Is China Really Buying Up Metro Vancouver?

March 23, 2012  |  By

Pundits say the Year of the Dragon, perhaps one of the Chinese zodiac’s most auspicious signs, will strengthen the wave of Mainland Chinese investment flooding into Metro Vancouver.

But the pundits didn’t need to tell that to Edith Chan, an agent with Re/Max Masters Realty in West Vancouver who has become familiar with the lengthy dragon’s dance of buyers coming through the properties she shows.

“Nowadays, I tell you, when you open the door selling a house, 99% it’s Chinese,” she said, doing her best to summarize the situation between calls on her cellphone.

“That’s why I have to talk fast – my schedule is so busy! ”

It’s a similar story elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, where the demographics of whole streets have shifted in recent years to young families of Mainland Chinese who have come for the property and stayed for the schools and Vancouver’s vaunted quality of life.

The impact plays out in rapidly rising property values that have outstripped the rest of the country, giving Vancouver – already expensive relative to the rest of Canada – even higher average valuations.

It’s a phenomenon that’s become the stuff of legend.

“You know by the realtor,” said Paul Sullivan, a senior partner and property tax expert at Burgess, Cawley, Sullivan & Associates in Vancouver. “The selling broker is an agent out of a small little shop out of Richmond, and they don’t speak English. They bring in these buyers for $3 million, $4 million, $5 million houses. They pick them up at the airport, bring ‘em through and buy a few houses.”

Sometimes, the buyers take the papers back home to China and sell the properties to friends, all keen to have a slice of Vancouver real estate.

Show us the numbers

But while everyone loves anecdotes about the latest record sale, the truth is more elusive. What everyone acknowledges is happening, and distorting the market, is much more difficult to support with solid numbers.

To date, efforts to identify foreign buyers have pegged their participation in the B.C. market at anywhere from less than 1% regionally to upward of 75% in select neighbourhoods (some brokers even claim 95% or higher in some markets).

Condo marketer Bob Rennie’s presentation to the Urban Development Institute last spring was typical.

He pegged the percentage of $2 million-plus homes on Vancouver’s West Side being sold to buyers from Mainland China at 90%.

But a few minutes later, when he looked at the actual presence of foreign buyers in the Greater Vancouver market, the percentage slipped to just 0.09% for single-family homes and 0.7% for condos.

A similar spread was presented during the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s (CMHC) annual housing outlook conference this past November.

CMHC senior market analyst Robyn Adamache presented figures from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver that estimated foreign buyer participation in the market at 9% through 2011.

But she also pointed to Landcor Data Corp. figures indicating the percentage was as much as 74% at the top end of markets in Vancouver and Richmond.

But there was a catch.

“This is based solely on name analysis, and it does not say whether these are Chinese people who are living here, whether they are landed immigrants or whether they’re offshore buyers,” Adamache said. “We just know that there are indeed Chinese buyers in these niche markets.”

An hour later, Mark Belling of Fifth Avenue Real Estate Marketing observed that a presale opportunity in Coquitlam the previous weekend attracted an overnight queue for what many considered a bargain offering.

“They were all Chinese (or Asian),” he said.

All of which adds up to perhaps the most unassailable statement Adamache made that morning: “There’s not a lot of really hard data out there.”

Part of the numbers problem stems from the fact there’s no single definition of a foreign buyer.

“The purest way of defining offshore money is somebody who is not landed here. Their mailing address is offshore, and they don’t file Canadian tax and they don’t qualify for Canadian residency,” said George Wong, principal of project marketing firm Magnum Projects Ltd.

But this narrow definition doesn’t capture what’s going on.

Wong pegs Chinese buyer participation at Quintet in central Richmond at 99% and at the River Green development adjacent to the Richmond speedskating oval at about 90%, but then qualifies those numbers.

“Most of them are here. They’re landed immigrants, and they have an interest in setting up roots here,” he said.

But regardless of how “foreign buyer” is defined – whether as a non-resident, or a buyer new to the country, many point to the source of the cash as the key distinction.

It’s not the buyer that’s important, but his or her money.

The run-up in home values – 14.3%, according to the latest report from RBC Economics – that put Vancouver at the top of the country for home price increases last year and solidified its status as “unaffordable” to the average buyer – was driven largely by purchases that weren’t dependent on local incomes.

Or so the conventional wisdom holds.

Yet there’s no process in place that tracks where the cash is coming from.

Fintrac, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, requires disclosure of all cash transactions above $10,000, but the documentation merely establishes a paper trail. It doesn’t map it. The cash can be tracked back to an individual, but the process doesn’t care where the individual is (unless there are grounds to believe the individual is a suspected fraudster, criminal or terrorist – investors don’t count).

“A lot of people don’t talk about it, even us as a service industry: We don’t ask, ‘Where is your money originating? ’” Wong explained. “We have a Fintrac thing where they’ve got to sign something. But we don’t ask those questions. … [Also] there’s exchange control coming out of Mainland China, so a lot of people, not even bankers, talk about Mainland Chinese money coming out. It’s kind of hush-hush. … It’s like, how do we measure the black market GNP? It’s pretty tough. It’s just unofficial.”

Many deals are done through agents in Richmond who have strong connections to Mainland China. The deposits are handled, paperwork is done, but it’s virtually invisible.

Still, Jeff Hancock of market research firm MPC Intelligence Inc., said it’s clear that Chinese money is what’s driving sales. “You start asking them where their deposit cheques are coming from, and you start seeing a huge proportion of their deposit cheques are coming straight from China,” Hancock said.

The legend of “Hongcouver”

The fact that so much attention is being paid to the question underscores how offshore participation in Vancouver’s real estate market is provoking a debate not unlike when Hong Kong money began flowing into Vancouver following Expo 86.

The term “Hongcouver” captured both a cultural shift in the city and fears that Vancouver was losing its identity.

Today, Edith Chan believes the cash is driven less by fear than desire.

True, Beijing limited domestic real estate investment to one property per family in 2009, sending wealth created during the country’s economic boom overseas. Properties in Canada, with its stable banking and political system, were attractive.

Gold Mountain, as British Columbia was known among the Chinese workers who had come here a century earlier, became a place to bury treasure rather than find it.

Then, last summer, Chan began seeing a different kind of buyer.

Tourist visas for travel to Canada became easier to obtain – her sources estimate the approval rate at 80% – giving Vancouver a busier real estate market than New York. The buyers have also done their homework.

“This group is probably more scary.… So many buyers,” Chan said. “They have done their research, and they know Vancouver offers a better lifestyle, and that’s why a lot of those people come over.”

And who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

Many of the points raised about the influx of buyers seeking property – or a better life – could easily be levelled against long- time Vancouver residents who cash out and retire to smaller communities.

The wealth isn’t linked to the local economy, and the demand from the newcomers pushes up property values in the most popular areas.

The phenomenon may be amplified by the size of the city, but if Vancouver wants to be world-class, it also has to be receptive to the demands that status imposes.

Chan expects this year to be one of record activity in West Vancouver, as some of the newcomers use their knowledge of the market to move to more desirable locales – she’s worked with buyers from White Rock – or to simply trade up.

She notes that the influx has helped keep retailers busy, giving Vancouver a more robust economy than it might otherwise have.

“Our economy could be really stuck,” she said.

Whether a robust economy is worth broad sacrifices to general housing affordability is another question. Does the city want to be known for expensive homes for the rich and progressively smaller units that keep housing affordable for the rest?

Or is it time to acknowledge that capital flows internationally and accept that not everyone is able to live in the heart of the city?