these are part of our consideration as we look at the market."

He declined to say when the government might be ready to reveal more detailed data on the role of foreign buyers on the surging prices in markets such as Vancouver and Toronto, nor would he say if this would be a focus of any possible policy actions by the government. Foreign buying, particularly by Chinese speculators, has become a growing focus of attention among those concerned about soaring Vancouver and Toronto prices.

"I can tell you that we're looking closely at all sources of information right now," he said.

The government's 2016-17 budget, released in March, earmarked $500,000 to Statistics Canada "to develop methods for gathering data on purchases of Canadian housing by foreign homebuyers." In addition, Mr. Morneau said the government is turning to statistical analysis from the Bank of Canada and the Finance Department's own in-house research, as well as data from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

"That is an important part of our considerations on how to best manage the market," he said.

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In details of a tender posted on government procurement website Merx last month, CMHC said it was looking to hire a researcher who could track real estate purchases by temporary residents, which it says could be "indicators of foreign investment in housing."

According to procurement documents, CMHC said it was looking to study gaps in official data on non-permanent residents (NPR), including international students and those coming to the country on temporary work visas.

Statistics Canada data appears "to underestimate the number of actual NPR residing in the country at any given time" compared with the number of temporary resident visas issued by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Crown corporation wrote.

Unlike the number of new permanent residents, which has averaged about 260,000 a year since 2010, the number of non-permanent residents has been "quite volatile" over time and "has grown at a rapid pace, in particular the number of student and work permit holders," CMHC wrote. Canada admitted 540,000 temporary residents last year, according to Citizenship and Immigration data.

The housing agency is looking to collect at least five years' worth of demographic data on temporary residents at the national and provincial level, as well as specifically for Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The research would also involve "assess[ing] the extent that temporary residents provide foreign funds for residential real estate."

According to documents released as part of an Access to Information request, the Department of Finance has also been looking into whether home buyers are borrowing for down payments on homes worth more than $1-million. High-priced homes are not eligible for mortgage insurance, so buyers need to put down at least 20 per cent, or $200,000 on a $1-million home. The heavily redacted document did not specify whether Ottawa expects to propose new rules that would limit the practice.

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