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Vancouver Real Estate Previous housing data understated number of non-resident buyers in Vancouver and Toronto

A neighbourhood of single-family homes is seen in Arbutus Ridge in Vancouver on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK

Not so long ago, real estate industry and government officials were doing their best to shut down concerns that skyrocketing housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto were related to non-resident buying.

As it turns out, they were very wrong.

“Basically, if we put every residential property unit that was built in the city of Vancouver from 2006 to 2017 into a single building, every tenth unit [and a bit more] would have been owned by somebody who doesn’t live in the country,” says Andy Yan, urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

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The CMHC condo survey of 2015, a busy year for the real estate market, maintained that foreign ownership of condos was low in metro Vancouver and metro Toronto, at 3.5 and 3.3 per cent respectively.

In 2016, Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation chief executive Evan Siddall told the Vancouver Board of Trade that blaming foreign buying was creating an “unhealthy tension” between “existing residents and newer arrivals.” Instead, he pointed to local investors, population growth and lack of supply as the big factors in Vancouver’s affordability crisis.

But the CMHC’s latest Housing Market Insight report, released last week, shows the previously released data were off by as much as two to three times the actual rate of non-resident participation in home ownership. Based upon the new study, the numbers are actually 11.2 for metro Vancouver and 7.6 for metro Toronto.

The CMHC’s new Housing Market Insight report, in partnership with Statistics Canada, now reveals the extent of non-resident buying in Vancouver. The CMHC had begun releasing its Condominium Apartment Survey in 2014, after collecting information on non-resident ownership, in response to the affordability crisis. But the CMHC only had access to condo data and its methodology was limited. It partnered with Statistics Canada to form the Canadian Housing Statistics Program (CHSP), to address the major gaps in data on housing. In 2017, as part of the federal budget, StatsCan got extra funding to delve deeper into offshore buying, which is when the data got more interesting – and far more accurate. It meant that instead of interviewing building managers about the number of foreign owners in the buildings – an obviously problematic method – the CMHC had data from Canada Revenue Agency and the provincial land titles office to verify tax residency.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is the rate of non-resident participation in the buying of newly built condos across the region.

“Of the housing units owned by non-residents, 55 per cent are condos,” says Jordan Nanowski, senior CMHC analyst and co-author of the report.

Where non-resident ownership is concerned, metro Vancouver overshadowed Toronto by a wide margin. And new builds were a particular draw. Non-resident owners played a part in 19.2 per cent of Vancouver condos built between 2016 and 2017. In other words, almost 20 per cent of condos built that year had at least one non-resident on title. In Toronto, meanwhile, the number falls to a mere 9 per cent.

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Mr. Yan dug deeper into the CHSP data, and came up with more numbers. Non-residents have participated in the ownership of a shocking 14 per cent of all housing types built in the city of Vancouver in the past decade (as in, at least one person who owns the property is a non-resident). For metro Vancouver, that rate is 11.2 per cent. For the city of Toronto, the rate is 8 per cent; metro Toronto is 5.2 per cent.

In Coquitlam, B.C., 20.8 per cent of new condos had at least one non-resident on title. In Surrey, B.C., the figure is 20.5 per cent of condos in that time period. Burnaby, B.C., is at 25.1 per cent. Richmond, B.C., has the highest percentage of all, at a whopping 25.8 per cent, he says.

“In Richmond, condos built between 2016 to 2017, we’re talking about 26 per cent have non-resident participation. That’s one in four.”

The numbers are big in the broader housing market picture as well, with 7.8 per cent of all single detached houses built in metro Vancouver from 2006 to 2017 owned by at least one non-resident purchaser. For condos, the numbers jumps to 18 per cent of all condos built in that time period.

“This is something that people have denied for so long,” Mr. Yan says. “It measures a form of foreign ownership that many have denied was happening, and in proportions that few could imagined.”

Mr. Nanowski says that non-resident participation tended to increase when density increased and prices increased. Across all age groups, non-residents tended to own more expensive homes. But a number that stood out for him was the higher prices of detached homes owned by non-residents in the city of Vancouver. Detached homes in the city owned by non-residents were, on average, assessed at $1.1-million more than those owned by residents. In Toronto, the difference of a detached house owned by resident and non-resident was only $89,000.

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“Big difference,” Mr. Nanowski said. “Yes, non-resident premiums are largest in Vancouver and the prevalences are largest in Vancouver as well.”

Using new methodology, the crown corporation has revealed that many properties have a mix of resident and non-resident ownership. They analyzed this mix in the category of “non-resident participation,” meaning at least one owner on title was a non-resident. Put another way, at least one person on title is a non-tax resident, which means they do not have a principal tax residence in Canada. They earn their income and pay their income taxes elsewhere. This is a key difference from the CMHC’s previous methodology, which was to define “non-resident” ownership as a property that was owned entirely by non-residents, or majority-owned by non-residents.

The definition of a “non-resident” is someone whose principal residence is outside of Canada, irrespective of their nationality.

Also, these rates do not include pre-sale purchases, or what units were not owner-occupied and held as investments. The study authors did not provide data on the source countries of origin for non-resident owners.

“The summary of all this is the globalization of Canadian residential real estate,” Mr. Yan said, "and what are you going to do or not do about it, on a federal, provincial and local policy basis? This is about transparency, taxation and fairness, and how we build housing and for who, in our communities.”

Mr. Nanowski says the previous data they used weren’t flawed, but useful for following trends. The new data is much more comprehensive, he says.

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“When we look at this data, we want to compare it to itself only, as a kind of cross section and not compare it to previous data. Because there is a change in methodology,” he says.

Josh Gordon, assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, says that the delay of such important data has likely been a setback. He points out that industry voices used the previously limited CMHC data to bolster their arguments that foreign buying was exaggerated. Prof. Gordon had questioned the CMHC’s reports at the time, and received some flak for it.

“Imagine in 2015 if we had a sense that non-resident buyers were buying 15 per cent or so of new condos. How would that have changed the nature of the debate? Would that not have indicated that there was an issue that needed addressing?,” Prof. Gordon asks.

“Those who wanted to push back against possible restrictions were able to use the ‘authority’ of the CMHC in the debate to good effect, and this delayed possible policy action. More accurate data would have helped build the case for policy restrictions, and that might have mitigated the sharp escalation of prices.”

Mr. Yan found it ironic that the report was released the same week as the City of Vancouver announced its annual homeless count was underway.

“Perversely, this week saw the release of measures on two drastically different ends of Vancouver’s housing situation. With the CMHC release, we see the numbers of homeowners who don’t live in the country, juxtaposed with Vancouver doing its homeless count of those who actually live here, but don’t have the benefit of a home.”

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