(Vancouver Courier, April 4, 2012)
According to last week’s Real Estate Weekly survey, 46 per cent of Lower Mainlanders think now (spring 2012) is a good time to buy a home mainly due to low interest rates. On the supply side, 56 per cent think it’s a good time to sell, mainly due to high prices.
But what do they think in China?
With 1.3 billion people and counting, China’s housing market is stuck in overdrive. In Shanghai, for example, speculators bought bulk and upped prices, squeezing out the little guy. To cool things off, Beijing recently increased interest rates, set lending limits and imposed purchase restrictions, which limit the number of properties to—in most cases—two per family.
And yet, China’s booming manufacturing base, globalization’s gift to the politburo, distributes wealth from the Yalu River to the Gulf of Tonkin. According to last year’s BCG Global Wealth Survey, China has more than one million millionaires, third most in the world behind the United States and Japan.
With all that capital exiled from China’s domestic real estate market, now more than ever, Chinese eyes gaze east to places like British Columbia, which has no restrictions on foreign ownership. Anyone from anywhere can buy on your street and add to their portfolio. And real estate firms are salivating.
For example. In January, Bosa Properties, a Burnaby-based development company, threw a “Chinese New Year VIP Party” in Vancouver for Chinese investors. In March, Sutton West Coast Realty distributed glossy red and white flyers in West Point Grey urging homeowners to “Sell Your Property In China.” My friend Jim lives on West 11th Avenue. He received a flyer, and last week, called Steve, a Sutton realtor who just returned from a four-day real estate show in Shanghai where he showcased Vancouver properties to Chinese buyers.
Jim: Why should I sell my house in China?
Steve: “The main benefit is the extra exposure you receive… they have the cash, they have the resources, they’re looking for these investment properties but they probably will never move to Vancouver, so this type of exposure can only be obtained if you list your properties in China directly.”
Jim: What will happen to my house if I sell to someone in China?
Steve: “Some would be buying just as an investment, so it might be just a hold. Some may keep it as a hold-lease. Some might have intentions to develop. Others might actually eventually land and move to Canada and have this as their principle residence.”
Steve has scheduled two more trips to China and six “buyers’ tours” in the next two months where he’ll bus dozens of Chinese investors around Vancouver checking out homes.
Because foreigners often use local addresses (their lawyer’s office, for example) when registering with the provincial land title office, no one knows how many off-shore Chinese investors own homes in Vancouver. But anecdotal evidence abounds. Empty homes, bought and mothballed for future sale, decrease housing stock, increase demand and up prices. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, last year the average price of a detached home in Metro Vancouver rose 11.2 per cent to $887,000. On the West Side, the average home price rose 20.7 per cent to $1.99 million. If trends continue, only the wealthy will own in Vancouver. Rich, foreign investors will help push lower and middle income residents out of the city.
To combat similar trends, regulators in Florida and other U.S. states target foreign investment. In Australia, where they believed Chinese investment threatened to consume entire towns, the federal government limited purchase eligibility and outlawed overseas landlords. That’s how you operate in a global market. When China, the epicentre of globalization, changes the rules, you respond.
In B.C., Premier Christy Clark and her “Families First” Liberals could restrict foreign ownership. At city hall, Mayor Gregor Robertson could tax foreign real estate investors at business rates (18 per cent) not residential rates (4.2 per cent). It may not dramatically limit foreign investing but at least they’d pay more into municipal coffers.
Unfortunately, Clark, Robertson and the rest of B.C.’s political elite, which relies on big real estate developers for fat campaign donations, stays silent.
Instead, they prattle on about “affordability,” whining about federal money for rental housing, while realtors auction off our neighbourhoods to the highest bidder in Shanghai.